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 Islamic State took control has seen militants beheading opponents and stoning alleged adulteresses in public. Gunmen at checkpoints scrutinize passersby for signs of anything they see as a violation of sharia, or Islamic law, as slight as a hint of hair gel. In the homes of some of the Islamic State 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 neighbouring 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 Islamic State territory from the Arab world, Europe, Central Asia and the United States.
“It is not just fighting,” said al-Homsi, who uses a nom de guerre. “There are institutions.There are civilians [that Islamic State] 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 Associated Press by Skype, giving a rare look into the personal life of an Islamic State jihadi.
The new Islamic State elite is visible in Raqqa, the biggest city in Syria under the extremists’ rule.
Luxury houses and apartments, which once belonged to officials from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have been taken over by the new Islamic State ruling class, according to a member of an anti-Islamic State media collective in the city who goes by the name of Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi.
Raqqa, at the centre of Islamic State-controlled territory, is cushioned from the fighting around its edges. Its supermarkets are well stocked and it boasts several Internet cafés.
“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. Like others in his media collective, he uses a nickname for his security and doesn’t specify his whereabouts.
Helping fighters marry is a key priority. Aside from the normal stipend, foreign fighters receive $500 when they marry to help them start a family. The 28-year-old al-Homsi got a particularly large bonus because his new wife is a doctor and speaks four languages.
AP has spoken with al-Homsi repeatedly over the past three years, since he started as an activist covering the fighting in his home city of Homs in central Syria. An IT specialist before the civil war in 2011, al-Homsi always espoused ultraconservative views in media interviews, sympathizing with the idea of a caliphate.
He said he had supported Islamic State as early as 2013. But it was in mid-2014, after a two-year punishing siege of Homs, that he turned into a fighter. When the siege ended in a May, 2014, truce, al-Homsi emerged as an official Islamic State member.
It was from his social media activity that he met his wife, who admired his online media briefings.
After communicating online, al-Homsi found out that her brother had joined the group and was in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour. As is customary, he went to ask her brother for her hand in marriage.
The 24-year-old bride-to-be travelled through Algeria to Turkey, and from there to Raqqa with a group of other women joining Islamic State. They were housed in a guesthouse for women, where the Islamic State women police force also resides.
Al-Homsi made the hazardous 250-kilometre journey from Homs to Raqqa to join her, after getting a recommendation from his local commanders.
It was a rare marriage of a Syrian male fighter with a foreign migrant. Usually, foreign women marry foreign fighters in Islamic State.
During the few days of their honeymoon, al-Homsi and his bride enjoyed Raqqa’s relative tranquility, riverside promenades and restaurants. Then the couple travelled back to the Homs area, where Islamic State fighters are holding ground against al-Assad’s forces and rival rebel groups.
There, al-Homsi used the money from his grant to prepare a home for his new bride, and four kittens. The couple is now expecting a new baby and hoping for another cash injection, as the group can pay up to $400 as a bonus for each child.
For now the group provides a stipend of $50 a month for him and a similar amount for his wife. He also has an allowance for his uniform and clothes, some household cleaning supplies, and a monthly food basket worth $65.
Soon after speaking to 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?”