Inside the Islamic State group's secret dungeons

Inside the Islamic State group's secret dungeons
Syrians know the price for opposing the Islamic State group - arrest, torture, death. On Tuesday, a report revealed the extent of the jihadi group's network of secret prisons.
5 min read
26 April, 2016
IS operate a network of feared secret prisons in Syria and Iraq [Getty]

More than a thousand Syrians have disappeared in Islamic State group's secret jails, including hundreds of children, according to a recent report.

IS' clandestine prison network stretches across its Syrian territories and are used to hold prisoners on the most serious charges including activism, spying, dissent, and working for the opposition or regime.

They are almost always guarded and run by foreign fighters, and accused of crimes against IS' rigid interpretation of Islam.

This term has been frequently used against Sunni Muslims who oppose the jihadi group.

Water boarding

Torture is also routinely practiced - including water boarding, gassing, electric shocks and mock executions - while hundreds have been slaughtered in prisons, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said in the report.

These prisons - which include foreign captives - are kept secret to avoid been targeting by US war or relatives knowing whereabouts of their loved ones.

Although their locations are a closely guarded secret even by IS' own members, their existence remain known and feared by the local Syrian population. This has helped the jihadi group keep control over its potentially hostile Syrian provinces in Raqqa, Deir-az-Zour and Aleppo.

"The people know of many prison and of course they are afraid if they know that one of them on their street
and that whoever enters these prison will not leave [alive]," said Tim from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently - an anti-IS activist group - told The New Arab.

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He said these torture cells and public beheadings are well-known in Raqqa, and public beheadings and amputations are all designed to instil a sense of fear among Raqqa residents.

"The most serious charges are for those who work as activists or take a pictures and video, or have hidden internet in his house. These will result in death for anyone."

A number of activists have been arrested and were never heard of again, including around 20 people who Tim knows.

IS carries out intelligence operations in its territories to find culprits, and its spies and torturers both use techniques similar to the Syrian regime.

Lucky survivors

The report gives insights into the workings of this prison archipelago, including testimonies from those luckily enough to escape or survive.

"Two masked men spoke the Tunisian dialect [including] one called Abu Imama. They blindfolded me on a chair and started questioning me on the Free [Syrian] Army in Aleppo," said Emad L from Deir-az-Zour, who was charged with working with an opposition anti-IS faction.

"The investigation continued with torture for seven days at the rate of two hours daily. I could hear the sounds of other torture in the same place, they provided me with [a little] food [but not enough] and they did not allow me to pray because they considered me an apostate."

Whoever enters these prison will not leave [alive].
- Tim, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

Emad told the network that all the guards were foreign fighters and he was luckily released after undergoing religious rehabilitation.

Many of these prisons are located in the oil field areas including Mayadin, al-Tanak, and al-Jafrah. Some of the captives are women and girls "captured from non-Islamic areas", or accused of "magic and sorcery".

Captives here are frequently killed and their murders shown on IS-linked websites and social media accounts.

Torture of women prisoners is also routine by foreign guards, and those who do not pass religious "rehabilitation courses" are forced to marry IS fighters.


The group recorded the arrests of more than 6,300 people by IS, including 713 children and 647 women. Around 1,188 people also "disappeared" in IS captivity, including 411 children and 87 women between April 2014 and March 2016.

"We believe that [IS] emerged due to decades of political conflicts and not just Islamic extremism," the group said in their report.

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"[IS] phenomena remains a complex one that cannot be limited to jihadists or Salafists. [IS] considers its prisoners as infidels or atheists and recruits new members".

Apostasy is a charge commonly employed against fellow Sunnis in the Syrian opposition - even jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. The penalty is almost always death.

Conditions are considerably worse in these holding camps than in prisons for common criminals. Space and food are both limited, while a cruel and macabre atmosphere is enforced by the guards.

Prisoners frequently subject to mock executions and torture, including waterboarding [particularly for foreign captives], electrocution, beatings, being suspended by the arms for long periods of time, and being locked in rooms pumped with poisonous gas.

Captives who break bones or suffer internal damages are taken to hospital until they recover. They are then returned to the jails and the whole cycle starts again.

Public killings are frequent, and some of the jails replay footage of the beheading and burning of previous captives on big screens.

Forced labour

Even those found guilty of more minor offences - such as trimming beards, missing prayers, or smoking - also run the risk of death.

Some people found guilty of these crimes are made to carry out their short sentences on the frontlines, digging trenches or tunnels amid enemy sniper fire and shelling.

The group recorded the death of four prisoners - including one child - by the regime, when they were digging trenches close to Deir Az-Zour airport, which is still held by Damascus.

One 19-year-old who was caught with cigarettes was allegedly jailed and then lashed 40 times. He was then sent to the frontlines to dig trenches alongside IS fighters.

"We worked six hours daily, then we took a rest for six hours. [IS] members who were digging with us treated us well. We were shelled by the Syrian regime forces while we were digging... after three days, they returned us back to our homes."