Kurdistan, Iraq — Lalesh, the religious capital of the Yazidis, is deceptively tranquil. Tucked in the mountains of northern Iraq, it enjoys a cool breeze as the afternoon disappears. Young girls follow a devotee who lights the temple’s hundreds of oil candles before darkness falls, the herb-infused fuel wafting its aroma. Children play, clambering up and down the stone steps as we climb barefoot to the top of the temple for the best view of the spires, which guide Yazidis’ prayers along the path of the sun. One long-limbed girl, probably around eight years old, grins puckishly at me, lingering. “Her sister is still with the Islamic State,” my guide tells me grimly.
So shatters the peace. For all its charm and religious significance, Lalesh cannot fully soothe the tragedy of the Yazidis. After the Islamic State attacked their community near Mount Sinjar in early August, jihadis murdered hundreds of husbands and sons, shooting many, and burying alive or sawing through the necks of the rest. The thousand or more wives and daughters taken captive did not have the solace of death: Viewing these girls and women as the spoils of war, the Islamic State fighters began a gluttony of rape that continues to this day.
In the tiny Kurdish town of Sharia, I interviewed a pregnant 19-year-old Yazidi woman who escaped the Islamic State with her young son after weeks of captivity and rape. The Islamic State had forcibly wed her to two jihadis, coercing her by depriving her and her toddler of food and water. Days after she reached safety in Kurdistan, her body still ached from what they had done to her, she said.
I also interviewed Hengi Abdullah, a pretty 18-year-old with streaks of premature gray in her dark hair. She narrowly escaped the jihadis, but several of her cousins remain in captivity. One escaped, phoning Hengi with grim details of frequent rapes and beatings and rare meals. They hope to be killed in an airstrike, Hengi’s cousin told her.
The Islamic State doesn’t even spare children from sexual violence. At a terrorist-run Mosul orphanage, the United Nations learned of 65 captive Yazidi and Turkmen children, many of them “reported to be traumatized from having witnessed the murder of their parents,” and some of whom “may have been physically and sexually assaulted.”
Sexual violence has always accompanied war, but for the Islamic State, rape isn’t just a physical indulgence or a manifestation of battlefield brutality; it’s a deliberate, calculated strategy. Justifying it by their faith, the Islamic State’s fighters trumpet it to terrify their enemies, and they rape and share and sell the captive women to boost recruitment and raise funds.
In September, the Telegraph interviewed a 17-year-old Yazidi girl who told them “her captors had initially confiscated her mobile and those of the other women, but had then ‘changed strategy,’ returning the phones so that the women and girls could recount to the outside world the full horror of what was happening to them.”
And a recent issue of Dabiq — a magazine published by the Islamic State and available online in English — includes an article praising sexual slavery as a way to keep men from falling into adultery and lauding the rape of the “devil worshipper” Yazidi women. Anyone “weak-minded and weak-hearted” enough to oppose enslaving heathens and “taking their women as concubines” is “denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’an and the narrations of the Prophet . . . and thereby apostatizing Islam,” the article concludes.
Just as the Islamic State has posted photos and videos of its beheadings and crucifixions online, it views the rape of the Yazidi women as an effective propaganda tool, says Sirwan Barzani, the nephew of Kurdistan’s president and a powerful commander of the peshmerga troops.
“They started this almost one year ago, using all the media — social media, Facebook, the Internet — to show how they are killing people, how they are taking their kids, how they are killing children, how they are taking women, females, so it’s really psychological war, and I can say that they are succeeding,” Barzani tells me from his military base, less than 60 miles from Islamic State–held Mosul. “Most of the peshmerga, you know, they are from this same region, so when ISIS came, some of them said they had to first take their families and kids to the safe area before they could join the fight. That’s a challenge for us.”
Similarly, in Kobani, a city on the Syrian–Turkish border besieged by the Islamic State, men wanted to stay to defend their homes — but first, they took their families to safety in Turkey, afraid of what would happen to their women if the city fell. Because of the rape of the Yazidis, “we are afraid that those same things will happen in Kobani, because we now know they will do this,” said Sherin Sheik Othman, a Kobani native now living in Erbil, Iraq. Comparing the terrorists to pimps forcing slave women into prostitution, Othman tells me, “We call it a public house [brother], but they call it jihad.”
The Islamic State advertises the rape of the Yazidi women as a way to drive recruitment, enticing young men to join up and get their sexual fill between stints fighting for Allah.
The Islamic State, estimated to have a net worth of at least $2 billion, has also used sexual slavery as a way to raise funds for its fight. The United Nations reported accounts that the Islamic State has established an office in the al-Quds area of Mosul to oversee the sale of captive women. “Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the U.N.’s report says. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently [the Islamic State] was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”
Women have reportedly been sold as brides or concubines for as much as $1,000 each and as little as $10, according to news reports. The Islamic State has earned millions of dollars from human trafficking, including the sale of sex slaves, according to Luay al-Khatteeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar.
“I have never seen such open brutality against women,” says Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “In the past, when such things happen, like in Sudan or in the Congo, we heard stories. . . . But the perpetrators never came out and boasted about sexual violence against women and children.”
The strategic use of sexual violence has earned the Islamic State a macabre distinction. But as it continues to wage war across two countries, we do little to prevent the atrocities of these grim innovators.
– Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.