After four years living in the capital of ISIL’s caliphate, Hassan’s life story reads like the plot of a James Bond film. But the scars on his body and the photos he carries of murdered friends show his ordeal is all too real.
Hassan, who asks for his full name not to be used for fear of reprisals, recently fled Raqqa. Meeting The Sunday Telegraph near the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, the 20-year-old Syrian scrolled through images on his laptop of assassinated colleagues, buildings blitzed by air strikes or car bombs, black flags, and bearded jihadists on tanks.
Speaking to a journalist for the first time, the student-turned-paramedic described the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in his city, and detailed the terror of living in a city ruled by the tools of repression and fear.
The extremists have cut the city’s internet and phone lines. Shooting video or taking photos is a crime punishable by death.
One year since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL’s leader, declared his “caliphate”, Hassan’s exclusive eye witness account reveals the jihadists’ tactics of treachery in a city closed off to the world today.
It was August 2013. Hassan, who had given up his university studies to join his friend driving an ambulance in rebel-held Raqqa, was at the base of a moderate rebel militia when he spied the jihadist at the gate. Samir Mtairan, an ISIL emir from Syria, had arrived claiming he wanted to “negotiate an end to the fighting”.
At the time ISIL, then a small breakaway faction from al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria, had been fighting a rebel group named Afhad al-Rasoul (Grandsons of the Prophet) over weapons seized from the Assad regime.
Fahad, the young man manning the gate, allowed the emir to drive inside. When the jihadist returned to his car after meeting the group’s leaders it would not start. “He left on foot, saying he’d find a mechanic,” said Hassan.
The following morning, Hassan was due to return to the base but failed to hear his alarm. It was the luckiest lie-in of his life.
“I woke when my phone rang. It was one of the guys from the base. He told me the emir’s car had exploded. He begged me to come and help with the wounded.” It was the first bomb attack by the jihadists against another rebel group, and the initial step in their plan to take sole control of the city.
Jumping in his ambulance, Hassan raced to the base, to find ISIL blocking access. He and more than 100 protesters eventually forced their way in.
“When I entered I saw so many bodies,” said Hassan. “My friends, many of whom I’d gone to university with, were lying there dead on the floor.”
Hassan and a colleague took the dead to the hospital mortuary, and the wounded survivors to a safe house. Among them was Fahad.
“When I came back to the hospital later, I found him lying dead in his bed, with a bullet to the head,” said Hassan. “Someone in Afhad al-Rasoul had killed him. They accused him of conspiring with ISIL. But I know he was a good man.”
The mistrust, mutual suspicion and paranoia had also permeated ISIL’s ranks.
Not long afterwards, Akil Kaikon, a jihadi friend of Hassan’s, was also murdered by his own side.
Kaikon had been summoned to give a badly injured senior member of ISIL medical treatment, but the jihadist died two days later.
“ISIL accused Akil of killing him. But I know he didn’t. He wanted to build an Islamic state. He was working for ISIL better than Baghdadi himself.”
“He was my best friend in ISIL,” said Hassan, explaining that the two had known each other before the war. “One day I heard they cut off his head in the main square, accusing him of being a spy.”
With ISIL strengthened by an influx of foreign fighters, in January last year the jihadists made their final push to take control.
“They issued an ultimatum to Jabhat Al-Nusra and the remnants of other groups: ‘join us or leave’,” said Hassan. “What followed were the bloodiest days I ever saw.”
Driving his, now battered and bullet strewn ambulance, Hassan picked up “more than 100” casualties on all sides of the war.
As ISIL gained the upper hand, relatives of the wounded rebels from the other groups came to the hospital to take their loved ones away, fearing the jihadists would kill them.
“I arrived at the hospital after a long day in the field, and found it empty except for a lone baby in an incubator,” said Hassan. “At that moment, I was afraid. I knew ISIL was about to take Raqqa.”
As the other rebel groups fled, ISIL fighters arrived at the Red Crescent centre where Hassan volunteered: “They took some of our vehicles. They forced 10 staff members to give them their uniforms, and they dressed up in them,” he said. “They used the uniforms to get inside the centre where Nusra was based.”
Once inside they opened fire. “That was the end of Nusra and any other fighter in Raqqa,” said Hassan.
In June last year Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formally declared the start of ISIL’s caliphate. A “party” broke out in Raqqa, Hassan recalled: “They gave out free fuel and released prisoners from jails.”
Raqqa, once one of the most secular of cities, has become the model template for the extremists’ hardline interpretation of Sharia.
Women are forced to wear the burka and face covering niqab, and cannot leave the house unaccompanied by a man. Men and young boys are rounded up and sent to Sharia training camps where they are taught everything from ISIL’s interpretation of Islamic scripture, to how to make and use suicide bombs.
Foreign fighters streamed into the city, including many British and Americans. They received twice the salary of a Syrian fighter, and had first pick of the spoils of war, said Hassan.
After the jihadists took Sinjar province in Iraq last year, killing hundreds of men from the Yazidi minority, they captured thousands of women and took them back to Raqqa to be sold as sex slaves.
“I was in the home of an ISIL emir,” said Hassan. “I saw a women wearing no headscarf and a low cut top. I didn’t know where to look. But he told me: ‘look at her as much as you want. She is not like the other women, she is my slave’.”
As the US-led air strikes increased, the jihadists’ paranoia about “foreign spies” grew.
ISIL had an elite unit charged with managing the Western journalists and aid workers who were later beheaded by ISIL, said Hassan. “But if you saw them, you had to immediately run away. Lingering was enough to get you killed on suspicion of spying.”
The one hostage Hassan did see was Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian Air Force pilot whose plane crashed close to Raqqa.
The day before a coalition plane had struck a mosque, killing several worshippers, including children, Hassan said.
The jihadists tied Lt Kasasbeh to the back of a car and “dragged him” round the city before placing him in a cage and burning him alive.
With his younger brother forced to join the brainwashing sharia classes, and horrified by the violence, Hassan knew they had to leave, and began plotting his exit to neighbouring Turkey.
Executions and public beheadings have become part of daily life in the city, with the jihadists leaving the bodies of their victims in the city’s central square to rot in full public view.
The rules are enforced by the jihadist group’s police force; men in long robes who patrol the streets with knives at their hilts and guns slung on their backs. A network of secret agents also monitors the population for signs of dissent.
“They have a lot of spies, more even than the regime of Bashar al-Assad before them,” said Hassan.
“In Raqqa, you cannot say any word against ISIL now. If you do, maybe you will die.”
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