In Depth

What is it like to live under Islamic State?

Militants behead and rape victims, yet stage 'fun days' for residents of their self-declared caliphate

New footage from Mosul reveals the horror of life under Islamic State, a year after Iraq's second largest city was captured.

Video obtained by the BBC shows mosques being blown up, abandoned schools, and the persecution of women and minorities.

Reports of executions, rape and intimidation have streamed out of Iraq and Syria since Islamic State militants took over swathes of territory last year. Militants now face US-led air strikes, as well as the challenge of day-to-day governance of the towns and cities they control.

Strict Islamic rules

Days after militants took over the northern city of Mosul they began distributing leaflets declaring a particularly strict version of Sharia law. They banned alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, threatened to amputate the limbs of thieves and warned that anyone who rejected Islam would be executed, reports the Washington Post. Adultery is punishable by death; men are thrown off high buildings while women are stoned to death. There was a crackdown on casinos and piles of cigarettes were burned, but residents say not all of the rules have been enforced.

"According to IS, everything is 'haram' (forbidden) and so I end up just sitting at home all the time," said Hisham, who lives in Mosul. "Even simple leisure activities like picnics are banned."

Violence and intimidation

Islamic State's violent tactics are so extreme that even al-Qaeda has disavowed them. Brute force has been used to scare former government forces and non-Sunni groups into compliance. As militants advanced from Mosul to Tikrit they published photographs of themselves posing over the bloodied and mutilated corpses of slain Iraqi soldiers. They have since demolished homes, religious buildings and shrines belonging to their opponents, and executed those who refuse to pledge allegiance to their cause. Executions have included beheadings, shootings and crucifixions.

Persecution of minorities

Militants initially ordered Christians in Mosul to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face execution, resulting in a max exodus of Christians from the city. Christian homes were marked with the letter N, denoting "Nazarene", a derogatory Arabic word for Christian. Thousands of homes that once belonged to Mosul's ethnic and religious minority communities were confiscated by jihadists and now stand empty.

Militants also called for the destruction of the entire Yazidi community, which Barack Obama said would constitute genocide. 


Slavery and rape are increasingly being used as weapons of war by Islamic State militants. Women and girls abducted in Iraq and Syria are being sold in slave markets for "as little as a pack of cigarettes", UN envoy on sexual violence Zainab Bangura told The Guardian. The girls they capture, often from the Yazidi minority, are either sold as sex slaves or forced to marry militants. They have also become a key part of the group's strategy to recruit foreign fighters. "This is how they attract young men: we have women waiting for you, virgins that you can marry," said Bangura.

Female jihadists have also published a "women's manifesto" – a guide to life for women under Islamic State rule. It states that girls as young as nine can get married, beauty salons are the work of the devil and women should only leave the house in exceptional circumstances. A strict dress code is enforced and reports emerged from the Syrian city of Raqqa that women were even banned from sitting on chairs.


Now that Islamic State has taken over towns and cities in the north of Iraq it is saddled with the task of actually running them. The New York Times says Islamic State leaders are adopting methods first pioneered by Hezbollah and are "devoting considerable human and financial resources toward keeping essential services like electricity, water and sewage functioning in their territory". They have opened a police department in Mosul, known as the Islamic Police, as well as two Sharia courts. In Raqqa, religious police officers patrol the street to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers.


Business is booming in Syrian territories occupied by IS, the Daily Telegraph reports. The militants have restored a sense of order in cities like Raqqa by imposing a tax system and protecting business owners from the theft and corruption that is endemic in rebel-held areas. Doctors and engineers employed by IS are "paid handsomely" – at least double what their colleagues receive in other parts of the country.  "If you have some money, and can keep your mouth shut, living there is OK," said Hassan, a satellite installation engineer in Raqqa. But the price for disobedience is high. A vegetable merchant was arrested after militants said his tomatoes were too expensive. The businessman swore at the jihadists and was summarily beheaded in the main square. "They left his corpse there, with a sign saying "Kaffir" [irreligious] on it," said Hassan. "He was 20 years old."

Hearts and minds

According to Jenna Lefler at the Institute for the Study of War, the militants appear to be following similar tactics of governance in Mosul as they did in Raqqa. One method is to win over the "hearts and minds" of residents with relief aid, such as food and water, and a form of rent control to reduce household costs. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the group even held a "fun day" in Mosul where the militants gave out footballs and held Quran memorisation and recitation contests. Lefler says that while minorities have faced persecution, some residents actually feel the militants have implemented a semblance of security that was lacking in Mosul under the Iraq security forces, although electricity and fuel shortages continue. She adds: "It is evident that the more time that [Islamic State] has to consolidate its governance and military gains in places like Mosul, the more unlikely it becomes that they can be dislodged from their territories."


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