Inside ISIS’s Torture Brigades

Daily Beast/November 17, 2015

By Michael Weiss

Part Three: Ministries of Fear

ISTANBUL — “They have a cage in this square,” Abu Khaled said, describing the place where ISIS justice is meted out in al-Bab, the Syrian town in which, until recently, he’d served with the state security apparatus of the so-called Islamic State. This is the same place where beheadings take place from time to time. But the cage is always there, and there’s almost always someone inside.

“They put people in it for three days. And they say why he is there,” the man we’ll call Abu Khaled told me at one of our meetings over three days in Istanbul last month. “One time, a man went to the court as a witness and he lied. They put him in the cage for three days. One guy was hanging out with girls; they weren’t his relatives and not married. He spent three days. For cigarettes, you spend like one day, two days, three days. It depends.”

Abu Khaled was describing a place I’d been. I was in al-Bab during Ramadan 2012, in the relatively early days of the revolt against the Assad regime, when the town was still controlled by local rebel forces, and I saw how that same square came alive at night when activists, rebels, or local civilians transformed themselves into ad hoc cleanup crews—the Free Syrian Street Sweepers—picking up detritus and rubble left over from regime shelling, or manning field hospitals in the basement of the local mosque, because the real hospital in al-Bab had been targeted and badly damaged by the Syrian military.

There was even an all-night café in those days where you could watch international news, drink smoothies, smoke shisha, and talk endlessly about everything and anything, without the fear that Assad’s mukhabarat would be listening in. All that is gone now, Abu Khaled assured me. The café is closed. No one comes out at night anymore because there’s an ISIS-enforced curfew. And the locals have to worry about everything they say, and to whom.

As with Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, so with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS is absolutely paranoid about infiltration, and its wild dragnets for capturing fifth columnists and foreign agents seem premised on preemption rather than exposure. Fear must be maintained to keep people from so much as thinking of resistance. And in the frenzy, inevitably, ISIS devours some of its own. “One time they beheaded a Kuwaiti guy they said was working for MI6. They wrote on his body that he was a British spy—and he was the chief of the amniyat in al-Bab.”

Abu Khaled, deadpan, took a long drag on his Marlboro and sipped some tea in the Istanbul café where we were talking.

The ISIS defector argues that the paranoia is well-founded. ISIS, he believes, is absolutely run through with spies and informants of all persuasions. A Russian in Raqqa, he says, was found to be working for Vladimir Putin’s services. “They had video, he admitted to it. I don’t know if it was under pressure, but he confessed.” Another man, a Palestinian, was accused of working for Mossad. Both were executed.

Abu Khaled listed the crimes of high treason: “Working with the FSA [the “Free Syrian Army,” an allegedly moderate collection of rebel groups], that’s capital punishment. Working with the mukhabarat, CIA, or foreigners—capital punishment.”

There was one example that was especially vivid in his mind. “One time, they executed a guy, he was throwing SIM cards around places ISIS keeps its government services.” SIM cards? Abu Khaled kept calling them that. It soon became apparent that he was referring to tracking devices—possibly GPS-based, possibly a variation of RFID, or radio frequency identification chips, with signals that can be picked up by coalition drones and jets. “These were for the coalition airplanes to spot targets,” said Abu Khaled. “They arrested the guy. They cut off his head and left his body and head to rot in the square for three days. His head was on a stick.”

ISIS, like many other theocratic kingdoms or dictatorships, employs morality police to uphold Sharia norms. They are called al-Hisbah.

Don’t like the pita at your local restaurant? Call the Hisbah. Think the joint is unsanitary or infested with vermin? Call the Hisbah. “They are severe. If your restaurant is found to be unclean, they’ll shut you down for 15 days until you comply.”

What you consume in the caliphate is of course heavily regulated. Alcohol is haram, and if you’re found to be drinking, you’re likely to receive 80 lashes there in al-Bab’s central square as punishment.

The Hisbah “drive around inspecting what everybody is doing,” Abu Khaled said. “In al-Bab, there [are] maybe 15 to 20 of them. Not a lot, but you see them all over. They have a van with a speaker and they shout: ‘It’s prayer time! Go to mosque! Hurry up! Shut your business. You, woman, cover your face!’”

“Women are living in fear in al-Bab,” said Abu Khaled. “You see a woman walking in the street, sometimes she can’t see at nighttime because of the niqab,” the veil covering her face entirely. “It’s very hard to see out of the niqab during the day, much less in the dark. Then you hear: ‘Cover your head! Go home!’”

But ISIS cannot rely entirely on fear to rule, and it has to bring in new recruits all the time, so indoctrination is a major part of its program. It accepts volunteers from the hated Free Syrian Army, from various Islamist militias, or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda franchise in Syria from which ISIS broke away in 2014. But it makes the barrier for entry very high and limits their choices of assignment. Someone joining after having served in a rival group has to attend a Maoist-like re-education camp for three months and “repent.” And there are lifelong limitations on what you can do from then on, and where you can go.

A few days later, the farmer told Abu Khaled he had something to show him. “All over the farm, the olive trees—there were bodies everywhere.”

“You can’t stay or go back to your home city. Let’s say I’m from al-Bab and was with the FSA. Now I want to join ISIS. OK, I have to go to the camp for three months, and then after three months they will send me somewhere for one year, and I have no right to go back to al-Bab.”

And because the caliphate wants to create future generations of willing executioners, it is very careful about educating the young, as well.

Former teachers in Syria have been invited back to teach students in ISIS-held cities, but they have to take classes for three months and repent for having worked with the regime. Home schooling is haram because the curriculum can’t be controlled. Abu Khaled knew an English teacher who was arrested for teaching students out of his house.

There are also distinct perks and dispensations for those having a bit of power in al-Dawla, the nomenklatura of the Islamic State.

Abu Khaled, like other ISIS members, was paid $100 per month, in U.S. greenbacks, not Syrian lira, despite the latter being the coin of the realm in al-Bab. Currency exchange houses exist in the city where ISIS employees can take their salaries for conversion, although they scarcely need to, given the freebies that come with ISIS employment.

“I rented a house, which was paid for by ISIS,” Abu Khaled told me. “It cost $50 per month. They paid for the house, the electricity. Plus, I was married, so I got an additional $50 per month for my wife. If you have kids, you get $35 for each. If you have parents, they pay $50 for each parent. This is a welfare state.”

“This is why a lot of people are joining,” said Abu Khaled. “I knew a mason who worked construction. He used to get 1,000 lira per day. That’s nothing. Now he’s joined ISIS and gets 35,000 lira—$100 for himself, $50 for his wife, $35 for his kids. He makes $600 to $700 per month. He gave up masonry. He’s just a fighter now, but he joined for the income.”

ISIS likes a tidy state and maintains one courtesy of the Diwan al-Khadamat, or Office of Services, which Abu Khaled likened to City Hall. Here, too, the bureaucracy is impressive. Diwan al-Khadamat includes a sanitation department, a parks department, a building licensing department, and an electric utility. It also runs an agriculture department to cultivate the farmland ISIS has either purchased or, as is more often the case, confiscated from enemies of the state.

Anyone wanted by ISIS who runs away will have all his property and assets seized. “Land, houses, stores, everything. The building I used to live in in al-Bab belonged to a guy they accused of working for the regime,” Abu Khaled told me. “So they seized the whole building. They came with a notice of eviction for everybody living there. ‘You have 24 hours to leave the building,’ it said.”

All businesses have to pay taxes—there’s a collection every month, orchestrated by Jibaya, the ISIS IRS, whom you’d be foolish to evade or try to cheat. The Hisbah, too, perform patrols like mob enforcers to inspect all local businesses and make sure they’re charging the proper prices for goods and services, and keeping accurate ledgers. “You have to pay a percentage, like 2.5 percent you have to pay from your gross sales to ISIS.” Do the Hisbah skim off the top? “Yes,” Abu Khaled said.

ISIS charges whatever rates it chooses for the scarce electricity. “And you have to pay for the water. You have to pay for the city. For the cleaning, the garbage. Plus, when you bring any stuff from outside the Islamic State, you have to pay taxes. Vegetables or fruit—anything from Turkey or FSA areas, you have to pay taxes.” ISIS also levies fines for all manner of civil infractions, especially cigarette smoking or smuggling.

This is a sore subject for Abu Khaled, a hopeless chain smoker, but he recognizes it’s a huge source of revenue for the caliphate. Cigarettes are forbidden because they’re harmful for the body, like alcohol. Yet because virtually every Syrian wants to smoke, ISIS realizes that it can make a windfall from the inevitable contraband. “A Saudi came to see my neighbor,” Abu Khaled said. “He knocked on my neighbor’s door and then on my door. I had an air freshener for the cigarettes. He asked, ‘Where is my neighbor?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then he said: ‘You have something nice-smelling in your house. Man, I know you have cigarettes—please, can I come in and have a smoke?’”

Quranic obscurantism meets economic pragmatism throughout the ISIS administration. In dealing with antiquities, for instance, many of which in Syria and Iraq date back to the days of the biblical prophets, ISIS declares that any pre-Islamic art that once was “worshipped” is supposed to be marked for destruction, whereas anything else—such as Babylonian or Roman coins—is eligible for sale on the international black market, which doesn’t lack for eager buyers. No doubt it helps ISIS’s archaeological logic that smaller artifacts tend not to be idolatrous, and in practice it’s the enormous monuments or statues that can’t be quietly ferreted out to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan that are targeted for destruction.

Many compromises and corner-cuttings have to take place to keep al-Dawla, the State, in clover. Abu Khaled offered two important examples of ISIS bartering with, and extorting, its avowed enemies.

Oil, naturally, is a big source of revenue. ISIS controls of all of Syria’s eastern oil fields, making it the premier energy supplier for the country and a racketeer for fuel. The Bab al-Salameh crossing, which is now ISIS’s only means of entry into northern Syria, is responsible for feeding the entire caliphate, from Aleppo to Fallujah. “So imagine how many trucks are crossing every day,” Abu Khaled said.

Yet Bab al-Salameh is controlled on the Syrian side by the non-ISIS rebels, and of course on the Turkish side by the government in Ankara. Why can’t either simply shut down the crossing and deprive ISIS of its revenue stream?

“Because there is no choice. ISIS has the diesel, the oil. Last time, a little bit before Ramadan, the rebels closed ISIS’s crossing.” ISIS responded by turning off the tap. “The price of oil in Syria went up. The bakeries stopped because there was no diesel. The cars, the hospitals, everything shut down.”

There’s a knock-on effect to the ISIS energy racket. Abu Khaled says that everything in Syria works on generators now. “I have a huge generator, I can fuel a small area, and people pay me for the power.” And because he could purchase his diesel fuel at cut-rate prices owing to his ISIS membership—one-sixth the cost to civilians—he became a minor energy baron in his own right.

ISIS also, famously, sells Assad’s oil back to him. “In Aleppo, people have electricity for maybe three or four hours per day. The electricity station is in Asfireh, ISIS-controlled territory, near Kweris airport. So the regime pays for the fuel to run the station. It pays the salaries for the workers because they’re specialized and can’t be replaced. And ISIS takes 52 percent of the electricity and the regime takes 48 percent. That’s the deal they have with Assad.”

For all its means of self-enrichment, ISIS hasn’t forgotten about the little guy. It has constructed a social safety net for those it rules in its Islamic welfare state, a linchpin of which is Baghdadi’s own Affordable Care Act.

ISIS members are entitled to free medical treatment and pharmaceuticals, and anyone living in the caliphate can apply for free health care, provided need can be established. “You can go to the doctor or hospital for no money,” Abu Khaled said. “If you can’t go to the doctor or hospital in Islamic State territory, if you have to go abroad, they pay you. No matter what the amount. If you have cancer and you need chemotherapy in Turkey, they will pay for everything, including your hotel. Even if it’s tens of thousands of dollars.”

And doctors in al-Bab hardly complain about losses because medicine is one of the most profitable careers one can have in al-Dawla. Physicians are paid between $4,000 and $5,000 a month to keep them from running off to Turkey.

For these reasons, Abu Khaled said, Syria is the “five-star jihad,” at least compared to Iraq. “Over there is nothing, but you come to al-Bab, there are coffee shops, there are nice things. You can have a decent life.”

So why would he, or anyone, for that matter, want to leave?  “Because of what I saw at the farm,” he answered.

“I know one guy, he has a farm. Every day, every weekend when he went to the farm, he found bodies underground. These were people who’d been killed and ISIS threw their corpses into his farm.” The more the farmer tilled the earth, as in an Aleppine Verdun, the more he kept bringing up the bodies. “The farmer would dig and he’d uncover a hand or foot.”

Abu Khaled, at the request of the farmer, went to see the emir of al-Bab to complain of the human disposal problem. The emir told him that he’d investigate and get back to Abu Khaled in due course. “A few days later, I saw the emir in the street. I asked, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘That’s not us. We don’t know who’s dumping these bodies.’” Did Abu Khaled believe the emir? Of course not. “But you can’t call the emir a liar.”

A few days later, the farmer told Abu Khaled he had something to show him. He said that whereas before ISIS had at least dug shallow graves for its prey, now it was just dumping the corpses on the topsoil. “All over the farm, the olive trees—there were bodies everywhere.”

So Abu Khaled went back to see the emir and told him that he must come and see for himself. The emir agreed. He told Abu Khaled to get in his car—his BMW X5, to be exact—and he drove them both to the agrarian mausoleum.

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