Horror And Despair In Raqqa, Syrians Living Under ISIS Rule

Women wearing "the shield" in Raqqa
Women wearing "the shield" in Raqqa
Ahmad al-Bahri

RAQQA — Ever since ISIS captured the Syrian city of Raqqa in early 2014, residents have been consumed by fear and caution. The terrorist group has banned a dangerously long list of goods and behaviors, all of which carry a heavy punishment if violated.

Most noticeably, ISIS has forbidden women from leaving their homes without the supervision of a male relative, and they must wear what is deemed proper attire, dubbed "the shield" — a long, loose dress that covers them from head to toe. Smoking is banned, while it is also illegal to sell tobacco, recordings of secular music, and Arabic or Western films.

Men are not permitted to shave their beards and are forced to pray at the mosques. Law, physics, chemistry and sociology have been removed from academic curricula. And only ISIS members and supporters are allowed to have guns.

Men are also prohibited from wearing tight clothing or replicating Western dress codes. Shopkeepers who do not have saleswomen are not allowed to sell any women's products, and women's clothing is banned from being displayed in shop windows.

Anyone breaking these rules must answer to ISIS, and each transgression carries a specific punishment. In response, many of Raqqa's residents have left the city, and return infrequently just to visit. Others have fled after ISIS declared them apostates. Those remaining in the city deal with the fear and hardship of a new, bleak life where killing, torture and kidnapping are commonplace.

Mustafa, 27, is a Raqqa resident who decided to stay rather than flee his family home. The price of that decision has been his personal adaptation to a difficult new way of life. "In the marketplace or on the streets of Raqqa, I find myself wary, looking at the large number of ISIS members among us," he says.

"They are everywhere, and they carry arms. I find myself scared of seeing one of them heading my way or even looking at me to quickly check myself: Is there something wrong with the way I dress or with my things? Am I carrying something that's forbidden? Or that my cell phone has music on it or the names of people wanted by ISIS, or even pictures of my city, because I will automatically be accused of giving the enemy coordinates or of collaborating with them? That's why I and all the people of Raqqa delete everything off our phones."

The change has pushed Mustafa and others like him to change how they interact, even down to the language they use on the street. "Most people here, including myself, now use formal Arabic instead of colloquial Syrian, and we speak of the Islamic sharia, fatwas and religion," he says. "If an argument arises, we automatically talk about issuing fatwas and call each other kaffirs disbelievers or infidels instead of appreciating the other's point of view."

In Raqqa — Photo: Bertramz

He explains that he and others behave this way now because of how they understand the futile tradition that's been imposed on them — the daily interactions, the circulars and the sermon tents ISIS frequently sets up. "We even started using the word sheikh to refer to local authorities, imitating ISIS for fear of saying something else that would be deemed anti-Islamic. That's why we have copied ISIS in the way they talk and behave, as well as their daily routine."

Inciting fear with public executions

Abu Omar, 39, says that ISIS has implemented a new method of public intimidation: public executions carried out in brutal fashion.

"They arrange public executions and then decapitate the body of the civilian or prisoner of war," he says. "All of this is done in public squares in front of people. They herd people to watch the execution without giving any consideration that there are children and sensitive people among the crowd."

ISIS had even gone so far as to stick heads on the fences of public parks and squares, he says. Other heads are simply left in the street. This approach, Omar says, is used to fuel fear among residents, to send the message that they should not disobey ISIS.

Mustafa says he became eager to memorize some of the sayings of the Prophet and a few koranic verses, just to be ready in case ISIS ever questioned him and quizzed him on anything relating to Islam.

"I want to be able to give them the right answer to avoid punishment … so as not to be dragged to jail like cattle," he says. "It could escalate, and I could be whipped or tortured, because ISIS would think that I don't know enough about the sharia and Islam. I could even be killed if they considered me a kaffir."

Mustafa says ISIS has also left a visual mark on the city, and that the overwhelming use of the the color black is a constant reminder of the group's presence. "ISIS painted their headquarters black, as well as the walls at the markets," he says. "Women wear the black dresses, covered from head to toe in "the shield." Black ISIS flags are everywhere: on cars, in markets, on electricity poles and on street corners. ISIS members roam the streets and they too are dressed in black. In Raqqa, it seems the color black and fear go hand in hand."

And alongside the predominance of black comes a dark and sober message with stern religious overtones. "They write slogans that glorify their Islamic state and their caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," he says. "Sometimes, they write prophetic sayings and koranic verses, mostly the ones that show God's punishment and wrath, instead of writing the verses that remind us of God's mercy and tolerance."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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