Signs of discontent are evident across the ‘caliphate’ as people tire of its taxes, prices caps and shoddy services
At first glance, Iraq’s second city of Mosul looks like a model of success for its new rulers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the world’s most feared jihadi group. Well-swept thoroughfares bustle with cars, the electricity hums and the cafés are crowded.
But in the back alleys, litter fills the streets. The lights stay on, but only because locals rigged up generators themselves. And under the blare of café televisions, old men grumble about life under Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“When I was seven years old the war against Iran started. Since then, we’ve been at war,” says Abu Ahmed, a quiet 40-year-old with a long grey moustache. “We’ve endured international sanctions, poverty, injustice. But it was never worse than it is now.”
Like those of others interviewed for this article, the name of Abu Ahmad, an honorific, was changed for his safety.
Abu Ahmed at first welcomed the takeover by Isis, which seized more than a quarter of Iraq and Syria this summer. He was not alone: Sunni Muslims in both countries have long felt discriminated against by regimes dominated by rival sects — in Baghdad, Iraq’s Shia majority; in Damascus, the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Isis supporters have tolerated everything from public stonings and beheadings to daily air strikes by the US-led coalition. But without an economy that gives people a chance to make a living, many say Isis has little more to offer than the authorities they replaced.
“Compared to past rulers, Isis is a lot easier to deal with. Just don’t piss them off and they leave you alone,” says Mohammed, a trader from Mosul. “If they could only maintain services — then people would support them until the last second.”
On that critical measure, locals say, Isis is losing its lustre: to traverse the ostensibly unified “caliphate,” a traveller needs three different currencies; aid groups provide medicine to much of the area; and salaries are often actually paid by Iraq and Syria — governments with which Isis is at war.
Rather than take over the reins of state, Isis is often contributing to its dysfunction by engaging in extortion rackets.
“In the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor they may be functioning something like a state, but there’s nowhere in Iraq where they’re operating anything like a state,” says Kirk Sowell, president of Uticensis Risk Services. “They’re operating like something between a mafia, an insurgency and a terror group. Maybe they thought six months ago they were going to function as a state. But they don’t have the personnel or manpower.”
Isis’s repression and restrictions on media make it difficult to fully portray the group’s administration system, but through a series of more than a dozen interviews with residents, and visits to Isis-ruled areas by a local journalist, the FT found its attempt at state-building has so far failed to win over locals.
In some cases they say Isis takes credit for systems in place before it seized power. In others, locals say it is stealing the resources of the region it seeks to rule.
Last June, Isis fighters bulldozed Syrian-Iraqi border posts and declared “the end of Sykes-Picot”, the agreement that divided the Middle East between French and British control. The group posted videos of volunteers handing out sacks of wheat stamped with their black and white seal. They even announced plans to issue a currency, posting a design for a new gold dinar on Mosul’s streets and handing out pamphlets in Raqqa, in Syria’s north.
From the outside, these projects look impressive — especially to people living in chaos in northern Syria, where rival rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government have been at war and unable to impose order.
Yet for those travelling the bumpy dirt road between Mosul and Raqqa, the borders have not changed, even if Isis reduced the crossings to rubble. Travelers must stock up on Iraqi dinars to use in Iraq, US dollars for the road and Syrian pounds once they arrive.
It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter
If Isis’s “caliphate” were a state, it would be a country of the poor. Most Syrians in the territory are struggling to get by on about $115 a month. Isis’s foreign fighters make as much as five times that. In Syria, the price of bread has nearly doubled to almost a dollar — about a third of the daily income for
Syrian civilians. Even though Mosul was cut off from Iraq’s power grid when Isis took the city this summer, the electricity stayed on. But this is mostly thanks to the efforts of locals, who bought and set up generators to keep the power running in their neighbourhoods.
In Isis-controlled Syria, electricity still functions a few hours a day — courtesy of Mr Assad’s regime. Mahmoud, an engineer, and his colleagues still file into the same power plants where they worked for years before Isis took over. But while the militant group’s oil and gas authority now oversees them, the Damascus government still pays their wages. Thousands of civil servants have similar arrangements in Isis-controlled Syria and Iraq, where locals risk long and dangerous drives to pick up their pay in Baghdad.
Isis seized control of three dams and at least two gas plants in Syria used to run state electricity. Rather than risk blowing out swaths of the power grid, Damascus appears to have struck a deal.
“Isis guards their factories and lets state employees come to work,” Mahmoud says. “It gets to take all the gas produced for cooking and petrol and sell it. The regime gets the gas needed to power the electrical system, and also sends some electricity to Isis areas.”
Not only does the Assad government pay the gas plant staff, but workers say it sends in spare parts from abroad and dispatches its own specialists to the area for repairs. “I’m against Isis with all my heart,” Mahmoud says. “But I can’t help but admire their cleverness.”
Sajad Jiyad, an independent researcher in Iraq, says that Isis struggles to balance its books, but services continue to function because of the money Baghdad still pays to former civil servants in Mosul. Isis taxes those employees at up to 50 per cent of their salaries.
“Isis is dependent on its ability to seize territory and resources to continue funding its existing areas,” he says. “Its expansion is sometimes operated through affiliates who use the Isis brand but are in effect local mercenaries. It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter.”
Basic services function poorly, but fear prevents anyone from speaking out. “Electricity, fuel, medicine, water are in low supply but people are surviving,” he says.
When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price. Locals understand. The prices can’t always be what Isis says
Though many now question Isis’s economic management, its military prowess and organisational skills are clear. Despite the coalition’s strikes, which have stalled its advances, Isis holds huge swaths of territory that encompass up to a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria.
Some of the group’s policies are seen as better than the previous regimes. Isis allows easy movement through its territories to facilitate trade. Trucks passing through are taxed about 10 per cent of the value of their cargo. Some businessmen in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, who drive shipments through the group’s territory, see the scheme as “Isis’s business-friendly face”.
It is also relatively easy to start a business — there are no start-up fees for those who want to open a store, though they have to pay a 2.5 per cent tax on their revenue after each year.
But to locals, these policies produce little benefit. There are few business opportunities in a conflict zone where people are scraping by, usually with help from relatives who fled abroad.
In Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, home to most of Syria’s oil wells, locals also complain about Isis commandeering their resources. “If they don’t take it, they tax you for it,” jokes the gas engineer Mahmoud. Isis, which he estimates controls nearly 40,000 barrels a day of oil production in eastern Syria, is believed to be the richest militant group in history, making perhaps $1m a day on oil and extortion rackets.
The coalition has been trying to bomb makeshift oil refineries to hurt Isis’s finances, but locals say that has little impact. Isis makes the bulk of its money from selling crude from the oil wells to Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian middlemen. Local partners refine the oil and sell it.
But other than these traders, most residents say they see little of that oil wealth.
Bassem, a hospital worker in Deir Ezzor, says when civil war first spread to eastern Syria two years ago, the region went from an impoverished backwater to a boomtown as rebels and tribes took control of oil wealth previously extracted and used by the regime. “You saw fancy cars, new stores. People were doing really well,” he says, speaking to the FT via Skype.
But under Isis, economic conditions steadily worsened, he says: “There’s no ‘economic administration’ with Isis — there is only people who take oil, divide it between the emirs and send it out. Where? We don’t know. Only a very tiny portion comes back to the people.”
Isis has tried to shape itself as a just ruler by setting prices on everything from bread to caesarean sections, which go for about $84. But locals routinely ignore the caps, Bassem says, because such prices are impossible to maintain given the skyrocketing costs of fuel and transportation. “Isis doesn’t study the market, it doesn’t calculate costs . . . these price caps are just comical.”
As a conservative Salafi Muslim, he was sympathetic to Isis’s ideology when they first took over, but was quickly disillusioned as economic conditions worsened. “I may be a Salafi, but I’m not an idiot,” he jokes.
Bassem’s hospital works round the price caps by charging patients for everything from the electricity to drugs. “When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price,” he says. “Locals understand. The prices are not always what Isis says, because they can’t be.”
International aid groups often send in medicines and supplies, which Isis tolerates out of necessity. Iraqis see the practice in Mosul hospitals, too.
While it is impossible to know how deeply the frustration with Isis policies runs — as some are undoubtedly benefiting from them — all those interviewed say signs of discontent were rising.
When Isis members recently came to collect taxes for electricity in Raqqa, a car mechanic became so enraged he shouted as they approached his garage: “How can you ask for fees on a service only available a few hours a day?”
Further east, at a mosque in Syria’s city of Meyadeen, a former activist who once organised anti-Assad protests says he witnessed an eerily familiar scene. After Friday prayers, an imam mimicked a practice common in the era of Assad control, when congregants were made to pray for their president. This time, they were told to pray for Isis’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
From the back of the room came faint but audible whispers: “Screw him.”
“In the collapse of Mosul, we lost a lot of weapons,” Abadi said in an interview with Iraqiya state TV. “We lost 2,300 Humvees in Mosul alone.”
While the exact price of the vehicles varies depending on how they are armoured and equipped, it is clearly a hugely expensive loss that has boosted Isis’s capabilities.
Last year, the US State Department approved a possible sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees with increased armour, machine-guns, grenade launchers, other gear and support, which was estimated to cost $579 million.
Clashes began in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, late on June 9, 2014, and Iraqi forces lost it the following day to Isis, which spearheaded an offensive that overran much of the country’s Sunni Arab heartland.
The militants gained ample arms, ammunition and other equipment when multiple Iraqi divisions fell apart in the country’s north, abandoning gear and shedding uniforms in their haste to flee.
Isis has used captured Humvees, which were provided to Iraq by the United States, in subsequent fighting, rigging some with explosives for suicide bombings.
Iraqi security forces backed by Shiite militias have regained significant ground from Isis in Diyala and Salaheddin provinces north of Baghdad.
But that momentum was slashed in mid-May when Isis overran Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where Iraqi forces had held out against militants for more than a year.
The attacks, which also include the stoning of an adulterer, appear to have taken place in Mosul and were distributed by ISIS social media accounts.
The two victims’ alleged crimes? They are believed to be gay. In another photo, woman accused of being an adulterer is stoned to death, and two men charged with thievery are bound to crucifixes. Victims are commonly crucified, sometimes after they have been killed, in ISIS public executions.
Isis throws men to deaths in Nineveh, Iraq. (Twitter)
In these photos, ISIS members in black facemasks appear to shoot the crucified men from behind at point blank range as an audience of who appear to be local Iraqis looks on.
ISIS-affiliated social media feeds began spreading the images Thursday. Those accounts linked to afile attributed to the “Information Office of the mandate of Nineveh,” an apparent propaganda arm tied to Islamic state press releases.
The public executions appear to have taken place in Mosul, the capital of the Islamic State and Iraq’s second largest city sits in Nineveh province.
Crucifixion in Nineveh, Iraq. (Twitter)
In areas of Iraq and Syria where ISIS has taken over, public executions are common. They have been a staple of the group’s puritanical interpretation of Islamic law since before it took control of Mosul and declared itself the Calpihate, or Islamic State.
In “Profiling the Islamic State” Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center writes about ISIS’ version of Islamic governance:
“The implementation of a strict form of sharia law is clearly central to IS’s governance,” he writes. “This includes imposing the hudud (fixed Islamic punishments for serious crimes); enforcing attendance of the five daily prayers; banning drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; controlling personal appearance, including clothing; forbidding gambling, non-Islamic music, and gender mixing; and ordering the destruction of religious shrines, among other rules.” (PDF)
Isis also stones a woman to death for allegedly committing adultery.
Public executions in ISIS controlled areas enforce the group’s version of Sharia Law and serve to terrorize locals into strict obedience. Elsewhere, ISIS has used the tactic to intimidate its rivals.
Death is shown in high resolution—the killing carefully composed inside the frame. These images belong to a deliberate social media and information strategy.
Like all good Internet propaganda the images are made to be readily “shareable” and appear to have been released with the intent that they travel to a broader audience. It worked. Obscene and merciless, it’s a reflection of the state of life under ISIS rule.
Ten Arab nations have announced they are to join a US-led coalition against Isis (known as Islamic State) militants.
In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, said they “will do their share” to fight against the jihadist group that has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The development marks a major diplomatic success for Washington and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had embarked on a Middle East tour to lobby for a greater Arab role in the fight against extremists.
In fact, some of the ten states have tense diplomatic relations due to their rivalry on other regional issues.
Qatar and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has put the two countries at odds with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt.
The announcement came after Kerry met delegates from the ten countries in the Saudi government’s summer seat of Jeddah.
The group of states said they assessed plans to eradicate IS “wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria” and pledged to join in “many aspects of a coordinated military campaign” against the militant organisation.
They also promised to support the new Iraqi government and stop the flow of funds and fighters that have boosted IS power.
Representatives from Turkey attended the meeting but did not sign the agreement and refused to let the coalition use its bases to launch air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” a government spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP.
Earlier, Russia condemned Washington plan to target IS militants in Syria, saying it would consider air strikes an “act of aggression” if carried out without a UN mandate and the assent of the regime of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad.
The US has already launched limited air strikes against IS in Iraq at the request of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
IS launched its offensive on Iraq from its heartland of north-eastern Syria, capturing key Sunni towns and cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.
It has now declared a “caliphate” that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border and represents a greater landmass than that of the United Kingdom.
According to the UN, over 1.6 million people have been displaced by conflict in Iraq this year while 850,000 people fled their homes in August alone.
Isis activists are exerting their influence in Iraq and Syria by threatening death sentences for male teachers who teach women, and harsh punishments for teachers who teach any that fall outside of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia law.
People living under Islamic State rule in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria have been banned from owning academic books, studying subjects including law and human rights, and educating children privately at home.
This week – the start of the university academic term – Islamic State ordered university departments in law, political science, fine art, archaeology, sports education, philosophy, tourism and hotel management to be closed in areas it controls.
In Mosul and Raqqa Islamic State have ordered teachers not to teach democracy, cultural education, human rights and law, to maintain what it called “the public good”.
Teachers have been told they must have training in Islamic State’s interpretation of sharia, and should avoid certain subjects in curricula and exams “which do not conform to sharia law”, including “forged historical principles” – a reference to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and “un-Islamic geographic decisions” by other nation states.
Teachers who fail to separate male and female students were threatened with punishments and sweeps for illegal books and materials are common, according to an activist inside Raqqa who spoke to the Times. “I have many books of philosophy and history. [But] they are hidden,” the source said, speaking under the pseudonym Abu Wart.
He told of families that had chosen to have children educated privately at home, to avoid the strict laws laid down by Islamic State, who have drawn the most chilling threats: teachers who teach female students privately risk execution.
Last week students from the University of Mosul were allowed to travel outside Islamic State-controlled areas to take final year exams in Iraqi Kurdistan in approved subjects.
When the Free Syrian Army pushed Assad’s soldiers out of a town south of Damascus, the last thing they expected to find was a Russian spy post, a few miles from the Golan Heights.
Syrian rebels have overtaken a joint Russian-Syrian secret facility that they claim was a covert intelligence collection base.
Opposition fighters say the post was used to snoop in on the communications of opposition groups — and perhaps even the nearby Israelis.
Free Syrian Army officials, U.S. officials, and independent experts told The Daily Beast that the evidence of Russian involvement in the facility, just a few miles from Syria’s border with Israel, if verified, would show a level of Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war that was not previously known.
Free Syrian Army officials posted several videos on YouTube showing both the outside and the inside of the facility, which the FSA captured over the weekend during a battle near Al Harah, south of Damascus, next to the Golan Heights.
The videos and accompanying photos show insignias representing a branch of Syrian intelligence and the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency.
The FSA found photos and lists of senior Russian intelligence and military officials who visited the facility, pictures of Russian personnel running the base, and maps showing the location of Israeli military units.
Israeli news reports earlier this year said the Russian government had upgraded an advanced surveillance and intelligence gathering station in that area which could snoop on Israel, large parts of Jordan, and western Iraq, potentially to warn Iran in advance of an Israeli strike. Initial reports said documents from the facility suggested the Russian equipment was used to spy on Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast the photos of the Russian
insignia first shared on blogs were legitimate. But that evidence, at the same time, may not necessarily mean the facility captured by the opposition was controlled by Russia’s military; it could just mean that Russians were working there, as advisors or partners to Syrian troops.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s military and intelligence services at New York University said the term “Osnaz” on the insignia just meant a special unit of any kind. “It’s the kind of unit that the Russians would have had there because Syria is not the easiest area to operate in, they are an element of the radio-technical intelligence boys who do this.”
Firas Al Hawrani, the official spokesman for the FSA in southern Syria, told The Daily Beast Monday that FSA forces had seen about 15 Russian personnel operating in the Al Harah area before the FSA took the facility, but they left before the area fell out of regime control.
“The Russians who were at the Al Harah mountain, the regime took them to Damascus by plane two weeks ago,” he said.
Galeotti said these Russian advisers would specifically be working on intercepting radio communications of opposition figures.
“They would be running an operation for detailed radio technical intelligence, we are not talking about intercepting telemetry and aircraft,” he said.
“This is for eavesdropping on rebel radio communications. Cell communications are easier identified through other means. And this is also for identifying the presence of these units, which leads directly into targeting.”
Russia has been one of Syria’s most important allies for years. The port of Tartus is Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean, for example. And since the civil war in the country broke out in 2011, Russia has provided the country with advisers and billions of dollars’ worth of heavy military equipment.
Galeotti said Syria’s security services are good as “traditional secret police skills,” such as interrogation and bugging telephones. The facility taken over by the Syrian opposition, however, suggests the Russians gave the regime “a whole new capability,” Galeotti said. “A lot of the Syrians are very clumsy. Some of the more precise attacks in the last year have suggested a new sophistication.”
The facility taken over by the Syrian opposition suggests the Russians gave the regime a whole new capability. A lot of the Syrians are very clumsy. Some of the more precise attacks in the last year have suggested a new sophistication.
Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast Monday that the apparent Russian involvement in the base, which was also reportedly tasked with collecting signals intelligence and communications of rebel groups, showed of the depth of Moscow’s collusion with Damascus in the Syrian civil war.
“If what they’ve recovered is true and I have no reason to believe it’s not, it really is very indicative of the significant involvement of Russia in this conflict,” he said. “It shows significant coordination, establishment of a facility they could use for coordination and intelligence capabilities including intercepts. It’s a pretty sophisticated operation there that they’ve uncovered.”
Meanwhile, in Northern Syria, ISIS continued a major assault on the city of Kobani near the Turkish border as Kurdish and tribal forces tried to repel them.
Dr. Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, was in Washington last week asking U.S. officials to expand the airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria and to increase aid to the Kurdish forces in both countries.
Not only is ISIS advancing in Northern Syria, they are digging in their positions in several Iraqi cities, including Mosul and Ramadi, Karim told The Daily Beast in an interview.
Gen. John Allen, whom President Obama appointed to coordinate the international coalition against ISIS, said in Baghdad that the drive to free key cities like Mosul may take as long as a year.
“A lot of the front lines are basically frozen,” said Karim. “The worst thing would be for the United States, the region, and for Iraq, would be if the situation stays like this and festers. These guys have been there since June. If it goes further, it becomes a way of life. It will become like Somalia.”