BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
A nearby nature preserve to protect deer has been turned into a military zone and is off-limits to civilians. 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. An IT specialist before the civil war broke out, al-Homsi reported prolifically on social media about the two-year siege of the city by Assad’s forces and often briefed reporters.
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. He was among the last die-hards who remained holed up in a Homs neighborhood blasted constantly by government troops. When the siege ended in a May 2014 truce, al-Homsi emerged hardened and has since been a member of the Islamic State group.
It was from his social media activity that he met his wife. From Tunisia, she admired his comments and briefings online.
“She has been an old follower of mine, during the siege,” al-Homsi said with a slight smile.
After communicating with her through Skype and online, al-Homsi found out that her brother had joined the Islamic State group and was in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.
As is customary for marriage, he went to ask her brother for her hand in marriage, he said.
The 24-year-old bride-to-be traveled through Algeria to Turkey, and from there to Raqqa with a group of other women joining IS. There, they were housed in a guesthouse for women which is also used as the headquarters for the IS female police corps known as the Khansa Squad.
“It is a luxury place, with a garden, A/C, nice furniture, like any apartment in Europe” so that immigrants don’t feel estranged, said al-Raqqawi, the anti-IS media activist. Like others in his media collective, he uses a nickname for his security and doesn’t specify his whereabouts.
In April, al-Homsi made the hazardous 150-mile (250-kilometer) journey from Homs to Raqqa to join her, bringing a recommendation from his local commander to prove his membership in IS.
It was rare marriage of a Syrian male fighter — an “ansari” as the group calls them — with a foreign migrant, or a “muhajira.” The terms harken back to the time of Prophet Muhammad when he fled his home city of Mecca to the city of Medina to escape his opponents. His Meccan supporters who came with him were muhajireen, or “immigrants,” and the Medina residents who welcomed them were ansaris, or “supporters.”
Usually, foreign women marry foreign fighters in IS. Al-Homsi recalled the case of a French jihadi who was supposed to marry a French woman who came to join the group. He was killed in battle but he asked in his will that if that happened, his fiancee should marry his Swiss friend, al-Homsi said. She agreed.
During the few days of their honeymoon, al-Homsi and his bride enjoyed Raqqa’s relative tranquility, riverside promenades and restaurants, staying in an apartment al-Homsi borrowed from a friend.
Then the couple travelled back to the countryside around Homs, where IS fighters are holding ground against Assad forces and rival rebel groups.
There, al-Homsi used the money from his grant to prepare a home for his new bride — and his four kittens, which he held up proudly in the Skype conversation with the AP. The couple is now expecting a new baby and hoping for a new cash injection with the childbirth, as the group can pay up to $400 as a bonus for each child.
For now the group provides him with a stipend of $50 a month and a similar amount for his wife, which he said are mainly for “entertainment.”
Everything else is paid for: He gets an allowance for his uniform and clothes, some household cleaning supplies, and monthly food baskets worth $65.
It is the duty of the state, al-Homsi said, to care for the fighter’s family while he is away battling to expand the caliphate. Soon after speaking to the AP, al-Homsi was back on the battlefield, among the fighters who took over the ancient city of Palmyra earlier this month.
“The fighter is on the front,” al-Homsi said. “How will he bring food to the house?”