A recent report by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reveals shocking details about the level of organization inside ISIS’s prison system.
From 2013 to 2017, ISIS waged war against the West, against fellow Muslims and against Christians. They captured large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS was well-organized. Its end goal was to create a nation governed by their strict interpretation of Sharia law, and therefore functioned as such. It released monthly reports, had a bureaucracy, a governing council, governors over ISIS-controlled territory and a judicial branch.
Subsequently, the Islamic State also had a prison system. Within the Islamic State-controlled zone, prisons sprawled across Iraq and Syria like a web, each with varying degrees of security and function. Some functioned to enforce Sharia law, such as Hisba center, SJAC reported. Others, like Islamic police centers and security prisons, were for criminal code violators and political prisoners.
“The First Time I Saw ISIS”
Two Christians, Ismail and his mother Jandar, stayed behind when ISIS descended on Mosul, Iraq in 2014, Ismail told The World in an interview. Jandar was sick and couldn’t travel, so the two holed up in their home. After three days, they decided to leave, attempting to hitchhike to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Zone.
But armed men stopped Ismail and Jandar at a checkpoint about halfway to Erbil.
“They asked me where I am from. I told one of them I was a Christian from Bartella. He ordered me to step out of the car and hit me on the head. He then tied my hands and took us to Mosul,” Ismail told The World. “That was the first time I saw ISIS.”
Ismail was only 14-years old.
Prisoners of ISIS were men, women and children who did not conform to ISIS’s strict religious ideology. Many were residents in ISIS-controlled areas, others were activists, journalists or members of rival militant groups. Ethnic and religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Kurds were also at high risk.
At checkpoints in and out of cities, Islamic police targeted Christians attempting to flee, like Ismail and his mother. Christians were then taken to security prisons for potential prisoner swaps, and likely transferred numerous times.
In an ISIS Prison
Ismail and Jandar were taken to makeshift prisons ISIS made from the shells of homes. The Islamic State used whatever structures it could find as prisons — bakeries, private homes, even a brick factory. A stadium in Raqqa, Syria where the town used to gather for soccer matches was converted into a major torture artery, known as Point 11 or “the Black Stadium.” Point 11 was a security prison that held political prisoners or anyone that seemed to have a connection with Western or enemy forces. Accounts of the conditions inside Point 11 are harrowing: cramped cells, chains hanging from the ceiling, rooms set aside for torture.
Many Christian sites were destroyed as Islamic State tore through Iraq and Syria — as the object of the organization’s hatred — but some were transformed. Our Lady of the Annunciation Church, in Raqqa, Syria, functioned simultaneously as both a prison and a hospital, according to SJAC’s report.
In prison, Ismail and Jandar were tortured, lashed and beaten. The ISIS guards discovered that Ismail had a picture of Jesus and a small cross, he told The World. The guards burned the items, threatening to behead him if they found any more. Ismail clutched a second cross he had with him that they hadn’t found and hid it in the back of a cable receiver box.
“We will kill your son”: Forced Conversion
Ismail and Jander were moved from makeshift prison to makeshift prison and threatened repeatedly to convert to Islam or they would be executed.
“One of the ISIS fighters asked us, ‘Why won’t you become Muslims?’ We told him that we didn’t want to. He got angry at me,” Ismail said. “They put the gun on my head and told my mother, ‘If you don’t convert we will kill your son.’ We were scared. My mother told him to give us some time to think.”
The guards agreed and gave the mother and son a few moments. In the cell next door, the two could hear someone being given the same fatal ultimatum to convert.
“My mother then said let’s do whatever they want so that they wouldn’t kill me. So we told them yes, we will convert. They asked us to say the shahada [Muslim profession of faith] and we said it,” Ismail said.
Ismail and Jandar were then educated on Sharia law and Islam. Repentance courses and reeducation centers were common in cities under ISIS control. In fact, the Church of Armenian Martyrs in Raqqa, Syria eventually became an ISIS propaganda hub and reportedly one of the main offices for “repentance courses.” Many men and women who were forced to undergo “repentance courses” and Hisba centers were lost in ISIS’s system and never heard from again, SJAC reported.
“They would come and check on us every day and teach us the prayers,” Ismail said. “When we didn’t learn their prayer correctly, they would beat us.”
As a result of their “repentance,” Ismail and Jander oscillated between being freed and re-arrested.
“I would swim in the river, or go to souks [the market], just to blend in with them [ISIS members]. I was too afraid to talk to anyone in case they found out I was Christian and punished me,” Ismail told The World. “During that time they came and arrested me seven times. They would take me from the house and take me to a prison. They would sometimes keep me there for three days. Every time, they would give me 25 lashes, shave my head and then release me.”
It wasn’t until Mosul was under attack by the Iraqi army that Ismail and Jander found their opening to escape.
“We thought that either we die or we get to the army, it would be way better than staying with ISIS,” Ismail said. “I took a white sheet and wrapped it on a stick, then we ran toward the army.”
With ISIS guards and checkpoints distracted by the city’s defense, the mother and son made a break for it and reached the Iraqi army’s line. After two years in and out of ISIS’s harrowing prison system, they were free.
Many victims of ISIS in the prison system remain missing. ISIS conducted numerous extrajudicial executions, often without much communication from other government branches and buried them in surreptitious mass graves, reported SJAC.
SJAC revealed that about 6,000 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves or retrieved from rubble in northern Syria, but identification remains difficult. This accounts for only half of the total number of persons missing because of ISIS in northern Syria alone. The full extent of ISIS’s actions between 2013 and 2017 has yet to be uncovered.
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Image: An old villa used as an Islamic State base and then PMF base in Sinjar’s old city, Iraq. (Levi Clancy, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons).