The bureaucracy of Isis

Mosul is liberated and Islamic State in retreat. Now, residents face a new problem: who deserves to be punished?
January 19, 2018

In their tent in Khazir camp, about 40km east of Mosul, Khadija Muhammad Ismail and Fathaya Ibrahim Huadar are waiting for news. They haven’t heard from the man to whom they are both married in over a month. Their husband had got in with the wrong crowd.

“We cried and begged him not to do it,” says Khadija. Fathaya interrupts: “He believed in Islamic State, and said ‘if I don’t join I will go to hell and not to heaven. This is for God.’ We couldn’t do anything.” That was in 2014. Now the two women have heard he is dead. They won’t believe it, however, until they see a photograph of the body with their own eyes.

Fathaya is 37, softly spoken and neatly dressed. She married Salem Hajab Abdullah when she was 17 and he 22. After marriage, they set up home in Mosul, which sits on the banks of the Tigris, 400km north of Baghdad. It was then a city of two million, the third largest in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and religiously diverse, even though the majority of its inhabitants were, like Fathaya and Salem, Sunni Muslim.

Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Sunnis have gone from being the dominant sect to an oppressed minority nationwide. It was in their name that the militants of IS claimed to rule Mosul and other Sunni-majority regions. Between dictatorship and conflict, almost for as long as anyone can remember, families across Iraq have had to make ugly compromises in order to get by.

The brutal rule of IS is slowly and bloodily coming to an end after operations by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which began in 2016 and were backed by an international coalition. Now, questions about truth and reconciliation rear their head. Although western leaders and media outlets make a point of referring to “so-called Islamic State,” IS really did function as a state, responsible for everything from education policy, social services and health to humdrum local-governance issues such as management of public parks and street cleaning.

The question of who should take the blame, and to what extent, is grimly complicated. And one sharp question presses for the likes of Salem’s family: is there a way to achieve justice for the appalling individual misdeeds that took place during the IS era, without descending into chaos and collective punishment?

When they started out, Salem drove a taxi. He and Fathaya weren’t wealthy, but they had enough to be comfortable. “He was a very religious man, and he was peaceful and kind,” she said. But there was one problem: Fathaya could not get pregnant. In 2003, the year Saddam’s regime was torn down, Salem took a second wife, not uncommon in the region surrounding Mosul.

Khadija was two years older than Fathaya, louder, and just as religious as Salem. Over the next decade, she gave birth to seven children—five girls and two boys. The two women raised the children together, mostly getting along despite their domestic circumstances and differences in personality. Salem opened a small women’s clothing store selling Muslim attire, a safe bet in a religiously conservative city. Both women would help in the shop. When he wasn’t working there, their husband continued to drive a taxi.

Listen: Samira Shackle describes ongoing tragedy in Mosul in Prospect's podcast "Headspace" 

Mosul was not immune from the chaos engulfing Iraq; in 2008, a spate of murders caused around 13,000 Christians to leave the city. In 2012-13, there were mass uprisings by Sunnis in the southern province of Anbar to protest against Shia rule. There were some protests in Mosul too. And yet day-to-day life for the family was mostly uneventful.

Then, in early June 2014, IS fighters swept across the city, seizing public buildings and freeing prisoners. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts and half a million people fled, some on foot. Salem, Fathaya and Khadija were among those who stayed. Like many others, Salem was critical of the naked sectarianism of the Shia-led federal government in Baghdad and optimistic about the new regime, hoping that life might be better under devout Sunni leadership. Many in Mosul and other Sunni areas felt that the government didn’t care about them, and the immediate flight of the Iraqi army only seemed to confirm this.

For a while, everything came to a halt. Businesses closed their doors, state services stopped, and people stayed at home. Salem shut up the shop and stopped driving his taxi, but kept going to his mosque every day. He was not afraid: apart from anything else, he liked the religiosity of the new local leaders.

Within days of seizing the city, the militants had gone door-to-door to distribute the “Bill of the City,” which laid out how they planned to govern. Gradually, as IS cemented its control, this was put into action. Alongside horrifying violence—killings of police officers and their families, beheadings and rapes—the “Islamic State” doctors, street sweepers and shopkeepers returned to work.

A few months later, a commander approached Salem, impressed by his regular mosque visits, offering him a position as a state-sanctioned estate agent. Would he buy and sell properties and ensure a commission for the authorities? The salary was small—less than half of what he’d earned before—but it was better than nothing. Despite the protests of his wives, he said yes.

The two women, despite their misgivings, insist that Salem’s job was non-violent, a managerial position. This is disputed by Kurdish security officials, who suspect that “managing property sales” is a euphemism for violently seizing homes. Whatever Salem was really doing, word quickly spread that he was working for IS. For Khadija and Fathaya, the difference was immediate. Old friends inside the city stopped speaking to them. “People started to hate us, and him,” said Khadija. Once, as she walked to the shop, someone spat at her.

“One of our neighbours, a woman we had been friends with for many years, said, ‘you are destroying your life by your own hands, you didn’t need to join with IS,’” Fathaya recalled. “But it wasn’t us making the decision. He was a religious man.”

Nearly 18 months later, as 2016 was drawing to a close, a bloody battle for the city began. As the fighting intensified over the months and it became clear that the Iraqi army was going to reclaim Mosul, Salem realised what might happen if he were captured. In July, he fled to the town of Tal Afar, 70km away, which was still under IS control, leaving his two wives and seven children behind. He joined other IS members—not just fighters but those, like him, who had held municipal positions.

Khadija was pregnant again. The two women packed what they could carry, and joined the thousands of people flooding out of Mosul into the hastily assembled refugee camps nearby.

Khazir camp is an hour’s drive east of Mosul. There, in Iraqi Kurdistan, regulation blue-and-white tents cover the hillside, separated by stretches of dusty terracotta dirt. Around 30,000 people live here, mostly those who fled eastern Mosul after IS was forced out.

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The atmosphere is heavy with suspicion. The camp is administered by the Kurdish regional authority, not the Iraqi government, so it is guarded by Kurdish soldiers and security forces, many of whom fought against IS. “You have to be careful in this camp,” one officer told me when I arrived. “IS is everywhere.” He insisted on following me around, carrying a gun.

The authorities administering the camp are watchful—and so are the people housed within it. The families of alleged IS fighters live metres away from people who have lost everything at the hands of the militant group. Those with some IS association, like Fathaya and Khadija, live in fear of violent reprisals. These anxieties are well grounded. In June, just before Fathaya and Khadija fled Mosul, a letter was sent to suspected IS families in the city, telling them to leave by 15th July or “you will be shot.” Some of these families’ homes were set on fire. In nearby Qayyarah, a group of IS victims, with the backing of tribal leaders, drew up a list of 67 alleged IS families whom they demanded should leave. Some were forcibly thrown out. There have been similar eviction calls and lists, sometimes endorsed by provincial councils, across former IS-occupied areas.

It is impossible to know who can be trusted. When IS swept across northern Iraq, neighbours turned on one another. With survivors and collaborators pushed up against each other, Khazir camp is a microcosm of the challenges that Mosul and other former IS strongholds will face as they attempt to rebuild. The battle against IS in Mosul may have been won, but the hard work is just beginning.

*** A short walk away from Khadija and Fathaya’s tent live Shukria Ahmed and her daughter Aya. They fled Mosul in late 2016, before Iraqi forces had fully reclaimed control of the city. Although they are now in the relative safety of the camp, their trust in the community is shaken.

Aya, who is 21, picked at her chipped nail varnish as she described the night in 2015 when IS fighters stormed their house in Mosul. She woke at 1am to the sound of the front door being smashed in. Her father had been a police officer. As Aya, her younger brother and her mother, Shukria, looked on, the militants shot him dead. “This is nothing,” one of the fighters said. “He was police so he deserved to die—and all of you have police blood running through your veins.”

It was just the start of their nightmare. Aya’s uncle—her father’s brother—had decided to throw in his lot with IS. Some months later, to gain favour and status, he sold Aya as a “bride” to an IS commander. She was 19; her new “husband” was 35. They grabbed Aya by the hair. She screamed and shouted, but the commander ignored her and said to her uncle, “I accept this gift, she is for me.” “We had no man to protect us,” Shukria said. “We were just two women.”

Aya was held in captivity for two months with other women, who were also kept as sex slaves. She was raped repeatedly and beaten. She pulled her top down to show me the horizontal keloid led rs on her chest and back: welts left by whipping.

“I am scared of all men”

For two weeks, Shukria said she didn’t eat or sleep, as she frantically looked for her daughter. Eventually, someone told her where Aya was being held. Their Kurdish neighbour, a long-time friend of the family, agreed to help. After scoping out the location, one night he drove there and set fire to the external gate. In the furore that followed, Aya and the other women escaped. Most were recaptured, but Aya jumped into the neighbour’s car and he drove her back to Shukria. Soon afterwards, they fled Mosul.

“I am scared of all men,” Aya said. “I am scared of the entire community, I don’t trust anyone. Even though I have nothing else to lose, I am still scared that IS will find me again.” Walking around Khazir camp soon after her arrival, she thought she saw a relative who was complicit in her ordeal. Now she stays in the tent.

In July 2017, Mosul was officially liberated, and the Kurdish and Iraqi authorities are encouraging people in refugee camps to move back and rebuild. But for Aya and Shukria, this feels impossible. The day before I visited, they had made a trip to Mosul to see what was left of their house. “I saw the places they raped me,” says Aya. “I was screaming. I am still not OK. It reminds me of bad memories. So I am not going back there.”

The uncle who sold Aya off has since been killed in an airstrike. She doesn’t know what happened to the man who held her captive, but thinks he met the same fate. The mother and daughter are clear on one thing: they want justice. “I reported the names of everyone involved—my uncles, my cousins—to the security forces,” Aya said. Shukria added, “if I saw them again, I would not wait for the soldiers to come. I would rip their limbs off myself.”

It is because of people like Aya that a new emphasis has been placed on accountability for the victims of IS. In September, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for justice for them. The resolution, tabled by the UK, established an investigative team of experts to support the Iraqi government in collecting, preserving and analysing evidence of serious crimes. The UK committed to providing £1m to the UN team to lead those efforts.

After the resolution was passed, however, Amnesty International warned that it was “deeply flawed,” given that it made no reference to the widespread war crimes committed on the other side, by Iraqi security forces. “This resolution threatens to entrench a dangerous culture of ‘victor’s justice,’ which will only serve to fuel further abuses,” warned Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s UN office.

The new international drive for justice for victims sits alongside, or more precisely atop, local law enforcement on the ground. Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue to pursue IS operatives, and the wheels of the Iraqi judicial system continue to turn, without interruption or engagement with the new international investigators. And Iraq’s own operations in this area bear all the hallmarks of victor’s justice. The Iraqi army, which acts with the support of foreign airstrikes, is crossing the country violently clearing the cities and villages that IS used to run; the Iraqi courts, meanwhile, pursue anyone with any IS affiliation, no matter how slim or circumstantial. In federal Iraq, as distinct from the more lenient Kurdish region that I was reporting from, the only two sentences available for terror charges are “life” or death. Research has found that 90 per cent of trials of real or supposed IS members have relied on confessions. Many of these will have been obtained through torture.

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“The way that counter-terrorism laws in Iraq and the Kurdish region of Iraq are drafted means that the authorities can basically go after anyone who lived under IS for three years,” Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, told me. “They’re not quite doing that, but anyone who had a direct role in supporting IS rule is indeed being prosecuted.”

Wille described meeting a senior counter-terrorism judge in Nineveh province. The judge told her that an IS fighter would not have been able to carry out an execution if he hadn’t had a good dinner the night before; therefore the cook also deserved the death penalty. “I’ve seen multiple instances of doctors being prosecuted because they continued to work in IS-run hospitals after the takeover,” Wille said. “The authorities don’t seem to perceive any difference between a fighter and someone [involved at a] lower level.”

*** What should Iraq do with the thousands of people who lived under IS control and might have had some passing affiliation with the group? As it is, many are living under a cloud of suspicion and hostility, even when there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Women and children fleeing IS-occupied areas with no male relatives are immediately suspected of being IS families, while young men struggle to convince security forces that they lived for three years under IS without doing military service. The net has been cast wide.

In addition to arrests and prosecutions of alleged IS members, their families are facing social ostracism or worse. Looking beyond the northern region around Mosul to the western province of Anbar provides a cautionary tale. Anbar, a Sunni area, was marginalised after the regime change in 2003 ushered in majority Shia rule. It became a focus of militant resistance to the US occupation, and was subject to punishing American assault, most notoriously at Fallujah. Not coincidentally, it was one of the first areas to fall to IS in 2014.

It was also one of the first districts to be reclaimed by the Iraqi army. As the offensive raged through 2015 and 2016, families from Sunni Ramadi, Tikrit and elsewhere flooded into refugee camps. Months later, when these cities were freed, the Iraqi authorities let most people go home. But families with a relative who had been involved with IS were not given security clearance to leave. Their movements were restricted and, in some instances, they were not allowed mobile phones or visitors. Human rights workers have warned that this amounts to collective punishment, an injustice and acts as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism.

“Ask him about IS and he’ll deny everything”

“I’ve spoken at length to officials in Anbar who say the only way these people are going home is subsequent to participation in some kind of rehabilitation programme,” Wille said. “But such programmes in Iraq don’t exist. No one knows exactly what they’d look like or who would fund them.”

In Khazir camp, the Kurdish security guards took me to see a suspect, Ghazi Younis Zaidan. “We know that he is IS, but we cannot arrest him yet as we are still gathering evidence,” said the officer.

“Ask him about IS and he’ll deny everything,” said another. “But we beat him very badly a few weeks ago and he confessed everything.”

Ghazi is 61, and looks old for his age—crumbling teeth and deeply wrinkled skin. He glanced nervously at the guards, who stood outside the tent, hands on guns, as I entered to interview the family. His wife, Mushra, a 17-year-old, greeted me. They had been married for nearly two years. She had given birth five days earlier and there was barely any colour in her face. The baby was in a small cot, with relatives batting away the flies. “The baby is tiny because the mother is tiny. Under IS, these old men could marry young girls like this,” said the Kurdish officer, with an expression of disgust.

Inside the tent, Ghazi insisted that he had not done anything wrong. “When IS came, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do anything, I was just sitting at home,” he said. “There was no work. That’s why my son from my first marriage joined IS. He was a fighter. But I didn’t have anything to do with it. I haven’t seen my son for four years. I heard from other people that he has been killed.”

I asked Ghazi and Mushra whether they will return to Mosul. She wiped away a tear, silently. “Our house is destroyed, so we can’t,” he said. “We are good here, anyway. We don’t want to go back.”

"We don't sleep in case we get attacked"

Mushra’s mother, Zahra, who lives with them, pitched in with the truth. “We are scared that someone will attack our tent in the night. We don’t sleep in case we get attacked. That fear would be even worse in Mosul.” Ghazi looked at her in warning and she fell silent. As we walked away from the tent, the Kurdish officer gave an alternative explanation as to why they could not return to Mosul. “It is not because the house is destroyed, it is because they were with IS.”

Later the security forces showed me their evidence against Ghazi: an A4 page, with handwriting in blue biro. It contained an allegation that Ghazi was offered privileges by IS after his son was killed in battle­—being given a small area in Mosul to manage, taking care of local services and receiving a salary in return. Ghazi denied this, and would not sign a confession, despite the beatings, so the officers were waiting for corroboration. “These IS people are very lucky when we arrest them because we only beat them,” the Kurdish officer told me. “If it was our Iraqi counterparts, they would kill him immediately.”

*** When it comes to the question of what should happen to people who held low level or non-violent positions under IS, international law is contradictory. Laws on terrorism suggest that membership of a terrorist group should be criminalised, but other laws recommend amnesty for those not directly involved in war crimes.

Sectarianism in Iraq runs deep. It was encouraged by Saddam, and after the 2003 US-led invasion, fuelled a vicious war. Without resentment among the Sunni minority, militants like IS could never have seized control, or held cities like Mosul. Now, instead of reconciliation, whole communities are being punished; an approach that Wille, of Human Rights Watch, says is “disastrous.” The cycle risks repeating.

This explicit pursuit of the families of IS members is mostly confined to federal Iraq. In Kurdish-administered camps, like Khazir, these families live among other displaced people, but they are watched closely. Over the last few years, around 900 men and boys suspected of IS involvement have been arrested from five Kurdish camps.

Those living under suspicion are terrified. Khadija and Fathaya spend most of their time looking after Khadija’s seven children. As I sat in their tent, the children played, laughed and cried. They weren’t in school due to the family’s displacement. Without their husband, the women have no income and could not pay the school fees anyway. Some of his relatives are also in Khazir but they never visit or offer support, afraid of being tainted by association.

“Now that Salem is probably dead, I have nothing and no one,” said Fathaya. “I love these children, but they are not my blood.” She began to cry.

The Kurdish officer standing outside the tent poked his head in. “Don’t feel sorry for her,” he said in Kurdish, which the two women cannot understand. “They say that their husband was just buying and selling houses, but that means seizing property, kidnapping, killing. They supported him.” He promised to show me Salem’s file later. When he did, again it was an A4 page of handwritten notes in blue ink: an uncorroborated eyewitness account with no supporting documents. Whole families are being condemned, whole cohorts of children taught to hate, on the strength of biro scrawled on scraps of paper.

I asked the two women what life was like under IS. Fathaya was silent, but Khadija spoke up. “They sent people to prison and they targeted police officers, that was the bad part. But the good part was that it was so religious, we covered ourselves and we prayed all the time.” She was smiling.

The guard looked into the tent again. “We have an eyewitness account about her too, that she was with the IS morality police. We can’t arrest her because she is pregnant, but when she gives birth, then we will.” Khadija didn’t know whatthe guard was saying, but she could sense the meaning. “They think I am with IS but I am not, I am just a woman. I want my children to have a future.” She, too, began to cry.

Restorative justice is a messy and challenging process. There are some successful examples from past conflicts: in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a court-like body, where victims and perpetrators of human rights violations gave statements about their experience, requested amnesty from prosecution where appropriate, and in some cases took part in public hearings where people could put questions to them. But for such measures to work, there must be not only political will but effective state institutions. Iraq, a fragile state riven by decades of conflict, sectarian recriminations and chaos, has neither—and so the mass punishment of anyone with any association with IS looks set to continue.

“We are scared about the future,” said Fathaya. “People hate us. We are not scared of the government, because we know ourselves we haven’t done anything wrong. But perhaps the government hates us too.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a media fellowship through the Centre for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University