Faten Humayda with her great-grandson. The family fled to Jordan from Syria. The Islamic State has brought stability and efficiency to local government in some areas, but residents face heavy taxes and severe shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other basic needs.

Faten Humayda

Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Economy

Where the poor starve and the tax man carries a whip

Before the Islamic State captured Faten Humayda’s town in northern Syria nearly two years ago, a tank of propane gas for her stove cost the equivalent of 50 cents. But as the militants settled in, the cost shot up to $32, forcing Humayda, a 70-year-old grandmother, to cook over an open fire in the back yard.

“It used to be paradise,” she said, describing her former life along the Euphrates River, while sitting in a metal hut in the Azraq refu­gee camp in Jordan, where she arrived in May with the help of smugglers.

The Islamic State has tried to do what al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups never attempted: establish an actual state, with government institutions and a functioning economy. Although the militants have had some success at governing, millions of people under their control find food, fuel and other basics of daily life either impossible to come by or too expensive to afford.

Interviews with more than three dozen people who live in militant-controlled areas or have recently fled them suggest that the Islamic State has created a two-tiered system in which local people struggle to eat, while Islamic State occupiers have free electricity and food, even imported goods such as Red Bull energy drinks.

Those interviewed said food is easier to find in areas where fruits and vegetables are grown or where farm animals are plentiful. But with traditional supply routes closed because of fighting, even basic items such as sugar or baby formula have to be smuggled in and are prohibitively expensive.

The situation is even worse because so many people are unemployed, those interviewed said. Factories and large stores have closed because their owners fled or because smuggled raw materials are not affordable.

Amina Mustafa Humaidi's husband, Ali, was killed by Islamic State militants.

Amina Mustafa Humaidi's husband, Ali, was killed by Islamic State militants.

“I would only cook lentils and rice. That’s all we had,” said Amina Mustafa Humaidi, 40, who recently fled the Syrian city of Raqqa with her family and now lives in the Azraq camp, one of about 20,000 refugees residing in the desert about 40 miles east of Amman.

She said her husband was shot dead by Islamic State militants last year. His family gave her an electric pressure cooker after he died, but she had only an hour a day of electricity.

“When the electricity came on, my God I used to rush to cook,” she said. “If I missed that hour, my kids couldn’t eat. We had a refrigerator, but couldn’t use it.”

Sitting on her concrete floor in the refugee camp, Humaidi said her youngest son was 9 months old when the militants came to Raqqa, and suddenly she could no longer find baby formula for him.

“The Islamic State did not bring order. It brought chaos,” she said.

The new rulers also seem opposed to humanitarian assistance from the outside world. In April, photos appeared on Islamic State Web sites showing the militants burning two 18-wheeler loads of chicken from the United States bound for victims of the Syrian civil war.

Inside the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Inside the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Withering medical care

Medical care and medication are also in desperately short supply, and many hospitals treat only Islamic State members or assign the best staff and equipment to them, according to people interviewed in Iraq and Syria.

Many medical professionals fled as the Islamic State fighters arrived. Now, if doctors seek permission to travel outside militant-controlled areas, they are often required to have as many as five people guarantee their return, according to several people interviewed. The implication is that if they don’t come back, the friends and family members who vouched for them will be punished or killed.

In Mosul, a city of more than a million people in northern Iraq, doctors said they are coping with shortages of everything from radiologists to anesthesia and blood.

“Whatever difficulties you imagine, we have them,” said one female Iraqi doctor who works at a Mosul hospital.

She said the hospital no longer does preventive surgery, reserving resources for only life-saving operations. The constant power outages mean that the hospital relies on generators, but it is often hard to find fuel for them. No power for water pumps means no running water.

“Imagine a hospital without water,” the doctor said. “It’s as if we are living in the 18th century. I am trying to leave Mosul, but I have a good house from 25 years of work. I can’t leave my house; it’s the fruit of my life. But this is not a life.”

The Islamic State largely has cut itself off from the world and declines humanitarian aid for those it controls. In April, the militants stopped two aid trucks and dumped and burned thousands of pounds of donated chicken from the United States. (Provided by Charlie Winter, Quilliam Foundation)

An effective government

To control the people it rules, the Islamic State has set up local governments that regulate services such as building permits and even fishing regulations. (Fishing with dynamite or electrical charges is now banned.)

In interviews, some people said government services had stopped, while others said that the Islamic State has improved them.

A cleric in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, who was interviewed by telephone and who asked not to be identified for his safety, said that he opposed the militants but that they had established an effective government.

He said they had set up offices that issue marriage licenses and identification cards and that settle disputes. Islamic State-paid workers sweep the streets and have set up generators to power some street lights, he said.

They have established Islamic Sharia courts and a Hisbah office, a sort of religious police department.

“They observe prices; if anyone raises prices too much, they are punished,” the cleric said.

Several people interviewed said the previous Syrian and Iraqi governments were notorious for demanding bribes, while the Islamic State seems to have strict rules against its officials taking payoffs.

In Mosul, the militants posted a detailed notice about trash collection, instructing people to place their garbage in black plastic bags and to leave them outside for pickup just after evening prayers.

“Things are very well regulated,” said a businessman in Raqqa, interviewed via Skype, who grudgingly acknowledged that some of the engineers, architects and other skilled professionals who the militants have recruited from around the world have improved services.

“We no longer see garbage being thrown on the ground as it used to be before,” he said.

But others interviewed said the Islamic State militants were far more focused on fighting than on making daily life easier for ordinary people.

Raising taxes

The Islamic State raises money from pilfered oil, plundered banks, extortion, kidnapping, selling antiquities on the black market — and from taxing local people.

Those interviewed said they used to pay between 2.5 percent and 10 percent of their income in zakat, a charitable contribution that Muslims make to support the poor. But they said the Islamic State now demands that zakat payments be made to it instead.

An activist from Raqqa who calls himself Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi said that zakat and other taxes and fees raised by the Islamic State are widely believed to be used to pay the salaries of Islamic State fighters and other foreigners who come to join the Islamic State. The foreigners pay no tax.

Humayda, the grandmother who fled from a village near Raqqa, said the militants took 10 percent of her family’s wheat crop, claiming that it was for the poor.

She said that once or twice a year, the Islamic State delivered a shipment of food to her village that everyone had to scramble for.

“I think they were trying to make us like them,” she said. “But then they whipped poor people for not paying their taxes.”

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Confronting the ‘Caliphate’: These stories are part of an occasional series about the militant group Islamic State and its violent collision with the United States and others intent on halting the group’s rapid rise.