ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Islamic State militants tend to frown on celebrations. Earlier this year they banned festivities marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in the Iraqi city of Mosul, so it was hardly surprising that no official festivities marked their first anniversary in control of Raqqa, Syria, the extremist Islamist group's self-proclaimed capital.
Indeed, for most of Raqqa’s beleaguered residents, the preceding year has offered nothing to celebrate. Hundreds were forced from their homes to make way for foreign recruits as longtime residents of the once-thriving city of more than 200,000 people endured a reign of terror.
Activists and refugees tell of jihadists enforcing their harsh interpretation of Sharia law via floggings, amputations and beheadings of those who dare oppose them. Smoking and drinking — now banned in the city — can earn 40 or more lashes, and most restaurants are closed.
And activists say local Christians, many of whom fled in the early days of the takeover, are nowhere to be seen.
On January 16 alone, the militant group executed 15 people in Syrian territory they control, including several from the area around Raqqa. Opposition activists working for the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say the bodies of some execution victims were put on public display. News reports of Islamic State exploits in neighboring IS-controlled Iraq offer a horrifying sequence of images that show fighters throwing two men off a high building in front of a crowd.
The pair was accused of being gay.
'Massive' war crimes alleged
In November, U.N. investigators called IS commanders liable for war crimes on a “massive scale” in northeast Syria, where they are accused of spreading terror by beheading, stoning and shooting civilians and captured fighters.
While the militants claim they have brought stability to areas under their rule, and that they are building "a legitimate state" by establishing social works programs for residents and refugees, activists dispute the claim.
“ISIS does nothing for residents or refugees,” said Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, an activist with a network called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.
"The only thing working for displaced civilians is the Raqqa Relief Kitchen operated by a local pharmacist," he said during an online question-and-answer session this month. "They provide one meal a day for free and it’s financed by individuals locally and abroad.”
No foreign journalists are permitted to work in Raqqa, Syria’s sixth-largest city, and details of the stark and dangerous life unfolding inside the Islamic State "capital" can only be glimpsed from opposition activists and those who have recently fled.
The picture they draw indicates worsening conditions: Ordinary inhabitants suffer from hunger, power cuts and shortages of medicine and water, while prices for basic foods and staples rise in step with the threat of punishment by death.
“ISIS tries to blur identity and crush personality,” said an activist who calls himself Abu Mohammed, adding that militants are determined to crush dissent and any behavior that doesn’t accord with their puritanism.
Better lives for militants
Raqqa is a sharply divided city: In contrast to ordinary locals struggling to get by, militants and their families enjoy private clinics and a much higher standard of living. Hundreds of foreign fighters are present — while most are from Tunisia and Iraq, there are also Chechens, Dagestanis and Europeans — and Western officials estimate 1,000 new foreign fighters arrive each month.
Some bring their families, making them eligible for monthly stipends of up to $1,100 — a high sum in war-torn Syria. U.S. officials say most of that money comes from oil smuggling, ransom payments from kidnappings, and “taxes” extorted from truckers and aid agencies.
For some struggling families, the militants' payments are too large to forgo, so they send family members to join the fighting to help the rest survive. Likewise, say locals, the offer of payments prompts some impoverished families to send their children to youth camps established by the militants to indoctrinate the young and to turn out new fighters to wage jihad.
A campaign of indoctrination is present outside the camps, too: in the local mosques, all of which are fully under the militants’ control; in schools; at outdoor events the group organizes, where videos of executions and battles are screened.
“There are many kids who are indoctrinated through the Da’wah (proselytizing) tents,” said Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, the activist.
And the nonstop campaign appears to be having an impact, as activists tell of children playing at being Islamic militants.
“A group of children were hitting a donkey in the street, and when an activist asked them why, they answered: ‘We whipped it because it smokes,’ ” said one source. Other children have been heard accusing their parents of being apostates for not allowing them to join the militants, who have resorted also to kidnapping children and taking them to youth camps without permission.
Female religious police
For the disciplining and policing of women in Raqqa, the militants rely on the all-female al-Khansa battalion of religious police, a group of nearly 100 women affiliated with IS. Many of them are wives of foreign fighters — "jihad brides" from Tunisia, Chechnya, Morocco, France and Britain.
The feared al-Khansa battalions patrol streets and public buildings, looking for infringements of Sharia, which can be as little as an incorrectly worn veil. Punishments can include whippings and the use of a medieval torture device called the “biter” — two iron jaws covered in spikes, which cause intense pain or worse when clamped around a victim’s chest.
One 24-year-old woman told activists of being arrested for “inappropriate behavior.”
“They told me to choose between the whip and the ‘biter,’ " she told activists. "I did not know what it was, this ‘biter,’ so I chose it, thinking it would be less painful. My femininity was completely destroyed.”
A 25-year-old arrested for smoking a cigarette told activists: “They took me to the torture chamber. The floor was covered with blood. They gave me 40 lashes. Then I was thrown in a cell where there were many prisoners. I could hear the screams of those being tortured."
Oubaida Al Moufti, a French-Syrian doctor and member of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, described conditions at a news conference in Paris this month. “The situation is unbearable, catastrophic, and many in Syria no longer have access to medical care," he said.