In a Syrian city, Islamists put their vision into practice

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RAQQA, Syria -- When his factory was bombed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the businessman considered two bleak options: remain at home and risk dying in the next airstrike or flee like hundreds of thousands of others to a refugee camp in Turkey.

Instead, he took his remaining cash and moved east to a neighboring city, Raqqa, de facto capital of the world's fastest-growing jihadist force. There, he found a degree of order and security absent in other parts of Syria. "The fighting in Syria will continue, so we have to live our lives," said the businessman, who gave only a first name, Qadri, as he oversaw a dozen workers in his new children's clothing factory in Raqqa.

Long before extremists rolled through Iraq and seized a large piece of territory, the group now known simply as the Islamic State took over most of Raqqa province, home to about a million people, and established a headquarters in its capital.

Through strategic management and brute force, the group has begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.

In time, it has won the surprising respect of some war-weary citizens, such as Qadri, who will accept any authority that can restore a semblance of normal life. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo, by comparison, remain racked with food shortages and crime.

But there is a darker side to Islamic rule, with public executions and strict social codes that have left many in this once-tolerant community deeply worried about the future. "What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word," a retired teacher said in Raqqa. "It is not a joke."

A New York Times employee spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation.

Raqqa's City Hall houses the Islamic Services Commission. The former Finance Ministry office contains the sharia court and criminal police. Traffic police are based in the First Shariah High School. Raqqa's Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said they get receipts stamped with the Islamic State logo, and that fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

The Islamic State, has already proved its military prowess, routing other militias in Syria and the Iraqi military. But in this agricultural hub, it has had the most time since its takeover earlier this year to turn its ideology into reality, a project unlikely to end soon, given the lack of a military force able to displace it.

An aid worker who travels to Raqqa said the Islamic State ranks were filled with volatile young men, many of them foreigners more interested in violence than governance. To keep things running, it has paid or threatened skilled workers to stay in their posts, putting in loyalist supervisors to ensure compliance with Islamic rules.

Raqqa's three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have been shut. After seizing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, the Islamic State made it an Islamic center screening battle and suicide mission videos to recruit fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month.

Religious police banned public smoking of cigarettes and water pipes, which dampened the city's social life, forcing cafes to close. They also make sure women cover hair and faces in public.

The Islamic State keeps food in markets, and bakeries and gasoline stations function. It has more trouble with drinking water and power, out for as much as 20 hours a day.

The group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asked in a recent audio address for doctors and engineers to travel to places such as Raqqa to help build his newly declared Islamic State.

Hints of this international mobilization are already apparent in Raqqa, where gunmen at checkpoints are often Saudi, Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan. Raqqa's electricity emir is Sudanese, and one hospital is run by a Jordanian who reports to an Egyptian boss, said Syrians who work under them.


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