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The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has ordered all boys and men above the age of 14 in their de facto Syrian capital to register their names and addresses with local police, stirring fears the group plans to expand military conscription as anti-ISIL coalition forces set their sights on reclaiming Raqqa, activists told Al Jazeera.
The order, posted on buildings across the city and its northern suburbs over the weekend, says that boys and men who fail to register with local police by Thursday — one week after the order was released — will face some undetermined "legal" consequences. Though conscription is not specifically mentioned, the order comes amid reports that a coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, are preparing to launch an ambitious operation to uproot ISIL from Raqqa, which the group has held since 2013.
"There is a fear men of the city will be dragged into this grinding war they have no hand in, with the primary goal of protecting Daesh," said Hamoud al-Mousa, an activist from Raqqa now living in Southern Turkey, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Some families are considering sneaking their sons out of the area for fear they could be forced to take up arms under the group's black flag, or even used as cannon fodder,al-Mousa said. But leaving the area comes with its own risks: In ISIL’s self-declared caliphate, punishment for crimes like defection by military age men is severe — ranging from fines and lashings to public execution in Raqqa's Al-Baghdadi square.
Al Jazeera was not able to independently confirm the order, an apparent copy of which was posted online by the activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. But it was not the first time residents in ISIL's vast territory across Syria and Iraq have raised concerns about military conscription. In Raqqa, locals have previously reported that ISIL authorities were telling men between the ages of 15 and 25 — the group's definition of military age — to register their names with the nearest mosque, ostensibly to ensure they were attending weekly prayers. The same demographic has also been barred from leaving ISIL territory to travel toSyrian government-held areas, reportedly to prevent a pool of potential recruits from either escaping or taking up arms on the other side.
It is unclear whether possible efforts to take stock of men of military age is tied to any shortage of troops in Raqqa. ISIL's military positions come under daily airstrikes from U.S. fighter jets and drones as part of the international anti-ISIL coalition effort, and at least one recent report found that ISIL is suffering a higher rate of defections in recent months, with ex-fighters complaining about the group's brutality, corruption, terrible living conditions and violence against fellow Sunni Muslims.
To maintain its fighting force, ISIL has been known to conscript "whoever it needs," said al-Mousa, saying hat has included efforts to pay the poor and deploy criminals. The group is infamous for its systematic indoctrination of child soldiers, too. Residents in Raqqa told Al Jazeera earlier this year that hundreds of boys as young as 8 years old were being inculcated at five different training camps in and around the city, usually lured there with promises of payment, sweets or, if all else fails, because their families were intimidated into sending them. Children are taught how to fire weapons and make car bombs, as well as how to behead a person — by practicing on sheep — said Abu Ward Al-Raqqawi, an anti-ISIL activist who uses a nom de guerre, speaking to Al Jazeera over Skype from his home in Raqqa.
"Most children don't know right from wrong, and at the same time, they're given money and gifts" as an incentive, said Al-Raqqawi. "If their parents say, 'we don't want our children to join,' they will arrest them. They'll accuse them of fighting ISIL."
ISIL’s systematic use of unwilling boys and men as conscripted fighters could also raise difficult questions for the U.S.-led anti-ISIL effort. Washington is keenly aware that any civilian casualties incurred by its airstrikes could feed the group's narrative of protecting Sunni Muslims from Western imperialism and oppressive local rulers, thereby giving the insurgency a morale boost. But systematic conscription blurs the lines between the group's hardened, indoctrinated fighters and unwilling civilian combatants, and it is not clear who the families of a dead ISIL recruit would blame more: the ISIL commander who sent him to the battlefield, or the American strikes that killed him.
A similar dilemma has been raised by U.S. strikes on the ISIL oil infrastructure, which provides a major source of revenue for the group but is also thought to be staffed mainly by the civilians who held those jobs prior to ISIL’s takeover — many of whom are likely unable to leave, since ISIL needs their technical expertise to keep the oil flowing.
At times of heightened military need, such as the high-profile battle over the Kurdish city of Kobane earlier this year, ISIL forces have been known to resort to last-ditch measures — such as expedited training camps for children, al-Raqqawi said. Scores of boys were sent to die in Kobane, many as suicide bombers, according to various reports. Such desparate conscription measures loom large as an unknown force of Kurdish and Arab rebels, reportedly with U.S. backing, take aim at ISIL's stronghold in Raqqa.
"Daesh is preparing for a battle with this attacking force it doesn't know the strength of," al-Mousa said about the new registry order. "This is a precautionary step."