Life under Isis: An explosion at the gates, sleeper cells attacking from within – how militants overthrew the city of Hit in less than 24 hours

Inside the 'Islamic State' - part three: Harsh fines for apparently harmless violations help keep the organisation's finances intact

It was on 4 October last year that Isis captured the small city of Hit, seizing complete control in the space of just a few hours. For the city’s 100,000 mostly Sunni residents the takeover by the self-proclaimed Islamic State has brought changes that some support, but others deeply resent.

Among those living in Hit when Isis rolled in was Faisal, a 35-year-old government employee who is married with two children, and a keen observer of all that has befallen the agricultural centre and former transport hub over the past five months.

He recently fled to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, where he described to The Independent the rule of Isis and its impact on Hit, starting with the day the city was captured. “First let me tell you how Isis entered the city,” he says. “At 4am we heard an explosion; Isis had exploded a bomb at the main checkpoint. Then they started fighting inside and outside the city. This was because some of their fighters were attacking from outside but others were locals, who belonged to sleeper cells and attacked the Iraqi security forces from behind. They captured all the police stations, aside from two that resisted until 5pm, after which Isis had total control.”

Faisal, not his real name, says he had no problems with Isis checkpoints even during the first days after the jihadist group captured Hit, because they were often manned by his neighbours who knew who he was. They had lists of wanted people and they sometimes checked ID cards.

One of the first things that happened was that the electricity went off. This was because 90 per cent of power in Anbar province comes from a hydroelectric power station, the largest in Iraq, at Haditha, 50 miles up the Euphrates river from Hit. Isis had seized most of the province but not Haditha.

Faisal explains: “When Isis took Hit, they stopped food being sold to people in Haditha because it was still held by the government. In response, Haditha cut off the supply of electricity to Hit and many other cities which had come under Isis control.”

This stopped all projects in Hit dependent on electricity, including the water-treatment stations, so there was a water shortage. People had to obtain their water from the heavily polluted Euphrates.

Because Hit is at the centre of an agricultural area there continues to be plentiful food available at cheap prices. The problem is that, although food is inexpensive, many cannot afford to buy it because all paid work has stopped and nobody is earning any money. Paradoxically, the only people still paid are Iraqi government employees, because even though it has lost control of the city, Baghdad wants to retain their loyalty – Isis does not want to prevent earnings that it can tax.

Isis provides some services itself by taking domestic gas cylinders, almost invariably used in Iraq for cooking, to be refilled in the group’s Syrian capital Raqqa.

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Islamic State fighters parading through Raqqa (AP)

Faisal particularly resents Isis’s vigorous intervention in every aspect of daily life in Hit. “They poke their noses into education, mosques, women’s clothes, taxes on shops (zakat), and many other aspects of life,” he said. “My parents and brothers told me yesterday via satellite internet call that there are about 2,000 men appointed to check the shops in the city and collect the taxes under the name of Zakat, not just from the shops, but from employees’ salaries.

“In education they changed the courses taught before and brought in new ones, that are being taught now in Raqqa and Fallujah. Some courses are modified or cancelled, like philosophy and chemistry. They cancelled classes in art, music, geography, philosophy, sociology, psychology and Christian religion, and asked mathematics teachers to remove any questions that refer to democracy and elections.

“Biology teachers can’t refer to evolution. Arabic classes are not allowed to teach any ‘pagan’ poems.” (Isis refers to anything outside the boundaries of its self-declared Caliphate, established on 29 June last year, as the Pagan World.)

Faisal says petrol and oil products are available in Hit, but they are expensive and of poor quality. “This is because the crude oil available in Raqqa [Isis captured most of the Syrian oilfields] is refined in a rough-and-ready way and then exported to Iraqi regions under Isis control. These poor-quality oil products ruin car engines, machinery and generators.”

Isis is paranoid about mobile phones and the internet being used to communicate information about it, giving away the location of its leaders and military units which could then be destroyed by US air strikes. Until February, mobile phones were working in Hit, but then there was heavy fighting in the nearby town of al-Baghdadi and Isis, fearing spies, blew up the mobile telephone masts.

The internet has not worked in Anbar Province for the last eight months, compelling people to use satellite internet connections that are monitored by Isis. More recently the group offered a limited internet service, though this is only available in internet offices and other locations monitored by the jihadist group. There is no internet access from private homes, while in the public locations, Faisal says, “Isis can spy on computers so they can see what you are surfing and to whom you are talking”.

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Predictably, Isis focuses on religion and spreading its variant of Islam. Faisal says: “Many preachers (imams) were replaced by foreign preachers from the Arab world, mostly Saudis, Tunisians and Libyans, as well as Afghans. Some new imams are appointed temporarily just for Friday speech and prayer, while others are permanent appointments. Isis removed some of the old preachers who have left for Baghdad or KRG (the Kurdish-controlled region). These are often Sufis, whose beliefs are rejected by Isis.”

There are many other signs of Isis imposing its cultural agenda in Hit. Faisal says that “at the entrance to every main street and bazaar, there are Isis groups holding black dresses that cover the whole body including the face and head. If a woman does not have one, she must buy one [for about £8] and the money goes to the Isis treasury.”

Are people joining Isis in Hit? Faisal says they do, often for economic reasons. “I know many people in my neighbourhood in Hit who joined Isis,” he says. “They are paid little money, about 175,000 dinars (£80), but they say that the salary is enough because they also enjoy many privileges, including free fuel, cooking gas, sugar, tea, bread, and many other foodstuffs and services.

“Isis still has a strong financial basis. It confiscates the houses of the people who were previously employed in the police, courts, and security forces. These houses, and any furniture in them, are confiscated by the Sharia (legal or religious) court, where the judges are Libyan and Tunisian, though the other staff are locals. The ruling authority in Hit is headed by the military governor, the religious (legal) governor, the security governor and finally the administrative governor.”

Faisal’s account of life in Hit is confirmed by eyewitnesses from other parts of the Islamic State. Isis at first benefited from widespread popular relief that the Iraqi Army was gone, but there is deepening resentment against the enforcement of outlandish rules on personal behaviour that is contrary to local religious and social traditions. These include women being forced to wear the niqab (covering their faces), obligatory attendance at prayers and the destruction of mosques, such as the Younis mosque in Mosul, deemed by Isis to be un-Islamic shrines.

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Isis has imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms in the northern province of Raqqa. Among the restrictions, women must wear the niqab, or face unspecified punishments (Reuters)

There is also the fear of conscription of young men to fight for the Islamic State, an obligation that is increasingly difficult to avoid and is leading many families to try to leave Isis-controlled territory, which is not easy to do.

But despite resentment by many at its takeover of mosques and schools, Isis is able to use these to propagate its views and to make converts – something that may strengthen the forces of the Islamic State. Conscription does not seem to have diluted the fanaticism of Isis fighters, or their willingness to take heavy casualties, according to Kurdish commanders who have come under attack by Isis units in recent months.

Local eyewitnesses confirm that the unpopularity of Isis is not universal. Sameer, a Kurdish shopkeeper in Mosul, told The Independent last November that “in spite of the coalition air strikes every night and every morning, Isis increases in terms of the number of its men and the territory they occupy”.

Since then, Isis has retreated from much of the Sinjar area west of Mosul, but Ali Hussein Mustafa, a 21-year-old university student who left Mosul last month, says that “many Isis men were much better than the fighters of the Iraqi Army in dealing with people and helping them”.

He says this better behaviour was not invariable and criticised Isis fighters at some checkpoints who harassed or swore at women whose face was not hidden. He added, however, that many people had now concluded that “Isis rule is no better, and maybe worse, than what they endured before [when the US or Iraqi government was in charge of Mosul from 2003 to 2014]”.

When discussing the origins and motivations of Isis as a movement, Faisal, hitherto factual and down-to-earth, falls back on conspiracy theories. Because he believes that the actions of Isis will be very damaging to the Sunni in the long term, he is convinced that it must be under the control of the Sunni’s traditional enemies. “To me, Isis is an Iranian-American project and, when its mission ends, Isis may leave the region,” he says. “Most of the Sunni people who experience the rule of Isis do not believe it is establishing a state, but intends to destroy Sunni areas.”

More realistically, Faisal detects a lack of seriousness in Baghdad’s efforts to drive out Isis, saying that “so long as corruption prevails, any solution to the problems of the country, including the recapture of cities taken by Isis, will not work”. As for the impact of US air strikes, “they are limiting the movement of Isis a little bit and weakening it, but not more”.

How does Isis compare with its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq? Faisal has strong opinions on this: “I remember when we were dealing with al-Qaeda in 2005 and 2006. Al-Qaeda men are angels compared to the demons of Isis. In Hit 10 years ago, there were many military operations by al-Qaeda, but nobody thought of leaving the city as many do today. The old al-Qaeda was much better than Isis. We hate the government, but Isis is not the appropriate substitute. We hate Isis, but imagine if the Shia militia were the substitute for it! The situation would be more horrible. Every substitute is worse than the previous one.”

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