Islamic State tightens grip on captives held as sex slaves

by Lori Hinnant, Maya Alleruzzo and Balint Szlanko, July 14, 2016.

advertisement on the Telegram app is as chilling as it is incongruous: A
girl for sale is “Virgin. Beautiful. 12 years old…. Her price has
reached $12,500 and she will be sold soon.”


The posting in Arabic appeared on an encrypted conversation along
with ads for kittens, weapons and tactical gear. It was shared with The
Associated Press by an activist with the minority Yazidi community,
whose women and children are being held as sex slaves by the extremists.

While the Islamic State group is losing territory in its self-styled
caliphate, it is tightening its grip on the estimated 3,000 women and
girls held as sex slaves. In a fusion of ancient barbaric practices and
modern technology, IS sells the women like chattel on smart phone apps
and shares databases that contain their photographs and the names of
their “owners” to prevent their escape through IS checkpoints. The
fighters are assassinating smugglers who rescue the captives, just as
funds to buy the women out of slavery are drying up.

The thousands of Yazidi women and children were taken prisoner in
August 2014, when IS fighters overran their villages in northern Iraq
with the aim to eliminate the Kurdish-speaking minority because of its
ancient faith. Since then, Arab and Kurdish smugglers managed to free an
average of 134 people a month. But by May, an IS crackdown reduced
those numbers to just 39 in the last six weeks, according to figures
provided by the Kurdistan regional government.

Mirza Danai, founder of the German-Iraqi aid organization Luftbrucke
Irak, said in the last two or three months, escape has become more
difficult and dangerous.

“They register every slave, every person under their owner, and
therefore if she escapes, every Daesh control or checkpoint, or security
force – they know that this girl … has escaped from this owner,” he
said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.

The AP has obtained a batch of 48 head shots of the captives,
smuggled out of the IS-controlled region by an escapee, which people
familiar with them say are similar to those in the extremists’ slave
database and the smartphone apps.

Lamiya Aji Bashar tried to flee four times before finally
escaping in March, racing to government-controlled territory with
Islamic State group fighters in pursuit. A land mine exploded, killing
her companions, 8-year-old Almas and Katherine, 20. She never learned
their last names.

The explosion left Lamiya blind in her right eye, her face scarred by
melted skin. Saved by the man who smuggled her out, she counts herself
among the lucky.

“I managed in the end, thanks to God, I managed to get away from
those infidels,” the 18-year-told the AP from a bed at her uncle’s home
in the northern Iraqi town of Baadre. “Even if I had lost both eyes, it
would have been worth it, because I have survived them.”

The Sunni extremists view the Yazidis as barely human. 
The Yazidi
faith combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, an
ancient Persian religion. Their pre-war population in Iraq was estimated
around 500,000. Their number today is unknown. 

Lamiya Aji Bashar. AP PHOTO / Balint Szlanko

Nadia Mourad, an escapee, has appeared before the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament to appeal for international help.

“Daesh is proud of what it’s done to the Yazidis,” she said to
Parliament. “They are being used has human shields. They are not allowed
to escape or flee. Probably they will be assassinated. Where is the
world in all this? Where is humanity?”

IS relies on encrypted apps to sell the women and girls, according to
an activist is documenting the transactions and asked not to be named
for fear of his safety.

The activist showed AP the negotiations for the captives in encrypted conversations as they were occurring in real time.
The postings appear primarily on Telegram and on Facebook and WhatsApp to a lesser degree, he said.

Both Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Telegram use end-to-end encryption
to protect users’ privacy. Both have said they consider protecting
private conversations and data paramount, and that they themselves
cannot access users’ content.

“Telegram is extremely popular in the Middle East, among other
regions,” said Telegram spokesman Markus Ra. “This, unfortunately,
includes the more marginal elements and the broadest law-abiding masses
alike.” He added the company is committed to prevent abuse of the
service and that it routinely removes public channels used by IS.

In addition to the posting for the 12-year-old in a group with
hundreds of members, the AP viewed an ad on WhatsApp for a mother with a
3-year-old and a 7-month old baby, with a price of $3,700. “She wants
her owner to sell her,” read the posting, followed by a photo.

“We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and disable
accounts when provided with evidence of activity that violates our
terms. We encourage people to use our reporting tools if they encounter
this type of behavior,” said Matt Steinfeld, a spokesman for WhatsApp.

Like the Bible, some passages of the Quran implicitly condone
slavery, which was widespread when the holy book emerged. It also allows
men to have sex with both their wives and “those they possess with
their right hands,” taken by interpreters to refer to female slaves.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Muslim scholars backed the
banning of slavery, citing Quranic verses that say freeing them is a
blessing. Some hard-liners, however, continued to insist that under
Shariah sex slavery must be permitted, though the Islamic State group is
the first in the modern era to bring it into organized practice.

In the images obtained by AP, many of the women and girls are dressed
in finery, some in heavy makeup. All look directly at the camera,
standing in front of overstuffed chairs or brocade curtains in what
resembles a shabby hotel ballroom. Some are barely out of elementary
school. Not one looks older than 30.

One of them is Nazdar Murat, who was about 16 when she was abducted
two years ago — one of more than two dozen young women taken away by the
extremists in a single day in August 2014. Her father and uncles were
among about 40 people killed when IS took over the Sinjar area, the
heart of the Yazidi homeland.

Inside an immaculately kept tent in a displaced persons camp outside
the northern Iraqi town of Dahuk, Nazdar’s mother said her daughter
managed to call once, six months ago.

“We spoke for a few seconds. She said she was in Mosul,” said
Murat, referring to Iraq’s second-largest city. “Every time someone
comes back, we ask them what happened to her and no one recognizes her.
Some people told me she committed suicide.”

The family keeps the file of missing Yazidis on a mobile phone. They
show it to those who have escaped the caliphate, to find out if anyone
has seen her, and to other families looking for a thread of hope they’ll
see their own missing relatives again.

The odds of rescue, however, grow slimmer by the day. 
The smuggling
networks that have freed the captives are being targeted by IS leaders,
who are fighting to keep the Yazidis at nearly any cost, said Andrew
Slater of the non-profit group Yazda, which helps document crimes
against the community and organizes refuge for those who have fled.

Kurdistan’s regional government had been reimbursing impoverished
Yazidi families who paid up to $15,000 in fees to smugglers to rescue
their relatives, or the ransoms demanded by individual fighters to give
up the captives. But the Kurdish regional government no longer has the
funds. For the past year, Kurdistan has been mired in an economic crisis
brought on by the collapse of oil prices, a dispute with Iraq’s central
government over revenues, and the fallout from the war against the
Islamic State.

Even when IS retreats from towns like Ramadi or Fallujah, the missing girls are nowhere to be found.

“Rescues are slowing. They’re going to stop. People are running out
of money, I have dozens of families who are tens of thousands of dollars
in debt,” Slater said. “There are still thousands of women and kids in
captivity but it’s getting harder and harder to get them out.”

Clothing worn by a
Yazidi girl enslaved by IS.

AP PHOTO / Maya Alleruzzo

Lamiya was abducted from the village of Kocho, near the town of
Sinjar, in the summer of 2014. Her parents are presumed dead. Somewhere,
she said, her 9-year-old sister Mayada remains captive. One photo she
managed to send to the family shows the little girl standing in front of
an IS flag.

Five other sisters all managed to escape and later were relocated to
Germany. A younger brother, kept for months in an IS training camp in
Mosul, also slipped away and is now staying with other relatives in
Dahuk, a city in the Iraqi Kurdish region.

Sitting very still and speaking in a monotone, Lamiya recounted her
captivity, describing how she was passed from one IS follower to
another, all of whom beat and violated her. She was determined to

She said her first “owner” was an Iraqi IS commander who went by the
name Abu Mansour in the city of Raqqa, the de-facto IS capital deep in
Syria. He brutalized her, often keeping her handcuffed.

She tried to run away twice but was caught, beaten and raped
repeatedly. After a month, she said, she was sold to another IS
extremist in Mosul. After she spent two months with him, she was sold
again, this time to an IS bomb-maker who Lamiya said forced her to help
him make suicide vests and car bombs.

“I tried to escape from him,” she said. “And he captured me, too, and he beat me.”

When the bomb-maker grew bored with her, she was handed over to an IS
doctor in Hawija, a small IS-controlled Iraqi town. She said the
doctor, who was the IS head of the town hospital, also abused her.

From there, after more than a year, she managed to contact her relatives in secret.

Her uncle said the family paid local smugglers $800 to arrange
Lamiya’s escape. She will be reunited with her siblings in Germany, but
despite everything, her heart remains in Iraq.

“We had a nice house with a big farm … I was going to school,” she said. “It was beautiful.”

SOURCE: Associated Press