BEIRUT – Almost two years since Islamic State militants started taking territory to form their so-called caliphate, residents of a Syrian town are showing how people are now fighting back.
At least 15 extremists have been killed in a dozen separate attacks in Mayadeen, on the Euphrates River, since the beginning of the year. Some have died in clashes with gunmen at or near Islamic State positions, said Rami Abdurrahman, head of a group that documents Syria’s war through a network of activists.
While Syrians “had fear” under President Bashar Assad, Islamic State “is a whole different degree of tyranny,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria. “The idea of Islamic State, it’s like communism: You want everybody to behave in a certain way, but you can’t.”
While the attacks may seem modest, their importance lies in their potential and reflect the growing unease with the group’s prescription for a model society.
The Awakening movement that turned against the Islamic State’s precursor in Iraq a decade ago started with similar low-key assaults largely by families seeking revenge against the group, said Mustafa Alani, director of the National Security and Terrorism Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center. Unlike in Syria, they had support from the U.S. military.
“Such attacks will be taken seriously because of their potential to develop into local resistance movements,” said Alani. The Islamic State group “will be watching their back and taking more care at checkpoints and during patrols. It wants to nip such possibilities in the bud.”
It is not clear whether other areas controlled by the group in Syria and Iraq have seen such violence against it. What is sure is that the group is trying to quash any signs of rebellion from within its own ranks.
More than 120 Islamic State militants were executed by the group between October and December because they tried to escape and return home, according to Abdurrahman’s group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In January, Islamic State gunmen killed 17 men in 48 hours in the countryside of Syria’s Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, most of them for fighting against the group.
Five more were killed this month in Syria’s Aleppo province in a clash with members of the group trying to prevent them from fleeing, the Observatory said.
In Iraq, the Islamic State group reportedly executed 20 people in Kirkuk province for intending to join resistance factions. Pictures posted online this month showed bodies hanging upside down from poles under an arch with an Islamic State sign on it.
The violence in Mayadeen has typically been hit-and-run. Most of the casualties this year occurred on March 7, when gunmen on motorbikes attacked an Islamic State patrol in the town’s Jaish Street, killing at least 12 militants, according to the Observatory. The same gunmen later attacked Islamic State’s court as another group targeted one of its security agencies, killing an unknown number of extremists, it said.
Alani said it is not known who is backing the gunmen. He said it could be a self-organized resistance group or tribes or families seeking revenge for Islamic State killings or offensives.
The Awakening movement in Iraq began with two families seeking revenge until it evolved into a force that overpowered the militants in Fallujah and Ramadi.
“The revolt wasn’t political or ideological,” said Alani, whose family hails from that area. “It was a revolt against the behavior of the group.”
Soon after the Islamic State group set up its caliphate in June, it imposed strict laws on its residents conforming to its own interpretation of Islam, which has been rejected by the faith’s top clerics and institutions, including in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In its first days, it banned alcohol and smoking and forced women to cover up in public and men to go to the mosque five times a day and started applying Shariah law.
As it became more entrenched, decrees grew more invasive and it created male and female religious police to roam the streets and ensure people behaved properly.
In December, the group ordered barbers in Mayadeen not to shave or trim beards and banned wedding and engagement rings because they emulated Christians, the Observatory reported. Last month, it issued another decree prohibiting male gynecologists from treating women except in an emergency, it said.
A woman on her own can no longer take a cab in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, according to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group. There should be at least three in the car, it said, citing an Islamic State edict.
These excesses will prove to be the group’s undoing, Landis said.
“People want to dance, they want to have a good time, people want to teach their kids crazy things,” Landis said by telephone. “Islamic State can’t compete with their kind of education. It’s a crazy notion.”