Photo: Yasmin Al Tellawy/ Corbis
From The Telegraph.
Syria: the jihadi town where 'brides' are snatched from schools
A year ago, the city of Raqqa in northern Syria was sprouting political activist groups and philosophical discussion circles. A “guerrilla gardening” squad promoted environmental awareness by planting vegetables in central reservations.
The liberals who made it a base after the rebels swept in and drove out the regime in March last year are gone, disbanded, accused of supporting democracy and other “kuffar” or infidel beliefs, their members living either underground or in Turkey.
The city has been transformed into a staging ground for displays of the harshest “justice” meted out by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the jihadi group too extreme even for al-Qaeda that has imposed its rule over large parts of the country.
Refugees, women still living under its rule and men who have escaped from its prisons have told Telegraph of the life under the shadow of the extremist group’s black flag.
One woman, whose name the Telegraph knows but is withholding, described how she went to the recruiting office of an all-women jihad unit, formed from the women who have flocked to Syria from Europe and elsewhere to serve the cause, some with their children.
“I went inside their headquarters, which used to be the Christian church,” she said. “I asked what the conditions were to join. They said you have to be 18-25, unmarried, and you would earn 25,000 Syrian pounds.
“But if you joined you had the opportunity to marry one of the foreign fighters. However, they make sure you are a real jihadist.”
She said that outside she met four new recruits, three from Tunisia, and one Frenchwoman, who told her she was divorced and had brought her 12-year-old daughter and four younger sons to Syria to join the militants.
The opportunities for marriage in the Syrian jihad - and before “martyrdom” - is a recurring theme of the blogs and other online forums favoured by ISIS’s foreign fighters in Syria, many of whom write in English.
But the Raqqa woman and other activists from the town say that the imbalance of the sexes means ISIS has begun to “recruit” brides from local schools and colleges.
Among those who resisted, they say, was a 21-year-old student called Fatima Abdullah from a tribal area outside the city, whose brother had joined ISIS and persuaded their father to hand her over for marriage to a Tunisian. She refused, and when her family insisted, killed herself with rat poison. The story was confirmed by other activists from the town.
Since the beginning of January, rival rebel groups including western-backed militias still loyal to the original opposition Free Syrian Army have launched a counter-attack across the north of Syria to drive out ISIS.
Earlier this month, rebels all but completed an operation to remove the extremists from Idlib province while in Aleppo province ISIS have been forced into towns to the east. As they left their former strongholds they killed some of their prisoners, freed others, and loaded many more on to trucks and took them with them.
In Aazaz, a town between Aleppo and the Turkish border, ISIS retaliated for the FSA attack by beheading four captives from other militias and placing their heads on the plinth in the middle of the roundabout in one of the main squares, residents.
“We call it the beheading circle, now,” one, Anwar Mohammed, said.
A photograph of the heads, with a German fighter standing in triumph over them, circulated on jihadi websites.
Ahmed Primo, described how he was saved from a similar fate by a stray shell.
“I heard a voice calling my name for execution,” he said. “Then suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. The guards and the emir, the militia leader, were injured, and carried away. The next day the prison was liberated and I escaped.”
Mr Primo had previously been detained by the Syrian regime in his home city, Aleppo, and held for a month. Asked whether the treatment he received from ISIS, which included beatings, being bound and blindfolded for weeks at a time, and electrocuted in his testicles, was better or worse than his experiences under the regime, he said: “It is not a question of better or worse. It was exactly the same.”
ISIS split last summer from Jabhat al-Nusra, the recognised wing of Al-Qaeda in Syria, and in February was disavowed by Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri.
But by then its capacity to instill fear by its harsh punishments, and ability to attract fanatical fighters from abroad had enabled it to take control of large parts of northern Syria, with Raqqa province mostly under their sway.
Mr Mohammed, one of the early “citizen journalists” who sent reports of the initial uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to the outside world, was among Aazaz’s luckiest people. He had been seized from his home by ISIS fighters, taken to the group’s headquarters in Aleppo city, a former children’s hospital, for interrogation, and then detained in a prison in another town, Hreitan.
Light of build, he managed to escape one night by squeezing through the bars of his cell and lowering himself to the ground with knotted blankets. When he made it home - and across the Turkish border - his father said ISIS had visited him to tell him his son was to be executed as a spy.
Mohammed Nour, who ran the media centre in Aazaz from where reports by local and international journalists were filed after the town was “liberated” from the regime in July 2012, was the son of a man who had disappeared in the Assad regime’s prisons before he was born.
Last September, ISIS came for the son after it defeated Mr Nour’s Northern Storm brigade. Like his father, he has not been seen since.
His mother said she had visited al-Bab, a town to the south-east still under ISIS control, to try to find him. “I go to the prisons, like I did with his father,” she said. “They say to come back later.”
Now 49, she never remarried, and Mohammed is her only child.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that despite the brutality, many residents of north-west Syria still back ISIS. Samer Amori, Mohammed Nour’s uncle, said that people who supported the regime now support ISIS. A more convincing explanation is that by demanding control of all aspects of its subjects’ lives, ISIS did at least manage to impose some sort of order on a Syria that is becoming more lawless as the war progresses.
But for many men and women, particularly the liberal activists, who have suffered under both the regime and ISIS, the recent fighting has brought the third year of the uprising to deeply depressing close.
Mr Primo, electrocuted by fighters from the regime and Assad, said he had always believed the West would intervene, and that what had happened in Tunisia and Libya would happen in Syria. Now it is clear that with the country little more than a fighting ground for rival warlords, some not even Syrian, the West has little stomach for involvement.
“When I started out I could never have imagined anything like this,” he said. “These people, they do not have our way of life, or of thinking.
It’s very strange to us. I didn’t expect it would turn out this way.”