World-exclusive: ISIS commander on the run tells of the terror inside the terrorist sect
He has seen men boiled alive in engine oil and others ripped apart between two vehicles.
He was offered the chance to buy five women as sex slaves, but says he declined.
Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi enjoyed a comfortable life as a top boss – Emir – in terrorist sect ISIS's capital, Raqqa in Syria.
Today he is on the run from ISIS with his four wives.
In a world-exclusive interview with Expressen's Middle Eastern correspondent, Kassam Hamadé, he tells of life inside the terrorist sect.
"Everything is about to collapse," says al-Raqqawi.
After two weeks of hiking, he walks towards me in his worn-out sandals, limping and tired. He had taken off his tattered military boots and discarded them while he was being smuggled across the border through a sewerage pipeline.
Until very recently, Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi was a senior member of ISIS in the terrorist sect's unofficial capital of Raqqa in Syria.
"A year after they established the caliphate, I realised it was false. Nobody dared talk openly about it. Anyone who did was killed."
For the first time, a defecting ISIS Emir has now come forward and talked openly about ISIS's reign of terror and about life inside the caliphate.
"The lucky ones managed to escape - most of them to Turkey," says al Raqqawi.
Bats gently take flight, almost in slow motion, as we step inside the bombed-out building. It is the second time in the last 24 hours that we have switched location for security reasons. The late summer heat is stifling and you can hear the echoes of wild dogs barking in the surrounding woodlands.
Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi is exhausted after two weeks of driving and hiking through the mountains and woodlands. We are safe here, far from the ever-decreasing sectors still occupied by ISIS.
"I didn't think I would survive this trip. The most dangerous thing was getting out of the ISIS-controlled areas. They've planted mines along the roads to and from Raqqa, in addition to snipers who have instructions to kill anyone who tries to escape," says Abu Abboud, who oversaw more than "50 policemen" in Raqqa.
Al-Raqqawi has held several high-ranking positions within the Islamic religious police force, al-Hisbah, he was Emir of the logistics committee and Emir for a unit within the migration police. Before he managed to escape, he asked other defecting IS bosses for advice.
"'Don't go,' they said. They believe that our meeting's a trap, so that I can be arrested," says al-Raqqawi, and smiles.
Reports about the death of al-Baghdadi were false
Last week, ISIS unexpectedly published a recorded speech by leader al-Baghdadi, after a year of silence.
Russian reports from earlier this spring that the ISIS leader had been killed in an airstrike on Raqqa proved to be untrue.
This did not come as a surprise to Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi, he already knew that the supreme leader had survived.
"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi led the retreat from Mosul. Before Raqqa was surrounded, he visited Raqqa and stayed there for a week, before he moved on to the al-Kheir province in Deir al-Zawr," says al-Raqqawi.
Al-Raqqawi reveals that a twelve-man delegation from the ISIS leadership group in Raqqa travelled to Mosul just before the offensive and met al-Baghdadi in a safe house there.
"When they returned, we found out that al-Baghdadi had sworn to refuse all food and live on just dates and water until God helped them to lift the blockade on Mosul," Says al-Raqqawi.
Living on dates and water is a way for him to demonstrate that he is following in the footsteps of the prophet Mohammed.
Al-Raqqawi reveals that al-Baghdadi left Mosul just before the city fell into the Iraqi Army's hands. All ISIS troops have pulled out of Mosul, retreating to the Iraqi-Syrian border and to Deir al-Zawr in Syria.
"Al-Baghdadi was moved to Raqqa. He stayed there for a week before moving on to Deir al-Zawr," says al-Raqqawi.
Al-Raqqawi points out that ISIS normally confirms when one of their leaders dies. That was the case with ISIS spokesman and second-in-command, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
"Even if they're weakened, they don't hide something like that. If he's dead, they confirm his death, but al-Baghdadi is alive."
ISIS recently lost the Iraqi city of Mosul. Together with militia group al-Hashd al-Shaabi and with air support from the US, the Iraqi Army liberated Mosul after nine months of fierce fighting. The Kurds, with air support from the US, have advanced into Raqqa. Together with Lebanese Hezbollah and with Russian air support, the Syrian Army has advanced into Deir al-Zawr and liberated the entire region of al-Qalamoun mountains along the Lebanon-Syria border.
What is the situation like inside areas that are still under ISIS control?
"Collapse. Collapse in a way that cannot be rebuilt. Syrian members are dropping out in droves. Everything that's happened over the past year has significantly weakened ISIS. A lot of Syrian members are dropping out and handing themselves over to the Kurdish YPG or fleeing to Turkey, while the foreign fighters are continuing to fight," says Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi.
"Everyone thought that they would bring justice"
Expressen has been communicating with al-Raqqawi for over a year. It is not his real name, but he was born and raised in Raqqa. Before the war, he worked for his father's company.
Towards the end of summer in 2014, black flags were hoisted above streets and marketplaces.
Few people understood what was happening. After the Syrian Army retreated from the city, Fatah al-Sham (al-Qaeda in Syria) and other armed groups from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of the entire province. It was not long before internal fighting broke out. But another powerful militia group was already making plans to throw them all out and establish themselves there. On 29 June, the group's supreme leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, renaming it the Islamic State.
"The people of Raqqa were tired of the Free Syrian Army, who treated people badly. They stole and behaved like bandits. It was a chaotic time. ISIS turned up. Everyone thought that they would bring justice and true Islam. People gave them support and they managed to drive all of the armed groups out of Raqqa and the entire province," says al-Raqqawi.
We pause the interview briefly and take a short walk outside the building to make sure we are not being followed.
I believed in them. I believed that they were true Muslims. Until they began slaughtering people and executing left, right and centre.
Al-Raqqawi was not part of any particular group when the regime's forces fled from Raqqa. He was just a regular practising Muslim, but he comes from one of the major clans in Syria. In order to protect yourself and your own clan, you must belong to a powerful armed group. He says that ISIS was the obvious choice for him and for thousands of other Syrians.
"ISIS sent 42 men to Raqqa first. Most of them were Syrians but they also had members from Iraq and a few foreigners. Within a short period of time, a lot of members of other armed groups had switched sides and joined ISIS. A friend of mine suggested that we apply to join. I was reluctant at first, but thought that it was an Islamic group who would apply the laws of Islam," says al-Raqqawi.
He fast-tracked through the ranks of ISIS.
He says that his family distanced themselves from him and broke off all contact. His father threatened to freeze him and his children out if he did not leave ISIS. Al-Raqqawi refused.
"I believed in them. I believed that they were true Muslims. Until they began slaughtering people and executing left, right and centre."
"The executioner chopped his head off with an axe"
ISIS soon began acting like a real state. They formed a police force and an army, and set up training camps for military training and schooling in Islamic law, Sharia.
"We got to see and participate in executions, to make us brutal. It was part of the training. The first time I witnessed an execution, it was an older man who had been accused of practising witchcraft. They shoved his head between two planks of wood, and the executioner chopped his head off with an axe. I was standing so close that I could see the way small bits of flesh were dangling from his neck and the way blood was pumping out of his headless body," recalls al-Raqqawi.
He breathes heavily as he speaks.
Al-Raqqawi tells me that he suddenly fell to the ground during the execution. He was having an epileptic fit. When he had recovered, his ISIS colleagues mocked him and asked if he had been scared.
"I told them that I wasn't. If I'd admitted I got scared they would have sent me off to new Sharia camps. I didn’t want to have to do that."
One vehicle is stationary and another drives off, with the prisoner tied to both.
Al-Raqqawi's position within ISIS meant that he could move freely around restricted bases and in areas controlled by ISIS. He says that he has seen it all.
"The things you've seen on the internet are executions by shooting and standard punishments. I've seen lynchings that weren't filmed or published. Some people were boiled alive in oil. Engine oil. They burned wood on a fire for an hour before throwing the victim into boiling oil. It's the Tunisians who were responsible for that."
Other barbaric execution methods include burning prisoners alive until they died and ripping prisoners apart while they were still alive.
"They tie one rope around their right foot and one around their left foot. One vehicle is stationary and another drives off, with the prisoner tied to both. You're ripped in two. It's unfathomable brutality."
Another method of torture is power cables wrapped around fingers like rings. The torturer forces the prisoner to stick their fingers into a socket.
"You're giving yourself electric shocks. Prisoners are forced to stick their hand in and out of a socket while sitting on a tiled floor that's flooded with water."
"People who make human laws are unbelievers"
Everyone who is a member of ISIS is sent to a Sharia camp, which last about 1-2 months, and then to a military training camp.
Foreign members were kept separate from local members in the training camps.
"The man in charge of the Sharia camps is Frenchman Abu Mosaab al-Farancy. He speaks Arabic, as well as French and English."
Al-Raqqawi says that he has taken these courses himself.
"I was in a Sharia camp that's located beneath the dam in Raqqa. It's where you get to learn about Islam, the history of Islam, the Quran and about who our enemies are. Anyone who doesn't follow Sharia is an enemy. People who make human laws and don't follow the laws of god are unbelievers," says al-Raqqawi.
On 17 August 2016, activist site 'Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently' reported that Abu Mosaab al-Farancy had been killed in an airstrike on Raqqa.
Al-Raqqawi claims that this is not true:
"He's alive and he's the person in charge of every Sharia camp in the caliphate. He's also responsible for the recruitment of cells in France and Europe."
Rumours have been circulating for a long time that the ISIS leaders are hiding out under the Euphrates Dam (Taqba Dam) in Raqqa. Al-Raqqawi says that he met hundreds of newly recruited members when he spent a month at the training camp inside the dam itself.
"ISIS was concerned there would be a sudden attack on the dam and that they would try to capture leaders or members."
Al-Raqqawi was a close friend of Raqqa's former Governor Abu Hajar al-Ghajar, who is a Syrian from Raqqa.
Al-Ghajar was not afraid to discuss crime and punishment issues with foreign ISIS imams - particularly those from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. He was one of the first big names to drop out of ISIS. ISIS's secret police knocked on al-Raqqawi's door one day, and he was called in for questioning.
"'Where is al-Ghajar,' the interrogator asked. They suspected me of helping him escape. They thought I knew that he was planning to leave ISIS and Raqqa. They got no information out of me. We ate dinner together the day before he fled to Turkey. I had a feeling he was going to drop out," says al-Raqqawi.
After al-Ghajar, more local ISIS members started to flee. Most of them to Turkey, but also to areas that were controlled by the Kurds. Al-Raqqawi describes it almost as a mass exodus. But not any of the foreign fighters.
"There are still foreign fighters inside Raqqa, along the Iraqi border and in Deir al-Zawr. They won't go back or give up. They're the ones leading the fighting. You don't suppose that someone who's travelled several thousand kilometres to fight for their ideology will give up. Never. They'll die in Syria," says al-Raqqawi.
"By that point, we could already feel ISIS getting weaker"
There are no reliable figures for exactly how many ISIS members have fled or been killed. Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi says that, according to internal ISIS documents, at least 5,500 members were registered dead in the 2014/2015 Battle for Kobane alone.
Now, he says, the sect is collapsing.
"Wages have been significantly lower over the past several months. ISIS is in desperate need of cash to pay wages. A Syrian member used to earn $90 a month, but if you're from Europe or the West, you got $200 a month. Migrants were given all the help they needed to remain in the caliphate. They got to live in big houses and their children went to special training camps. They even received child allowance, $35 a month.
Now they just pay between $40-45 a month to everyone and they've cancelled all additional allowances for women and children. By that point, we could already feel ISIS getting weaker," says al-Raqqawi.
"Pretty, young women were more expensive than others"
Abu Abboud is father to several children and, like most ISIS members, has several wives.
He says that life for a lot of women in Raqqa was hell on earth.
When ISIS stormed the Iraqi community in Sinjar, they killed the men and took thousands of women, girls and children as slaves.
"They were transported in buses to ISIS-controlled areas and sold on markets to ISIS members."
An ISIS committee was sent to the markets to set the price for the kidnapped women and children.
"Pretty, young women were more expensive than others," says al-Raqqawi.
He says that there are people who managed to escape.
"But a lot of them chose to take their own lives. The remaining ones are sold back to their families for a high price."
She was a slave, owned by a Saudi. He had tried to kiss her.
Al-Raqqawi is married to four women. He says that members from Saudi Arabia are the ones who bought most slaves. He himself was offered the chance to buy five women on one occasion.
"The man who had them wanted $500 for all of them. He needed money. I declined. Not because of money, but because it goes against my beliefs. A true Muslim does not enslave people," says al-Raqqawi.
On another occasion, al-Raqqawi was standing near his car at the al-Naim roundabout in Raqqa when he heard a sound. Something had hit the ground. It took a while for him to realise what it was.
"A woman had jumped off a third-floor balcony. She was a slave, owned by a Saudi. He had tried to kiss her. She died, but didn't let him take her. She threw herself off and died," says al-Raqqawi.
Al-Raqqawi says he planned his escape from ISIS for over a year. Now his entire family is in safety. Which is also why he has now chosen to come forward and speak openly.
"I want to tell everyone that what you see isn't an Islamic State. I want to tell the people with relatives inside ISIS: get in touch and get them to leave ISIS. ISIS are not Muslims," says al-Raqqawi.
How much longer will ISIS continue to resist?
"If the fighter planes continue to control the airspace and keep attacking ISIS targets, then ISIS will be gone within a few months at most. It's the fighter planes that have crushed ISIS."
"But the foreign fighters will fight to the last man," says al-Raqqawi.
You were an Emir of the Islamic State, but now you are saying that they are not true Muslims.
"Yes, they're not Muslims."
Nevertheless, you were involved in establishing ISIS and you helped them?
"That's correct. I joined ISIS and stayed with them for a while, but I couldn't protest when they did something that was wrong. All it would have taken is one person testifying against me, that I'd criticised ISIS, and I'd have been slaughtered."
Al-Raqqawi claims that he has not taken part in any executions and that he has not killed anyone.
Translator: Laura Åkerblom