| Kevin Sullivan & Karla Adam |
LONDON (The Washington Post) — Last month in Syria, Siddhartha Dhar stood in front of a banged-up yellow pickup truck, holding an assault rifle in his right hand and cradling his newborn son with his left.
Dhar’s first four children had been born in London, his native city, but his new baby, wrapped in a fuzzy brown onesie, was born in territory controlled by the Islamic State.
Someone snapped a photo of Dhar, 31, and he proudly tweeted it out as proof that he; his wife, Aisha; and their children had fled Britain and were now living in what the militants consider an Islamic caliphate that will one day reign over the world.
The arrival of the Dhar family in Syria last month represents a key strategic goal of the Islamic State: to build not just an army but a society. The group has vowed to create a nation ruled by Syariah law, and its leaders and online recruiters have encouraged doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and accountants to join them in building the institutions of a new holy land.
Entire families — fathers, mothers and children — have answered that call in numbers that have surprised and alarmed analysts who study the extremist group.
“These families believe they are doing the right thing for their children,” said Melanie Smith, a research associate at the King’s College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London. “They think they are taking them to a kind of utopia.”
Back in London, Dhar’s younger sister, Konika Dhar, 27, said she was heartbroken when she saw the Twitter photo on her phone.
Her brother was now an armed militant calling himself Abu Rumaysah, who fled to Syria with his family while he was on bail in Britain after being arrested on terrorism-related charges. In his caustic tweets from Syria, he taunted the UK’s “shoddy security system” that had allowed him to jump bail.
But Konika Dhar still thought of her brother as “Sid”, the stylish British kid who gelled his hair, dated girls, listened to Nirvana and Linkin Park, rooted for the Arsenal football team, and loved to watch American action movies.
“I think he has actually forgotten Siddhartha Dhar, and he has become this other person,” she said. “I just want my brother to know it doesn’t have to be this way. He really doesn’t have to leave his life. I really miss the children; I can’t imagine not seeing them again.”
Unlike Al-Qaeda, which operates in many countries but is a stateless army, the Islamic State controls territory that it has taken by force in Iraq and Syria. To create the society it envisions, the group has gone to great lengths to take over existing schools, hospitals and playgrounds, or to build these and other institutions of daily family life.
“The more they are successful at creating a whole new society, the more they are able to attract entire families,” said Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who has written extensively about women and terrorism. “It’s almost like the American dream, but the Islamic State’s version of it.”
In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s main stronghold, the extremists have established a clinic for pregnant women run by a female gynaecologist trained in Britain. Boys attend school, studying almost exclusively religion, until they are 14, when they are expected to start fighting, Smith said. Girls stay in school until they are 18; their instruction is about al-Quran and Syariah law, as well as learning how to dress, keep house, cook, clean and care for men, all according to a strict Islamic code.
Bloom said the Islamic State also appeals to women by providing electricity, food and a salary of up to $1,100 per month — a huge sum in Syria — for each fighter’s family. The largesse is funded with money looted from banks, oil smuggling, kidnappings for ransom, and the extortion of truckers and others who cross Islamic State territory.
In Raqqa, once a city of more than 200,000 people, the militants have kicked locals out of their homes and doled out those houses as rewards to fighters and their families, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds.
“The other groups promise you all these wonderful things in the afterlife,” Bloom said. “The Islamic State promises to give you stuff in the current life and the afterlife, so you don’t have to wait to enjoy all your rewards.”
Analysts estimate that at least 15,000 people have moved to the Islamic State territories, including several thousand, such as Dhar, from Western countries. While it is impossible to know how many families have joined, Bloom said the majority are probably from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab nations that have sent the most fighters to Syria.
The United Nations has documented extreme brutality toward women by Islamic State radicals, including reports of women, particularly from minority groups, being stoned to death or sold into prostitution or sex slavery for its fighters.
But the Islamic State uses family imagery in its aggressive and highly polished online recruiting on social media, including videos showing fighters pushing children on swings and passing out toys, and children playing on bouncy castles and bumper cars, riding ponies, and eating pink cotton candy.
Those images are designed to reassure mothers that their children will be safe in a place wracked by fighting and regular bombing by the United States and its allies.
However, recent reports from Syria and Iraq suggest that the Islamic State’s propaganda about its public services does not match reality on the ground and that people are enduring painful shortages of electricity, food, medicine and clean water. Smith said she has recently noted increasing complaints from women in the Islamic State territories with whom she communicates on social media.
“To these families, it makes a lot of sense to go there,” Smith said. “They think, ‘This is the path for me; this is my reward.’ But when you think about what it’s really like to live there, it’s unfathomable.”
Sid Dhar was 16 when his father died unexpectedly, and his sister said the loss set him adrift.
His parents were Hindus who had immigrated to London from India when they were children, then created a working-class life in Palmers Green on the city’s northern fringe. They lived in a tiny rowhouse on a busy highway alongside other immigrants from India, Pakistan, Greece and Cyprus.
Konika Dhar, a law student, said her family embraced both Hindu and British culture, celebrating Diwali as well as toasting Christmas with Baileys Irish Cream around a decorated tree in their small living room.
“We were just a normal family,” she said, sitting in a coffee shop in their London neighbourhood. “Then my dad died.”
When their father died at 46, Konika Dhar said, her mother dealt with her grief privately, while she and her sister turned to each other for comfort. Sid Dhar, the middle child and only male in the house, had no man in the family to lean on, his sister said.
She said his grades started suffering, he became more introverted, and over the next two years he barely managed to finish high school. She said he abandoned his dream of going to college and becoming a dentist, and he took a job as a clerk in a Boots pharmacy.
“I feel like it’s a domino effect,” Konika Dhar said. “One incident has an impact on everything else.”
Dhar sought support from his closest friend, Mizanur Rahman, a Muslim boy from the neighbourhood and the son of immigrants from Bangladesh.
They had met when they were eight years old and called each other “Sid” and “Midge.” They played basketball and video games together. They were born four days apart, and every year on Dhar’s birthday, Rahman called to ask him what it felt like to be older.
For months Rahman had been urging Dhar to convert to Islam. He said in an interview that Dhar had always found a reason to delay, mainly saying he was worried about what his family would think.
“I was saying, ‘Look, we could all die at any moment, you don’t know when you are going to die, none of us knows the future,’ “ Rahman said, telling Dhar that only Muslims are allowed to join God in paradise. “I told him, ‘If you die now, before you become a Muslim, what are you going to do? There’s no point in delaying.’ “
Dhar finally embraced Islam, and he gave up the name Siddhartha Dhar. He now went by Saif al-Islam, an Arabic name that means “sword of Islam”.
At first, Rahman said, Dhar told no one about his conversion. But two weeks later, he was arrested while participating in a pro-Palestinian protest. Rahman said Dhar’s mother came to pick him up at the police station, and that’s when she learned that her son had converted to Islam.
Dhar was also becoming more and more radical. Rahman said they were motivated by a belief that the British government, along with Washington, was waging war against Muslims in Britain and around the globe.
With the rise of the Islamic State in the past couple of years, Dhar became one of the group’s most vocal supporters in Britain, giving media interviews in which he called for the establishment of Syariah law in Britain.
Dhar was arrested many times on suspicion of belonging to groups banned in Britain. Most recently, on September 25, Dhar, Rahman, Choudary and seven others were arrested on charges of belonging to a banned group and “encouraging terrorism”. The men were granted bail.
After his release, Dhar and Aisha, who was pregnant, and their four children under six years old apparently took a bus to Dover, crossed the English Channel by ferry, then drove to Paris, where they boarded a flight to Turkey.
On November 26, Dhar tweeted the photo of himself in Syria.