Militants with the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) have decided to turn their recent conquests into a tourist business, complete with jihadist honeymoons and themed tours across Syria and Iraq.
The sphere of influence the Iraq and Al Sham militants control, as of June, stretches through large swathes of northern and eastern Syria, as well as parts of northern and western Iraq.
Now a quite lucrative tourist trade operates without borders or ID cards, with its jihadist bus flying the black flag and ferrying fighters across the conquered lands.
AFP spoke to a number of rebels and activists by phone, who explained how the business venture works.
Many of the vacationing jihadists are from abroad. According to an activist, a Chechen was among the first. The 26-year-old Abu Abdel Rahman al-Shishani recently got married to a Syrian, whom he took on a honeymoon to Anbar.
“These jihadists are very romantic,” Hadi Salameh, the activist, told the news agency, adding that she sat in the back of the vehicle, as is customary. The lovebirds listened to jihadist songs as their bus took off from Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey, and headed towards Iraq’s Anbar.
“You can get off wherever you want, and you don't need a passport to cross the border,” Salameh, who is a Raqa resident and uses a pseudonym, continued.
“Of course it’s not free,” he said of the tours. Prices vary depending on distance traveled.
Speaking to AFP by phone, one Syrian rebel said that the foreigners among the jihadists “communicate in English and wear the Afghan-style clothing preferred by the jihadists.”
“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,” Abu Quteiba al-Okaidi said.
Another activist, Abu Ibrahim al-Raqawi, told the agency that “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.”
“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,” he told AFP over the internet, adding that others use it “to do business, while some just want to take a break from the shelling in Syria.”
The Islamic State has gained significant ground in both Syria and Iraq after its initial assault on the city of Mosul in mid-June. The group has since declared the creation of an Islamic state, or caliphate, straddling the Iraq-Syria border. Its presence continues to hang over the Iraqi capital Baghdad, although it seems to have halted after capturing key Sunni areas.
The group is famous for torture, public punishments and executions of anyone so much as daring to deviate from the strict form of Islam it propagates.