MIDDLE EAST

Islamic State jihadist group runs bus tours of its Syria-Iraq 'caliphate'

Honeymooners and foreigners join trips from Syria to Iraq, to a soundtrack of jihadist songs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 10:57pm
AFP

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Known for kidnapping, public stonings, lashings and executions, the Islamic State jihadist group is now expanding into tourism, taking its fighters on honeymoon and civilians to visit other parts of its "caliphate".

Running twice-weekly tours from Syria's Raqa 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.

After they got married, he took her to Anbar ... jihadists are very romantic
HADI SALAMEH, ACTIVIST

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 afterwards.

The group firmly controls large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, the Iraq-Syria border, and parts of northern and western Iraq. It is responsible for a number of atrocities, including mass kidnappings and killings, stonings and crucifixions.

Salameh said the group's tour buses started their journey in Tal Abyad, on Syria's Turkish border, and ended in Iraq's Anbar. "You can get off wherever you want, and you don't need a passport to cross the border," he said.

The activist, who lives in Raqa and uses a pseudonym to avoid retribution from the Islamic State, said 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 Ezzor, said most of those who used the buses were foreign jihadists.

"The foreigners communicate in English, and wear the Afghan-style clothing preferred by jihadists," Okaidi said.

"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 Raqa in northern Syria, and transformed the city into its bastion.

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

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

He also said the bus company was "popular" among those with relatives in Iraq.

Syria's war began as a peaceful movement for democratic change, but was transformed into a war after Damascus unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.

Many months into the fighting, jihadists began streaming into Syria.