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Torture and Punishment in the So-Called Caliphate

Nonviolent activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently discusses the gruesome and widespread torture methods used by the so-called Islamic State inside its de facto capital Raqqa in northern Syria.

Written by Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Militants with the so-called Islamic State group whip a man for breaking his fast during the holy month of Ramadan without a religiously acceptable excuse. Islamic State Group/Al-Furqan

Since its entry into Raqqa, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has attempted to spread fear in the hearts of civilians by kidnapping and disappearing activists, journalists, leaders, and members of the Free Syrian Army and opposing Islamist factions.

The barbarity of the Islamic State’s torture of its prisoners became known after the killing of Dr. Hussein Abu Rayyan, head of the Tel Abyad border crossing and member of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic movement. The forensic report revealed fractures in his neck and ribs, bullet wounds in his hands and legs and an amputated ear.

Many reports have come out of the Islamic State’s prisons concerning its prescribed torture methods, including the use of psychological torture: “The ISIS prison wardens would speak continuously of the coming retribution. ISIS men would enter, place knives on our necks and threaten to kill us. An ISIS member would occasionally enter carrying a prisoner’s amputated head, promising the others a similar fate,” stated Ahmed, an activist in the “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” movement.

On the streets of Raqqa, ISIS erected steel cages filled with human skulls to imprison women for one night if they disobey its laws.

Torture is both a punishment and a means for the wardens to satisfy themselves and their bosses. Their ideas come from the darkest side of human creativity.

The primary torture method used during interrogations of men and women who violate ISIS’s laws (and recognized as customary punishment by ISIS legislation) is lashing. Lashing is used to elicit information and confessions from victims. The “shabeh” or “ghost” method is used for a similar purpose; with the shabeh, the warden hangs the prisoner from his hands for a period of time that may stretch into days. The prisoner often loses the ability to move his hands and dislocates his joints and can suffer damage to his brachial plexus, resulting usually in permanent disability.

Another torture method is electric shock, which ISIS uses to interrogate prisoners with complete disregard to the limits of the human body. Electric shock often leads to death, caused by damage to the heart muscle or electric burns. Additionally, the iron “biter” – composed of a metal jaw used on women who fail to abide by the ISIS dress code – leaves the prisoner with a permanent scar. This torture instrument was first used in the Middle Ages before being brought back into use by ISIS.

The “flying carpet” is a metal board with hinges in the middle, and the prisoner is tied to these hinges. It is then closed, causing a brutal bend that may lead to fractures in the victim’s spine or ribcage.

Torture is a horrendous act and those committing it – both the torturer and the one ordering the torture (the latter generally being a commander or emir in the Islamic State hierarchy) – exhibit certain psychological characteristics. This article relies on general psychological studies and in particular the work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

A number of characteristics are present in torturers, though not all of them are necessarily present in all torturers. The most important of these characteristics is sadism – an individual’s tendency to derive pleasure and psychological (and even sexual) gratification from seeing others suffering from torture. It is considered a severe personality disorder that leads the individual to degrade and torture others. An example of this is the Iraqi national Abu Ali al-Sharai, one of the Islamic State’s prominent executioners and leading figures, infamous for his pride for having killed 100 people in the first months of the Islamic State’s control over Raqqa.

Torturers also have a tendency toward appeasement, as described by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, known for his prison experiment and the Lucifer Effect theory. Appeasement may contradict the aforementioned characteristic of sadism, but is crucial for torturers’ personalities because it allows them to submit to their leaders’ orders without their conscience pushing them to question or oppose the command to commit violence. Perhaps the reason for this blind obedience or eagerness to appease is limited intelligence, shallow understandings of culture and feelings of insecurity – all characteristics that make such people easily persuaded. Because of these characteristics, torturers will blindly obey their leaders, are easy to entice and can be convinced that what they are doing is in the best interests of a country or a particular cause.

ISIS cultivates such blind obedience in its torturers, soldiers and even the general public, forcing people to be loyal to the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the operational hierarchy of the Islamic State. They have used Quranic verses and Hadith of the Prophet to support their cause, such as verse 59 from Sura al-Nisa, “O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those of you who are in authority,” functioning as support for the military, mimicking the expression “shoot first, ask questions later.” Such an interpretation seeks to link objection to orders with sin and a departure from religion.

The third trait of torturers is antisocial psychopathy: a complete lack of respect for society’s laws, values or conventions. A psychopath is aggressive, feels no guilt or regret, does not learn from previous experiences and is unable to feel sympathy, mercy, justice or dignity. These individuals are concerned solely with obtaining the greatest amount of pleasure, even if it comes from pain caused to others. “The warden would hit me, while laughing, and call me an infidel,” recalls Saleh, a young man who was recently released from an Islamic State prison.

The fourth trait is paranoia, naturally expecting the worst of intentions and behavior from people. This trait is defined by pessimism and those who have it find refuge in preemptive aggression, excusing this aggression as necessary protection for themselves or for others from terrorism or any expected dangers. This intense fear leads to the contempt and distrust of others, allowing them to find refuge in sources of security (which is how ISIS attracts such personalities).

The ability to rationalize their acts and clear their conscience is the fifth characteristic, and an important psychological tactic, which does not fall under one of the aforementioned categories. Torturers, for example, consider torture to be a legitimate means to achieve security for the rest of the population or to elicit important confessions that will lead to achieving peace (in either their or their leaders’ opinions). In the end, they associate torture as a means to achieve national goals or attain security.

The effects of torture depend on the extremity and type of torture, as well as on the victim’s character, and the post-torture support system. Generally speaking, there are several common aftereffects for those who have been tortured. The first is the collapse of the victim’s core assumptions. The victim had previously believed that there was a sanctity to the body and the self, an amount of dignity in humanity and that mercy, sympathy and justice exist; these assumptions – as well as other basic, fundamental values – are shaken after extreme torture. The victim’s entire psychological foundation is shaken, and they spend years searching for a new way to explain and accept what they have been through. They live the remainder of their life in pieces, especially if tortured as a child or a young person.

The second effect is the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a stress disorder that afflicts people who have witnessed horrific events that had threatened them, or perhaps those who have experienced a severe injury or life-threatening danger. In these cases, memories of torture return during a person’s waking state and in their dreams, as if it were replaying as a film. Every time these people see or hear someone or something that reminds them of these events, that person feels as if the traumatic event is happening at that very moment all over again; this will make most want to avoid anything that reminds them of what happened.

These effects can occur alongside depression, as the victim of torture can feel a loss of energy and dignity, encompassed by hopelessness at the possibility of retribution. The attributes of depression appear based on the individual and their situation, but often the person is afflicted by a state of sadness, a loss of appetite, a feeling that life is meaningless and the potential development of a sleep disorder. The individual is occasionally overcome by mental ailments such as illusions of persecution and hallucinations, accompanying the psychophysical distress such as disturbances to the digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems.

Torture is a vicious circle, each phase characterized by violence. Treating and recovering from this violence should not be taken lightly. Now Syrian society will suffer from the consequences of torture for years to come, as its effects are not only physical but also psychological, for both the victim and the perpetrator. The suffering society could seek retribution or revenge from the torturers, which may lead to additional violence. Treatment starts with awareness of torture’s effects and a readiness to support victims by designing mechanisms to reinstate justice and mercy in the society. Syria needs to start considering mechanisms such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, even if they are only implemented locally, in areas liberated from ISIS.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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