‘Caliphate’ tours big business for jihadists

AFP-JIJI

Known for kidnapping, public stonings, lashings and executions, the Islamic State is now expanding into tourism, taking jihadists on honeymoon and civilians to visit other parts of its so-called caliphate.

Running twice-weekly tours from the Syrian city of Raqqa to Iraq’s Anbar, Islamic State buses fly the group’s black flag and play jihadist songs throughout the journey.

One of the first clients was Chechen jihadist Abu Abdel Rahman al-Shishani, 26, who took his new Syrian wife on honeymoon, according to activist Hadi Salameh.

“Just after they got married, he took her to Anbar. These jihadists are very romantic,” Salameh joked.

But the two weren’t able to sit together, because “women sit in the back, and men at the front. The bus driver plays jihadist songs all through the ride, and the Islamic State black flag flies over the bus.”

The Islamic State proclaimed a caliphate last month straddling Iraq and Syria. According to a rebel from eastern Syria, the tours started operating immediately afterward.

It firmly controls large swaths of northern and eastern Syria, the Iraq-Syria border, and parts of northern and western Iraq.

The group is responsible for a number of atrocities, including mass kidnappings and killings, stonings and crucifixions.

Salameh said the group’s tour buses “start their journey in Tal Abyad (on Syria’s Turkish border) and end in Iraq’s Anbar. You can get off wherever you want, and you don’t need a passport to cross the border.”

The activist, who lives in Raqqa and uses a pseudonym to avoid retribution from the Islamic State, said via the Internet the company is for profit. “Of course it’s not free. The price varies, depending on how far you go on the bus,” Salameh said.

Syrian rebel Abu Quteiba al-Okaidi, who is from the border province of Deir Ezzor, said most of those who use the buses are foreign jihadists.

“Most of them are foreigners. They communicate in English, and wear the Afghan-style clothing preferred by jihadists,” al-Okaidi said by telephone.

“There is a translator on the bus, who explains to them where they are going. The men on the bus are not armed, but vehicles carrying armed escorts accompany the bus,” he added.

The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq, but spread into Syria in late spring last year. It gradually took over Raqqa and transformed it into its bastion.

In June, it spearheaded a lightning offensive in Iraq that saw large swaths of the north and west of the country fall from Iraqi government hands.

Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, another activist living in Raqqa city, said “tour buses run twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday. It works like any bus company would, except that it treats areas under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria as one state.”

He also said the bus company is “popular” among those with relatives in Iraq.

“Many people living in this area (northern Syria through western Iraq) have tribal ties stretching across the border. So they use these buses to visit their families,” al-Raqqawi said.

Speaking via the Internet, al-Raqqawi also said others take the bus “to do business, while some just want to take a break from the shelling in Syria.”