How ISIS Rules

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; drawing by James Ferguson

Throughout December, the US and some of its allies along with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus stepped up their bombing campaign against the ISIS stronghold in the city of Raqqa, in northern Syria (although 97 percent of air strikes in Syria were carried out by the US). Along with the US, those engaged in bombing include the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Western countries such as Britain, France, and Australia that are also part of the US coalition against ISIS—“Operation Inherent Resolve”—are only willing to take part in strikes in Iraq. Other countries are helping in more limited ways and are sending military and other supplies. </p?
The jihadist organization has long been secretive about where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and other senior members are based—locals say they move around between Iraq and Syria—but Raqqa is usually referred to as the “capital” of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, the city most identified with it. To judge from images distributed by the group, Raqqa is at once a utopian Islamic state and an extremist hotbed whose inhabitants crave a radical version of Islam, enjoy public executions, and fervently support their ruthless black-clad overlords. The beheading of the American journalist James Foley—and of several other hostages—was filmed on a hill on its outskirts.

In its statements, ISIS claims that such executions of American and British victims are revenge for the American bombing of ISIS in Syria. Like many of ISIS’s acts, they are a gruesome attempt to project its power and horrify the West. Yet there is little about this provincial center with a population of, according to different estimates, between 250,000 and 500,000 people that might have suggested such jihadist or even Islamist tendencies. In fact, Raqqa did not even become engaged in the Syrian conflict until 2013.

Living in Damascus before the war, I visited Raqqa on several occasions, and I was struck by how ordinary it was. A dusty place far from the country’s other major cities, it offered few amenities and most Syrians I knew complained about it, if they chanced to visit. It was true that the local population, a mixture of tribes and settled Bedouins, was almost entirely Sunni Muslim, but unlike such western Syrian cities as Hama and Aleppo, it didn’t have a tradition of Islamist activism. As a resident of al-Tabqa, a town near Raqqa with an air base that was captured by ISIS in August, put it: “The irony is we were famous for not praying!”

But Raqqa’s relative lack of importance to the Syrian regime—which led to it ceding control of the city—its substantial size, its proximity to Iraq, and its relative distance from the main front lines have been critical to ISIS and its aim of creating a large and highly centralized state. Its forces, after intensive bombing attacks on them and their bases and equipment, have been pushed back…

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