What It’s Like to Live in the Capital of the ‘Caliphate’

What It’s Like to Live in the Capital of the ‘Caliphate’

RAQQA, Syria — I’d been away from home for a considerable time, so on my way back I had to reset my brain to a different setting: Raqqa Setting. I began growing out my beard, to a length that looked dense and suspiciously long in Turkey but is relatively short and daring here. I am still getting used to how it itches and scratch it often.

Luckily, the Islamic State does not yet require that residents shave off their moustaches. I adjust mine with annoyance, but at least I don’t look like the current Raqqan trend: a Salafi “brother” with a bald upper lip and a strap of beard scraggle giving the illusion of a wide jaw.

My friends and I bitterly mock how we look with these beards growing on our faces, but that does nothing to shorten them. They’ll grow, and keep growing, just like Salafism is doing in Raqqa nowadays.

Raqqa Setting consists of a number of codes you have to constantly keep in mind in order to survive under Islamic State control. If you have no prior education in sharia, or Islamic law, you better start learning. Or else, you’ll likely end up obliged to take lessons from the Salafi teachers newly installed at local mosques — lessons that require you to not only suffer the indignity of being taught their interpretation of your own religion like a child, but also to miss hours of work.

“Shave the mustache. Let the beards grow,” Abu Fatima, the lecturer, said at one of the classes, the microphone held so close to his mouth it was almost shoved inside of it. He was quoting what he said was a “well-narrated saying” by Mohammed. “It’s an order by the Prophet.”

These lecture series begin with an explanation of the Muslim statement of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” They end with an explanation of specific details regarding the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, such as the special rules pertaining to women during their menstrual periods. By the time they “graduate,” students are indoctrinated into the entirety of the Islamic State’s ideology.

Some of those attending these classes are little more than children. They are boys toiling on their family farms or slaving for a pittance in dirty, abusive workshops. To them, joining the Islamic State and becoming a “lion cub of the caliphate” can seem like an alluring prospect. Some adult attendees are there for the $400 voucher the Islamic State will pay upon completion. 

Others are forced to attend as punishment. Attendees were limited at first to lightly punished “disobeyers,” such as smokers and those who do not close their shops on time before prayers.

But they soon expanded to include everyone, as the Islamic State used any excuse to preach their ideology to Raqqa residents. You could be a poor person who asked for zakat, the money taken from the rich as alms, without first registering with the Islamic State, or a government employee who studied in the Assad regime’s schools and therefore have a “non-Islamic education,” or a graduate of a “secular law” school — all are forced to submit to indoctrination.

The sharia lessons are only the latest penalty developed by the Islamic State. Before the summer, the Islamic State would punish lawbreakers by forcing them to dig the trenches that partly encircle the city. It’s dangerous work: A number of those workers were reportedly killed in air raids.

The severity of the Islamic State’s punishments seem to depend completely on the whims of the members inflicting them. In one particular lesson, Abu Fatima seemed particularly angry.

“By God the Glorious, not a single smoker will pass my exam and get a voucher that earns him the money of mujahideen,” he screamed. “Nor a cuckold who lets his wife go out unveiled!”


Hamdan is a Syrian Army defector in his 20s who now lives in Raqqa. His long, unkempt beard is deceptive — he despises the Islamic State. An old friend named Khalil, a graduate from the University of Aleppo, had been wanting to introduce us to each other. He invited us to his house, where we sat in the dark together, smoking.

“Are you happy here?” Khalil asked his old friend viciously, knowing the answer he’d get.

“No!” Hamdan answered.

“Then why don’t you leave?”

“I won’t leave. This is my home. This is my neighborhood!” Hamdan said. “They are the ones who have to leave!”

As I listened to them arguing, I was astounded at how divided Syrians have become. It’s almost impossible to find two Syrians today who even agree on the basic terms that define their identities. “Syria,” for some, is an entity constructed by colonial powers, and its borders should be erased from the map. “Islam” has branched out into endless conflicting ideologies, while “Arabism,” long a slogan of the Assad regime, makes Kurds, Syriac Christians, and others feel marginalized.

Khalil returned from Lebanon about two years ago when he couldn’t find work there anymore. (Syrians have come to comprise 20 percent of Lebanon’s population and are largely banned from taking jobs.) He is now employed as an accountant by the Islamic State in its drinking water department, a job that pays him $100 per month. He falls into a gray area between civilian and Islamic State member; he calls himself a “supporter” of the group.

Although he smokes and chats occasionally on WhatsApp with friends who are fighters in rebel groups, Khalil is happy with his life under the Islamic State. He sees it as a functioning state that, despite being unable to stop aerial bombardment of its territory, provides order to his community and others like it. He recently got married — his life, despite all odds, seems to be moving forward.

The core of the quarrel with Hamdan was over the Islamic State mistreating civilians. Syrian Kurds who had lived in Raqqa their entire lives had been forced out of the city, and Hamdan was lamenting the fate of his Kurdish acquaintances. Khalil was stumbling in his defense of the group; at some points justifying its actions as necessary for security and at others keeping silent.

The years of friendship between the two men allowed them to preserve a small measure of goodwill. But they parted with uneasiness.


The Islamic State’s capture of Raqqa in January 2014 sparked a demographic change in the city unlike any it had seen before. Foreign fighters flocked to the city, bringing their families with them. In the ugliest form of colonization, the group’s members moved about, looking for houses to lodge in. They started with Syrian regime officers’ houses, homes formerly belonging to Syrian rebels, or government housing projects.

But with time, the Islamic State succeeded in recruiting a large number of locals. These new recruits were in majority unmarried young guys, even teenagers, who had lived in their parents’ houses but were encouraged to marry by the group immediately after finishing their military training. As a result, the demand for more dwellings increased. The group’s loss of the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad last June also caused another influx of new arrivals, as members and supporters fled to Raqqa.

An acquaintance of mine, Fahad, recently secured his house in just this way. He’s the youngest son in his family and has been with the Islamic State for a while now. Until January, Fahad was a normal guy — but now he’s Abu Something.

After finishing training and fighting in Kobani and elsewhere, he got married. And of course, that meant he needed a house of his own. So he talked to his emirs and won permission to take over a Kurdish neighbor’s empty home. The owner had fled Raqqa in the summer.

Kurds used to live side by side with their Arab neighbors in Raqqa. But now, as the fighting between the Islamic State and the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) intensifies, they have been forced out of their homes.

In the summer, the Islamic State commanded the Kurdish residents in Raqqa, through the mosques’ speakers and printed leaflets, to leave the city either to Palmyra, the town in the desert that the Islamic State had recently captured, or to the Kurdish territories controlled by the YPG. The jihadi group said there were collaborators among them who were passing information to the YPG, so they must leave immediately.

The group vowed to preserve the Kurds’ property, but that lasted for only three days. Kurdish property in Raqqa was soon looted, with the Islamic State claiming the houses and distributing them to its fighters. Arab renters who had previously been entrusted with Kurdish apartments or homes had no options but to hand over the keys.


Even as the Islamic State forced Raqqa’s Kurdish residents out, it was trying to attract others to the city. In an attempt to exploit the Syrian refugee crisis, which had suddenly become an urgent issue in the international media, the Islamic State produced several videos calling for Sunnis — simply “Muslims,” in its vocabulary — to come live in its territories.

In the videos, the Islamic State showed clips of refugees who had drowned in the Mediterranean or were locked up behind bars by the Hungarian police. The group’s footage of life in its caliphate, by contrast, showed crowded markets and thriving gardens. A number of residents and fighters appeared in the video, urging “Muslims” to return to their homes.

Weeks after this call, average Raqqa citizens were banned from leaving, unless they presented an authorization paper from the offices of the Hisbah, or religious police. But those who had already fled have lost, or are about to lose, their homes. The Islamic State has fixed its attention on government employees’ apartments. Once it is known that an employee has moved out, the jihadis will break into the apartment and claim everything inside it. If the owner doesn’t show up in person to reclaim his possessions — and who would? — all belongings are transferred to the new occupant selected by the Islamic State.

According to Abu Sumayiah, a member of the Hisbah I met several times, at least 400 Islamic State families were registered as “urgently needing” houses. This was last August. Abu Sumayiah himself is now living in one of those confiscated apartments. The fighters’ logic is simple: “These are state-owned buildings. We are the state now.”


Raqqa has not only acquired a worldwide reputation as the “heart of terror” and “the de facto capital of the caliphate,” it has also reaped special severity at the hands of the Islamic State. This is not Mosul here, where people smoke at cafes and sell hats with the Iraqi flag embroidered on them.

The Islamic State has worked hard to isolate Raqqa from the rest of the world. A few months ago, residents were deprived of Wi-Fi signals inside their homes, as the group had the signal extenders placed on rooftops removed. On Nov. 18, satellite Internet was banned, and Internet cafes were ordered to close. If the cafe wishes to reopen, it needs to gather two recommendations from Islamic State security forces, with their emirs’ signatures. You’ll need a license from the Islamic State’s intelligence office as well.

The Islamic State always describes any hardship or new restriction as resulting from the sins of those afflicted, and the Friday sermon that followed this decision was no exception. “People disobey God, and as such God inflicts upon them suffering,” a fighter preached.

However, it’s not only the Islamic State’s god who is dissatisfied. Raqqa’s citizens not only suffer from the group’s orders, but also the international war effort against it. Air raids have become practically a daily routine. On Nov. 3, the Russians joined the party. And then the French. Airstrikes damaged the main bridge on the Euphrates used by residents to enter the city and destroyed the other minor ones. It took an hour’s drive to get to the opposite bank. The West speaks of the necessity of cutting off Islamic State “supply routes,” but these are not Islamic State bridges — they are bridges used by everyone in Raqqa.

And yet, somehow life still goes on. Muhammad, who is 31 years old and displaced from Aleppo, and his fiancee are preparing for their wedding, as if in private defiance of the incredible challenges the world has thrown at them. A cousin’s little daughter reads a 9th-grade French book, trying to understand a single word.

Yet, when the jet fighters interrupt, all eyes turn to the sky. Everything here is a target, because the Islamic State is everywhere. But once the bombs are dropped, people go back to what they were doing. It’s no longer a moment of reflection about life and death, nor a moment of curiosity about what happened: It’s something that has no ending.

This is Raqqa Setting.

On the Islamic State’s Al-Bayan radio, a presenter brags about how hardly any of his friends have been harmed by the airstrikes. “To the crusaders’ disappointment,” he said, “the mujahideen hide in the basements and spread through the city among civilians!”

The presenter goes on to praise Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind behind the Paris attacks. “By God, the Islamic State is going to avenge these airstrikes. We’ll attack them in their homelands,” he said, “in Belgium and Australia, in Canada, Germany, and Rome….”