Middle East

ISIS branches into tourism in ‘caliphate’

A banner is placed at a checkpoint belonging to the militant group Islamic State, at the main entrance of Rawah in Anbar province, July 22, 2014.REUTERS/Stringer

BEIRUT: Known for kidnapping, public stonings, lashings and executions, ISIS is now expanding into tourism, taking jihadists on honeymoons and civilians to visit other parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Running twice-weekly tours from the Syrian town of Raqqa to the Anbar region of western Iraq, ISIS 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, aged 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 ISIS black flag flies over the bus.”

ISIS, which now calls itself 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 ISIS, told AFP via the Internet the company was 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 al-Zor, said most of those who use the buses were foreign jihadists.

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

ISIS has its roots in Iraq but it spread into Syria in late spring last year. It gradually took over the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, and transformed it into its bastion.

In June, the group 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 ISIS 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,” Abu Ibrahim said.

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2014, on page 8.




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