ISIS has been tightening security along the borders of its “caliphate” to prevent people from fleeing, according to locals familiar with the terrorist group’s territory.
And ISIS — aka the Islamic State — seems to be keeping a closer watch over its populace.
People who live in Raqqa, Syria, the de-facto capital of the group’s territory, which it calls its “caliphate,” are now reportedly forced to register with the militant government.
There are restrictions on what people can take in and out of ISIS-held cities. And women aren’t allowed to go anywhere without a male relative escort.
“Leaving the city is now really hard,” Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, an activist with the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Business Insider recently. “The problem is not going to Raqqa, it’s how to get out.”
Raqqa is the center of ISIS’s operations in the Middle East. Raqqawi — who uses a pseudonym — still travels back and forth from the city with the help of smugglers, he said. His family remains there.
Raqqawi said ISIS confiscates passports to make it more difficult to travel and forces people in the city to register so the militants can keep tabs on everyone.
“They are not allowing women to leave the city if they are not over 45 years old, and they are not allowing boys to leave the city if they are not over 19,” Raqqawi said. “After the statement that, ‘We want to register every boy in the city over 14,’ people are very afraid of the recruiting and want to leave.”
A Syrian man from Deir Ezzor, who goes by the name Fikram, told Business Insider that even some government areas “are surrounded by ISIS so civilians can’t get out except under certain conditions.”
“The area that is controlled by the terrorist organization has one road that civilians can go out from, and they open it in specific dates and times,” Fikram said. “Also, the civilians cannot move their personal items like home furnishings from the city.”
ISIS has also been enforcing rules around who can leave its territory. Ali Leili, a who runs the Syrian activist group D’Arezzo, described to Business Insider rules in place in Deir Ezzor, Syria.
“Sometimes people are allowed to leave to [go to] Damascus in order to [get] medical treatment, but not before they write a written undertaking that they will return to Deir Ezzor in the completion of treatment,” Leili told Business Insider.
Residents of other cities have talked of similar rules.
In Mosul, ISIS requires anyone leaving the city to provide the militants with the names of relatives who can vouch for their return, The New York Times reported in June. If the person does not return, their relatives may be arrested.
These restrictions have led to people relying on unconventional means to leave their homes.
“Hundreds of residents of Deir Ezzor and especially young people have left the province in secret smuggling routes to Turkey and then to Europe, [although] some of them are still in Turkey,” Leili said. “Everyone fled because of the hell experienced in the province because of the violations of [ISIS] and tightening the grip on the people there.”
The New York Times reported in a November story that a “cottage industry” of smugglers have cropped up to extricate people from ISIS territory. The newspaper reported that “until relatively recently, the routes into and out of Raqqa were mostly open.”
But now people have been relying on smugglers to supply them with false identification and accompany them across the Turkish border.
Others rely on ISIS militants themselves to help them escape ISIS territory. One woman who grew up in Raqqa and was roped into joining ISIS after the group took over the city asked a friend within the group to get her and her cousin out. The militant was able to get them through ISIS checkpoints without raising any suspicion.
Recently released ISIS propaganda suggests that the group is especially concerned about people fleeing and the damage that could do to the group’s brand.
In September, ISIS released a barrage of propaganda videos targeting refugees and telling them to come join the “caliphate” instead of fleeing to “xenophobic” Europe. The videos seek to reinforce the image of the caliphate as an Islamic utopia and capitalize on the dangers refugees face as they flee to European countries.
“They claim to create this Islamic utopia, and Muslims are fleeing in droves,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in September. “A legitimate caliphate … is supposed to be able to provide services to its citizens.”