Investigators build a case for IS crimes against Yazidis
QASR AL-MIHRAB, Iraq (AP) — He was burly, with piercing blue eyes, and it was clear he was in charge when he entered the Galaxy, a wedding hall-turned-slave pen in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Dozens of Yazidi women and girls huddled on the floor, newly abducted by Islamic State group militants.
He walked among them, beating them at the slightest sign of resistance. At one point, he dragged a girl out of the hall by her hair, clearly picking her for himself, a Yazidi woman — who was 14 when the incident occurred in 2014 — recounted to The Associated Press.
This was Hajji Abdullah, a religious judge at the time and labeled one of the architects of the militant group’s enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who rose to become deputy to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He’s believed to be the late al-Baghdadi’s successor, identified only by the pseudonym Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
A group of investigators with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability is amassing evidence, hoping to prosecute IS figures for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide -- including Hajji Abdullah.
Hajji Abdullah was previously accused of involvement in the slave trade, most notably in a wanted poster circulated by the U.S. setting a $5 million bounty on his head. But his prominence in the creation and oversight of the slave trade has never been spotlighted.
“IS fighters didn’t take it upon themselves to rape these women and girls. There was a carefully executed plan to enslave, sell, and rape Yazidi women presided over by the highest levels of the IS leadership,” said Bill Wiley, executive director and founder of CIJA. “And in doing so, they were going to eradicate the Yazidi group by ensuring there were no more Yazidi children born.”
CIJA shared some of its findings with The Associated Press. The group, through IS documents and interviews with survivors and insiders, identified 49 prominent IS figures who built and managed the slave trade, as well as nearly 170 slave owners, including Western, Asian, African and Arab fighters. These also include top financiers, military commanders, local governors and women traders, many of them from the region neighboring the Yazidi community’s villages.
The AP also put together findings from IS’s own literature, along with interviews with IS members, former slaves and rescuers, to establish how slavery was strictly mapped out from the earliest days, devolving into a free-for-all with fighters enriching themselves by selling Yazidi women as the group’s power began to disintegrate.
CIJA’s focus now is to build cases that courts can use to try IS members for crimes against humanity or genocide. Countries can prosecute militants for individual rapes or torture or for membership in a terrorist group. But to prove higher charges, they would need the contextual evidence that CIJA provides, showing the crimes were part of a greater structure.
“Practically every Daesh prosecution that has ever happened anywhere in the world is a material support case, a membership case,” Wiley said, using an Arabic name for the group. “Prosecuting high crimes could serve as a counter-radicalization tool for IS supporters.”
In the first prosecution on charges of genocide against the Yazidis last month, a German court brought an Iraqi national to trial for enslaving a Yazidi woman and her 5-year-old, who was chained and left to die of thirst. Meanwhile, a U.N. investigative team said it has collected evidence from Iraq, including 2 million call records, that can strengthen cases of prosecution for crimes against the Yazidis.
CIJA is sharing its findings from Iraq with the U.N. team and is pursuing more evidence from Syria, where IS made its last stand. The Syrian Kurdish authority holds perhaps the largest trove of material from the group, as well as some 10,000 of its members, including 2,000 foreign fighters, in detention.
Investigators’ steep challenge: documenting crimes committed over the course of four years against millions of people in different countries, while many IS members remain at large.
In the Iraqi city of Mosul, for instance, the crimes took place among a population of nearly 2 million people over three years, including enslavement, attacks on dissidents, destruction of cultural and religious sites and training children in jihad.
The Islamic State group’s narrative is that slavery is a justifiable consequence of battle during its brutal capture of Sinjar, a region west of Mosul, as part of its attempt to establish a so-called caliphate.
But the AP determined, based on CIJA’s investigation and its own reporting, that the highest levels of leadership were directly involved in organizing an enslavement machine that became central to the group’s structure and identity. Governing institutions were enlisted, from the IS “cabinet” that constructed the slave system, the security agencies that enforced it, the bureaucrats and Islamic courts that supervised it, and propaganda arms that justified it.
Even as their caliphate collapsed around them, the militants made keeping their grip on slaves a priority. When slave markets proliferated out of the leadership’s reach, internal documents show IS officials struggled to impose control with a stream of edicts that were widely ignored.
A SYSTEM OF SLAVERY
IS launched its attack on the heartland of the Yazidi community at the foot of Sinjar Mountain in August 2014. It’s unclear if Sinjar was attacked for its strategic location between IS holdings in Iraq and in Syria or with the specific aim of subjugating the Yazidis, an ancient sect considered heretics by the militants.
In any case, the results were devastating: During the week-long assault, IS killed hundreds of Yazidis and abducted 6,417, more than half of them women and girls. Most of the captured adult men were likely eventually killed. Hajji Abdullah, an ethnic Turkman from Tal Afar, an area near Sinjar, was believed to be the highest IS judicial official in the area and so stepped in to play a key role in distributing slaves.
The women and children — their husbands and fathers butchered or missing — had to learn to navigate the perverse rules of a world where they were considered commodities for rape and servitude.
“For five years I lived with them. They beat me and sold me and did everything to me,” said the woman who witnessed Hajji Abdullah’s casual cruelty in the Galaxy wedding hall. She dug her nails into her arms as she spoke, her skinny frame carrying more memories than her years are meant to handle. The AP is not identifying her because she was a victim of rape.
Now 19, she said she was raped by nearly a dozen owners, including al-Baghdadi, who owned her for months before he “gifted” her to one of his aides. The woman was rescued in a U.S-led operation in May 2019. She spoke to the AP in a northern Iraqi town full of Yazidi refugees, including freed women and girls who underwent similar horrors.
When Yazidis were seized, top IS commanders registered them, photographed the women and children and categorized them into married, unmarried and girls.
Initially, the thousands of captured women and children were handed out as gifts to fighters who took part in the Sinjar offensive, in line with the group’s policy on the “spoils of war.” Under early IS rules, war booty was distributed equally among the soldiers after the state took 20%, known as the “khums.”
According to survivors and CIJA, some fighters came to detention centers with pieces of paper signed by Hajji Abdullah confirming their participation in the Sinjar attack and entitling them to a slave. Women and girls also would be picked out to be raped by fighters, then returned to detention.
By early 2015, the remaining women were transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s capital, and then distributed across IS-controlled areas, CIJA and survivors of slavery accounts showed.
The IS propaganda machine was mobilized to justify its revival of slavery. Articles, sermons and fatwas interpreting Islamic law were issued outlining how taking slaves was in accordance with Islam.
Islamic Shariah law traditionally allowed and regulated slavery, just as many societies did throughout history, but almost all Muslim clerics now say slavery is no longer permissible.
IS operated centralized slave markets in Mosul, Raqqa and other cities. At the market in the Syrian city of Palmyra, women walked a runway for IS members to bid on. Others, like the one in al-Shadadi, distributed women to militants by lottery.
A June 2015 notification reviewed by the AP called on IS fighters in Syria’s Homs province to register for an upcoming slave market, or “Souk al-Nakhassa,” giving those on the front lines a 10 day-notice to attend. Participants were told to enter bids in a sealed envelope.
The Soldiers’ Department, or Diwan al-Jund, recorded fighters who owned slaves, usually referred to by the Arabic word “sabaya.” For a time, IS paid fighters a stipend of about $50 per slave and $35 per child — equivalent to the stipend for a wife. The stipend eventually stopped, apparently because military defeats hurt revenues and because owning a sabaya became a sign of wealth and privilege.
Managing the robust system turned out to be more complicated than the leadership planned. And chaos abounded.
Slaves meant to be a reward to fighters were resold for personal profit, and some IS members made tens of thousands of dollars ransoming captives back to their families. Violence and abuse by owners led to rising reports of suicides and escapes among captives.
That prompted a flurry of regulations on ownership and sales, uncovered by CIJA and Syria expert and independent researcher Aymenn Tamimi.
As early as March 2015, IS officials in Syria’s Aleppo province banned posting pictures of Yazidi women on social media, trying to crack down on electronic markets that rescuers and smugglers often infiltrated to extract captives.
The CIJA archive contains a copy of an edict by the Department of War Spoils that banned separating enslaved women from their children, with a handwritten note ordering it distributed to all departments and provinces — a signal that earlier decrees had failed to stop the practice.
In July 2015, the Delegated Committee — effectively the cabinet — ordered all slave sales to be registered by Islamic courts, seeking to end sales among fighters. It also required the finance minister of each IS province to keep track of women between transactions.
The rules got only tighter as the leadership’s frustration over violations grew.
One directive set punishments for selling Yazidis to “commoners” -- anyone not a fighter or senior IS official -- and for ransoming them to their families. CIJA documented cases of senior officials dismissed from their jobs or punished with lashes for making exorbitant sums by flouting the rules.
Another document explained that only al-Baghdadi was in charge of setting policy on slaves and their distribution. A February 2016 edict required the Delegated Committee’s approval for any senior figure to own slaves — a suggestion that even top officials were abusing the sales process.
Captured IS militants offered a glimpse into the resistance the leadership faced in enforcing its rules. In the eyes of some in the rank-and-file, what they saw as their right under Islamic law could not be restricted.
Abu Hareth, an Iraqi IS preacher held in a Baghdad prison, told the AP that many fighters didn’t feel compelled to register sales in courts. “You have a product and you are allowed to trade in it,” he said.
Abdul-Rahman al-Shmary, a 24-year old Saudi who traded in slaves and is held in a Syrian Kurdish-run prison, dismissed the rules as rooted not in Islamic law but in the leadership’s need for control.
“It was about power and not for God’s sake,” he said.
Abu Adel al-Jazrawi, a Saudi who worked in the group’s War Spoils department and is now imprisoned in eastern Syria, put it bluntly: “Slaves were just the means for high officials to get rich.”
Laila Taloo’s 2 1/2-year ordeal in captivity underscores how IS members continually ignored the rules.
“They explained everything as permissible. They called it Islamic law. They raped women, even young girls,” said the 33-year old Taloo, who was owned by eight men, all of whom raped her. She asked that her name be used because she is publicly campaigning for justice for Yazidis.
After Taloo, her husband, young son and newborn daughter were abducted in 2014 and she and her husband were forced to convert to Islam, which should have spared them from being enslaved or killed.
But conversion meant nothing. “What is this all for? They never had a second thought about killing or slaughtering or taking women,” Taloo said.
The family was taken to the Iraqi village of Qasr Mihrab, along with nearly 2,000 other converted Yazidis. At one point, the militants gathered all the adult men and took them away. Their bodies were never found but are believed to have been thrown into a nearby sinkhole, where bones still can be seen. CIJA found that Hajji Abdullah was among the senior IS officials involved in the execution of the men.
Taloo was first sold to an Iraqi doctor, who three days later gifted her to a friend. Despite the rules mandating sales through courts, she was thrown into a world of informal slave markets run out of homes.
Her third owner, an Iraqi surgeon, woke her one night and had her dress and put on makeup so four Saudi men could inspect her. One didn’t like her ankles; another, a member of the IS religious police, paid nearly $6,000 for her.
That owner posted pictures of his slaves online and, every day, they were paraded before potential buyers. “It was like a fashion show. We would walk up and down a room filled with men who are checking us out,” Taloo said.
With each owner, she fought to keep her children safe. One man took photos of her then-2-year-old daughter, threatening to sell her to an Iraqi woman who couldn’t have children. IS was known to separate children from their mothers, using them as household slaves or child soldiers, changing their names and forcing them to convert to Islam.
One owner forced Taloo to have a baby then changed his mind and forced her to have an abortion. He also forced her to remove a tattoo she engraved on her skin carrying her husband’s name. Another owner forced her to use contraceptives. A third owner got her pregnant and she forced her own abortion.
Eventually, to free a relative, Taloo married a militant who turned out to be a senior IS operative. His long stints on the battlefield enabled her to escape: She paid a smuggler $19,500 she got from her family for passage out of IS-held territory with her children and sister-in-law.
Today, Taloo still visits the sinkhole where her husband is believed to be buried, and for the first time last year she visited the house in Qasr al-Mihrab, where her family was held captive. The house owners, who had fled the IS takeover, have now returned, unknowingly living among Taloo’s cherished memories of her family that was.
As their territory steadily diminished and defeat loomed, IS continued to crack down on members who, desperate for money, sought to sell slaves back to their families for large sums. Some fighters who did so were reportedly killed, survivors of IS slavery said.
Some 3,500 slaves have been freed from IS’ clutches in recent years, most of them ransomed by their families. But more than 2,900 Yazidis remain unaccounted for, including some 1,300 women and children, according to the Yazidi abductees office in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.
Most are believed dead, but hundreds of women and children likely remain held by militants, said Bahzad Farhan and Ali Khanasouri, two Yazidis who work as rescuers tracking down the enslaved.
For years, the two have followed slave markets on social media, contacting smugglers and searching out IS militants willing to ransom their captives to their families. Working separately, they have secured freedom for dozens of women and children.
Sitting under the shade of a tree at Lalish, the holiest Yazidi shrine in Iraq’s Dohuk province, Khanasouri recounted how he managed to escape after being among about 250 people kidnapped by IS in his hometown five years ago.
With the help of a Tunisian IS member he encountered in captivity, he has developed a network of insiders and confederates in his quest to rescue as many fellow Yazidis as possible.
As IS crumbled, the rescue business was brisk as captors scrambled for money, “looking for buyers,” Khanasouri said. Now, with militants scattered — some hiding in deserts and caves or in sleeper cells — finding sellers is harder.
Wielding his phone, Khanasouri shows maps of likely locations of IS safehouses in Iraq’s western deserts, where he is certain surviving women are still held.
Other women are hiding, either by choice or coercion, among IS families housed at the al-Hol camp in Syria, run by Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Some captives have accepted their new identities, particularly Yazidi children who grew up under IS, Farhan said. Some women with children born to IS fathers don’t want to return home because their Yazidi community has shunned the newborns.
Khanasouri and Farhan have extended their search beyond the areas that IS once controlled, finding traces of women and children smuggled out by their captors who fled as far afield as Iran and Turkey. A Yazidi freed slave lost custody in a Turkish court of her nephew and niece who were found in an orphanage in Turkey.
At times, they said, Syrian opposition fighters have refused to return enslaved girls they come across in their territory.
One Yazidi girl, forced to convert to Islam and six months pregnant, was found in the northwest Syrian town of Azaz when fighters captured a Saudi IS militant transporting her. One of Farhan’s contacts, an opposition fighter, offered to bring the girl back to her family. But his commanders stopped the transfer.
“They said, `She is now a Muslim girl, why are you sending her back to the infidels?’” Farhan said.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.
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