BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — As final defeat looms, militants of the Islamic State group have remained organized and ruthless to their last breath. Keeping institutions functioning in their last shred of territory in Syria, they are continuing benefits like food and money to supporters while their religious police and fighters still impose their rule of fear and brutality.
Refusing to surrender, the militants have tried to squeeze out any last possible gain. Over the past last weeks, they secured the evacuation of more than 10,000 of their exhausted and wounded followers, looking to ensure long-term survival and continued conflict.
The militants — many of them foreigners, including Iraqis and Central Asians, along with some Syrian fighters — are now fighting their final battle, holed up in tunnels and caves inside Baghouz, the last village they control. Since Friday, they have put up desperate resistance to renewed pounding by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces aiming to take the tiny pocket on the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. With no way out, they appear intent to fight to the death, SDF officials say.
Around two dozen evacuees described the group’s final days to The Associated Press. They spoke of how ISIS’s once powerful institutions that administered the provinces of the so-called “caliphate” withstood the pressure as fighters focused on maintaining control. All those who spoke with the AP asked to keep their identity concealed, fearing reprisals from ISIS or punishment for their connections to the group.
The evacuees, most of them relatives of ISIS members, include shattered families that lost loved ones and wounded, exhausted and hungry men, women and children — but some remain die-hard believers, angry and broken, and potential seeds for an already burgeoning insurgency in a country whose social fabric is in shreds.
Widows, who continued to live together in ISIS-administered guest houses even when the militants moved into tents, said monthly stipends from the group were replaced by food handouts, though distribution became less and less regular as food became scarce. Money transfer offices worked until the last days. One 24-year-old Syrian woman, Bayan, said her mother wired money from Aleppo a month ago to help her after her husband was killed.
The militants kept up their physical punishments. They killed a senior Iraqi leader for helping people escape their pocket. The ISIS religious police, known as the “Hisba,” drove around the tent encampment inside Baghouz, urging its residents to perform prayers five times a day. When it was time for evacuations, the Hisba oversaw the operation, calling on the wounded and families to register.
A driver named Khodr in one of the convoys of trucks waiting at Baghouz to ferry out a batch of evacuees last week got a first-hand look at how organized and brutal ISIS remains. During the operation, masked ISIS gunmen stood at alert, two at each truck, while another militant walked among the lines of evacuees, checking their names against a list, he told the AP.
Suddenly the orderly scene was disrupted. A gunman lashed out at a woman, striking her with what appeared to be a Taser. Khodr couldn’t see why — perhaps she had been confused and hesitated to board, perhaps she argued. Crying and panicking, she fell to the ground and plunged her hands in the sand, trying to ease the pain. When she didn’t get up, the gunman fired his automatic weapon into the ground near her, until she stood up and boarding resumed.
“It was a terrifying scene,” he said. “He hit the woman from a distance, maybe two meters away, pssht, just like that. She fell, and I started to cry.”
In a leaked audio recording from inside Baghouz, an ISIS leader who describes himself as responsible for logistics explains to a gathering of supporters how the evacuation, organized from one side by ISIS and from the other by SDF, would look like. He stressed the evacuation would protect their dignity and freedom of movement. The veracity of the recording could not be independently confirmed, and SDF officials deny they negotiated with ISIS. But the ISIS leader’s comments jive with the group’s continued outreach to its supporters, instilling moral messages and keeping up a veneer of consultation with them.
The scenes of the evacuation have been apocalyptic.
Nearly every day, hundreds of men and women have straggled out of Baghouz, many visibly traumatized or wounded. Some were on crutches, in ambulances or on wheelchairs. Babies and children cried for food. Women, juggling a couple of babies on each arm, pulled duffel bags or plastic sacks with a few belongings. Some had lost children or husbands. Some brought out bags of ISIS-created copper and silver coins, clearly hoping to be able to use the caliphate currency one day.
They had been on the move for months, running to stay in ISIS’s crumbling territory as the Kurdish-led Syrian forces chased the group from its de facto capital of Raqqa down the Euphrates to Baghouz.
Now outside Baghouz, they lined up for screening by ISIS’s enemy, the SDF, in a reception area in the desert, stirring up dust that coated their clothes. Men lined up separately to be searched and screened by SDF fighters who collected their biometric data.
Um Abdulrahman, a 27-year old mother, said she tried four days in a row to be evacuated before finally getting a spot on a truck. Her toddler son was killed and she was badly wounded when a mortar hit them weeks ago. Her husband, a mosque cleaner, had been afraid to leave. “He was so scared they would kill him,” she said, drying tears in her eyes with a cloth. Finally, they both came out and her husband was undergoing questioning by the SDF.
Um Rayyan, 25, said she remains a supporter but said she was disheartened by the group’s increasing corruption.
“When we first got to the State, everything was orderly. There was no differentiation between Iraqi or Syrian or foreigner,” she said. But in the final year, she said, the ISIS administration was monopolized by Iraqis who favored their own and kept all the jobs.
“I think this is the reason for the failure of the Islamic State… God protected us (from the international coalition.) But when there was corruption inside us, God stopped making us victorious,” she said, speaking while lying on a gurney at a makeshift open-air triage station, being treated by a US aid group. She had lost half her arm, and her leg was wounded from an explosion.
Aliya, another 27-year old Syrian from Aleppo, said her husband earned a salary of less than $100 a month teaching in mosques, but as conditions worsened the militants wanted him to work for free “because they had little to offer.” When her husband was killed last month, Aliya said she was unable to join the welfare system that guaranteed widows a stipend. Instead she relied on food handouts and reached out to “sisters” for assistance.
“At the end, they only distributed dates to those nursing. I didn’t get any,” she said.
Um Zaid, an Iraqi from Fallujah in her forties, said her welfare card that allowed her a stipend didn’t work in the final days. “No more money,” she said. “They would give food instead.”
Rana, a 27-year old mother of two, migrated with husband from Egypt to ISIS’s self-styled caliphate soon after it was declared in 2014. She said their life in Raqqa was the “best of times” — she was able to buy gold for her daughters and the ISIS administration had plentiful resources. After Raqqa’s fall, she and her family retreated with the militants.
She left Baghouz in the last batch of evacuees before the SDF assault began last Friday. Her husband, 27, stayed behind and was likely to be forced to fight, she said. Rana was searched by female SDF fighters as she stood in line with her daughters, 5 and 8 years old, their faces veiled. She carried their last pieces of gold hidden under her clothes, a backpack stuffed with a few belongings and a bag of dates given to her by the militants just before she left.
After leaving her home in Egypt and falling out with her family to follow her husband and the dream of Islamic rule, “this is all I have left,” she said.