New York Daily News, May 26, 2015:
BEIRUT — The honeymoon was a brief moment for love, away from the front lines of Syria’s war. In the capital of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate,” Syrian fighter Abu Bilal al-Homsi was united with his Tunisian bride for the first time after months chatting online. They married, then passed the days dining on grilled meats in Raqqa’s restaurants, strolling along the Euphrates River and eating ice cream.
It was all made possible by the marriage bonus he received from the Islamic State group: $1,500 for him and his wife to get started on a new home, a family — and a honeymoon.
“It has everything one would want for a wedding,” al-Homsi said of Raqqa — a riverside provincial capital that in the 18 months since IS took control has seen militants beheading opponents and stoning accused adulteresses in its main square.
Gunmen at checkpoints in the city scrutinize passers-by for signs of anything they see as a violation of Shariah, or Islamic law, as slight as a hint of hair gel or an improperly kept beard. In the homes of some of the IS commanders in the city are women and girls from the Yazidi religious sect, abducted in Iraq and now kept as sex slaves.
The Islamic State group is notorious for the atrocities it committed as it overran much of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But to its supporters, it is engaged in an ambitious project: building a new nation ruled by what radicals see as “God’s law,” made up of Muslims from around the world whose old nationalities have been erased and who have been united in the “caliphate.”
To do that, the group has set up a generous welfare system to help settle and create lives for the thousands of jihadis — men and women — who have flocked to IS territory from the Arab world, Europe, Central Asia and the United States.
From the day he declared the “caliphate” last summer, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged not just fighters to come, but also doctors, engineers, administrators and other experts.
“It is not just fighting,” said al-Homsi, who uses a nom de guerre. “There are institutions. There are civilians (that IS) is in charge of, and wide territories . It must help the immigrants marry. These are the components of a state and it must look after its subjects.” Al-Homsi spoke in a series of interviews with The Associated Press by Skype, giving a rare look into the personal life of an IS jihadi.
The new IS elite is visible in Raqqa, the biggest city in Syria under the extremists’ rule.
Luxury houses and apartments, which once belonged to officials from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, have been taken over by the new IS ruling class, particularly Iraqis who serve as senior military commanders, according to a member of an anti-IS media collective in the city who goes by the name of Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi.
Upper-level commanders get a car and fuel expenses paid. IS fighters are not charged a new entry fee at city hospitals that is imposed on others. IS has set up an English language nursery for children of English-speaking jihadis and bus rides from Raqqa to Iraqi and Syrian halves of the “caliphate” are also on offer.
Raqqa lies near the center of IS-controlled territory and is thus cushioned from the fighting around its edges. Its supermarkets are well stocked, though only IS fighters can afford the more luxurious imports like Nutella, said al-Raqqawi.
Senior IS figures also own most of the plentiful Internet cafes in the city, run by satellite, and sell Internet access to residents at home by the megabyte.
“The city is stable, has all the services and all that is needed. It is not like rural areas the group controls,” al-Raqqawi said. “Raqqa is now the new New York” of the caliphate.
Helping fighters marry is a key priority. Aside from the normal stipend they receive, foreign fighters get $500 when they marry to help them put together their new household.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on insurgent groups, said that when the IS took Iraq’s second largest city Mosul last summer, one of the first things militants did was set up an Islamic court — not just to pass sentences under their strict version of Shariah but also “to give official Islamic State approval of marriages.”
The 28-year-old al-Homsi got a particularly large bonus because his marriage, which took place in April, brought in a useful new recruit: His wife, who goes by the nom de guerre of Umm Bilal, is a doctor and speaks four languages. He said she will be of service to the caliphate.
The AP has spoken with al-Homsi repeatedly over the past three years, when he started as an activist covering the fighting in his home city of Homs in central Syria.
He was always an ultraconservative Islamist, and he told AP he had supported IS as early as 2013. Being caught in the punishing siege of Homs turned him from an activist to a fighter.
Insight from terror analyst Erick Stakelbeck, author of ‘ISIS Exposed’. Report: ISIS lures new recruits with ‘marriage bonus’