Commentary Magazine

Resisting the Islamic State from Within

Image by © Niklas Meltio/Corbis

Perhaps the best book I ever read was Natan Sharansky’s Fear No Evil, a memoir of his time in Soviet custody and an explanation of how he outwitted his KGB interrogators as they sought to break him. Almost every activist imagines that he is speaking truth to power, but to do so when power is overwhelming takes both courage and skill. But while the KGB sought totalitarian control, they could be subtle. That is one adjective that cannot be applied to the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

ISIS brought a reign of terror down upon the territory it controlled. And while many more residents welcomed and, indeed, collaborated with the group, others resisted. Some have written about the tremendous risks that local and often anonymous journalists took to transmit the reality of life under ISIS to the outside world.

Until now, little has been known about how those arrested and tortured by the Islamic State resisted their captors. A new International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism report, “The ISIS Prison System: Its Structure, Departmental Affiliations, Processes, Conditions, and Practices of Psychological and Physical Torture,” changes that.

Utilizing interviews with dozens of ISIS defectors, returnees, and former prisoners, it traces the process and mechanism by which various organizations within the Islamic State would arrest prisoners, process them, interrogate them, and seek to indoctrinate them. After all, while ISIS would execute many prisoners and use their murders to produce grizzly recruitment videos, many other detainees would serve sentences and be subject to re-education. Many sought to deceive their captors. In one instance, cited by the report:

One of the former detainees, a 28-year-old man, explained the way some detainees manipulated ISIS jailors:

We would pretend to be reading their books. We would act as though we are asking each other questions from the books. In the classes we would engage with the Shari [the sharia’s lecturer]. If they come [ISIS guards] and see that we are reading their book, they would spare us from their wrath.

The first course was reported to last for forty days.

Others coached fellow detainees on how to fool interrogators:

Upon the decision of interrogators, detainees would be presented in front of an ISIS sharia judge. This phase often preceded the conclusion of elaborate torture and marked the end of interrogation. Former detainees did not report being told about the end of their interrogation. Moreover, the guards only took them to the same interrogation room without telling them that they would now appear in front of an ISIS sharia judge. However, the accounts of one of the interviewees, 54-year-old man, indicate that detainees became aware of signs of this change and how to respond appropriately to avoid further negative repercussions:

The brothers [fellow detainees] taught us how to deal with them [ISIS captors]. First rule: never confess to the interrogator. If you are seated on the floor, that means you are still being interrogated. Second rule: never incriminate yourself in front of the judge. If you know you did something, you should avoid mentioning anybody with any knowledge about it. You ought to bring the names of those without any knowledge of any breach of sharia law for example; those from ISIS or those who sympathize with them. Those names should be part of your story, the thing they arrested you for, but not aware of anything you did against ISIS. And you would know when you appear in front of the sharia judge. The treatment improves. He would ask whether you talked to your family. You would be seated on a chair. If you do well, you will still have to be detained for more, be you innocent or guilty. You would know if there is a punishment or not.

Once ISIS’ sharia judges make their decision, the detainees are taken back to the communal cell, except for those sentenced to execution.

And, in another, one poor father sought to outwit ISIS foreign fighters to protect his daughters:

Men were also targeted for arrest when an ISIS cadre was unsuccessful talking a father into giving his daughter for marriage or the ISIS cadre coveted the man’s wife. These instances usually ended in executions although there were exceptions as this defector told us:

So there was an old man he had two girls. One of the foreign fighters came and eventually offered him two million Syrian pounds and the old man was trying to stall him. Finally they arrested the old man and accused him of being a spy for the regime. So when they detained him as a spy it means he will be killed. So the old man gave in and said you can marry my daughter but we cannot have a wedding when I am detained. So they released him the next day. When he got out he pretended he was preparing for the wedding but he took his daughters and escaped to Turkey.

There is much, much more. The ICSVE report goes further than any published unclassified source (and likely many classified ones) to detail just how the ISIS punishment system worked. But, as Iraqis and Syrians emerge from the tyranny of the Islamic State, understanding how some resisted is crucial, if only to undermine globally other would-be totalitarian regimes.

Natan Sharansky is and was a hero for its resistance to Soviet tyranny. The tyranny of the Islamic State has produced other heroes not so well-known, but they are there. Autocrats and tyrants may believe they can stamp out dissent, but the tremendous courage and the individual desire for life and liberty will always triumph to erode such regimes from within, even as many other succumb to pressure or silence.

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