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How ISIS Runs a City

Demonstrators chant ISIS slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 2014.
AP Demonstrators chant ISIS slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 2014.

"All who deliberately throw away waste thus will incur a fine of 25,000 dinars"

Nihayet Ojel fled his home in Tel-Abta, a city southwest of Mosul in northern Iraq, not just because he objected to the strict Islamic law that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) enforces in the area the group took over in 2014, but because of its administrative ambitions.

“ISIS told me they were going to take away my Iraqi ID card and give me one [for the Islamic State] instead,” recalls Ojel, as he waited with his family last August on the side of a highway near Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

ISIS looks much more like a functioning government than any of its detractors ever thought it would: it is pumping oil, policing streets, collecting taxes, even planning to issue its own currency — much like the national governments it has supplanted in the Syrian and Iraqi territory it controls.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, has been studying ISIS’s administrative methods. “I wouldn’t say on the whole it’s a better quality of life than most Arab states, but what they do bring, that gives them a one-up, is their totalitarian model,” he says. “It brings this sense of order in a time of civil war.”

READ MORE: Inside ISIS, a TIME Special Report

In Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control, the group is revising school curriculums, setting tariffs for waste disposal and banning litter.

“Waste is to be placed in a barrel, waste-basket, big black bag,” reads an ISIS communiqué issued to residents of Mosul and the surrounding Ninawa province in December. “Waste is not to be thrown away and gathered in a strip of vacant land, and all who deliberately throw away waste thus will incur a fine of 25,000 dinars [around $22] or be held in custody in the event of refusal to pay the fines.”

In Deir ez-Zor province, along the River Euphrates, ISIS has banned fishing during the spawning season and the use of dynamite for fishing. It has also banned electric current fishing, whereby two electrodes deliver a current into the water, because, “it leads to extermination of many river/water creatures as well as congenital disfigurement for small fish and other river creatures.”

Since it took control of Raqqa in 2013, ISIS has also added new mechanisms of social control: the Husba, or morality police, which enforces the hijab, or head covering for women; a ban on smoking and alcohol; and a requirement that women only circulate outside the home with a male relative. If a man is outside with a woman not his wife, or immediate relative (his mother, sister or daughter), he is subject to arrest and can face lashes of the whip as punishment.

Raqqa was one of the first cities seized from government forces by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and then one of the first cities captured by ISIS. In its propaganda, ISIS uses Raqqa as a showcase for what it tries to portray as its efficient and benevolent rule.

According to witnesses, ISIS has maintained a relatively high level of local services by changing as little as possible in the areas it governs. Most of the civil servants who make the city function remained in their old jobs, still paid by the government in Damascus even though they are now effectively entrenching ISIS in power. School teachers, state telecoms company employees and municipal workers all remain at work, under ISIS control but paid by Damascus. According to several businessmen, activists and ISIS supporters in Raqqa, ISIS has placed its own members at the top of existing institutions, like schools or the municipal headquarters, to make sure employees follow ISIS’s new rules.

In the education system there have been major changes such as the cancellation of subjects like philosophy and the adoption of a new ISIS-authored curriculum for religion. In other ISIS-run sectors the only significant change is that employees must interrupt their work to pray.

Some residents like the way ISIS is running the city. One newcomer to Raqqa, a man who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing ISIS officials, told TIME he has become an enthusiastic advocate for ISIS. At the beginning of the war he lived in the city of Homs where he ran a mobile phone shop. The 35-year-old man survived the bloody siege of Homs, then moved to Palmyra, and finally to Tal Abyad, a suburb of Raqqa.

Alhough he once sympathized with the FSA, the man did not fight ISIS’s takeover. Initially ISIS members impressed them with their piety and the effective way they policed Raqqa but he was won over by their generosity. ISIS gave the man’s brother an $800 grant to pay for his wedding in the Spring of 2014; it gave the man himself some free diesel; and gave his neighbor money to repair his damaged house.

“The Islamic State is walking in the Prophet Muhammad’s footsteps,” he said by Facebook chat. “They are protecting our boys and girls from vice. We don’t have those nearly-naked girls walking around like in Damascus. No one is smoking here, and it’s almost impossible to commit adultery. They are saving the Islamic community from vice and destruction.”

Another resident, named Abu Yasin, 58, spoke by Skype from Raqqa. He picks up a lot of local news from the customers in the kebab restaurant he owns. He says ultimate authority rests with the provincial emir or governor and with the Sharia court. Anyone who has a serious complaint or problem appeals to those authorities. He has to pay a set tax to ISIS and close his shop during prayer times.

Others are more critical. One activist who fled in August 2014 said that he finally left the city after ISIS started displaying severed heads in the Raqaa main square. “They are [eager] to kill and to cut,” the activist says. “They are just like animals. You see them [ISIS members] laughing and happy when they are standing near those heads. ISIS tries to control the people through fear.”

The activist said he was haunted by the smell of rotting bodies that were left in the downtown area and were sometimes eaten by cats and dogs.

Another activist who worked in Raqqa and now lives in the suburbs considers himself a faithful Muslim but an ISIS opponent. Now if he wants a cigarette he must smoke it in secret. “I need to be schizophrenic to accept life in this city now. I am supposed to smile at the man who whips me. Everything is upside down now. You might be beaten in the street by a foreigner who doesn’t approve of something you say.”

Mohammad Ghannam in Beirut contributed to this story

TIME Lebanon

Israeli Infiltration Suggests Hizballah Is Having a Mid-Life Crisis

Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags and stand next to a portrait which shows their slain top commander Imad Mughniyeh, as they attend a rally to commemorate Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.
Hussein Malla—AP Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags and stand next to a portrait which shows their slain top commander Imad Mughniyeh, as they attend a rally to commemorate Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.

The Party of God was set up to fight Israel but is now a large organisation with a massive budget

For five years, Hizballah has vowed in fiery speeches to exact revenge for Israel’s assassination of its top military strategist in 2010. Each anniversary passed with Hizballah’s threatened attacks mysteriously foiled: operatives rolled up in Bangkok and Cyprus, and another mastermind murdered near his home in Beirut.

A recent revelation suggests the failure wasn’t so mysterious after all: a Hezbollah official responsible for the revenge attacks might have been on Israel’s payroll the whole time.

The unmasking of the Israeli spy in Hizballah’s uppermost ranks — leaked in media reports in December and indirectly confirmed over the weekend by Hizballah’s deputy leader — points to Hizballah’s biggest long-term problem: its size, wealth and power have made it vulnerable to infiltration, corruption and careerists.

The militant organization, whose name means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon but it has grown into an entrenched and wealthy part of the Lebanese establishment. Now in its fourth decade, Hizballah has more power than its founders could have dreamed.

But no longer a compact revolutionary movement, Hizballah must now grapple with the consequences of growth and longevity. Some supporters now take Hizballah for granted while the party’s swelling ranks of cadres and fighters contain opportunists and careerists.

Hizballah has become a state in all but name. It deploys troops to fight in a foreign war in Syria, it is a power-broker in Lebanon’s national government and it struggles to satisfy constituents who have grown accustomed to a higher, and safer, standard of living. It is subject to the same temptations and vulnerabilities as Arab governments and other legacy actors in the Middle East. The intelligence war with Israel marks just one particularly colorful and acute sign of its approaching middle age.

Hizballah began to suspect it was compromised after a series of inexplicable setbacks, including the capture of two of its agents following a bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012. In order to track down the mole, Hizballah fed false information to one of its officials, Mohammed Shawraba, about weapons shipments in Syria. Israel bombed the false target and after a seven-month investigation, Hizballah arrested Shawraba.

The double agent might have foiled as many as five planned retaliations by Hizballah, according to reports that also tied him to the two most damaging Israeli strikes against Hizballah since the 2006 war: the assassinations of military strategist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008 and of Hizballah technology mastermind Hassan Laqees in Beirut at the end of 2013.

Yet it’s the parade of related cases that have piled up since the last major conflict between Israel and Hizballah in 2006 that suggest something broader is afoot. Hizballah revealed in 2011 that it caught some of its operatives cooperating with the CIA, meeting at a Pizza Hut on the edge of south Beirut to sell Hizballah secrets to the Americans.

A trusted car dealer in southern Lebanon sold senior Hizballah officials cars that had Israeli GPS trackers in them. He was arrested by the party in 2009.

Another Lebanese man was revealed to have worked as a spy for the Israelis, monitoring traffic on key roads to the Syrian border.

A financial scandal erupted at the same period, in 2009, when a Ponzi scheme collapsed and erased the savings of many of Hizballah’s middle-class constituents. The scheme was run by Salah Ezzedine, a well-connected businessman (nicknamed Hizballah’s Bernie Madoff) who had persuaded senior Hizballah officials to invest their money with him, and who had founded a publishing house named after party leader Nasrallah’s son. Ezzedine lost between $700 million and $1 billion, according to news reports at the time.

A final straw came in 2012 when a senior Hizballah official who had been embezzling money fled to Israel. Reports suggest he was stealing for his own benefit, pure and simple, but when he was about to get caught he fled to Hizballah’s greatest enemy with his money and party documents.

All these cases point in one direction: toward more corruption and more Israeli infiltration.

Hizballah’s initial appeal in the 1980s and 1990s was its incorruptibility and zeal. In a country dominated by kleptocratic warlords, Hizballah stood out in its first two decades as an organization whose leaders did not care to enrich themselves. Their first priority was to expel the occupying Israelis. Their second was to help their suffering constituents, most of them Shia Muslims displaced by the civil war and crowded into miserable slums on the edges of Beirut. In those first decades, Hizballah brought sewers, electricity and clean water to south Beirut, and its leaders lived simply.

Today, things are different. At the very top, Nasrallah lives in hiding, and by all reports remains committed to the group’s humble ethic. But the organization he runs is awash in money. After the 2006 war, Iran flooded Hizballah with millions of dollars to rebuild homes and roads. Since 2011 there’s been yet another burst of spending linked to the war in Syria. Over the objections of many Lebanese — and the grumbling of some supporters who thought Hezbollah should maintain its focus on Israel — Hizballah dispatched troops to fight on the regime’s side in the Syrian civil war. At first the deployment was kept secret, but today Hizballah openly sends troops and celebrates its members martyred in Syria. The organization has dramatically increased its spending on fighters and their families and has expanded the size of its military force in order to maintain a deterrent against Israel while fighting in Syria. Hizballah has become a standing army capable of fighting a war on two fronts where it was once a guerrilla army. That’s an expensive development and not one that necessarily carries the same appeal as Hizballah did when it was fighting a war of resistance on its home territory against a much stronger Israeli occupation force.

Today, it appears, there are Hizballah insiders willing to sell crucial secrets to the enemy. There are others who seem happy to siphon money out of the Party of God’s pockets for their own enrichment, just like operatives in all the rest of Lebanon’s notoriously corrupt factions.

In comments over the weekend to Hizballah’s “Nour” radio station, the party’s number-two, Naim Qassem, said that Hizballah was made up of fallible humans but was able to contain the “limited” fallout of the spy cases.

“Hizballah has worked intensely on battling espionage among its ranks and in its entourage. Some cases surfaced, and they are very limited cases,” he said. “There is no party in the world as big and sophisticated as Hizballah that was able to stand with the same steadfastness.”

That makes sense as spin, and Hizballah can obviously survive — the question is, with how much damage.

Until the 2006 war, Hizballah successfully stood apart in Lebanon. It was a Shia organization, but it opposed sectarianism. Even those who didn’t share Hizballah’s dedication to fighting Israel recognized that the militant group placed that goal over its own power and enrichment.

In its rise to power, however, Hizballah has relied on support from some of Lebanon’s most corrupt factions, including the Shia Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

Today, Hizballah is a party of the establishment, deeply invested in a Lebanese order that depends on patronage and sectarian balancing. It is unlikely that corruption and spy scandals will unseat Hizballah from its dominant position in Lebanon. But Hizballah’s descent from the moral high ground it claims as unimpeachable standard-bearer of the Lebanese resistance seems only a matter of time.

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story. He also wrote A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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