The terror group has made its Syrian headquarters in the northern city of Raqqa, where those doing business with it report mounting ISIS financial difficulties and flagging morale.
KILIS — Five or six heads are gruesomely posed atop poles along the access road, and flies are buzzing around the blood-covered skulls. For strangers to Raqqa, the first impression of the ISIS caliphate capital in eastern Syria is brutal indeed. The terror group's message is unambiguous: Raqqa is ruled by ISIS, and anyone who dares to object will die.
Passengers in minivans, hackney cabs and privately owned cars fall silent before reaching the checkpoints at the town's entrance, their IDs at the ready. If married couples wish to cross to the border, they must provide their marriage certificates in addition to their IDs. The checkpoints are guarded by bearded, long-haired ISIS fighters who carry Kalashnikovs and handguns in holsters.
They call the clothes they wear "Afghani Outfit," garb typical for Salafists that consists of knee-length tunics and wide trousers that don't cover their ankles. Some of the men wear ski masks. They are looking for spies, deserters, cigarettes, alcohol and all other items that are forbidden according to their very strict interpretation of the Sharia. The inspectors are irritable and meticulous, and they arrest those wishing to enter at the slightest hint of suspicion. Many of their victims disappear without a trace.
"It has never been as bad as this," says Mohammed, who is from an old Raqqa family. "ISIS fighters are completely paranoid."
The 38- year-old said there are many signs of such rising anxiety, as the enthusiasm of the jihadists has long since disappeared. "The fighters are running short of money, but most of all it is the military pressure mounting that is harming them."
Less than 30 miles north of Raqqa is the seat of the Kurdish militia YPG. Its fighters have retaken more than 6,200 square miles of territory from ISIS in the last six months alone. They are now reportedly planning an offensive to take Raqqa from ISIS.
To do so, the Kurdish militia has formed an alliance with the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as Christian and Turkmen militias. This ethnic and religiously comprehensive military alliance is planning to attack "within the next few weeks." The Democratic Forces of Syria (DFS), as they call themselves, are supported by the United States, and within the last few weeks the Pentagon has arranged for 50 tons of ammunition and guns to be airlifted to Syria. At the beginning of the attack, U.S. fighter jets will fly air raids for the DFS. It seems as if the fall of Raqqa is imminent, and with it the beginning of the end of ISIS.
Mohammed doesn't have any trouble at Raqqa checkpoints despite the fact that he has two Gauloises cigarettes and a few bottles of booze in the car. Others would be sent to jail, receive a beating and a hefty fine. But Mohammed doesn't risk anything by transporting these goods, and is always waved through. Should he ever be stopped, he only needs to show his business ID, which is enough to be allowed to pass. Mohammed, a car dealer, receives special treatment because he supplies ISIS with essential vehicles.
"They get whatever they want," he says. "SUVs, pickups, mini trucks by Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, new or second-hand. Simply put, they get everything." And ISIS values Mohammed. Such a man is indispensable in times of war, so they leave him be.
The U.S. government initiated an investigation at the beginning of October to determine how it's possible that a terror organization such as ISIS can own so many nearly new SUVs. The government contacted Toyota but to no avail. Car dealers such as Mohammed are the ones who keep ISIS and other war parties supplied with vehicles. Mohammed has 70 colleagues within Syria, who also sell vehicles of all descriptions. If all of them were to sell an average of 40 vehicles per month, it would amount to 33,600 vehicles per year with a combined value of around 700 million euros.
Good for business
A worthwhile scheme, it would seem. All dealers are registered with ISIS and have been supplied with IDs that enable them to cross into Syria via the Turkish border whenever they please. To others, the border remains closed. There are another 280 registered merchants who do business with ISIS. They supply the group with anything that may be in demand, from cement to spare parts to energy drinks.
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Street scene in border town of Kilis, Turkey. Photo: Adam Jones
Mohammed has just entered Turkey via Raqqa and, he insists, is "quite content." He doesn't know exactly how many cars he has sold in the three weeks he spent in Raqqa but says it must be "around 40 to 50." He now sits on the bed in "Hotel Istanbul," located in the Turkish border town of Kilis.
It's a cheap hotel frequented by refugees and businessmen, a well-known meeting point. That's why he chose this particular hotel, not because of the cost. "My family has always been rich," he says, "and my business is going well too." Each sale leaves him with a net profit of between 500 to 1,000 euro. He's able to afford having his family live in Lebanon. But they, of course, don't live in the wretched conditions of a refugee camp the way more than a million Syrian refugees do. "No, of course they don't, thank God," he says. "I rented a house for them, and my children attend a private school."
Mohammed's car business is simple in nature. He sends pictures of the vehicles for sale to existing customers. As soon as a purchase price has been agreed upon, the customer deposits the sum in a bureau de change in Raqqa. Mohammed then transports the vehicle to the Turkish border, where the customs officers demand a clearance charge of the equivalent of 300 euros. Once on the Syrian side, Mohammed pays about 100 euros to the rebels that hold the checkpoint, and a Syrian driver takes possession of the car to deliver it to the customer.
"There never is any trouble with ISIS fighters when it comes to handing over cars, provided the car is in the condition I promised it to be in," Mohammed says. "I then receive full payment without any grumbling."
The jihadists are extremely agreeable business partners as opposed to other Islamists, such as al-Qaeda in Idlib, he explains. "They often try to reduce the agreed price even further, and that can get quite annoying." The money from the sales is transferred in U.S. dollars to Turkey.
Mohammed doesn't seem to have a guilty conscience. "This is business and doesn't have anything to do with politics," he says with conviction. He says he was a car dealer long before the start of the civil war, and no one could reproach him for continuing his business. "And just because I do business with ISIS doesn't automatically mean that I support them," he says.
Fighters want out
He calls the extremists "occupiers" who oppress the inhabitants of his hometown. "They will have to go and soon," because, with or without the planned offensive, ISIS isn't able to keep its toehold for much longer. Everyone in Raqqa is able to see it disintegrating.
"Every time I have returned to Raqqa in the last few months, I was asked if I could smuggle ISIS fighters out of town," he explains. "Nobody ever used to ask me." He did smuggle four Jordanian ISIS fighters out of town last year but that was on the initiative of their families. Back then he was able to transport the men to the Turkish border in broad daylight. As soon as night fell, a smuggler helped them cross the border.
"Nowadays not even a fly would get across that border," says Mohammed. "Turkey has sealed its borders completely."
What's more difficult to manage is smuggling fighters out of Raqqa. "It has become almost impossible because ISIS has become too nervous," he says. Mohammed knows how quickly his head could end up on the end of one of those poles at the checkpoint.
So far he has managed everything quite well and would like to keep it that way. "If you are in the mosque at prayer time and don't stand out in any way and keep your head down, you can avoid any unnecessary trouble with ISIS," he says.
Besides, ISIS fighters know their own weaknesses. "I know a good few who smoke and drink alcohol, so you can always come to an agreement," he says.
Resting on laurels
Mohammed isn't the only one who reports difficulties within ISIS. Hussein and his wife literally have to steal into the city in the dead of night to visit their parents. If they were to be discovered they would be executed on the spot for leaving without permission. "We have to meet at someone else's house, as there are too many informers," Hussein explains.
And then there is the secret network that calls itself Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered" (RISS). It includes 18 journalists who report on the situation within the town. None of them knows each other for security reasons, so as to avoid being able to divulge names under torture.
"ISIS has massive internal arguments," says Saramad al-Dschilan, one of the founders of RISS, from their central but secret offices in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
There is a chasm between Syrian and foreign fighters as the latter receive better wages, better accommodation and better cars than Syrians, who are abused as suicide bombers and cannon fodder on the front lines. "This, of course, creates conflicts that are often solved with guns," says al-Dschilan, another RISS member who can be found on the ISIS execution list.
Hundreds of ISIS members have reportedly been incarcerated and executed. There are only 3,000 to 4,000 fighters in Raqqa itself, but that has so far been sufficient to uphold the regime of tyranny, surveillance and oppression. When the impending attack begins, other troops from the surrounding area may be called in for support.
Meanwhile, in Kilis, Mohammed enjoys the luxury of a hot shower and a bedside lamp that works. "In Raqqa only dirty water is available and only for a few hours every few days, and electricity only comes from generators." Late at night Mohammed leaves his hotel room to buy black market alcohol. "Just to calm the nerves and toast the good business," he says.
He's leaving for another business trip soon. "I'm going to Raqqa first to trade with ISIS, then to Idlib and al-Qaeda, and then I might well go to Afrin to do business with the Kurds," he adds.