Last week members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the extremist al-Qaida spinoff group that controls the city of Raqqa, appeared to hang the bodies of executed victims on crosses in a town square.
The incident is the latest in a number of increasingly brutal tactics employed by ISIS in Raqqa. The group has been described as having an “iron grip” on the city, Syria’s first to fall from government control into rebel hands. ISIS came to dominate the city by beating back rival rebel groups. Since then a strict interpretation of Islamic law has been imposed across the city; women are now forced to cover themselves from head to toe in public, while allegations of blasphemy have been met with harsh punishments, including execution.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, the Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Center, has been following ISIS in Raqqa since it first entered the city. He weighs in on why ISIS chose to wage symbolic crucifixions.
Syria Deeply: Why did ISIS, whose tactics have grown increasingly violent, resort to crucifixion?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: The [victims] in question had thrown a grenade and crossed a checkpoint. But the idea is that that ISIS defines that as an act of terrorism. They see that as a case of waging war on the Islamic State [and thus] as waging war on God and his messenger. So they invoked part of the Quran to justify a crucifixion, because one of the punishments of waging war on God and his messengers is either you’re crucified, you could have your hands and feet cut off, or you could be driven into exile. Or you could just be killed.
The wider point is that ISIS doesn’t merely see itself as a group or an organization; it sees itself as embodying a state. So this crucifixion doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s an attempt to [subdue people] from carrying out underground insurgent attacks against ISIS, because there are insurgencies in Raqqa province. There are groups [including an] ex-Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate and [others] who are attempting to undermine ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What impact does this have in Raqqa?
Al-Tamimi: There’s no doubt that it creates a sense of fear and is designed to silence any opposition into obedience. They did a similar thing in Aleppo province, this was [also] supposed punishment.
They’ve been using public executions for a while. There was another crucifixion last summer [in Raqqa] that included allegations of theft and murder, but this is probably the most outstanding display of the harshest of their punishments so far, and definitely an attempt to undermine the underground insurgency.
Syria Deeply: Is this symbolism directed at any particular religious group?
Al-Tamimi: No, this is not related to Christians, this is just actually just a punishment mentioned in the Quran. Again, they don’t see themselves as a [mere] organization, so they consider [any act of violence] against them as waging war against God and his messengers. Crucifixion isn’t the only punishment, but it’s one in a range. ISIS can invoke a particular chapter of the Quran to justify their actions.
ISIS is this ongoing overall stalemate between ISIS and other rebels, where ISIS has really consolidated its positions. In the end, it’s bad public relations witnessed by the rest of the world.