ISIS Rules Revealed: Foosball's Fine, and AK-47's for Women — Leaving? Not So Much

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Men are forbidden from wearing western clothing. A woman is free to carry a Kalashnikov rifle, as long as it’s not slung over the shoulder in such a way to give definition to her body — which is to be covered in a traditional cloak.

Playing foosball is OK, as long as there is no gambling involved.

And, you cannot leave.

These are only a few of the rules governing all corners of life under ISIS, according to a newly revealed series of religious rulings purportedly issued by a council of clerics wielding wide authority inside the so-called Islamic State.

The rulings, or Fatwas, were published Monday by the scholarly website Jihadica, which monitors and offers analysis on militant groups like ISIS. Author Cole Bunzel, an American terrorism analyst who translated the rulings, says photographs of the documents were first published over Twitter last month by a man purporting to be a member of ISIS.

"One can glean from these fatwas much information about significant problems facing the Islamic State"

The rulings, varied in subject matter and structured in a question-and-answer format, provide insight into the group’s effort to govern the wide territory it holds across Iraq and Syria. The rulings come at a time that the group’s ranks continue to swell with fighters from all over the world. According to the latest estimate from the U.S. intelligence community, ISIS now has 20,000 foreign fighters — with as many as 3,400 Westerners who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the group. The U.S. government believes ISIS has as many as 31,500 fighters overall.


But as the group expands, so does the challenge for the ISIS leadership, which finds itself forced to answer for its propaganda touting the benefits of life in the so-called caliphate.

“One can glean from these fatwas much information about significant problems facing the Islamic State,” Bunzel concludes.

At least four rulings deal with questions about leaving the territory controlled by ISIS. One ruling outlaws the sale of passports that would facilitate travel outside ISIS borders; another ruling prohibits widowed wives of fighters from leaving. “If a woman insists on leaving for the Abode of Unbelief with the son of a mujahid [fighter], she should be punished… as a deterrent and preventive measure,” a ruling reads.

While the rulings are yet another sign of the group’s brutal hold on power, analysts say the documents offer other clues about the mood inside. “It is not a sign of strength that ISIS needs so many rulings against leaving its territories. Fatwas are often responses to questions or issues that arise,” says author and terrorism analyst J.M. Berger. “So these fatwas suggest there is some appetite to leave on the part of those who have emigrated to ISIS lands.”

Whatever the risk, a still-very-small portion of fighters is fleeing.

Last month, NBC News spoke in southern Turkey with a 16-year-old Syrian boy who had joined ISIS and then fled. The boy spoke on the condition that NBC News not show his face. The boy says he fears for his life, and that of his mother, who remains inside eastern Syria.


The rulings also offer a window into the leadership’s effort to establish elements of a functioning state.

Two of the rulings, for instance, deal with laws regarding taxes. Bunzel, the terrorism analyst who translated the documents, says the rulings show “an interest in creating an Islamic state that rules in accordance with their view of true Islamic law. Some of it,” he adds, “is very mundane.”

Other rulings demonstrate a pervasive reach into the most humdrum areas of life, including recreational time. One ruling permits playing foosball, and other permits playing billiards, each on the condition that the games “be free of all forms of betting and gambling, including forcing the loser to pay the cost of the game.”

"They've got a lot of young people in their ranks and they can’t really outlaw those kind of activities ... Otherwise, they’re going to have a lot of bored young men with guns."

Much like the stern father forced to acquiesce to rambunctious children, ISIS, according to analysts, is forced to keep the tens of thousands of its recruits content — and busy.

"They’ve got a lot of young people in their ranks and they can’t really outlaw those kind of activities,” says Will McCants, who is a Brookings scholar and the founder and editor of the Jihadica website. “Otherwise, they’re going to have a lot of bored young men with guns.”

But, it is women who are burdened with the most severe rules inside ISIS’s borders.

According to the rulings:

  • Women seeking medical care are told to seek treatment from female doctors. It is forbidden, according to one ruling, for a woman to be alone with a male doctor.
  • It is forbidden for a female nurse to work in an office with a male doctor without the company of other women.
  • A woman must be covered. Proper covering, the ruling states, must conceal a woman’s “entire body and hands,” and must be “loose-fitting.” The ruling goes on to say that women must not “mix with men,” shake their hands, or ride in crowded cars with men.
  • A woman may carry a Kalashnikov rifle, but may not carry weapons (such as a bandolier-style belt) that will reveal a woman’s figure.

Above all, experts say, the rulings are yet another sign of the interest ISIS takes in justifying terror and brutal violence through a severe interpretation of religious texts and history. In one ominous ruling, a fatwa states that burning a prisoner alive is permissible.

That ruling, according to the Jihadica website, is dated January 20th. A grisly video of the immolation of captured Jordanian fighter pilot First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh was released two weeks later.

Fighters of the ISIS stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.© STRINGER Iraq / Reuters / REUTERS