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Girls & Women

ISIS Using Messaging Apps To Sell Women Held As Sex Slaves

Islamic State group militants took this photo of Yazidi girl Nazdar Murat, as part of a database the militants have put together of Yazidi girls and women they have enslaved, shown in this May 18, 2016, photo taken during an interview with her family at Kankhe Camp for the internally displaced in Dahuk, northern Iraq. The Associated Press obtained a batch of 48 headshots of enslaved girls, smuggled out by one who escaped. “They register every slave, every person under their owner, and therefore if she escapes, every Daesh control or checkpoint ... they know that this girl ... has escaped from this owner,” said Mirza Danai, founder of the aid organization Luftbrucke Irak, using the Arabic term for IS.
AP Photo: Maya Alleruzzo

ISIS’s genocidal actions and goals are barbaric and based on an ancient and twisted interpretation of religion. Unfortunately, their brutal tactics are getting to be more and more 21st century.

An Associated Press investigation reveals that the Islamic State (known as IS or ISIS) has created an online database of the thousands of women it holds as sex slaves. The terrorist organization utilizes messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to advertise, negotiate and sell the largely Yazidi women and girls its fighters and followers control. An excerpt from the report gives a sense of this horrible practice. 

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.

An activist working on the ground to rescue trafficked women showed the AP a negotiation between ISIS fighters over the women they held happening in real time through messaging apps.

isis-sex-slaves-whats-app-yazidi-BODY- Phone conversation.jpgImage: AP Photo: Maya Alleruzzo

Posting for women “appeared on an encrypted conversation along with ads for kittens, weapons and tactical gear,” the activist, whose name was withheld for security reasons, told the AP.

In 2014, ISIS took thousands of mostly Yazidi women hostage when they took over the Sinjar mountain in Iraq. The area was home to a large majority of the Yazidi people, an ethnic and religious group estimated to be only about 500,000 before the ISIS attacks. This small minority was specifically targeted by ISIS in a campaign of violence labeled genocide by the UN and the United States. During the early days of August 2014, it’s estimated that ISIS killed over 3,000 Yazidi people and took over 5,000 women, including very young girls, into captivity.

A global campaign led in part by escaped sex slave turned activist Nadia Murad has brought attention to the issue. Despite telling her story to the US Congress, the UN Security Council, the EU Parliament, many world leaders and even being named to TIME’s 100 Most Influential People list, concrete action by world governments is still relatively elusive.

nadia-murad-yazidi-us-congress-sex-slave-HERO.JPGImage: CSPAN Screenshot

However, on the ground activists are working hard to rescue women and families from ISIS control. The AP estimates that since the end of 2014, about 134 people were being rescued a month by Arab and Kurdish smugglers.

Deteriorating funding as well as an Islamic State crackdown aided by new technology has lowered that number to only 39 people in the last six weeks.

In addition to selling the Yazidi women as sex slaves, they are also using the messaging services to maintain a digital database complete with head shots that enable ISIS checkpoints to identify and stop fleeing captives.

This has made escape much harder and more dangerous, as the AP detailed in its discussion with 18-year old Lamiya Aji Bashar, who escaped only after a mine exploded killing some of her fellow captives as they tried to escape.

isis-sex-slaves-whats-app-yazidi-BODY- Lamiya.jpgImage: AP Photo: Balint Szlanko

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, and Telegram have been quick to point to their efforts to shut down accounts of people who are reported engaging in illegal activity. The problem is this system requires users to self-regulate their own networks.  

The nature of Telegram and WhatsApp encryption makes intercepting and tracking Islamic State communications very difficult. After the lengthy showdown between Apple and the US government over information locked on a cell phone related to the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings, messaging companies have gone to great lengths to protect user information. The “end-to-end” encryption now employed by WhatsApp, Telegram and many of its peers is virtually impossible to monitor from outside a conversation, even by the hosting company.

Beyond the technology, the slowing rate of rescues can also be tracked to the dwindling financial resources available to the Yazidi people. This small minority group has a limited global reach and was not particularly wealthy before ISIS’ genocide. Since the initial attack, families have gone into debt to pay smugglers to free loved ones.

Activists and US based groups like Yazda are raising money internationally but it is very difficult. The Kurdistan regional government was providing financial resources locally but an economic crisis in the semi-autonomous region of Iraq has shut that down.

Despite the efforts of those on the ground and connected to the Yazidi community, an estimated 3,000 women and children remain captives of the Islamic State.

Nadia Murad is among the many activists committed to changing this. She recently told the US Congress, “I was freed but I do not enjoy the feeling of the freedom because those who have committed those crimes have not been held accountable.”

It remains to be seen if international leaders will work to save the remaining Yazidi sex slaves or refer ISIS to the International Criminal Court for a full accounting of the crimes committed by ISIS.