Nadia Murad Basee Taha, left, UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking and Yazidi survivor of trafficking at the hands of ISIS, with Amal Clooney, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and legal representative for Yazidi survivors, during the high-level event on “The Fight Against Impunity for Atrocities: Bringing Da’esh to Justice” on March 9, 2017, in New York. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

Yazidi Survivors of ISIS’ Cruelty Face Hurdles in Finding Justice

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At the recent 2018 Doha Forum, in which ICSVE researchers participated, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad powerfully spoke on behalf of female victims of rape and captivity around the world.[1] Nadia chronicled the horrors that happened in August 2014 when ISIS took over the area of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, namely when ISIS executed thousands of Yazidi men, while 6,500 young boys and Yazidi women were captured, with the women and young girls later forced by ISIS into sexual slavery. Nadia managed to escape sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS and overcame fear and shame to openly share her horrifying experiences as a captive. During her humble speech at the Forum, she noted: “The world is hearing about us but there is little action on the ground to protect the victims of crimes against Yazidis. There are still at least 3,000 women missing from my town and there has been no effort to find them. The Nobel Prize has shed light on this issue, but I fear tomorrow the world will forget.”

Seeking Justice

According to Nadia, none of these ISIS cadres have been convicted for their genocidal crimes against the Yazidi people. In September 2017 the UN Security Council adopted a resolution put forward by the UK to investigate the war crimes committed by the Islamic State against the Yazidi people. A UN investigative team set up over a year ago will begin its investigative activities in early 2019. Investigations have been delayed due to the inability to secure full Iraqi cooperation on the matter.[2] Recently, the Trump administration has also appointed Max Primorac – whom ICSVE researchers met in October – as a special representative for reconstruction in minority areas of Iraq for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to assist in creating safe conditions to speed the return of religious minorities back to their communities. While current USAID objectives in this regard are focused on addressing more immediate needs of religious minorities in Iraq, Primorac stressed that long-term objectives will also address issues of justice and reconciliation in the country. [3]

Many ISIS perpetrators, including against the Yazidis, are already known to law enforcement authorities, prosecutors, lawyers, and human-rights groups who have and continue to collect testimonies from ISIS victims and survivors. ISIS itself has kept marriage records and openly posted videos and pictures boasting about Yazidi slaves. In addition, their propaganda materials include ample evidence of their justifications for instituting slavery in the first place.

Obstacles to successful prosecutions are largely attributed to the fact that crimes against the Yazidis that took place in Iraq remain beyond the reach of domestic courts. The return of many foreign fighters from the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria presented an opportunity to further investigate such crimes. However, as our fieldwork evidence suggests, most of those detained and arrested following their return were only charged for belonging or participating in a terrorist organization. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest if records of imprisonments were even shared with the Yazidi survivors of ISIS captivity. Moreover, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) is set up to investigate and prosecute international crimes – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity included – the court has historically been slow to respond. Lastly, it might be difficult to secure testimonies from highly traumatized individuals who may not be ready, or willing, to share their stories in legal settings due to the post-traumatic suffering revisiting their traumas is likely to entail, as well as the stigma of detailing sexual assault experiences in a society that still expects silence on the part of rape victims. Challenges also exist in collecting evidence where both perpetrators and victims are spread far and wide. 

Yazidi Rape and Captivity Experiences

According to ICSVE interviews with ISIS defectors, returnees and ISIS cadre prisoners and Yazidis themselves over the past three years, Yazidi captives were handed to foreign fighters as prizes for them to rape at will. As Ibn Ahmed, a Syrian ISIS defector, recounted, this practice of institutionalized rape involved 450 such women held in a facility in the former Conoco station in Syria, where Ibn Ahmed was posted as a guard. This ISIS soldier’s job was to admit foreign fighters into the facility, 10 at a time, to take a woman away to rape and then return her when finished. Ibn Ahmed testimony denouncing ISIS can be found here: A Sex Slave as a Gift for You from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

According to defector interviews, one of these women managed to escape the facility – taking the gun of her captor in a moment when he wasn’t paying attention and shooting him dead. The rest were not so lucky.[4]

Another Iraqi ISIS cadre interviewed in Iraq told ICSVE researchers about personally raping more than 50 women held in a small facility near Mosul that he regularly frequented.[5] This ISIS teen soldier was so deluded as to believe that the one woman that he did not have to hit, to subdue before raping her, might have been in love with him. Such were the lives of Yazidis held in captivity. They needed to deaden themselves to assaults, fantasies, rapes and other traumas happening to them – in many cases, on a daily basis.

Although Nadia managed to escape, it does not mean that the nightmares have ended. As Nadia recounted, 3,000 Yazidis are believed to still be held in ISIS captivity with their family members unable to rescue them or, as ICSVE researchers have learned from Yazidi families, facing demands for tens of thousands of dollars to buy them out.[6] In some cases the victims are so devastated by their rape and captivity experiences that they are refusing to even try to return home – this due to the heavy stigmas of repeated rapes, bearing children of ISIS fathers, or complete and total ISIS indoctrination. Nadia spoke about her nephew who was taken by ISIS as a young boy, who later converted and willingly served the group that had executed his relatives and took control over every aspect of his life. He now fights for ISIS and, according to Nadia, he is so brainwashed that he labels his family members as (unfaithful/unbelievers) and threatens to kill them if he sees them again.[7] Her story matches others told to ICSVE researchers of Yazidi boys who so fell under the influence of their ISIS captors that they became fighters in the Cubs of the Caliphate, and even volunteered to serve the group as suicide bombers.

Some Yazidi rape victims, according to Nadia, are even afraid to come home. The social stigma of rape is so strong that they fear condemnation, which she assures they should not fear.[8] Yet social workers in the Erbil area who are working with Yazidi rape survivors (for whom ICSVE staff have given multiple consultations) have pointed out the refusal of the closed social group to admit back into their ranks any children born of rape. This causes their mothers to face the heartbreaking choice of only being able to return home if willing to abandon their children born of ISIS fathers.[9]

Likewise, many who managed to escape ended up in mixed refugee camps, where they were again facing unknown dangers, as ISIS cadres managed to infiltrate these camps – some to hide as sleepers, and others fleeing as defectors. As several former ISIS cadres shared with ICSVE researchers, defecting is not an easy process. The long arm of ISIS reached into these camps ordering defectors to still serve their masters.[10] Justifiably, victims of ISIS did not feel safe living within their reach and most Yazidis have now sought to live in camps that house Yazidis exclusively, where they can feel some limited measure of safety.[11]

It appears the reach of ISIS may even range farther than Syria and Iraq, grasping into Germany as well. Ashwaq Haji Hami, a Yazidi girl taken into captivity as a teen, was given refuge in Germany after her ordeal, only to flee back to her family in Iraq after claiming to have encountered her ISIS captor twice in Germany, a despicable man known to her as Abu Humam. Ashwaq managed to escape from Abu Humam’s clutches after three months of rape and abuse. Following her escape from ISIS territory, she claims Abu Humam called to threaten that she would never be free of him – that he would find and take her again under his dominion. According to Ashwaq, he apparently made good on his threat and hunted her down in Germany as she recounted in an interview with BBC: “On the way back to school a car pulled up next to me. He was sitting in the front seat. He talked to me in German and asked: ‘Are you Ashwaq?’ I was so scared I was shaking.” According to Ashwaq, Abu Humam told her, “‘I know you, where you live and who you live with.’ … He knew everything about my life in Germany.”[12]

The case baffles German authorities who continue to probe Ashwaq’s claims that she saw her ISIS tormentor in Germany. It also raised questions, for some, about whether or not it really occurred. There is the possibility that Ashwaq’s rape and captivity experiences were so horrific that she may not be able to rid herself of her rapist and his threats – whether in reality, or reconjured in traumatic flashbacks. Flashbacks, to those who are unfamiliar, are full sensory memories that, to survivors of rape and captivity experiences like Ashwaq’s, are so vivid that they are indistinguishable from reality, as they indeed reflect their lived reality during their time as sex slaves.

In October, ICSVE researchers interviewed three of Ashwaq’s teen sisters living in the same Yazidi camp where Ashwaq had fled.[13] Disturbingly the sisters, like many survivors of the Yazidi genocide, described having found that reopening their traumatic memories, with no psychological assistance offered, to the many journalists and documentary filmmakers who had repeatedly interviewed them, was so retraumatizing that they had decided it was better to stay silent and never again tell their stories. This decision, however, essentially separates them from the possibility of ever giving legal testimony to bring their captors to justice and it also prevents them from receiving any kind of talk therapy that might help heal their post-traumatic suffering.

It became apparent in a second visit with these three victims of rape and captivity that one of their reasons for avoiding traumatic recall was that when one of the sisters started broaching the topic, she fell unconscious and began writhing in what appeared to be a horribly painful to view, unconscious re-enactment of rape. The episode lasted about five minutes after which she sat up, disoriented and with tears in her eyes. One of her sisters explained that it happens three times a day. This pseudo-seizure response, it turns out, is not unique to Ashwaq’s sister but has been reported by other psychologists working with Yazidi victims in Canada and elsewhere.[14] If this kind of response is occurring for Yazidi victims of rape and captivity, in response to just the painful subject being broached, some type of psychological assistance will be necessary to help the victims eventually give full legal testimonies – something they would not be able to do at present with no psychological treatment whatsoever.

This is, in fact, an issue haunting the entire one-third of Iraq that was held under ISIS during their heyday. Schoolchildren, women, parents and most of society witnessed atrocities living under ISIS (not to mention the previous traumas of war and living under Saddam for those old enough to have done so) that are today causing for some the post-traumatic symptoms of traumatic flashbacks, hyperarousal, sleep disturbances, distressing emotions, inabilities to concentrate, outbursts of anger, acting out, dissociative trance, etc., to name but a few.[15]

Given the extent of the traumatization among victims of ISIS in Iraq, and particularly for the Yazidis who were targeted by ISIS’s genocidal actions, whose legal testimonies are now needed to bring ISIS criminals to justice, we at ICSVE strongly recommend that psychological treatment be extended to make documenting such testimonies possible. While Nadia spoke about 1,000 women being taken to Germany and receiving psychological and psycho-social support and treatment, many will not make it out of Iraq where available psychological resources are stretched to their limits. Therefore, ICSVE recommends creating a hybrid digital/face-to-face treatment program that can provide for the victims of rape and captivity an educational treatment program delivered on an inexpensive digital device that could offer support in normalizing the frightening symptoms of post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders occurring from rape and captivity, as well as offer strategies for coping and self-soothing in between visits by actual psychologists and social workers specialized in treating post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders. In this manner the victims that need to be given back their voices – to also speak out powerfully, as Nadia Murad has done for them up to now – may be helped to give voice to their experiences and win back justice and dignity in finally bringing these heinous criminals to justice. Legally speaking, much work needs to be done in the way of generating evidence to connect ISIS perpetrators to ISIS victims and survivors, including prosecutors willing to take on such important and challenging cases.

References for this Article:

[1] Doha Forum Day 2 Recap, https://dohaforum.org/blog/press/post/doha-forum-day-two-recap/
[2] Agence France-Presse. (2018). “UN team to begin probe of ISIS crimes in Iraq in early 2019,” The National, available at https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/un-team-to-begin-probe-of-isis-crimes-in-iraq-in-early-2019-1.799226
[3] Brown, L. (2018). “ USAID representative details new approach to help Iraq’s Christians,” National Catholic Register, available at http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/usaid-representative-details-new-approach-to-help-iraqs-christians
[4] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. (2016). “ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate.” McLean, VA; Advances Press.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Author interviews with an ISIS prisoner in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, September 2017.
[7] Doha Forum Day 2 Recap, https://dohaforum.org/blog/press/post/doha-forum-day-two-recap/ and Yazidi interviews October 2018
[8] Doha Forum Day 2 Recap, https://dohaforum.org/blog/press/post/doha-forum-day-two-recap/
[9] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. (2016). “ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate.” McLean, VA; Advances Press.
[10] Doha Forum Day 2 Recap, https://dohaforum.org/blog/press/post/doha-forum-day-two-recap/
[11]Author personal communication with SEED representatives, Erbil, Iraq, 2018.
[12] Speckhard, Anne (March 29, 2017) Recovery, Rehabilitation &Reintegration of the “Lost” Children Living and Serving Under the Islamic State
ICSVE Brief Reports http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/recovery-rehabilitation-reintegration-of-the-lost-children-living-and-serving-under-the-islamic-state/
[13] Author interviews with an ISIS prisoner in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, September 2017 and Author personal communication with SEED representatives, Erbil, Iraq, 2018.
[14] Bisset, V., & Doucet, L. (2018). “ I met my captor on a German street,” BBC, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-45209868
[15] Author interviews, October 2018 Essian Refugee Camp, Iraq.
[16] Frangou, C. (2018). “For a Yazidi refugee in Canada, the trauma of ISIS triggers rare, terrifying seizures, “ The Globe and Mail, available at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-for-a-yazidi-refugee-in-canada-the-trauma-of-isis-triggers-rare/
[17] Speckhard, A. (2017). “ Recovery, rehabilitation & reintegration of the ‘lost’ children living and serving under the Islamic State,” ICSVE, available at http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/recovery-rehabilitation-reintegration-of-the-lost-children-living-and-serving-under-the-islamic-state/
[18] Doha Forum Day 2 Recap, https://dohaforum.org/blog/press/post/doha-forum-day-two-recap/

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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