It is called Heaven Square, but after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) started using the roundabout in Raqqa for gruesome public executions it earned a new name: Hell Square. In the year since the militant group announced its "caliphate" last June, its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa has been transformed into a macabre metropolis. Human heads are displayed on spikes at the central roundabout and crucified bodies hang for days to terrorize local residents, said Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, a Raqqa resident and anti-ISIS activist. "From the first moment of its control over Raqqa, ISIS adopted a policy of horror and terror, resorting to executions, beheadings, cutting off hands and legs, and crucifixion," said Raqqawi. He belongs to the "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" underground activist group, which documents ISIS abuses in the northern Syrian city and surrounding province. Activists were among ISIS's first targets in Raqqa, but Raqqawi and the group's members have continued to work, providing a rare window into life in one of ISIS's bastions. Raqqa was the first Syrian provincial capital to fall from regime control when rebels seized it in March 2013. But ISIS soon routed those rebels and moved quickly to establish a "model city" under its harsh interpretation of religious jurisprudence, said researcher and writer Hisham al-Hashimi. ISIS wants to run Raqqa "like a central government, with police, services, justice and education," he said.
The group has taken over all levels of civil administration, rewriting school curriculums, establishing courts and creating police units, the male "Hesba" force and the female "Khansa Brigades", to implement its law. ISIS has sought to promote an image of the "good life" in Raqqa, with videos showing roads teeming with cars and storefronts full of customers. It also revels in meting out punishments for crimes ranging from collaboration with Syria's regime and theft to "witchcraft" and homosexuality. The group regularly carries out beheadings, but also stones victims to death or throws them from building tops. Women whose face veils do not cover their eyes are charged a gram of gold, while men who shave their beards pay a fine equivalent to $100. Raqqawi recounted how a woman in a face veil, walking with her husband, tripped in the street, revealing part of her face as she fell. ISIS members swarmed around the couple and threatened to lash her husband if the incident was repeated.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says ISIS has executed 2,618 people in Syria between the founding of its caliphate in late June 2014 and late May 2015. Residents say those who comply with ISIS's rules can find a way to live a "normal" life, and even to benefit from the relative stability, lack of crime and municipal services in Raqqa. "If you follow ISIS's laws and keep your head down, no one will bother you," Raqqawi said. And for the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to ISIS-held territory, there are special perks in Raqqa, an occasional source of tension with Syrian residents who say they are treated as inferior. A French ISIS fighter known as Abu Salman al-Fransi recently extolled the virtues of life in ISIS territory in a video posted online. He said he was born to a Christian family but chose to convert to Islam and join ISIS in Syria along with his wife. "ISIS gave us a house and everything we needed to prepare it, thank God, and our salary every month," he said in French. In another such video, a clean-shaven blonde Australian doctor calling himself Abu Yusef al-Australi says he left home to live "in the shadow of the caliphate". Now he works at Raqqa hospital, where foreign fighters are treated for free, while locals pay for care. Dressed in green scrubs and speaking English, he says with a grin: "The situation here has exceeded my expectations."