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When ISIS Comes To Town, Everything Changes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now of economic life under the rule of ISIS. Even as fighters of the self-declared Islamic State battle enemy forces and churn out extremist propaganda, other people go about their lives. Stacey Vanek Smith from NPR's "Planet Money" podcast got one Syrian man on the phone to ask - how's business?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: A year and a half ago, Mohammad Khedr was working for an advertising agency in Deir ez-Zor, a city in eastern Syria. He made billboards and pamphlets for local businesses.

MOHAMMAD KHEDR: It was wonderful life. I remember my wedding took three days.

SMITH: Your wedding took three days?

KHEDR: Yes, it's big party and really, wonderful life.

SMITH: Khedr is in a secret location now and would only talk to me on his cell phone. He says when ISIS came last year, everything changed. Many stores went out of business. Khedr's advertising business mostly dried up. And the only people with money to spend were ISIS fighters.

What was it like at the market?

KHEDR: There are two kinds of goods.

SMITH: Two kinds of goods.

KHEDR: Goods for ISIS members and goods for civilians.

SMITH: Khedr says that ISIS fighters had stacks and stacks of American dollars. That's how they're paid. He saw one guy pay 50 bucks for a candy bar. And shop owners realized they could charge crazy prices for the things ISIS fighters liked. And what they liked were Western goods, the kind of things a teenager might buy - Red Bull, Twix bars, pizza.

KHEDR: They're asking for French perfume. They're asking for Axe spray...

SMITH: ...Axe body spray? Like, Axe body spray? Really?

KHEDR: Yes, yes.

SMITH: Meanwhile, Khedr couldn't afford meat for his family. And it was clear where a lot of the money the ISIS fighters were spending was coming from. ISIS was relentless about collecting taxes. Taxes for water, taxes for electricity even when there wasn't any, taxes if your beard was too long, taxes if your beard was too short.

KHEDR: On the first week of the month, they would go to the houses and they'd take the money.

SMITH: You'd have to hand them cash?

KHEDR: Yes.

SMITH: Khedr lived under ISIS for almost a year. And then six months ago, he woke up in the middle of the night to a loud knock on his door. It was a bunch of agents from ISIS. They said get in the car.

Did you know why they were taking you?

KHEDR: No, no, no. I was thinking maybe they take me for smoking.

SMITH: You thought you'd been arrested for smoking?

KHEDR: There are a lot of charges.

SMITH: The men drove Khedr to headquarters and put him in a little room. Two guys came in.

Were you scared?

KHEDR: Of course. You are arrested by ISIS - what do you think?

SMITH: The men said we know you work in advertising and we need you to design a logo for our new ISIS news agency. They gave him a laptop and he designed the logo. It was a blue camera lens with the Euphrates River running through it. And the two men liked it. They offered him a job on the spot.

KHEDR: They offered me to work with them and they say we will give you a lot of money, and a car, and a gun and a house.

SMITH: Money, and a car, and a gun and a house. Khedr thanked the men for the job offer and the next day, he fled to Turkey with his wife. He now runs an activist news organization called Sound and Picture. He gets stories from people inside ISIS territory and smuggles articles and news materials back into his home town. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.