We Talked To ISIS Citizens: What You Won't Hear In The News

This is the Hussein family. They lived under ISIS control for a year and eight months, before managing to get the fuck out of there.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked
Behind them is everything they own.

I traveled to within a mile of ISIS's border in Northern Iraq (no, really) to talk to some of the fleeing victims of the world's most famous bloodthirsty assholes. This is part three of our series. So what's everyday life like under the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Worse than you think ...

The ISIS Justice System Relies on Child Informants And Medieval Torture


"In the village [nearby], we would see people hanging in the bazaar. It's usually crowded, so they hang them there. From the power lines, they were hanging."

This was relayed to me by a man who spent nearly two years living under ISIS rule. He explained that those people were being hung to death by power lines for sins like "not giving up their cellphones" and "trying to escape from the kind of people who commit murder over cellphone use."

You don't ban phones and cameras to keep people from finding out how well things are going.

Another person told me, "They cut the hands off of thieves," and that cigarette smugglers faced public decapitation. But the surest path to execution is to try to get out. "A couple of days ago, a bunch of women and kids were trying to leave," says another refugee. "They let the kids go, but they executed the women."

You might have noticed that I've avoided using any proper names in this article, and there are relatively few pictures of our sources. That's because most of them still have family inside ISIS-held territory, and they were terrified that ISIS would execute their loved ones over them talking to the media. The folks who agreed to be photographed had no more family left, and also balls of steel.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
Sorry, ovaries of steel.

Now, the death penalty isn't ISIS's only penalty. For a light crime, like shaving, you might merely might get beaten with a belt over and over again "for two days." I conducted the bulk of these interviews with an interpreter who spoke Arabic. At this point, I asked the source for clarification, believing that something had been lost in translation. "Surely, they can't beat someone with a belt for two entire days?" Her reply was brief:

"They can."

She then added that this was a common punishment in Saudi Arabia as well, where people are often sentenced to a thousand or more lashes for crimes like "promoting public debate."

Via The Daily Mail
Another crime that clears the multi-day lash threshold? Discussing religion online.

Like in Saudi Arabia, ISIS maintains its own religious police. They call them the Hisbah. These are the guys Vice made famous in a 2015 documentary.

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Don't let the family minivan fool you; these guys will literally crucify you (NSFW).

A few of the people I spoke with reported interactions with the Hisbah, but they were adamant that the real threat didn't come from uniformed ISIS cops rolling around in minivans. It came from their neighbors, and sometimes even their own children. "Some people from the village, [ISIS] would pay them for information ... they even used kids, this age [around 10] and a bit older, and they'd get information and give them cars, money in return. Not even their stuff, they take the property of people who'd left and give them out for information."

Looting and confiscating property from their own citizens is more than a way for ISIS to enforce control; it's the organization's primary source of money, especially now that the price of oil has collapsed. When ISIS started taking over chunks of Iraq, one of their first actions, before hiring religious police or otherwise turning their territory into the town from Footloose, was to confiscate the pensions of elderly government workers ("We didn't receive any of our money," one woman complained). But this reliance on robbery means that when the Iraqi government stopped paying people in the occupied areas, ISIS lost out on much of their funding.

This should highlight something important ...

ISIS Is Both Brutal And Laughably Bad At Being A State

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ISIS has seen most of its territorial success in regions of Iraq and Syria where the average civilian's choice of government was either "evil dictator," "incompetent, corrupt assholes," or "assorted armed nuts." So when a group calling itself the Islamic State showed up and promised to finally make life safe for Sunni Muslims, a lot of people were willing to give them a chance. As one man explained, "At first, they said in the Islamic State, there would be no punishment, no prison. They would treat everyone in a good way. People accepted them at first. They thought they were going to do all of this."

But people quickly tired of seeing their neighbors strung up on telephone poles. Many folks hid their cellphones, in flagrant violation of ISIS law, prompting the new "government" to take drastic(ally stupid) action: "They blew up phone lines and cell towers." That's right: To spite the modern world, they cut off their own best lines of communication. I saw this in action. During our trip to a part of the front line near Bashik, an ISIS-held suburb of Mosul, a Kurdish intelligence officer and I listened to ISIS chatter over a walkie-talkie. Tapping cell phone lines would've required equipment and technical know-how, but since ISIS only had walkie-talkies, their enemies could listen in as long as they used the right frequency.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
"We, uh, didn't think this one over. Over."

ISIS propaganda brags a lot about how their officials are incorruptible and virtuous, but the civilians we spoke with pointed out that many "crimes," like being affiliated with the Iraqi police or military, could be made to go away with a basic bribe. ("They had to pay money -- 1.5 million Iraqi dinar," or about $1,500 US dollars.) My sources also claimed that ISIS would accept your old service weapon in lieu of a bribe ... sometimes. It sort of depended on the mood of the particular militants on your doorstep.

So where ISIS propaganda portrays it as a utopia of Islamic law and order, actually living there is more like being ruled by a bunch of petty bandits. Contrast this with the life ISIS portrays in a "documentary" they forced kidnapped British journalist John Cantlie to make for them. Inside Mosul describes life in ISIS's Iraqi capital as "business as usual" and emphasizes its bustling markets.

Look! Handbags! Clearly, all is well.

But outside of those city centers, it looks like this ...

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
Look! Ragged lean-tos! Clearly all is ... well ... fucked.

Every refugee I spoke with reported widespread hunger and little access to clean drinking water. One man told me that an ISIS fighter told him he was "still good" because, "You didn't reach the point where you kill cats and eat them."

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Grade Schools Become Terrorist Training Camps

Frontline PBS

"They shut down the old schools, but they opened new schools according to their books ... They would teach them how to make a bomb. It was aggressive toward women." The word "aggressive" was used repeatedly in descriptions of IS schools. "They would teach them about guns, bombs, tanks. Aggressive. Everything about school was aggressive."

Another source complained that ISIS had stopped his daughter from starting her education at all. "She's nine years old and she's never been to school. She doesn't know anything. She wants to go to kindergarten ... she's too old for that, but she wants to go." He had a son who'd been forced to attend an Islamic State school, and went into more detail about the curriculum. "No English classes were allowed. English was haram; they only had math and Arabic. No history, no nothing. They chose their own subjects. They would only teach them how to be aggressive, how to fight, and kill with weapons."

ISIS schools, which are apparently held outdoors ...

Image courtesy of ISIS. Thanks, guys!

... really seem to focus on general killing-people studies above all else.

If this is gym class, we shudder to imagine what dodgeball looks like.

If an adult tries to resist, they're gambling with their lives. One source said that parents outside Mosul (where ISIS's grip isn't as tight) stopped sending their kids to school altogether and managed to avoid punishment. But another refugee we met who was from Mosul told us, "There was one teacher, she had to teach the kids their [ISIS] books, but she told them, 'Just come here for routine. You don't have to do whatever is in these books.' They heard about her and they killed her in public."

Escape Means Waiting For The Bombs To Start Dropping


For those civilians too old for school, ISIS has alternate means of indoctrination. They'd force every Muslim in areas under their control to make repeated loyalty pledges during mosque ceremonies. "After every prayer, they would close the doors and keep them inside and ask, 'Who is with us?' And some would lie and support them, but only so that they wouldn't get killed."

One woman told us of a Coalition air strike which hit the local mosque while her son was locked inside, killing him -- making him one of the between 1,000 and 1,400 civilians killed by air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Refugees I spoke with mentioned airstrikes with dread, because planes raining fire on your home fucking sucks, even if they're aiming at your enemies. When you hear pundits and candidates lovingly talking about "carpet bombing" ISIS, remember that -- the territory ISIS holds is full of people who are essentially hostages.

You may notice that most of these look suspiciously less like army bases than fucking cities.

Then again, the chaos of airstrikes also offers a chance to get out. I spoke with members of three families who managed to escape ISIS control by running away while bombs were thundering around them. This man, a former soldier named "Hajid," found himself a prisoner in his own home when ISIS took over, and he couldn't afford to bribe them.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
Shocking that bribing your way through a collapsing state might chew through your savings.

"[My] father was working for the police. Everyone else, they took their weapons they asked them for money, but other ones who were in big positions, they just came in the house and took them. It's been two years since they took him ... [we] don't know anything. If he's alive, or ... "

Not wanting to wind up disappeared like his dad, Hajid buried his gun and fled on foot, leaving his family behind in the hope that this would be safer for them than attempting the desert crossing on foot. But ISIS fighters kicked them out of their home after he left and "abused" his wife. She and their children later managed to escape during an airstrike. "They were lucky to escape ... when the air forces come around the area, [ISIS fighters] hide inside the [houses and tunnels]. No one can go out." Making a break for freedom was an incredibly risky decision. Not only is attempting escape punishable by death, there's the danger of, you know, getting exploded by a fucking bomb. That means each person in that camp had simply reached a breaking point.

Another source, Ahmed, also took his family on a nighttime sprint across no man's land by the flickering light of a coalition bombing raid. He decided it was worth the risk because ISIS had already killed four members of his family and he didn't want to lose anyone else.

Magenda Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
Get robbed of enough family, and even a rain of munitions begins to lose its deterrence.

See, while ISIS sometimes accepts bribes and guns from former policemen, they also occasionally commit murder for the crime of "being related to cops." Ahmed showed us his brother-in-law's wedding photo:

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)

He explained, "They killed them. They were 17. Because their family were police ... right after the wedding, they killed them. We were not allowed to do any funerals ... we only got three bodies back. They have, like, a hole. They throw bodies in it. They told [us] to go to the hole and find [the rest] of the bodies there."

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Once You Escape, People Suspect You Of Being A Sleeper Agent

Bundesministerium fur Europa, Integration und Ausseres

Ahmed's wife, "Amira," broke down crying after telling us about all the members of her family whom ISIS had executed. Not only over that unfathomable loss, but also about what happened after she made it to Kurdistan, and safety.

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)

You know how American politicians and pundits have raged about taking in Middle Eastern refugees over the fear that they could be ISIS in disguise? Well, that paranoia awaits every ISIS victim who manages to make it out of their territory alive. I visited with some Kurdish military officers (that is, the guys fighting ISIS on the ground) in the town of Makhmur, on the front line. They explained the process by which the Kurdish government makes sure refugees aren't the hidden ISIS fighters Donald Trump tirelessly warns us about.

To start with, the Kurds go over the lists of refugees with their contacts in Iraq's various Sunni Arab militias to see if they know the guy and whether or not he's worked with ISIS. Refugees who set off red flags go to the Kurdish capital of Erbil to be questioned by their FBI equivalent, the Asayish. "We will ask them if we have any doubt about these guys ... They have been living with ISIS for a while, maybe they have been impacted by their ideology."

Vice News
It may seem impossible that anyone would adopt their tormentors' beliefs, but at this point, ISIS is operating out of the Orwell playbook.

Amira's son got caught up in this dragnet as soon as her family made it safely into Kurdistan. He'd been taken a month ago when I spoke with her, and she'd heard nothing about his fate. "I just want my son back. He's 17 years old, he's a student. He has nothing to do with what's happening here."

The thing is, we really can't know for certain whether or not her boy was radicalized by ISIS -- or maybe he joined under threat, or as a way to provide for his family. Her husband pointed out that he'd been the only one in the family able to work at all, providing 2-3,000 dinars a week, enough for his brothers and sisters to eat "one meal a day."

Denise Sirois/iStock
$1.69; that's what 2,000 dinar is. Per week. Even that single meal per day seems like a strech.

It's entirely possible that they'll never know. War is like that -- chaos swallowing lives without pause.

Now take that story and multiply it by a thousand. By ten thousand. That's still only scratching the surface of the apocalyptic mountain of shit ISIS has brought down on the heads of civilians. It'd be nice to end this story on an uplifting note, but let's not kid ourselves. The best I can do is give you this picture of some puppies chilling out under a weaponized Toyota:

Magenta Vaughn/Cracked (click for larger pic)
So if you need a happy final thought, there it is: Despite everything, shade still exists.

And when you're done looking at puppies, consider donating to the UN Refugee Agency. Most of the refugees we met had tents, clean water, and battery-powered fans thanks to them.

Robert Evans is a senior editor at Cracked, and he also just wrote a book.

This is the third of our "Cracked Editor in Iraq" series. You can see the rest here.

For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS's Magazine and We Built Their Death Squads: ISIS's Bizarre Origin Story.

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