Mass Violence and Genocide by the Islamic State/Daesh in Iraq and Syria
Rise and Fall of the Islamic State
Daesh/Islamic State (IS) goes by multiple names, including Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or by their Arabic acronym, Daesh. The evolvement of their name sheds light on the different stages of the organization’s development. The foundation of the group can be traced back to 1999 under the name of Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), which transformed into al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, under the leadership of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the wake of the 2003 US invasion, ISIS was primarily operating in Iraq, and then reemerged in fuller force and expanded into Syria following the Syrian revolution of 2011.
In June of 2014, the Islamic State officially established itself as a worldwide caliphate with Raqqa, Syria as its capital and declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the caliph. A caliph is a Muslim political and religious leader, regarded as the successor of the Prophet Muhammed. ISIS’ affiliation with and interpretation of Islam has been largely contested and denied by political figures, intellectuals, and Muslim leaders and scholars. ISIS was able to achieve religious, political, and military control by employing tactics of insurgency, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare.
In early 2019, ISIS was declared defeated, after losing much of its territory in Iraq and Syria, and in October 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a raid led by US forces. Nevertheless, experts have warned that although ISIS has lost its leader and territory, its ideology is still rampant. ISIS fighters have now blended into the local population and continue to carry out sporadic attacks, still posing a threat in Iraq and Syria. They have also expanded their reach globally, with affiliate groups in several countries launching deadly attacks.
For more information on the Islamic State, see:
- ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror - On the emergence and rise of ISIS
- How the United States Helped ISIS - On the role of the US in the rise of ISIS
- Beyond Authenticity: ISIS and the Islamic Legal Tradition - An analysis of ISIS and Islam
Genocide and Violence against Ethno-Religious Groups in Iraq
Turkmen and Shabak
The Turkmen are one of the largest ethnic groups in Iraq, making up around 500,000 to 2.5 million people. They adhere to both Sunni and Shia Islam. The Shabak, predominantly adherents of Shia Islam, are estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000 people. The Shabak have a complex ethnic history; though they have some unique cultural and linguistic remnants, they ethnically descend from Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, and are therefore difficult to distinguish as a distinct ethnic group. Both the Turkmen and Shabak communities have an extensive history of discrimination and violence prior to ISIS.
When ISIS advanced into Mosul and Tal Afar in June of 2014, they posed a threat to the religious communities living there. One of their primary targets were Shia Muslims and their religious sites. Shia properties, including Shia Shabak properties, were marked with the Arabic letter “R” referring to the derogatory term Rafidah (rejectors), used to describe Shia Muslims. Shia properties were confiscated and redistributed to ISIS fighters and local supporters. By August 2014, ISIS took control over Shabak and Turkmen villages in the Nineveh plains, resulting in mass displacement, abductions, killings, and forced conversions. After capturing Sinjar, Tal Afar became a transitory place to hold enslaved Yazidi women before trafficking them to other ISIS territory.
Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians
Christians in Iraq are predominantly Chaldean or Assyrian, and many trace their roots to the Assyrian and Mesopotamian Empires. The Assyrians are not strangers to persecution and mass violence, and have previously been the targets of genocide by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Arabization by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, and Kurdification by Kurds. One of the deadliest massacres against Christians in Iraq occurred in 2010, when Islamic State of Iraq militants raided Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, opening fire on almost 100 worshippers, killing 58. Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the population of Christians has decreased from 1.5 million to, at most, 250,000 people.
After ISIS captured Mosul in June of 2014, Christians were given the option to either convert, pay taxes (jizya), leave, or be killed. ISIS marked Christian homes with the Arabic letter “N” to mean Nasrani, or Christian, which quickly became a global symbol of solidarity with persecuted Christians. A few months later, in August of 2014, ISIS took control of all Assyrian towns in the Nineveh Plains, resulting in a second wave of mass displacement.
Today, one of the biggest challenges facing Christians in Iraq is the question of return. While the Nineveh Plain has since been liberated from ISIS, many Christians are hesitant and fearful of returning, citing renewed tensions between various ethnoreligious groups.
Yazidis are an ethnoreligious group, who practice a religion with elements from Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. Prior to 2014, they were primarily concentrated in the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, totaling approximately 600,000. The following events in Sinjar are considered part of a long history of oppression and genocide against the Yazidi people. The Yazidis believe this spate of violence to be the 74th ferman, or genocide against their people.
On August 3rd, 2014, IS forces advanced into the Sinjar region, and without warning, the Peshmerga forces (the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) withdrew, leaving the Yazidi population unprotected and defenseless. ISIS brutally attacked and occupied Sinjar. Almost 200,000 Yazidis fled towards Mount Sinjar, but quickly became besieged by ISIS. Stranded in the heat, hundreds of Yazidis died from dehydration, malnutrition, and suicide. Eventually, American, Iraqi, French, Australian, and British forces were able to drop humanitarian aid, while the Syrian Kurdish Forces (YPG) opened a corridor between Mount Sinjar and Syria, allowing people to escape. Meanwhile, ISIS abducted women and girls to sell into sex slavery, forced young boys into ISIS training camps, and executed men and elderly women.
Since the attack in August, at least 5,000 Yazidis have been killed. Many mass graves have been identified, and more are yet to be found. According to the Yazidi Rescue Office in the Kurdistan Regional Government, ISIS kidnapped 6,417 Yazidis, of which 3,451 have since been rescued, and 2,966 remain missing. Almost 2,745 children have become orphans. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis remain displaced, and the possibility of return has proven difficult amidst continuing security threats. In addition, ISIS destroyed Yazidi cultural sites in Bahzani, Bashiqa, and Sinjar.
Yazidi members have cited justice, security and, reparations as first steps towards reconciliation and peacebuilding. Since the genocide, Yazidis have led efforts to document ISIS’ crime of genocide, seeking legal justice at the international level. Additionally, returning to their ancestral homeland is a key priority, hindered by a lack of security, which is amplified by the fact that the Nineveh Plains is disputed territory between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.
Other Victims of Violence
In addition to Turkmen, Shabak, Yazidis, and Christians, other ethnoreligious groups in Iraq, such as the Sabean-Mandeans and Kaka’i were also targeted by ISIS. In fact, a lack of security and mass displacement poses a serious threat of extinction to the already dwindling communities of Sabean-Mandeans and Kaka’i. Additionally, ISIS targeted reporters and journalists, creating what is called a “news black hole” in their controlled territories, as well as gay men. Outside of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been responsible for and has inspired terrorist attacks in the Middle East, including Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, as well as in countries across the world such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and France. The Syrian civil-proxy war, involving ISIS and Bashar al Assad, has led to the largest modern-day refugee crisis, resulting in an estimated 13 million requiring humanitarian assistance, including nearly 6 million registered refugees from Syria alone.
For more information on mass violence and genocide by ISIS, see:
- Iraq: Bearing Witness - a report by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on violence against all religious groups in Iraq
- The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State - A Memoir by Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor and the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner
- The Last Plight - A short documentary on Assyrian Christians and Yazidis and the crisis in Iraq after the fall of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains
- The Daring Plan to Save a Religious Minority from ISIS - The story of how diaspora Yazidis worked with the US State Department to help Yazidis fleeing ISIS
Labeling the Violence as Genocide
In February 2016, the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring that ISIS has committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minority groups. This was the first time the Parliament labeled a genocide while events were unfolding. Shortly after, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging that ISIS is perpetrating genocide against Yazidis and Christians. In 2018, the US passed the Iraq and Syria Genocide and Relief and Accountability Act and pledged nearly $300 million in aid to ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. The United Nations declared that genocide is only being committed against the Yazidis.
The genocide designation itself did not necessarily come as a surprise, but it ignited a debate about its implications. Employing the word genocide can, in Rafael Lemkin’s words, “help to crystallize our thinking” and provide a more accurate description of the events, ideally to guide the formulation of a policy response. In the case of ISIS, however, this is a rare instance in which a non-state entity with no internationally acknowledged boundaries has been accused of committing genocide, which could possibly present new challenges in the application of international law. These discussions shed light on the implications and limitations of a legal genocide designation.
For more information about labeling violence by ISIS as genocide, see:
- ISIS and Genocide: On the Power of a Label - On the implications of the genocide label
- How Meaningful is the ISIS ‘Genocide’ Designation? - On the debate around the implications of the ‘genocide’ designation