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?

In the summer of 2012, as the initial demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad gave way to armed conflict between government and rebel troops, the Syrian army began pounding parts of its biggest cities with missiles and barrel bombs. The aim was to wipe out the regime’s armed opponents, but the result was to destroy the country’s social fabric and displace whole communities — leaving millions of Syrians with little to lose. Groups like the Nusra Front took control of towns across the north, and foreign jihadis flooded into Syria to join the fight. I’d seen them myself when I went to Aleppo in the spring of 2013. On the way into the city we were surrounded by countless shiny SUVs with tinted windows and black Islamist flags hanging off the back. At one point, as we waited in a traffic jam, a North African jihadi on the back of a truck fixed me with a stare and waved at me to put my camera down.

Now Nusra’s biggest rival for power in the north is the Islamic State — even though, until February 2014, ISIL was, like Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. But the marriage had always been uncomfortable. ISIL sprang from Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had angered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s leadership by slaughtering Shias in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. air strike in 2006, the group went into decline until a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over, in 2010. Baghdadi started as a low-level street fighter during the American occupation of Iraq and is reported to have done some time in a U.S. Army prison. It was his decision to move the group into Syria’s stateless rebel areas in 2013 that changed its fortunes radically — and pushed its differences with Al Qaeda into the open. Al Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organization powerful enough to take the battle to its enemies in the West, but ISIL saw its mission as more religiously purist and more constructive — to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them. After ISIL began competing with the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda declared it was severing ties with the former.

In the first three months of this year ISIL fighters from Iraq and Chechnya fanned out over eastern Syria, annexing some of the country’s most lucrative oil fields as they went. They bought off local tribes and either massacred other rebels or demanded their loyalty. By the summer, the Islamic State was in control of 35 percent of Syria’s territory and was earning about $1 million a day in oil revenue. It used its newfound power to turn back to Iraq and take much of the northwest of the country.

Just as they’d done in Raqqa, the emissaries of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and in Iraq distributed services to citizens and charity to needy local families. Their protection, however, came with a social contract that brooked no dissent. An Islamic State edict in Raqqa reviving a medieval tax on non-Muslims came too late for the city’s Christians; most had already fled. Anyone ISIL deemed an apostate could be crucified or beheaded and left to rot in public thoroughfares as a warning to others. (In the Turkish city of Sanl?urfa I met a rebel militiaman who told me that his brother, a media activist, had been killed and his arms splayed in public crucifixion in Raqqa.)

By the time Al Qaeda cut its ties with ISIL, Baghdadi’s organization had already spectacularly renewed the franchise of militant Islamism around the world. From Tunisia to Gaza to Indonesia to Yemen, the wooden pronouncements of Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri were being passed over on new media for demonstrations of support for the Islamic State, and there were more and more sightings of its distinctive white-circle-on-black flag. Inspired by ISIL fighters’ black balaclavas and showy use of swords, some Syrians began to call them “the ninjas.”

Given the difficulty of reporting from Islamic State territory without being kidnapped — several Americans and Europeans are still being held hostage in Syria — journalists have had to rely on the group’s own media operation. The result was that a twenty-one-year-old student at Oxford University named Aymenn Tamimi became one of its most eloquent interpreters. Tamimi’s approach was to buddy up to ISIL fighters on Twitter and translate their statements; it made him enemies among other analysts, but it also paid dividends. Before I left for Turkey I went to Oxford to meet him. It was early June, and Tamimi was in the middle of taking his final exams; fidgety and wary of eye contact, in the gaps in our conversation he sneaked glances at his crib notes on Alexander the Great.

Tamimi’s assiduous translations of Islamic State propaganda were useful because they showed that these weren’t just monsters responsible for summary executions. They were also cutting down trees, organizing road repairs, securing electricity for their citizens, and protecting against theft. One rebel activist from Homs told me that all his friends in Raqqa loved the Islamic State, mainly because it took a firm line on price-gouging and criminality. “Even if the system is bad,” he said, “the fact that they have one is good.” In Raqqa, Tamimi said, the Islamic State has opened a consumer protection office dedicated to measuring the price and quality of anything sold in the city. One of its reports discusses the quality of service expected in local restaurants and the necessity of serving a decent kebab. Indoctrinating children into the Islamic State, Tamimi said, was central. “They’ve been doing it from day one. There is an understanding that not all the foreign fighters are going to stay in the long run, that the key is to have the next generation of Syrians.” In Raqqa the Islamic State inaugurated an office where orphans are registered and guaranteed material support. At its regular outreach meetings, children’s entertainment is a priority; one propaganda picture shows the Islamic State logo hovering atop a bouncy castle.

The sophistication of its output on Twitter and YouTube is surely one reason so many young foreigners have flocked to the Islamic State rather than to other jihadi brigades in Syria. Another, Tamimi said, lies in its ambitions to build a heaven here on earth. “A state gives you something to do, doesn’t it?” he said with a shrug.

The Turkish city of Gaziantep is an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. It’s home to a cluster of foreign NGOs working on the Syrian crisis; the Starbucks is always full of chatter about aid projects and civil-society workshops. Thousands of Syrians who have fled the northern provinces have ended up in the city, too; some, like a twenty-three-year-old journalist and activist named Zaid Muhammad, still go back and forth in a perilous commute.

A few days after I returned from the border crossing at Karkamis, I took Muhammad out for coffee; a Syrian friend had put me in touch with him because he’d lived in the rebel-held part of Aleppo while ISIL was building up its base in the city. We met at a shopping mall, and he led me on a long and circuitous route through a city park before he found a restaurant he was comfortable with, but almost immediately a crooner and his band struck up a racket a few yards behind us, which strained Muhammad’s patience. “Will your microphone work? Shall we tell him to shut up?” He was just as clear about what I should write. “You should talk about them controlling the schools,” he insisted. From its base in the Qadi Askar area of Aleppo, he said, ISIL sent out emissaries to the city’s poorest areas, demanding that schools teach their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran and observe their puritanical strictures. They wanted boys and girls separated starting in the first grade, and male teachers would be prohibited from teaching girls, even if no women were available. Either grateful for the protection or fearful of the consequences of resisting, the schools agreed.

“It worked very well; it was their first building block,” said Muhammad. “We in the opposition couldn’t take taxes or build schools. We have no central government. But ISIL are organized enough to govern an area. They take control of everything — collecting taxes, paying salaries, controlling schools. The next generation is very important for their state.” ISIL’s state-building brought it into conflict with other Islamist militias, and in January the group was forced out of Aleppo.

The purge was a success in Aleppo, but ISIL left behind dozens of executed prisoners as it retreated. Similar campaigns proved disastrous elsewhere. A few days after I met Muhammad, I was introduced to two more young Syrians, Monzer al-Sallal and Zein al-Malazi, who had been living in the northern Aleppo city of Minbej. Late last year, ISIL began to deliver their own branded services to residents of the city, and they tried to take control of the bakeries. Even before the war, Minbej was a conservative city — it was rare to see a woman uncovered there — but ISIL policed behavior with inflexible rigor. When representatives came to the offices of her activist organization, Malazi told me, they refused to talk until she’d left the room. The other rebel factions in Minbej hatched a plan to kick ISIL out. “It was a long time in coming,” explained Sallal, a twenty-eight-year-old native of the city who’d become a member of its revolutionary council. “We had to fight them every week.”

He pulled a laptop from his backpack and played me a video of himself and other activists demonstrating outside the local ISIL headquarters. “Out, out, out,” the protesters were chanting; they carried signs with another slogan, borrowed from a Koranic verse, that read there is no enforcement in religion. It was a stirring sight, but on closer examination there were two groups of demonstrators jostling each other; the second, closer to the camera, was made up of supporters of the Islamic State. In January, the rebels of Minbej succeeded in expelling ISIL, but it returned later that month with a much-feared brigade of foreign jihadis led by a Georgian called Omar al-Shishani. The fighting was merciless, and now it was Sallal and his fellow rebels’ turn to flee. In one of a series of massacres after their triumph in the area, ISIL killed thirty-five members of a single family, chopped up their body parts, and threw them in the river. Some of the heads they stuck on spikes; these showed up as jihadi propaganda on Twitter. When the dust settled, ISIL had won control of Minbej and several other cities in Aleppo.

Sallal was heading back to the northern Aleppo countryside the next day, he told me, to a rebel encampment only a few miles away from ISIL positions. Having started out as a political organizer, he’d reluctantly taken up arms to fight ISIL for control of his city. But it was doubtful how this young man, who spent much of our interview checking his Facebook, would fare against battle-hardened jihadis from Iraq and Chechnya. Many of his comrades had already given up; there were only four hundred men left at the camp, and only one hundred of those were real fighters. “If ISIL wants, they can finish them in one night,” Malazi said in tender mockery, and Sallal nodded his assent.

One afternoon, from my hotel room in Gaziantep, I phoned one of ISIL’s foreign recruits. A fellow journalist had given me the recruit’s Skype address, and we’d been exchanging messages. He was a thirty-year-old Briton who had traveled to Syria a year ago and was now living in Raqqa under the nom de guerre Abu Sumayyah al-Britani. His fellow fighters had just taken the Iraqi city of Mosul. As if to prove their point that the Islamic State recognized no such imperialist carve-ups as nation-states, along the way they used bulldozers to erase the official boundaries between Iraq and Syria. Three weeks later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was confident enough to make his broadcast debut, announcing himself in a sermon in Mosul as leader of a “caliphate” within the borders created by its own territorial expansion. This was the moment that ISIL was renamed the Islamic State.

Sumayyah bragged about the ease with which Islamic State fighters had defeated the Iraqi army. He spoke like a typical British thirty-year-old, with a few Arabic words dropped in. “Listen, akhi,” he’d say (akhi is the Arabic word for “brother” and the comradely address preferred by jihadis in Syria). When the Internet connection dimmed, he quipped: “Bro, you sound like something from The Matrix.” It was his good fortune to have stumbled on ISIL shortly after crossing the Turkish border, he said. Before they had allowed him to join they had sent him away for military training with Omar al-Shishani in the Syrian province of Latakia, which borders the Mediterranean.

He’d mislaid his British passport but looked forward to the coming era of passport-free travel as the Islamic State widened its frontiers through Syria, Iraq, and beyond. Britain now seemed like another world. He had done time in prison there “for the propagation of my religion” and had no wish to go back; it was, he said, “Dar al-Kufr,” or “the land of infidels,” full of get-rich-quick schemes and greedy banks. Among his new friends, he told me, were jihadi veterans from Afghanistan as well as Tunisians, Brazilians, Swedes, Chinese, Mexicans, Algerians, all kinds of Europeans, and many Americans. “It’s like a dream: one day we eat Eritrean, the next we eat Pakistani. We are breaking borders; we are breaking racism.”

According to statistics compiled by the CIA, there are now more than 15,000 foreign jihadis in Syria. A Syrian I met who runs an underground network that investigates human rights abuses in the Islamic State estimates there are now between seventy and ninety Americans with the group in Syria. The inaugural issue of the Islamic State’s glossy magazine, Dabiq, published in July, made a special call for “military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specializations and fields,” to come to Syria. (Dabiq is the name of the town in Syria that some Muslims believe will play an important role in the coming of Judgment Day.) Even Sumayyah, with no obvious skills to offer, was most excited when talking about the sophistication of the new government and its personnel. “There is free medical, dental, and eye care, and the doctors are all absolutely free,” he told me. “All these services are building blocks of the state.” He was particularly proud of the orphanages and special madrassas where orphan children were taught to memorize the Koran. Islamic State military bases were also open to children, especially orphans, so they could “learn about jihad and military matters”; at one point Sumayyah broke off our conversation because the child of another foreign fighter had come to offer him a sweet.

As the Islamic State rumbled through Iraq, the international media had fastened on images of what looked like mass executions of hundreds of Shia prisoners of war, but Sumayyah felt that the killings had been either exaggerated, taken out of context, or else richly deserved. A full 2,000 Iraqi soldiers had been given the opportunity to repent, he said; even the Shia “apostates” were given a chance. “This is the way of Islam. Everyone gets a chance to repent. But if they don’t, it’s death. It’s the same in every country in the world: it’s treason against the state.”

A month after our conversation, a British tabloid, the Daily Mail, outed Sumayyah as Kabir Ahmed, a father of three from Derbyshire. His criminal convictions had been for stirring up hatred against homosexuals and shouting homophobic abuse at a gay-pride parade. Around the same time, the Islamic State released a slick thirty-minute feature showing exactly what had became of those Shia prisoners. In its finale a chain of young Iraqi men can be seen screaming and pleading for their lives as they’re led in a chain toward a blood-soaked jetty where, in quick succession, they’re forced on their knees by masked gunmen, shot in the back of the head, and dumped into a river.

Before I left Turkey, in the first week of July, I took a trip to Antakya to catch up with some Syrians I had known for some time. Ancient Antioch, where the early Christians huddled to plot their new religion, was once home to half a million people and famous as a trade route for silk and spices. Now it’s home to plotters and merchants of a different kind; just across the border from Syria’s Idlib province, the traffic is in illicit weaponry, battlefield equipment, and rebel fighters. I spent several evenings with Mahmoud Sheikh al-Zour, a middle-aged veteran of the Free Syrian Army whom I’d interviewed before. Like many veteran rebels, Zour has mostly stopped traveling to Idlib; instead he runs a sewing factory making army fatigues for any rebel group that wants them. The Islamic State has officially been expelled from Idlib by other rebel battalions, but allegiances are fluid and prone to rapid change — and the Islamic State, flush with war booty, is gaining ground. As I left one night, Zour tossed me a sew-on badge he’d found lying around on the factory floor; the insignia was the Islamic State flag.

The language of orphans and parents came up frequently in my conversations with the refugees I met in Turkey. Syria is now an orphaned country; the Islamic State is acting as a surrogate parent. “Even in Afghanistan they didn’t raise a generation,” Muhammad had told me in Gaziantep. “This is a new experience. When some of them go to Europe and America and explode themselves, don’t ask us why.”

A more immediate fear is the traffic of international jihadis in the other direction. In eighteen months a fighting force of roughly 20,000 young men has carved out contiguous territory the size of Maine, with a population larger than some European countries. At the beginning of August, as the Islamic State moved on Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq and the Kurdish capital of Erbil, President Obama ordered air strikes against its fighters. “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” he told the New York Times in August. On September 10, Obama assured a primetime telvision audience that “ISIL is certainly not a state.” Those Syrians and Iraqis living in the territory it controls would probably argue otherwise.

A few days after I visited Zour’s sewing factory I went for a midnight coffee with someone I’ll call Yusuf. An urbane, haunted-looking man in his late thirties, Yusuf was the first Free Syrian Army commander I came across when I arrived at the Turkish-Syrian border two years earlier. He was a useful person to know; then at the head of a logistical team, he could get arms, supplies, and occasionally journalists into northern Syria. He’d kept in touch, and we’d met half a dozen times since we were first introduced. On one occasion, walking back to his apartment late at night, he told me he’d just seen footage of one of his best friends, freshly killed in a regime ambush, being exploded with rocket-propelled grenades by jubilant pro-regime paramilitaries; he couldn’t watch the video to the end. I’d hung out at his flat as visiting Saudis and Malaysians passed through bringing money and advice, and over the years I’d followed the change in his outlook. Disenchanted with the Free Syrian Army, he’d shifted his allegiances to the Nusra Front. Then, last September, he announced that he was going to bring the battalion of which he was then commander under the umbrella of the Islamic State.

When I met him in July, however, his support for the Islamic State seemed to be wavering. “Syria is a cake,” he said. “All groups are working just to take power, to take a piece of it.” Islamic State fighters were still the “least worst” of all the different factions, he told me — they at least “belong to themselves” — but as they’d accumulated territory and resources they’d also grown power-hungry and brutal. “I can no longer talk to them about their mistakes.”

It’s too early to tell what will become of the Islamic State’s year zero. Older revolutionaries like Yusuf are aligned with it now, but that may change. “People like me are a big problem because maybe we will make a new revolution.” A lot will be determined by whether Yusuf and millions like him continue to support the Islamic State — or, as the battle for Syria and Iraq continues, rise up against it.

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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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