World

The former ‘caliphate capital’ is haunted by fears of an ISIS comeback

The Islamic State has lost its territory in Iraq and Syria, but has it really been defeated? Do the scattered attacks still taking place represent the last gasps of a defeated army? Or are its supporters still lurking in the shadows, regrouping and waiting for the right moment to launch a comeback?

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

In search of an answer to that question, photographer Alice Martins, journalist Khabat Abbas and I traveled late last year to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. We were there before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic gave the world a new reason to fear.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

In Raqqa, which has not yet reported any coronavirus infections, the militants remain a foremost concern.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

A new sign was erected on Naim Square.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

We found a city reeling from the traumas it endured, haunted by the ghosts of the dead and still stalked by the fear that the Islamic State instilled in those who lived under its rule. We also found a city energetically picking itself up from the devastation of war, determined to move beyond the nightmares of the recent past, resilient beyond all reasonable hope.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The first thing that strikes you upon driving into Raqqa is the destruction. Whole blocks have been pounded into rubble by the U.S.-led airstrikes that drove the Islamic State out. More destruction was inflicted on Raqqa than almost any other city in Syria or Iraq during all the wars of recent years. There is little hope that much of this damage will be repaired any time soon.

The United States pulled its troops out in October and cut off most of its aid. Raqqa is now standing alone, perhaps the only city in Syria without foreign troops present.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Women walk by a produce stall in central Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The second thing is the people. There are far more people on the streets than you would expect in a city so thoroughly wrecked. You can drive for blocks on end that are lined with the empty carcasses of destroyed buildings. And then, around a corner, there’s a bustling market. A park crowded with children playing on brightly colored swings. Traders hawking fruits. Boys trailing clouds of pink cotton candy. Neon signs blinking from stores wedged impossibly under crushed masonry.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

A boy sells cotton-candy in Raqqa to help provide for his family.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Families gather at Rashid Park.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The women are almost universally cloaked in black, and many wear the full-face cover mandated by the Islamic State. Both Alice and I had visited Raqqa in the months before the Islamic State assumed control in 2014, and we don’t remember seeing so many women covering their faces. Is it a sign that Raqqa’s residents still adhere to the militants’ extremist ideology? Has the city been irrevocably changed by its experience under the Islamic State’s rule? Or did we not remember well?

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The women we asked just shrugged and told us this was how women in Raqqa had always dressed.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Women shop for fruits and vegetables at a stall in central Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Clock Square in central Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

In a rural Raqqa suburb, we ran into Sheikh Humaidi al-Ashlash, one of the area’s most prominent Arab tribal leaders who has lent his support to the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led administration of the Syrian Democratic Forces now in charge. He invited us for tea on his terrace, where he launched into a tirade against America.

The U.S. government has been too timid in Syria, he said. It has failed to do enough to confront Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and prevent an expansion of Iranian influence. Although the Islamic State’s methods were considered excessively harsh, the group is viewed as better than Assad and Iran.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Many Islamic State members remain in the area, he said, hinting that he knew who they were. “I knew them very well,” he said, pulling out his phone and showing us a photo. It was of him, posing in 2014 with three renowned Islamic State figures, all now dead, in front of an Islamic State flag. As we left, he promised us that if the Islamic State does take over again, we would be welcome to visit, and he would guarantee our safety.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The rubble of an Iranian mosque destroyed by the Islamic State when the group controlled Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The bodies of those who died are still being dug out, two years after the Islamic State was driven out. More than 5,000 have been recovered, around half of them killed by U.S. airstrikes, according to the civil defense team that retrieved them. The rest are thought to be victims of Islamic State executions.

The civil defense team responsible for retrieving the bodies drove us far out of the city to a quarry deep in the desert where they were excavating the latest of the mass graves containing suspected victims of the Islamic State.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Samples collected from unidentified bodies recovered by Raqqa's civil defense team.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The remains of four bodies were recovered from a mass grave outside Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The haul for that day: the skeleton of a woman who had been blindfolded and shot in the head and four severed heads. Their bodies were nowhere to be found.

The woman had been about 30, the team’s medical examiner guessed. Her abaya, jeans and T-shirt were intact, but there were no other clues to her identity. The heads? No one knew. They had decomposed beyond hope of recognition. Only their dark hair remained, sprouting from their skulls, and their brain matter, almost intact and leaking fluid into the dry desert dust.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Members of the Raqqa civil defense team examine samples collected from unidentified decomposing bodies.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Many people told us the Islamic State is now too despised to stage a comeback. No one wants to relive the brutality of its rule or of the airstrikes that dislodged the group, said a street trader called Yusuf, who only shared his first name with us. Hardcore members of the Islamic State are either dead or in prison, he said.

The people who supported the group when it was in charge have now embraced the Kurdish-led administration. He called them “the two-faced” people. “Everyone knows who these two-faced people are,” he said. “But they had to support ISIS or they would be killed.”

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Men pray in the street outside a mosque under construction.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

I still didn’t know the answer to the question we set out to ask. Over a five-day stay, we had been given wildly contradictory assessments. Many people told us Islamic State secret cells are lurking all around, busily plotting to retake the city. There were moments when we felt the chill of their presence.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Then there were moments when Raqqa seemed like a bright spot in the still dark Syrian landscape, a place where people are reviving dreams buried by war. Men and women danced at a wedding to pounding music. A newly opened cafe, billed as a hangout for writers, poets and thinkers, draws men — and a few women — to drink coffee, smoke water pipes and chat. The owner said he wouldn’t have opened the cafe if he believed the Islamic State was still active. “This would be the first place they would blow up,” he said.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Locals shop for secondhand clothing on a stall in central Raqqa.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

If there is a takeaway from our trip, I would like it to be the visit we made to a school on our last day. Scores of children mobbed us in the schoolyard as we arrived, begging Alice to take their photos. When the school bell rang, they fell quiet and obediently lined up to march into their classrooms, boys on one side, girls on the other; big children in one group, small ones in another.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Children line up before class.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

The school faced many discipline problems after it reopened last year, said Ghiath Saleh, the deputy head teacher. The children displayed violent behavior. They acted out beheadings as a game. They mouthed Islamic State slogans about infidels and executions to teachers who tried to discipline them. The boys fought. The girls covered their faces, even the youngest.

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

But as the months passed, the boys didn’t fight quite so much. The girls took off their face coverings. They stopped playing the game of beheading one another. “At first I was worried the ISIS ideology would have long term impact on them,” Saleh said. “Now I realize that this ideology is not such a big thing. These are children, and children forget.”

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post

Alice Martins/For The Washington Post