Inside an ISIS religion camp: How I survived the grip of terror

Mohammad joined an ISIS-run ‘repentance’ institute, a microcosm of the terror that reigned over areas under militant rule

TOPSHOT - This picture shows US army vehicles supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Hajin, in the Deir Ezzor province, eastern Syria, on December 15, 2018. Kurdish-led forces seized the Islamic State's main hub of Hajin on December 14, a milestone in a massive and costly US-backed operation to eradicate the jihadists from eastern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces secured Hajin, the largest settlement in what is the last pocket of territory controlled by IS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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As US-backed forces move to take the last remaining areas from ISIS, the militant group that once exacted brutal control across swathes of Syria and Iraq, The National has asked two activists and journalists to speak about their experience of living under the group's dark rule. These accounts are published alongside analysis and news looking back at the years-long war against ISIS and to what the future holds for a group defeated on the battlefield but far from wiped out. 

I am a media activist in Deir Ezzor. When the uprising in Syria first started in 2011, I went to live in neighbourhoods controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and started working with the rebels. Nearly three years later, when fighting erupted between the FSA and ISIS in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, I turned my lens towards the violations that militants were committing against the FSA. I started to document the battles between the FSA and ISIS. I visited battlefronts and started to shuffle between the towns which were starting to fall in the hands of the militant organisation. Friends and people I loved were shot by ISIS. I saw dead bodies.

The war was intense and ISIS was fighting ferociously. Even when ISIS took over most of Deir Ezzor in 2014, I continued to work as a media activist in secret despite the risks and threats involved. I escaped death several times. I survived several ISIS raids and checkpoints. But I always feared that my mobile phone would be confiscated. My phone was my death sentence. It contained all the reports I was filing against the group.

In order to avoid suspicion, I registered in one of the Al Tawbat institutes, a doctrinal camp set up by militants for those who wanted to ‘repent’ and pledge allegiance to the group. I filled out an application and submitted it to the group.

After filing the application, 14 people and I were transported to the facility in a closed, dark van. There were no seats or air vents. The van took off very quickly and the driver spun in circles several times so we would not be able to identify what direction we were headed.

Fifteen minutes later, the driver escorted us into a building in Al Mayadeen city, which was previously controlled by the government. We were surprised to see more than 2,000 people inside the facility which comprised of three adjoined buildings devastated by bombs.

Crowded conditions

It was terrifying to see that many people. At that moment, I regretted having come down and registered here. The staff at the facility – accountants, security officers, and management – were harsh.

I don’t remember the date of this first day at the institute. We were informed that it was a 45-day course but we asked to reduce it to 35 days.

We were sorted into groups, each comprising of eight people. We were each given a spongy mat, blankets, a plate and a spoon. I couldn’t sleep until midnight. We were then told to get ready for Fajr, the early morning prayer. Once I finished my prayer, I went back to sleep. It was 5 a.m. but we were told that sleeping at this time is ‘makrouh’ (an abhorred deed) and that we had to attend a lecture about the group's doctrine. I was trying to shake off all signs of sleepiness until I went back to bed at 9 a.m. but the sound of flying warplanes and nearby bombings made it difficult to get any rest.

I was thinking about my daughter whom I had left behind. I was mentally strained due to insults yelled at me by the institute’s staff and the bad treatment I was receiving. Sometimes, security officers would threaten anyone who clashes with or replies to those working at the institute.

At 11 a.m. we attended another lecture in doctrine followed by noon prayer. Siesta was next followed by another doctrinal lecture at 2 p.m. until it was time for afternoon prayer. We then took another break until it was time for dusk prayer and then another lesson and so on.

The lecturers and sheikhs at the institute were strict. They would harass people who failed their doctrine exams three times by calling them a kafir (infidel) or mo’ared (opposer of God’s faith). They would threaten to slaughter them as punishment. Some have even wet their pants in terror.

Daily meals were horrible: one piece of bread at breakfast or two cone-shaped, low-quality pieces of cheese. Lunch included burgol (crushed wheat) and chickpeas mixed in a yellow broth, with either rice or beans. Meals were inedible.

I spent the 20 most horrible days of my life at this institute. The place was disgusting. Bathrooms were queued up in the morning. I became hysterical. I imagined myself being executed and I thought I could hear bomb explosions in our vicinity and that coalition forces were dropping packs of fliers from above. Even a doctor working with ISIS berated the management of the institute for their indifference to people’s well-being.

The start of Ramadan marked the end of my 20 days at the institution. I was transported to another institute called Haniyin in Al Taybe region in Reef Al Mayadeen. Upon arrival to Haniyin, we were served suhoor comprising of mashed potatoes, eggs and one dried onion. The food was delicious and better than what we were served at the previous institute. 
This place was probably more comfortable. We were in a covered school court.

I was relieved to know that the course had been reduced to 35 days. I would only have 15 days left.

Found out

On my 31st day which coincided with the 10th day of Ramadan, I was interrogated by masked men. I was interrogated at 11pm. I confessed to everything I had done prior to joining ISIS. I told them I was a reporter and was not a member of the FSA. I admitted to the possession of devices such as wireless internet devices, a Canon camera and a laptop.

One hour following the investigation, I thought it was over.

At 1 am, a staff member woke me up, telling me that he had been looking for me for an hour. He asked me who these masked people who came down to the institute asking about me were and told me to “bid my family farewell and pronounce the shahada”, then he instructed me to “walk out,” suggesting that I was going to be killed.

I entered a room. Inside, there were masked security men. They laid a cover on me. Then I was immediately moved to another area. When the cover was removed, I noticed more than 20 people around me most of whom wore masks and were demanding knives to be brought in, while they played around with their Kalashnikov guns.

Until one came up and said: “Welcome, you’re here.”

Then the investigation started and accusations poured down on me.

They accused me of being a member of secret activist-run documentation groups like Raqqa is Bleeding Silently or DeirEzzor24.

They asked me to name all the journalists I knew. They mentioned some names but I denied knowing them, even though they were my friends.

At that moment, I regretted my involvement with the revolution and the Free Syrian Army. I felt regret when I entered this room and that institute. I was awaiting the judgement of ISIS executioners. Will ISIS execute me or dismiss me if I repent?

One of them told me that I will be punished.

So I told him that what will happen to me was my God-given destiny and that I was not scared. The security then demanded I pledge allegiance to them and join the organisation. I conned them, telling them that I would do so later.

I was able to survive the investigation and come out alive from that institution after completing 35 days. Yes, I came out alive. It was 1 am when I stepped out of a locked car in a garage in Al Mayadeen. It was a moment I will never forget.

* Mohammad Al Harbi is a pseudonym. The author’s identity has been concealed at his request over concerns for his safety