“It was a two-year nightmare I just woke up from.”
Muhammad just arrived in Turkey with his family after fleeing the ISIS-controlled Syrian town of al-Ashara, in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. He’d spent two years under the jihadist army’s rule. “I am going to tell my story once,” he told The Daily Beast after several prior attempts to get him to share his tale. “And then I want to forget it for good.”
Muhammad is a Syrian in his early thirties. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and worked as a teacher. He asked to keep his full name and any other details secret, because some members of his family are still back in al-Ashara and could face retribution from the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS. He added that even in Turkey, he doesn’t feel safe since ISIS operatives are all over the place. Two members of the activist monitor Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently were murdered in Urfa around a month ago in the living room of their house.
Just a few days after Muhammad fled from his town, on Nov. 20, the Russians bombed it. Many houses were destroyed, but none of them was used by ISIS. Nor were the jihadists’ facilities destroyed or any militant killed. A number of civilians were injured. The one fatality was a girl named Maha Ghazi al-Abbad. She was 15 years old.
The Daily Beast reached Muhammed by phone and Skype.
The Daily Beast: How does ISIS take control of weaker towns and villages such as al-Ashara?
Muhammed: One method is that ISIS asks for a meeting with the leaders of a village or town and sends a delegate with a suicide bomber among them. When the ISIS delegate arrives, he enters the room or building and threatens that if the town leaders do no not reach an agreement, the suicide bomber will blow himself up among them.
Another method uses terror—threatening to burn the area and slaughter everyone. This was the method used to take control of al-Ashara. In August 2013, an ISIS delegate came to our town to negotiate the terms of our surrender and submission to them, or else, he said, ISIS would raid the town and slaughter everyone. ISIS had too many weapons of several types. They’re rich and strong. So the leaders of the town decided to agree to ISIS’s terms.
On one hand, we were exhausted of the ongoing war against Assad’s forces, with its continued shelling and the long siege imposed on us, which has led to nowhere but misery. On the other hand, we thought ISIS rule would be not be that different from the typical Islamic rule that we know. We are all Muslims, after all. So surrendering to ISIS at that time was deemed not a horrible idea. We thought they were Muslims like us and they would defend us against Assad’s raids and shelling. In addition, we thought this would strengthen our military power and gives us access to food and other means of living.
ISIS’s terms of surrender were that we had to announce that al-Ashara was now under their control and that all non-ISIS fighters must deliver their weapons to ISIS. We agreed to their terms. No one was slaughtered.
Tell me about the living costs and tax system under ISIS.
Living costs started to rise instead, not like we expected—we thought they’d be less expensive. A typical family of seven needs more than $160 monthly. The average monthly salary is around $90. Around a month before I fled in November, ISIS reduced its salaries for its employees. Now a fighter receives around $200 monthly. It was almost $400 in 2014.
Electricity is not available all day. In al-Ashara, it is available for two hours every six hours. Each family has to pay $4.50 monthly to ISIS’s Electricity Emir (a services administrator), who is normally not Syrian. These emirs do not stay in the same position for long, and we see different faces every once and a while. They are mostly Egyptians and Tunisians. Members of ISIS have different levels of morals, depending on where they come from. The worst Hisbah (police) officers are from Tunisia. They are immoral, irreligious, corrupt, and they treat people badly, whereas those from the Gulf countries are not as bad. They seem to be following Islamic ethics.
Electricity provided by ISIS is only available for household use, and is generated from a network that contains al-Duwair converter station, which in turn receives power from the al-Omar generating station, and from other stations in Syrian government areas. Shops and other commercial or industrial facilities make their own electricity using fuel generators without any help from ISIS, although they have to pay taxes on the generators. ISIS demanded taxes on any activity that makes money. Even private cars are taxed.
A family also pays $8 for “water and cleaning” services. A small gas-cooking cylinder costs $8 though it was not available all the time. ISIS sells some crude oil to locals who refine it in makeshift oil refineries. One barrel of crude oil is sold for around $50. We used diesel for heating and we had to pay $136 for a barrel. Gasoline is around $1 a liter.
Food is expensive because it comes from outside ISIS territory, so the costs of transportation in addition to the taxes charged by ISIS raises the price. We also pay $2.20 monthly for land phone services; we do not have cellphone coverage services after it was destroyed during the war. We can have satellite Internet for household use but no one is using it because they fear the consequences. The Hisbah raid Internet cafés regularly and ask for mobile phones of the costumers or check their computers.
How stable is the ISIS “state” and governing structures?
The structure of what ISIS calls a state is very fragile and unstable. Foreign media dramatizes the strength of ISIS and its control on people in the areas it occupies. I do not know why U.S. officials and other countries who are fighting ISIS exaggerate its strength and control, maybe to justify their failed strategy. Moreover, I think that U.S. taxpayers should demand their government investigate where all the money spent on its program to train and equip moderate Syrians went. However, the reality we witnessed is that not all ISIS fighters are trained and experienced. Many of them are young and inexperienced boys.
Their military and regulatory structures are weak. They failed in their attempts to organize education, or other fields of life. They do not trust us, they fear locals and try their best to not mix with us, or allow us access to any of their military or security information.
The headquarters of ISIS fighters are located mostly outside of the rural towns, but they’re in the center of the cities. In the cities, there are centers for the Hisbah, and “media points” which are small, newly built brick rooms, with one or two ISIS members. They distribute ISIS visual, audio, and print propaganda for free.
The judicial system is fully controlled by ISIS. They appoint a judge, who should pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the criminal they call caliph. In case of arbitration, the two parties of dispute can present witnesses and evidence themselves to the judge. Lawyers do not exist in the ISIS judicial system.
ISIS tried to establish an education system, and hired teachers. This attempt did not last long, and most of the teachers left their jobs because of bad treatment and suppression. But what really ended this attempt was that ISIS asked the teachers to pledge allegiance to the caliphate, but all of them refused. So ISIS canceled the schools and did not pay the rest of the teachers’ salaries.
ISIS took over all hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics of those who left. We did not have enough medical crews, and those left administrating medical services were inexperienced young people. But locals had to work with them because they wanted to provide medical services to their own people.
Soon after, they started running the town; we felt that ISIS was trying to impose its way of life down to the last detail. We started to transform into moving corpses with no souls. No jeans or sweaters allowed. Men have to raise the hem of their pants around five centimeters from the foot, or else face punishment. Women have to wear full black plain gowns, with layers of clothes under and above the gowns so that the shape of a female body cannot be recognized. Women have to cover their faces totally along with the hands. Perfume is banned.
Why do some Syrians fight with ISIS?
Some locals in my town joined ISIS as fighters for several reasons. The first one is that people felt let down by everybody in the world, left alone to be killed and bombed by the Syrian regime, so they could not find another way to fight the regime other than through joining ISIS.
Second, some joined ISIS for the advantages they can get, like being protected, and having power over other people. Some of them used this power to suppress other families or tribes they had historical enmities or problems with. It was a tool for personal revenge.
A few people joined ISIS at the beginning because they thought it represented real Islam and that it was not much different from their own beliefs. But after those people witnessed the crimes, violence, and corruption of ISIS, they left.
We know that ISIS is in fact an Iraqi organization, and when some locals have unsolved disputes, they travel to Iraq to meet leaders of ISIS, who can solve their problems in Syria.
I can say that there is no one in my town now who shares the ISIS ideology.
People are leaving everything they have, their houses and property, to flee from ISIS areas, but ISIS is not allowing families out. So people now are paying locals in other areas to smuggle them out to rebel areas, or to Turkey, where they pay smugglers again to cross the border.
How does ISIS punish people who flout its rules?
Punishments under ISIS varies from financial fines to beheadings, and it depends on what they consider a crime. For example, if you are caught smoking you will be fined, jailed, or sent to hard labor for a week or more, where you’ll dig tunnels or build reinforcements near Deir Ezzor airport. The choice of punishment depends on the demeanor of the Hisbah member—if he was angry or happy when he arrested you.
The fines ISIS took from people should be in gold not money. We are using the Syrian currency, but the new bank notes issued by the Syrian regime are banned, because, as ISIS says, they have no real value.
The beheading punishment is used for those whom ISIS accuses of infidelity or treason if fighting with the Free Syrian Army, which they say are “agents of the West.” The Hisbah conduct the beheadings in public areas or main squares and during rush hour, to terrorize as many people as possible.
People suffer, too, from discrimination and injustice, where they are classified according to their status. The most powerful people are those who are called “amniyeen”—the security members—who are charged with monitoring the security of the areas they hold. They go in patrols especially at night, drive four-wheel pickup trucks, and drive through streets with covered faces. No one from the local population knows their identities, but only sometimes can their country of origin be figured out according to their accents. Most of them speak with Iraqi or Tunisian dialects. They’ll raid any house at any time, breaking the doors without any warning, if they suspect anything. They carry the tasks of investigation too. A former detainee described to me how he was tortured and said it was the same techniques used by the Syrian security forces.
ISIS members are sick people who have complex psychological problems and a deep hatred for humanity. Other people in al-Ashara hoped that ISIS will leave or be defeated, but after two years, they all just want to flee. They do not want any of their property, they just want to see the light again away from those devils.