Nabiha, a 42-year-old woman who fled the town in April and now lives in a refugee camp in Jordan, recalled her disgust as she watched the militants force the man down on a wooden block normally used to slaughter sheep, then raise a heavy butcher’s cleaver.
“It was just one swing,” said Nabiha, who asked that her last name not be used, fearing for her safety. “His body went one way, and his head went the other. I will never forget it.”
The Islamic State uses its brutal and often arbitrary justice system to control the millions of people who live in its territory. By publicly beheading and crucifying people suspected even of disloyalty, the militants have created a culture of horror and fear that has made it virtually impossible for people to rise up against them.
“For you outsiders, it might be easy to ask: ‘Why does the public not protest more against Daesh? Why aren’t more voices speaking up against them?’ ” said a businessman in Raqqa, reached via Skype, who asked not to be identified for his security. “But you are not the ones that have to live under and with them.”
Local people ruled by the Islamic State are subject to the extreme laws of police and judges who are mostly foreigners from Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France, Britain and other countries, according to more than three dozen interviews with people who live there or have fled recently.
The militants make legal judgments based on an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. In some places, a female police force is deployed to enforce rules for women and orders to keep hospitals, schools and other public places strictly segregated by gender.
Residents who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, keep shops open during prayer time or dress in Western clothing are often whipped publicly – or worse.
Yassin al-Jassem, 52, a Syrian from a village outside Raqqa, said he watched one day as Islamic State police caught a neighbor’s teenage son smoking a cigarette.
“They held his left hand down on a block, and they took a big butcher knife and chopped off his first two fingers, the ones he used to hold the cigarette,” he said. “Then they just threw him into the street and left him to take care of himself.”
Those suspected of spying or collaborating with the Islamic State’s enemies are executed. The killings are generally done on market days or after Friday prayers, or at high-visibility locations, to make sure that the maximum number of people see the brutality.
Yahyah Hadidi, 26, who fled Islamic State territory in July, said the main square in his town near Aleppo in northwestern Syria was known as “Judgment Square” because of the executions there each Friday.
“They put up a special L-shaped pole that they used to hang the bodies and the heads. They hung them with butchers’ hooks,” he said.
“They want to terrify people. Lots of Muslims are good Muslims but don’t think like they do, and for that, they slaughter them,” Hadidi said.
Ahmed Ali Humaidi, 19, who also recently fled with his family from Raqqa to Jordan, said the militants routinely behead people in a traffic circle in the city center, impaling their heads on spiked poles.
“My life had always been okay, and in my whole life, I never really felt afraid,” he said. “But when I saw that, for the first time in my life, I felt real fear.”
In interviews, some people said the Islamic State’s criminal justice system was less corrupt than the Syrian government’s institutions under President Bashar al-Assad. And in Iraq, some people have joined the Islamic State because Sunnis often see the Sunni Islamic State as preferable to the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Hikmat al-Gaoud, the former mayor of Hit, Iraq, said he hates the Islamic State and is trying to recruit Sunni tribesmen to fight against it. But he said some Iraqis join the militants, saying: “The Iraqi government disrespects me and my wife and my children. I’d be willing to put my hand in with any devil in order to live my life with dignity. The Islamic State is the lesser of two evils.”
“I saw people use Daesh to get back at people they were feuding with,” he said. “They would go to them and say the person they were feuding with was a regime spy, and Daesh would just go and kill him on the spot.”
A woman who lives in the Iraqi city of Mosul, who asked not to be identified, said militants there recently cut off the hands of four boys, about 14 or 15 years old, who were accused of stealing wire to bring electricity to their home.
Interviewed via Skype, she also said the militants overheard a man complaining about the Islamic State, so they cut off his ears.
“I am afraid of them,” she said. “I look at them, holding their weapons and knives, and think: ‘They are monsters. How did they become this way? They took the city from us.’ ”
Another woman from Mosul, also interviewed via Skype, said she worries about the effect on her children growing up around so much violence.
“Last week, my 6-year-old son took a candy bar from his brother. And then he said, ‘Are you going to cut off my hand?’ I wish I had died before hearing my son say something like that,” she said.
Another day, she said, she and her family were in their car when they came upon an execution in progress. The crowds were so big that they blocked the road.
“I started crying and covering my children’s eyes,” she said. “I can’t imagine their future. But we can’t afford to leave.”
The Islamic State’s law-enforcers also limit cellphone service and access to the Internet.
Hadidi, from the village near Aleppo, said foreign Islamic State fighters regularly came into the cellphone shop where he worked and reviewed his records. Then they would go to the homes of his customers to inspect their phones.
He said they publicly whipped one teenage boy for downloading music to his phone, and they executed two others for having an image of a Syrian flag on their phones, suggesting they supported the government.
“They think everyone is a spy,” Hadidi said.