Islamic State Uses Encrypted Apps to Sell Yazidi Sex Slaves

Yazidi Sex Slaves

An advertisement luring buyers towards a Yazidi sex slave on the popular Telegram Messenger app is not only chilling but also incongruous.

“A girl for sale is Virgin. Beautiful. 12 years old. ... Her price has reached $12,500 and she will be sold soon,” it reads.

The offer, in Arabic, appears within an encrypted conversation alongside other advertisements for weapons, tactical gear and even kittens. An activist for the minority Yazidi community, whose women and girls have been systematically abducted by Islamic State militants to serve as sex slaves, exposed the advertisement to the Associated Press earlier this year.

As the Islamic State loses territory in its self-proclaimed caliphate, it is trying desperately to tighten its grip over approximately 3,000 women and girls who continue to be held as sex slaves. In a concoction of ancient barbaric practices and modern-day technology, the Islamic State has been auctioning these women and girls like chattel across a variety of smartphone apps. The militants even maintain a shared database containing the photographs and identities of their “buyers”,  so that the captives cannot flee via checkpoints across Iraq and Syria. On the rare occasion where a buyer attempting to rescue a captive is discovered,  Islamic State militants have been known to brutally murder the traitor, to ensure the funds from selling the sex slaves continue to flow.

Thousands of Yazidi women and girls were taken captive in August, 2014, when the Islamic State seized their settlements across northern Iraq, hoping to completely annihilate the Kurdish-speaking religious minority because of its ancient pagan practices. Initially, Arab and Kurdish rescuers managed to free around 134 sex slaves a month but by May of this year, a crackdown by the militants restricted the number to only 39 rescues over a period of eight weeks.

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.”

The AP has acquired a batch of 48 headshots of captives, brought outside the caliphate by an escapee, which those familiar with the captives say are identical to the ones in the shared database or smartphone apps owned by the Islamic State.

Lamiya Aji Bashar is among those who attempted to flee multiple times before finally succeeding in March this year, escaping to a government-controlled area with furious militants pursuing her. As Bashar, along with eight-year-old Almas and 20-year-old Katherine, ran for their lives, a landmine exploded, killing both companions and leaving Bashar blind in her right eye as well as scarred with severe burns all over her face. Eventually rescued by a man who agreed to smuggle her out of the caliphate, Bashar considers herself blessed by God.

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

Bashar was abducted from Kocho near Sinjar in 2014. While her parents are presumably dead, she said her nine-year-old sister, Mayada, is still held captive by the militants. One photo Mayada sent to her family shows her standing before the infamous Islamic State flag. Five other sisters of Bashar’s have all managed to flee the caliphate and are now residing in Germany. Her younger brother, who underwent extensive training in one of the camps in Mosul, managed to escape as well as and is currently living with his extended family in Dahuk, Iraq’s Kurdish region. 

Sitting still and muttering in a monotone, Bashar recounted how, during her captivity, she was passed from one militant to another for each of them to abuse her both physically and sexually. Her first “owner” was Islamic State commander Abu Mansour, who lived in Raqqa, the extremist group’s de facto capital in Syria. He brutalized Bashar on a daily basis, typically keeping her handcuffed. Her first few attempts to escape were unsuccessful, after which she was beaten severely and raped repeatedly. After about a month, she was apparently sold to another militant in Mosul. Having spent two months with him, Bashar was then sold for the third time to a bomb-maker, who allegedly forced her to make car explosives and suicide vests along with him.

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

After the bomb-maker was done with Bashar, she was then handed over to a doctor for the Islamic State. A resident of Hawija and the head of the town hospital, the doctor also abused her. After spending a year with him however, Bashar managed to contact her relatives in secrecy, following which they paid a smuggler $800 to arrange for their niece’s safe exit. Bashar is expected to unite with her siblings in Germany.

Islamic State militants claim their Sunni ideologies forbid them from considering Yazidis as even human, mostly because their religious practices draw influence from an array of other faiths, including Zoroastrianism and Christianity. The Yazidis’ faith has Persian roots and even though their pre-war population was recorded at around 500,000 by the Kurdistan regional government, their current numbers are not known.

The Islamic State depends on encrypted apps to sell the Yazidi women and girls, said one activist, who not only exposed the inhuman practices of the extremist group to the AP but also has documentation of the transactions. Asking for his identity to be withheld for security concerns, the activist revealed to the AP negotiations for the captives in encrypted conversations as they took place in real time. According to him, the advertisements appear primarily on Facebook, Telegram and Whatsapp.

Both Telegram and Whatsapp, owned by Facebook, use end-to-end encryption to protect the privacy of their users, as they consider protecting private data paramount, which is why they claim not to have access to any user’s content.

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

Apart from the ad promoting the 12-year-old in a group with hundreds of members, the AP also saw an advertisement on Whatsapp for the mother of a three-year-old and a seven-month old, who was being sold for $3,700.

“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, spokesperson for WhatsApp.

Like the Bible, certain passages in the Quran also condone slavery, which was a prevalent practice at the time that the religious text emerged. These verses permit men to have sex with their wives as well as those they possess with their right hands, interpreted as female slaves. Even though most Muslim scholars demanded a complete ban on slavery during the 19th and early 20th centuries, citing verses that claim freeing slaves is in fact a blessing, a minority of Islamist hardliners continues to preach that sharia law takes cognizance of sex slaves. However, Islamic State is the first extremist group in the modern age to have reintroduced sex slavery as such a streamlined practice.

In the pictures acquired by the AP, most of the Yazidi women and girls can be seen dressed in finery and heavy makeup. All appear to be looking directly at a camera, standing before brocade curtains or cluttered chairs in what resembles a shady ballroom. While some seem barely out of elementary school, not one of the slaves appears older than thirty.

Among them is Nazdar Murat, who was approximately 16 when the Islamic State abducted her two years ago. She was only one of over two-dozen women and girls who were taken away by the militants in a single day in August 2014. Her father and uncles died fighting the militants, as they captured Sinjar, the heart of the Yazidi homeland. Inside a tidy tent at a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of the northern town of Dahuk, Murat’s mother said she last received a call from her daughter six months ago.

“We spoke for a few seconds. She said she was in Mosul,” said her mother, 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.”

Murat’s family still has a file of missing Yazidis. They show it to every person, who has managed to escape the caliphate, to learn more about Murat’s whereabouts but have not succeeded in uncovering any information so far.

Moreover, the chances of rescue have been slimming by the day. The smuggling networks that initially managed to free a few hundred captives are now under the radar of Islamic State militants, who seem desperate to keep their Yazidi captives at all cost, said Andrew Slater of Yazda. Yazda is a nonprofit organization that documents crimes against Yazidis and organizes refuge for those who have been rescued.

Even though the Kurdistan regional government was initially reimbursing impoverished Yazidi families, who spent up to $15,000 in fees to smugglers to have their relatives rescued or ransoms to individual militants who agreed to free their captives, the administration has now exhausted all its funds. For the past year, Kurdistan has found itself mired in an economic crisis, which was further accelerated by falling oil prices, a dispute with the Iraqi government over revenues and a fallout from the war against the Islamic State. Even after the extremist group was compelled to retreat from the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, the abducted Yazidis were 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.”

Photo Credits: Christian Today

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