Though maybe ditching the full terrorist uniform to direct traffic might have helped that perception.
I met Abu Kaes at the Khazer refugee camp, outside of Mosul. He eventually fled ISIS control, and the many explosions that surround them. I met his friends, Abu Haider and Abu Ahmed, at the same camp. All of these names are mocking pseudonyms, picked by my sources. Abu means "father of," and it's a common nickname schema in the Arab world. But it was also adopted by many of the foreign fighters who joined ISIS. Like this Canadian convert who called himself "Abu Muslim:"
Like the first disastrous sip of expired milk, Abu Haider thought ISIS was going to be all right at first.
"In the beginning when they came, they were so nice. They told us that even if [the United States] killed a thousand [of them], we don't do anything, we will show mercy in the world ... But after two months they changed. They were finding excuses to kill people, and they became strict."
During our first trip to Mosul, I talked with dozens more civilians who'd lived under ISIS rule. Every Sunni reported that ISIS had "played nice" at first. I asked Abu Haider why:
"It was just like a political game. Their goal was to convince people ... to make people relax, and then put in their rules."
The ol' bait and switch and then get everybody bombed repeatedly.
Abu Ahmed told us one story to illustrate this, "[My] brother was like police, former police from Mosul, and all government employees who had [a gun], they had to take it to ISIS. This was one of the orders. So my brother was like, 'I won't see them. Can you take my pistol to them?' [I] took it to the ISIS fighter and he asked, 'Who's pistol is this?'
'That's my brother's. His name is Hussein.'
'Oh, yes, Hussein, the guy who was inspecting women?'
'I don't know.'"
(ISIS aren't real big on men having direct contact with women who aren't members of their family.)
"Yes, he was inspecting women," claimed the ISIS guy. "But we have an order from Baghdadi, we're not doing anything to government employees. If not, I would cut him into pieces."
Abu Ahmed's brother was strangely not comforted by that statement, and got the fuck out of Mosul. He headed for nearby (and much safer) Erbil. That wound up being a smart decision, because after two months in charge, ISIS went from playing nice to demanding loyalty pledges on pain of death. Abu Kaes explained: