Inside the Bizarre Mindset of the People Who Run the Islamic State


The following is an excerpt from the new bookChaos & Caliphate by Patrick Cockburn (OR Books, 2016): 

It is one of the strangest states ever created. The Islamic State wants to force all humanity to believe in its vision of a religious and social utopia existing in the first days of Islam. Women are to be treated as chattels, forbidden to leave the house unless they are accompanied by a male relative. People deemed to be pagans, like the Yazidis, can be bought and sold as slaves. Punishments such as beheadings, amputations and flogging become the norm. All those not pledging allegiance to the Caliphate declared by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on June 29, 2014 are considered enemies.

IS may be regarded with appalled fascination by most people, but conditions inside its territory remain a frightening mystery to the outside world. This is scarcely surprising, because it imprisons and frequently murders local and foreign journalists who report on its activities. Despite these difficulties, it is possible to build up a picture of what life is inside the Islamic State by interviewing people who have recently lived in Sunni Arab cities like Mosul and Fallujah that are held by IS. The interviewees are necessarily Sunni Arabs living in Iraq, with the exception of some Kurds still living in Mosul, as most Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and Shia have already fled or been killed.

A great range of questions need to be answered. Do people support, oppose or have mixed feelings about ISIS rule and, if so, why? What is it like to live in a place where a wife appearing on the street without the niqab, a cloth covering the head and face, will be told to fetch her husband, who will then be given 40 lashes? How do foreign fighters behave? What is the reaction of local people to demands by ISIS that unmarried women should wed its fighters? More prosaically, what do people eat, drink and cook, and how do they obtain electricity? The answers to these and many other questions show instances of savage brutality, but also a picture of the Islamic State battling to provide some basic services and food at low prices.

A crucial early success for the Islamic State came when ISIS-led forces seized the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, on January 3, 2014, and the Iraqi Army failed to win it back. This was the first time that ISIS had ruled a large population centre and it is important to understand how it behaved and how and why this behavior became more extreme as ISIS consolidated its authority. The stories of two men, Abbas (generally known as Abu Mohammed) and Omar Abu Ali, who come from the militant Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and the nearby town of al-Karmah, explain graphically what happened during those first crucial months when ISIS was in power.

Abbas is a 53-year-old Sunni farmer from Fallujah. He recalls the joyous day when ISIS first entered the city: “At the beginning we were so happy and called it ‘the Islamic Conquest’. Most of the people were offering them feasts and warmly welcoming their chief fighters.” ISIS told people that it had come to set up an Islamic state, and at first this was not too onerous. A Sharia Board of Authority was established to resolve local problems. Abbas says that “everything was going well until ISIS also took Mosul. Then restrictions on our people increased. At the mosques, local imams started to be replaced by people from other Arab states or Afghanistan. During the first six months of ISIS rule, the movement had encouraged people to go to the mosque, but after the capture of Mosul it became obligatory and anybody who violated the rule received 40 lashes.” A committee of community leaders protested to ISIS and received an interesting reply: “The answer was that, even at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, laws were not strict at the beginning and alcoholic drinks were allowed in the first three years of Islamic rule.” Only after Islamic rule had become strongly entrenched were stricter rules enforced. So it had been in the seventh century and so it would be 1,400 years later in Fallujah.

Abbas, a conservative-minded community leader with two sons and three daughters in Falluah, says he had no desire to leave the city because all his extended family are there, though daily life is tough and getting tougher. As of February 2015, “people suffer from lack of water and electricity which they get from generators because the public supply only operates three to five hours every two days.” The price of cooking gas has soared to the equivalent of £50 a cylinder, so people have started to use wood for cooking. Communications are difficult because ISIS blew up the mast for mobile phones six months ago, but “some civilians have managed to get satellite internet lines.”

However, it was not the harsh living conditions but two issues affecting his children that led Abbas to leave Falluah hurriedly on January 2, 2015. The first reason for flight was a new conscription law under which every family had to send one of their sons to be an ISIS fighter. Abbas did not want his son Mohamed to be called up. Previously, families could avoid conscription by paying a heavy fine but at the start of this year military service in ISIS-held areas became obligatory. The second issue concerned one of Abbas’ daughters. He says that one day “a foreign fighter on the bazaar checkpoint followed my daughter, who was shopping with her mother, until they reached home. He knocked on the door and asked to meet the head of the house. I welcomed him and asked, ‘How can I help you?’ He said he wanted to ask for my daughter’s hand. I refused his request because it is the custom of our tribe that we cannot give our daughters in marriage to strangers. He was shocked by my answer and later attempted to harass my girls many times. I saw it was better to leave.”

Abbas is now in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area with his family. He regrets that ISIS did not stick with its original moderate and popular policy before the capture of Mosul, after which it started to impose rules not mentioned in sharia. Abbas says that “we need ISIS to save us from the government but that doesn’t mean that we completely support them.” He recalls how ISIS prohibited cigarettes and hubble-bubble pipes because they might distract people from prayer, in addition to banning Western-style haircuts, T-shirts with English writing on them or images of women. Women are not allowed to leave home unaccompanied by a male relative. Abba says that “all this shocked us and made us leave the city.”

A more cynical view is held by Omar Abu Ali, a 45-year-old Sunni Arab farmer from al-Karmah (also called Garma) 10 miles north-east of Fallujah. He has two sons and three daughters and he says that, when ISIS took over their town last year, “my sons welcomed the rebels, but I wasn’t that optimistic.” The arrival of ISIS did not improve the dire living conditions in al-Kharmah and he did not take too seriously the propaganda about how “the soldiers of Allah would defeat Maliki’s devils.” Still, he agrees that many people in his town were convinced, though his experience is that Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki or ISIS were equally bad for the people of al-Kharmah: “They turn our town into a battlefield and we are the only losers.”

Al Kharmah is close to the front line with Baghdad and endures conditions of semi-siege in which few suppliers can get through. A litre of petrol costs £2.70 and a bag of flour more than £65. Omar tried to buy as much bread as he could store to last his family a week or more “because even the bakeries were suffering from lack of flour.” There was constant bombardment and in February 2015 the last water purification plant in the town was hit, though he is not clear if this was done by artillery or U.S. air strikes: “The town is now in a horrible situation because of lack of water.”

Omar spent five months working for IS, though it is not clear in what capacity, his main purpose being to prevent the conscription of his two sons aged 14 and 16. Rockets and artillery shells rained down on al-Karmah, though Omar says they seldom hit ISIS fighters because they hid in civilian houses or in schools. “The day I left, a school was hit and many children were killed,” he recalls. He says U.S. air strikes and Iraqi Army artillery “kill us along with ISIS fighters. There is no difference between what they do and the mass killings by IS.” Omar had been trying to flee for two months but did not have the money until he managed to sell his furniture. He is now staying outside Arbil, the Kurdish capital, where his sons and daughters work on local farms which “is at least better than staying in al-Kharmah.”

He says the Americans, Iraqi government and ISIS have all brought disaster and lists the wars that have engulfed his home town in the past 10 years. “All of them are killing us,” he says. “We have no friends.”

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