The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Raqqa: The violent Islamic State ‘capital’ targeted by U.S. airstrikes

A fighter for the Islamic State waves its flag from inside a captured government fighter jet following a battle in Raqqa, Syria. The photo, provided by the Islamic State, is undated. (Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group via AP)
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As residents watched from store fronts, the masked men clustered around a dry fountain, hoisted their rifles and glowered at those about to die. A hush fell over the crowd. The inhabitants of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, had seen this before. They knew what was to come.

As seen in video of the incident, the militants gave voice to the “crimes” of the three condemned kneeling in the dirt. “These are a group from the corrupt [Bashar] al-Assad regime,” one of them said, according to a translation. “These are the apostates from among Bashar’s helpers and his followers. With Allah’s permission and help, they will be killed at the hands of our brothers.”

The screen goes blurry. Gunshots explode. The captives crumple to the ground, dead.

Then life in Raqqa, which the United States bombed Monday night in an expanded war against the Islamic State, glided back to normal. It may be hard to believe, but locals say residents of the city, which was captured in January, have become inured to public beheadings, crucifixions and shootings. “People have developed a tough skin,” one local activist, who requested anonymity, told the Wall Street Journal. “They do not have feelings anymore. You can go watch an execution and then turn around and move on. It has become a normal thing.”

The Islamic State pervades every part of life in Raqqa, residents told numerous reporters. It goes beyond fear and religious compulsion. The Islamic State has become a governing body. In Raqqa, there’s a tax system, a school system, a court system, bakeries, mosques — and paychecks arrive on time. The dust-choked city of 220,000 inhabitants symbolizes everything the Islamic State hopes to achieve across the region: a functioning, militarized theocracy. And that’s why Raqqa today appears to be such an attractive target.

Early Tuesday morning, images of fireballs over a darkened Raqqa blazed across social media. “The [U.S.] airstrikes concentrated near the ‘governorate building’ ISIS’s main HQ,” one Raqqa man named Abdulkader Hariri tweeted. “Sounds of warplanes can be heard clearly. … The sky is full drones over Raqqa now.”

In Washington, some members of Congress cheered the airstrikes. “To defeat [the Islamic State], we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement Monday night. He added: The Islamic State “is not just a threat to the United States — it is a threat to all nations that value human life and decency.”

And the threat of Raqqa, experts say, isn’t just a military one. Islamic State propaganda glowingly portrays the city as proof the Islamic State doesn’t want just carnage, but governance. “What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish in the real meaning of the word,” one retired school teacher told a New York Times reporter who spent six days in the city. “It is not a joke.”

Roads winding into Raqqa are pockmarked with checkpoints, according to Al Monitor, which dispatched a reporter there in March. At these checkpoints, one of which was called “Dignity Checkpoint,” religious police tell passengers how they should dress before they can enter what Al Monitor calls a “city in black.” Cigarettes are banned. Men can’t wear their hair in “Western” styles. Basic socializing has become difficult.

“Black Islamic State flags are everywhere,” Abu Yusef told Agence France-Presse. “Women are covered from head to toe in black burqas, and can only leave the house in the company of their fathers, brothers or husbands.”

The religious edict spills into education, where music is banned, and into commerce. Islamic State members tour shops to demand merchants stop selling something, or tell them exactly how to display women’s clothing. “You have to display this inside,” one fighter tells a confused clerk, according to video captured by the Wall Street Journal. “Whoever wants to buy this, will wear it for her husband. No problem, she can wear it. But you can’t display it on the street.”

If inhabitants don’t obey, punishment can be severe. Residents told the New York Times thieves had hands lopped off. And others got much worse. “Executions in public spaces have become a common spectacle on Fridays,” a United Nations panel said in a report last month. ” … Public squares have come the scene of amputations, lashings and mock crucifixions.” The movement encourages residents to watch the macabre spectacles, and video shows onlookers snapping photos of a dead, crucified man. Other bodies have been left out to rot in the sun for days, the United Nations said.

“Al-Nahim roundabout and al-Saha are the theaters of death sentences, some of which are carried out by knife beheadings while others by shooting or stoning to death,” reported Al Monitor. ” … Severed heads remain in the squares or city streets.”

It’s unclear whether the Islamic State’s high command, such as leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reside in Raqqa, which is a hub for Islamic State fighters. But it’s possible, as the United States opens up a new and complicated phase in its war against the Islamic State, the city of Raqqa is more dangerous for its allure than for who lives there.

Baghdadi called on an international collection of doctors, engineers and service experts to take root in places such as Raqqa to form the Islamic State. “We call them … so they can can answer the dire need of the Muslims for them,” Baghdadi said in a speech.

The message has resonated with some. One man remembered the glee one Raqqa resident had in an interview with the Times. “He talked with an eager shine in his eyes,” he remembered, “saying that the caliphate of the Islamic State that began in Raqqa would spread over the whole region.”