Serving Coffee to ISIS Fighters


It’s that time of year again—time to curl up by the fire with your favorite hot beverage, a fuzzy blanket, and a Stephen King novel.

Speaking of hot drinks (I'm being seasonally relevant.), I recently interviewed a barista with an unusual story. Sam is a short guy with keen eyes and a quick wit who can pull a fantastic shot of espresso. He also, which you'd likely never guess by chatting with him, lived in a city under ISIS control for two years.

ISIS took over Raqqa in January of 2014. In an event that happened seemingly overnight, the so-called Islamic State became the governing authority of Sam's city, which would later become its capital.

A week after the takeover, Sam navigated the maze of local checkpoints and returned to work, but he was forced to face some new and difficult customers.

What was it like when ISIS fighters started showing up at your coffee shop?

I was nervous, of course. It was stressful. [Government-allied] planes were always flying overhead, searching for ISIS cells. One time, a bomb dropped right in front of me, destroying a building across the street. I ran home.

Could you refuse to serve them? What would happen if you did?

I never refused to serve them, but I wouldn’t let anything slide either. They didn’t like that. Sometimes they’d take me to their base for 2-3 hours and then release me.

Did ISIS fighters try to be friendly when the visited your shop? Were they entitled?


What did they talk about while they waited for their coffee?

They often advised me to join the jihad. They said that those on the other side were infidels and that I should help them get rid of this problem.

What did you say to that?

I’d say, “Yes, God willing.” I’d try to get them to shut up and avoid drawing too much attention to myself.

How did ISIS fighters like their coffee? Did they prefer Nescafé or espresso?

They drank regular coffee with Nesltlé creamer. They liked it very sweet. There’s a reason... *chuckles*...They liked it sweet because of all the drugs they were on. They would use it to refocus.

What kind of drugs did they take?

They called it captagon, I think. It helped them stay awake.

Do you think the drugs made them extra crazy?

They were always irrational, even before the drugs. Maybe the drugs made them crazier. They did a lot of strange things, like telling me not to smoke while they themselves were smoking. 

Was there anything you had to stop selling in your shop?

I wasn't supposed to sell cigarettes, but I did. I used a fake name.

They also didn't let me play music, which really bothered me. I would wait until the area got quiet, then  drive out of the city and turn my music up full blast. 

- - -

Near the end of our conversation, Sam revealed that he was imprisoned by ISIS. It was likely for several reasons—selling cigarrettes, possessing a photo of a woman with an uncovered face, and a few absurd and false allegations. They held him for four months. 

He was tortured and witnessed the torture of other inmates. But strangely, they released him so he could seek treatment for a stomach condition. Sam left Raqqa and never returned. He told me he could talk for hours about what he had seen, things that no one else had ever seen. But that, he said, would have to be off the record. 

Note: I changed "Sam's" name to protect his identity. I also condensed parts of the interview for clarity's sake.

Hannah SmithComment