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ISIS and Their Use of Slavery

27 Jan 2020


2019 marks the fifth year of the Sinjar massacre that was performed by the terrorist organisation known as the “Islamic State” (Daesh). As each year passes, the issue may feel further removed for people not directly affected. Yet—for those awaiting family members to return—it marks yet another year in which the perpetrators of this crime against humanity are not brought to justice. The numbers of the Sinjar attack are shocking. More than 6,000 Yazidis—mostly children and women—were kidnapped in early August 2014. Hundreds of men were executed upon capture. Half of those kidnapped are reportedly still missing, suspected of being further entrenched in human trafficking operations or killed.

While kidnapping, slavery, and sexual violence are not uncommon features in conflicts, the scale and structural elements of the Islamic State’s slavery economy is new. The breadth at which slavery and sexual violence spread across the occupied territory in Iraq and Syria for years is staggering, as well as the depth in which these crimes permeated into the socio-economic culture of the organisation and even the families in the Islamic State—including foreign fighters.

Although the Islamic State is not the only modern terrorist group to utilise slavery (another recent example being the kidnapping and pressing into sexual slavery of a group of Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014), we argue that the nexus which occurs between slavery and the Islamic State is significant to an extent never before seen. We need to understand this crime as an emerging tactic that has the dangerous capacity to be replicated in the re-emergence of the Islamic State and other groups. There is a great need to assess how this crime supports the terrorist actor in several aspects—from financially bolstering operations to ensuring a new generation of fighters and displaying control over the populace. With this understanding, we are better prepared for incorporating anti-slavery approaches into counterterrorism and conflict management—giving us a chance to meet the threat from future organisations that employ slavery and gender-based sexual violence as part of their territorial acquisition.

Modern slavery is a pertinent issue in both counterterrorism and the humanitarian responses which work to assist in the liberation of civilians from insurgent-controlled areas. Therefore, here, we share details on the specific internal regulation controls that enabled the slavery economy to operate in a largely “successful” manner in the Islamic State-occupied territory from the years 2014-2017. We hope that these findings encourage dialogue and fresh perspectives on further research collaboration and counterterrorism policy formation. The following section offers a glimpse into how the Islamic State established slavery conditions as a modus operandi, and how slavery infused the group’s operational, financial, and social sectors.

The Sustainment of Slavery

From UN investigative reports and academic analysis, we’ve created an assessment of how the Islamic State captured and contained the Yazidi people from August 2014 forward. Immediately after the Islamic State forces invaded the Iraqi cities of Sinjar, Kursi, Snuny, and Kocho (and surrounding areas), civilians were separated on the basis of gender and age. The Islamic State gave them two options: convert or die. Conversion, however, did not save these people from being enslaved. They were also not afforded the option of jizyah (a form of paying protection tax for their lives) that the Islamic State reportedly gave to Christians. This point of division in accordance to gender and age determined their “utility” and cast them on a path of being held captive to sustain the Islamic State. The cities were cleared and the civilians were “processed” into slavery within 72 hours after the attack, revealing just how brief the window is to prevent atrocities on this scale when a terrorist actor enters an area with a vulnerable or at-risk population. Figure 1 displays the logistics of transferring the slaves from the primary capture sites, as well as the sites of registration, slave markets, training centres for male children, and military-based holding areas.

Figure 1: Map of Sinjar attack and the logistics in transferring civilians to sites of slavery

Once the civilians were divided, they were either executed (often in front of family members) or transferred to secondary holding sites. As seen in the above figure, some transfers involved crossing state lines. The main areas for registration were: Baj, Tal Afar, and Mosul in Iraq, and Tel Hamis, Al Haul, and Raqqa in Syria. Within Mosul, three places were reportedly holding areas for facilitating transfer into Syria: the Badoush prison, the Galaxy Wedding Hall, and houses in the Al-Arabiya neighbourhood. The slave markets (known as souk sabaya by Islamic State members) were in Al Shaddi, Raqqa, and Tadmur, Syria. Additionally, female captives were contained at the several military-based holding sites in Al Shaddi, Tel Hamis, Al Mayadin, Dayr Az-zawr, Manbij, Al Bab, Al Tabqah, and Tadmur in Syria. Male children were transported to training centres in the following cities across Syria and Iraq: Tel Abyad, Suluk, Al Bab, Al Tabqah, Raqqa, Baj, Tal Afar, and Mosul.

Going further, we’ve uncovered a systematic processing of the enslavement conditions.

We termed this process the Division and Regulation of Enslavement Framework. While not exhaustive, it details the slavery conditions that the Islamic State forced on the Yazidi captives immediately after the Sinjar massacre. It is summarized in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Overview of IS enslavement process

In this process, gender was the strongest factor that determined the slavery circumstances for the captives. A majority of the men were executed upon capture, if they weren’t given or if they didn’t accept the “option” of (forced) conversion. Even though some converted, there are reports of them being executed at a later location all the same. Some were transported and forced to dig trenches and work as farm labourers. Teenage boys were subjected to a physical examination for puberty, and those above age twelve were considered men. Boys younger than twelve, but approximately aged eight or older, were transported to training camps. This training lasted several weeks, in which the instructors attempted to erase the Yazidi identity through indoctrination. The children were renamed, and put through training that included handling live weapons, being exposed to violent material, and being forced to stand at checkpoints. The children reported that they were subjected to rape and flogging if they did not comply to the instruction. While these situations were horrific, the female captives endured conditions of slavery that were so systematically brutal some committed suicide rather than continue to be held captive.

Women and girls were separated by status of marriage and dependents. There is still much to investigate in the conditions with this demographic. However, the following facets of their captivity stand out. As the status of being a virgin is dangerous due to the “value” it carries, some women claimed nearby children as their own. Older women were often executed. Married women without children and unmarried women and girls were transported to larger cities for registration and holding. This transportation even occurred across the state line of the Iraq and Syria border. We’ve identified registration sites in Raqqa, Tel Hamis, and Al-Haul in Syria, and Tal Afar and Mosul in Iraq. The women and girls were divided in anticipation of three uses: being sold in markets, given as “gifts” to Islamic State fighters, and held in “rest houses” for fighters. They were forced to convert and were assigned registration numbers. Those who were held in “rest houses” were faced with the threat of execution for refusing sex. Within these locations, their bodies were regulated with forced abortions and birth control.

Issues that remain after the “defeat” of Daesh

Since the physical liberation of territory from the Islamic State, several issues have emerged as the Caliphate’s slavery economy collapsed. These issues indicate how slavery made a multi-generational impact and constructed long-term barriers against building resilient communities. Female survivors of sexual enslavement experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The hundreds of children born from Yazidi mothers and Islamic State fathers are caught in a perilous situation as the stigma of rape exists, due to the children being treated and and labelled Muslim/non-Yazidi through their father. This label is supported by Iraq’s 2015 Identity Card Law which stipulates that a child is Muslim if a parent is Muslim, regardless of whether rape occured. The mothers, therefore, had to choose between abandoning their children in order to return to their families and Yazidi community. This led some to remain with their Islamic State captors and even forced into detention camps. (Recent reports indicate a change made by the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council in April 2019 that addresses the stigma of rape and accepting children born from Islamic State fathers.)

There is also a gap in pursuing justice for the Yazidi survivors, as crimes of sexual violence and enslavement are not considered in domestic terrorism charges. This gap leaves prominent activists, such as Yazidi survivor, Nadia Murad, and human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, no choice but to urge for the (slow) process of setting up an International Criminal Court to persecute Islamic State members—including foreign fighters—for war crimes and genocide. This request, however, is compounded by the issue of the states in which the crimes occurred not being members of the international criminal court, nor are they pursuing their own form of war crime trials that would cover atrocities of sexual violence and slavery. It should be noted that a recent trial in Germany involved prosecuting a female German national for crimes against humanity (including human trafficking) while she was involved with the Islamic State, reportedly being the first prosecution of Islamic State members for crimes committed against the Yazidi people.

Going forward: Policy implications

The capture and release of documents from inside ISIS-controlled territory is a unique opportunity to understand how the Islamic State utilised enslavement as a tactic of power, contributing to the political, military and financial growth of the organisation. They reveal that the recourse to acts of slavery has become part of the modus operandi of the group. This urges us to assess critical gaps in recognizing and interpreting essential anti-slavey prevention steps. In other words, while it is laudable that humanitarian actions were rapidly undertaken for Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains after the attack, it was assumed that the minority population was facing a genocide, not also being forced into enslavement conditions that had the potential to strengthen the enemy.

The counterterrorism policy community therefore needs to ensure that counter-slavery measures are fully embedded in their discourse, planning, and policy execution. It is no longer sufficient to be exclusively concerned about the physical liberation of territory from groups like ISIS. The human liberation of victims of slavery perpetrated by such groups must also constitute a counterterrorism priority. As the establishment of numerous ISIS wilayats around the world proliferates and the re-emergence of ISIS in parts of northern Syria—facilitated by the recent prison breaks in the wake of American withdrawal from Kurdish areas—continues apace, the capacity for more communities to be forcibly pressed into slavery looms dangerously large. Where ISIS goes, slavery follows—engendering overlapping conditions of sexual and political violence, demonstrating that the slaves of ISIS are also victims of terrorism.

An open-access article outlining the research in more detail is in press for Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. The figures in this Perspectives are sourced from the original manuscript.