Until now, journalists who attempted to cover the Sunni Muslim fundamentalist enclave in northern Syria and Iraq known as the Islamic State were invariably taken hostage.
Medyan Dairieh, a London- based Palestinian war reporter, won the group’s trust through his past reporting on jihadists. Dairieh was embedded with IS officials for three weeks in Raqqa, Syria, the “capital” of the Islamic caliphate.
The New York-based website Vice News has published Dairieh's 44-minute documentary on life inside the Islamic State online. The group seized most of Raqqa in March 2013, when it called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Isis.
Jolly jihadists show Dairieh around Raqqa and the former Syrian-Iraqi border, smiling beatifically and raising an index finger to bear witness to the oneness of God. We discover a merciless theocracy, where women are not seen, morals police patrol with weapons, children clamour to kill “infidels” and dismembered or crucified corpses are displayed in the streets.
Abu Mosa, the press officer for the Islamic State, takes Dairieh to the front line with the Syrian 17th division, who are holding out in a former industrial zone, their supplies parachuted to them. The fighters shout “Takbir!” – the Arabic word signifying the phrase “Allahu Akhbar!” – then open fire.
Heads on spikes
At least 50 Syrian government soldiers were killed when the base was overrun on July 25th. The documentary shows their bloody and dismembered bodies lined up on the pavements of Raqqa, their severed heads impaled on the spikes of a wrought iron fence.
The indoctrination of children in one of the most shocking aspects of Dairieh’s report. “I swear allegiance to (IS leader and self-proclaimed caliph) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!” boys aged 10, 11 and 12 repeat in the Raqqa mosque.
A man calling himself Abdullah the Belgian has brought his “preaching car” to the banks of the Euphrates, where men and boys frolic in the water. He introduces his young son, who appears to be five or six years old.
“Do you want to go back to Belgium?” he asks. No, the boy says, Belgium is full of infidels who kill Muslims. He wants to be a jihadist.
Abdullah the Belgian preaches, working himself into a lachrymose frenzy. “We will capture your women as you captured our women. We will orphan your children as you orphaned our children.”
“This generation of children is the generation of the caliphate, who will fight the infidels and the apostates,” Abu Mosa explains. A nine-year-old says that after Ramadan he will go to a camp “to learn to shoot the Kalashnikov to fight the Russians, the Americans, the infidels.” Daoud, 14, wants “to join IS and kill with them ...”
Dairieh attends a night-time celebration of the establishment of the caliphate, complete with flag-waving, testimonials and singing – “Beautiful virgins are calling . . .” He then goes on patrol with the Hisbah, or morals police.
With a smile on his face and a Kalashnikov swung over his shoulder, Abu Obida, the leader of the patrol, forces a shopkeeper to take down a western cinema poster.
It shows only men’s faces, but, Abu Obida explains, “we don’t want infidels”.
We briefly glimpse the only woman in the entire 44-minute documentary. “Is she your wife?” Abu Obida asks the man walking alongside her. She is veiled from head to toe in black, with only a slit for her eyes.
“Tell her to change the fabric of her veil, because we can see through it. And not to hold her skirts up when she walks, because we can see underneath. Is she your wife, or are you sharing her with people?”
In Raqqa prison, men accused of possessing drugs or alcohol, of smoking in public or swearing, stoically await flogging – or worse. In the presence of their guards, the prisoners thank the Islamic State for bringing them back to the straight and narrow.
“We aim to build an Islamic state to cover every aspect of people’s lives,” Abu Mosa, the press officer, explains. “No one dares steal from Muslims, because the state is enforcing Sharia and the punishment is cutting off hands.”
On a public square in Raqqa, a dead man, allegedly a murderer, hangs limp from a cross, his face covered with a black cloth. Men and boys gather round, photographing the crucifixion with their iPhones.
Asked whether the Islamic court where he works meets international standards of justice, Haidara, a clerk, replies: “Of course not. We aim to satisfy God. That’s why we don’t care about international standards.”
More boys are indoctrinated at the Islamic centre, formerly an Armenian Catholic church. “We have broken America in two. We have annihilated the countries of Europe. We have brought back the caliphate,” they sing. A child speaks to camera: “We promise you bombs and explosives.”
The Islamic State dismantled the Syrian-Iraqi border in June, with jubilation. “When we crossed, these were our passports,” says a fighter called Abu Laith al Jazerwe, brandishing a sword. “We Muslims will enforce Sharia. Sharia cannot be enforced without weapons,” he continues, driving his sword into the ground for emphasis.
Ten days ago, the US began bombing IS positions in northern Iraq. The bombing has brought some relief to hundreds of thousands of Yazidi and Christian refugees who fled IS’s dramatic advance. But, Vice News notes, it has had little impact on IS capabilities. The group now controls 35,000 sq kms, an area roughly the size of Jordan.