Report — From the November 2014 issue

How the Islamic State Was Won

Interviews with fighters, enemies, and potential recruits

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On October 3, 2013, Mohammed, a sixty-year-old finance manager from Raqqa, in northern Syria, was driving a friend home after work when a black vehicle cut him off and four men wearing balaclavas bounded out. They were fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now known simply as the Islamic State). “We just want to talk to you. It will only take five minutes,” one of the men said to Mohammed, who asked that I not reveal his last name. They blindfolded him and drove him to a building in the city center, where he was put in a windowless solitary cell. He was kept there for seven days, until he escaped.

Mohammed didn’t know who his kidnappers were. At the time he was taken, ISIL was only six months old. Control of Raqqa had passed from the Syrian regime to a handful of rebel militias — a few battalions allied to the Free Syrian Army, an Islamist brigade called Ahrar al-Sham, and Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) — that competed for power but cooperated in a single sharia-court system. ISIL, in a sign of its later ambitions, had recently broken from Nusra and the others and was quietly running its own sharia court and prison.

Illustration by Taylor Callery

Illustration by Taylor Callery

One afternoon toward the end of June, I met up with Mohammed in Nizip, a Turkish city across the border from Raqqa province. Limping on broken feet with the help of crutches, he came to the front door to meet me. “The pain is so hard,” he said, flashing an apologetic smile, as if embarrassed to be the center of attention. Over the next hour, with his twenty-year-old son as our translator, he told me his story. He believed he had been targeted by his kidnappers for his political views: he’s a well-known Nasserist, hostile to both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamists who took charge of the rebellion against it. At the prison in Raqqa, though, his jailers barely said a word to him. Peering out from under the bottom of his cell door, he could make out the figure of a young boy carrying a gun — the son, he guessed, of a local ISIL fighter.

On the third day they brought him food and a fork, which is when he began scraping away at the lock on the cell door. By the seventh day, around the time of morning prayers, he’d forced it open. Without his shoes and his shirt (“it was all very quick”), he located a broken window he could climb through. The prison was on the second floor, so he called out for someone to catch him. None of the passersby he saw were prepared to help, but he didn’t blame them. “If Daash catch you, they will behead you.” (“Daash” is a nickname for ISIL, a play on the organization’s Arabic acronym, used by many Syrians and Iraqis.) He jumped unassisted, landing on broken glass. A boy of about eight, too young to be afraid, dragged him to a nearby taxi. To avoid arousing suspicion or fear, Mohammed, who was bleeding from both feet, told the driver he’d been mugged. When his family found out he was alive, they could barely believe it. “It was the most beautiful day of my life: I thank God. When you think your father is dead . . . ” Mohammed’s son began crying and ran from the room.

It’s not clear what would have happened to Mohammed if he hadn’t escaped. The journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded in Raqqa as part of a campaign of YouTube propaganda for the Islamic State, but many Syrians who have been taken by the group have been released. One young photographer I interviewed, who was arrested because of his alleged association with the Free Syrian Army, was electrocuted and beaten with sticks before being freed six weeks later; why, he had no idea. Sharing his cell were about fifteen others — fighters from the Free Syrian Army, local journalists like himself, foreigners suspected of being spies. The Islamic State makes it a priority to close down rival political movements and independent media, and it is careful to prevent intelligence leaks. Another cell mate was one of the group’s own fighters who’d divulged some information about the group to an outsider; to atone for this indiscretion he spent most of his time ostentatiously praying, which didn’t make him any new friends. Then there was a man who’d killed a child in a family dispute. When the Islamic State’s emir in charge of Raqqa came to the cell to take a roll call, he told the child killer: “I will kill you myself in the middle of the women of the village.”

The prisons are terrifying to any who resist the Islamic State’s rule, but they’re also one of the reasons it has expanded so quickly. While many Syrians have fled across the border to Turkey, others have headed toward Raqqa — escaping the fighting in the bigger cities of Homs and Aleppo for the relative safety offered by the Islamic State. After three years of a revolt that slid first into civil war and then into a regional free-for-all, Syrians of all stripes are retreating to places where there is some semblance of order. To many impoverished Sunni Muslims who simply want to live, the Islamic State is not a bad bet.

Mohammed and his family are now desperate to return home to Raqqa, but they also know they can’t go back until the Islamic State is gone. That may take some time. In January, the other rebel militias joined forces to oust ISIL from northern Syria, but their campaign spectacularly misfired; instead, ISIL consolidated its hold on power in the region. Raqqa became its de facto capital. Both the city and the province are now entirely under its control.

The morning after I interviewed Mohammed, his son and I took the bus to a town called Karkamis, an ancient Hittite city and one of two border checkpoints between Turkey and Islamic State–controlled Syria. The shuttle bus was crowded with Syrians, and all the talk was of the Islamic State; until recently the checkpoint was closed, but now it’s open for four hours a day, two days a week, so that Syrians can return legally to their own country. At the fortified border gate we joined a queue of men and women at an open metal door, ready to present their passports and be questioned by Islamic State functionaries on the other side. The atmosphere was tense; a clutch of women sat on their luggage, covered from head to toe in black, as the Islamic State demands. We walked past the gate and looked out over barbed wire into the fields of northern Syria. Sometimes you can see black-clad gunmen on the other side, but not today. “They are hidden,” said a Syrian farmhand standing nearby. “They are not doing anything for us.” A few moments later, a Turkish soldier appeared and hollered at us to leave; the Turks, like almost everyone else, are deeply embarrassed at how the Syrian conflict has turned out. How did a terror organization considered too bloodthirsty even for Al Qaeda morph into something more like a government with its own territory — and with troops at the border of a NATO member state?

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is a London-based writer and the recipient of a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. His books include Big Ideas, Cyburbia, and Niche.

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