It seems even jihadists need a little luxury downtime.
Over the weekend, the Islamic State group released photos of the newly renovated Ninawa International Hotel, a five-star establishment in Mosul now open to fighters for the militant group.
The images, which went public via social media, are the latest in the group’s efforts to appeal to would-be jihadists around the world as it seeks to found a Muslim caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The revamping of the hotel also gives Westerners another glimpse into the Islamic State’s success at funding its operations.
Since starting its main offensive in June last year, ISIS has become one of the best-financed terrorist groups in the world, CNN reported. The group appears to profit mainly from smuggling oil out of wells and refineries in occupied territories — though reports of indirect funding from Gulf states, along with taxes, tolls, and outright extortion from residents in ISIS-controlled areas, serve to supplement its income.
Most of the money goes directly into the war: Weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and fighters’ reported $400-a-month salaries. There are also the costs of running and maintaining cities and towns in the territories the group controls.
Then there’s the propaganda.
“Perhaps ISIS’s most important expense is the maintenance of its image and dissemination of its ideology, which they do via a vast and sophisticated social media presence,” according to the news and culture site Bustle.
When the group’s official media centers aren’t posting horrific videos, they are tweeting about the glory of battle, the number of wives, and the fulfilled lives awaiting new recruits. Either way, ISIS is playing to the psychological needs of potential converts.
As the Monitor reported last year:
ISIS typically preys on Western youth who are disillusioned and have no sense of purpose or belonging.
Much like criminal gangs that offer a sense of family and belonging, ISIS offers disaffected teens a chance to join a group that gives them purpose and meaning – however misguided.
“The image portrayed is welcoming and reassuring and addresses the fear of the unfamiliar, for example there are many postings of fighters with pet kittens,” Richard Barrett, senior vice president of The Soufan Group, wrote in a report last June.
“The general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem,” he added.
With its swimming pools, tennis court, and 262 rooms, the Ninawa International Hotel enhances that image of familiarity and well-being.
At the same time, in accordance with its conservative Muslim ideology, ISIS made sure to post pictures of its workers removing carvings it considered idolatrous from the walls of the hotel. Alcoholic beverages are also reportedly prohibited, and a strict dress code is enforced, especially for women.
Charlie Winter, a researcher for the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, told the Independent that the hotel could also be part of the group's attempt at promoting an image of stability, particularly in relation to the airstrikes conducted by the US-led coalition in the Middle East.
“I think the message the propagandists are trying to portray is that if the coalition is really causing damage then ISIS wouldn't be able to host gala dinners with fireworks at a luxury hotel," Mr. Winter said.
Some experts warn against the image that ISIS projects versus the reality. The group’s propagandists want the world to think that ISIS is running a normal, healthy state, but “it’s all lies,” journalist Jamie Dettmer, who has covered the American intelligence community as well as the Middle East, wrote for The Daily Beast.
What’s real, Mr. Dettmer added, is the oppression and the savagery that residents in ISIS-controlled territories live with every day.
“For almost a year now,” he wrote, “everyone in Mosul has learned that, like the guests in the song 'Hotel California,' they can check out any time they like, but they can never leave."