Key Facts

Achieving justice for the families of people kidnapped by ISIS will be a cornerstone in helping communities rebuild and somehow reconcile.

Thousands of people were kidnapped and subsequently disappeared by the ISIS: the Islamic State or Daesh is a terrorist Jihadi group made up of Syrian, Iraqi, and foreign recruits.Islamic State (ISIS) during its control of parts of Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2019. While the real number could be much higher, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented 8,349 cases of disappearance.

ISIS had no fewer than 56 official detention centers located in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Aleppo. Often these were warehouses or even homes that were converted into detention centers. ISIS detained people for a myriad of reasons, including smoking, listening to music, breaking ISIS’s strict dress code, and activism against the group’s rule. 

A woman cries as she looks at her house in Raqa in October 2017. Raqa saw some of ISIS’s worst abuses and grew into one of its main governance hubs for its unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood. (Photo credit BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

In September 2014 the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS: a broad international coalition formed by the United States in September 2014.US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS began airstrikes against the terror group in Syria. During that time war crimes and crimes against humanity by ISIS escalated. 

By December 2017, ISIS had lost 95 percent of its territory, including the northeastern city of Raqqa, its nominal capital. A US-backed coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a US-backed, Kurdish-led alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias formed in 2015 as part of the campaign to defeat ISIS.Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gradually captured key ISIS positions. By March 2019, ISIS had lost its last remaining stronghold in Syria.

While the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS: a broad international coalition formed by the United States in September 2014.Coalition forces claimed to have taken necessary measures to spare civilians, Airwars, a transparency project that tracks and archives international military actions, estimates the US-led coalition killed between 7,559 to 12,156 civilians in Iraq and Syria since it began operations in 2014. Huge areas of cities and towns were utterly destroyed.

Since the territory was wrested from ISIS’s control, families – no longer fearing retribution – have been emboldened to speak out about their disappeared loved ones. Their clear and urgent message is that the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS: a broad international coalition formed by the United States in September 2014.US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a US-backed, Kurdish-led alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias formed in 2015 as part of the campaign to defeat ISIS.Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its civilian authority the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC): The political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) have not met their responsibilities to find the disappeared.

Yasmin Mashaan, whose brother Bashar Mashaan was kidnapped by ISIS

“Losing five brothers, including the youngest who was kidnapped by ISIS, has hit us hard as a family. Every morning I look at my children and I want them to understand and value what it means to fight for the truth and what it means to fight for justice and accountability”

Yasmin

In the wake of ISIS’s retreat, mass graves were discovered containing thousands of bodies. Local councils formed a First Responders Team: Team of local people created by local councils in the northeast to undertake exhumations of mass graves.First Responders Team to start exhuming the mass graves. Support for the exhumation efforts have been woefully inadequate, which is hampering families’ chances of identifying their loved ones.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a US-backed, Kurdish-led alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias formed in 2015 as part of the campaign to defeat ISIS.SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC): The political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.SDC have shown a consistent lack of cooperation with the families of the disappeared and mishandled vital evidence. The missing may be elsewhere in Syria or Iraq. Captured ISIS fighters aren’t being sufficiently questioned about detainees and their fate.

  • The location of a network of ISIS mass graves

  • Found around the Raqqa area

  • Containing the remains of thousands of unknown victims

© Mapbox © OpenStreetMap. Data courtesy of SJAC

In April 2020, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC): The political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.SDC announced the formation of a civilian working group, Syrians for Detainees and Abductees committee: A working group formed by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to focus on finding the thousands of detained and missing people in northeast Syria.‘Syrians for Detainees and Abductees’. The committee is a welcome first step, but it must commit to transparently communicating with families of the missing about their work and abide by standards of international law. 

Families have a right to know if their loved ones are alive or where they lie, and how individual ISIS members are going to be held to account. They have the right to justice. The authorities in charge must ensure that graves can be investigated to a high standard, and families must be told what’s being done to find their loved ones.

The Role of Families

Families will play a critical role in the search for the missing.

As well as evidence taken from graves, information about the missing from families and witnesses is crucial to identifying bodies. This is known as antemortem data. 

It could be a photo of the clothes their son was last seen in. Or medical records about tooth fillings or broken bones. 

Families give this information to the First Responders Team: Team of local people created by local councils in the northeast to undertake exhumations of mass graves.First Responders Team at their centre in Raqqa, but many families have been displaced and only a small number can get there. Families abroad need to be connected to the work on the ground so they can report their missing loved ones, and local authorities must inform the families of the work being done to search for the missing.

Ensaf Nasr

Ensaf Nasr’s husband was disappeared by Islamic State – “My husband, Fuad Ahmed el-Mohamed is one of thousands of Syrians disappeared by the Islamic State, which once controlled one-third of our country. Fuad was a poet and a writer and both of us believed in freeing Syria from the Assads. In June 2012 he returned to his hometown of Deir ez-Zor to participate in the civil uprising against the regime. The regime was targeting anyone who resisted it. Fuad filmed medical teams treating the injured in secret, underground hospitals, publicizing their life-saving work to a horrified audience.”

ISIS captured Deir ez-Zor in August 2014, and soon after it began arresting the same people the regime had targeted. Fuad chose to stay and help, knowing the tremendous danger it put him in. He told me, ‘if I leave, I’m leaving my people and our land to those barbaric terrorists. ISIS went to the hospital where Fuad had a job documenting the dead and arrested him.”

When I heard the news, I went into shock. I knew how ISIS treated its prisoners and the conditions they kept them in. Unable to bear life in a constant state of terror, I left Syria with my children. We settled in Turkey, all of us deeply traumatized. It’s impossible to know what has happened to Fuad.”

Though the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have defeated ISIS, the people it disappeared are yet to be found. I’m left at the mercy of rumour and speculation. My children and I are so tired. We have the right to know what happened to Fuad, to be free from the uncertainty we have lived with for close to five years.”

On the ground

Local First Responders have begun searching for the missing in mass graves

To date, twenty-eight mass graves have been discovered in Northeast Syria containing a total of 4,072 bodies. So far, little progress has been made to identify the bodies. The potential for grave sites and bodies to be damaged, both by intentional tampering and natural degradation, now makes the situation particularly urgent.

Local councils in Northeast Syria recognized this urgency and in early 2018 they created a First Responders Team: Team of local people created by local councils in the northeast to undertake exhumations of mass graves.First Responders Team to exhume the rubble of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS: a broad international coalition formed by the United States in September 2014.US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s airstrikes, and to investigate mass graves. 

As of January 2020, there were 56 workers in Raqqa and Deir Ezzour, including a team lead and a medical doctor.

How do the First Responders work? Families, witnesses, and other community members report knowledge of mass graves or other human remains to the team. The First Responders investigate and assign each recovered body with an ID number. They record basic information such as sex, estimated age, apparent cause of death, location of recovery, and a list of any belongings found with the body. In April 2019 a doctor joined the team, and now a hair follicle, tooth, and piece of thigh bone are taken from each body for DNA analysis. 

In some cases bodies are readily identifiable but most people are incredibly hard to identify. The team maintains an excel spreadsheet to store all their notes. As of December 2019, 1,700 families had visited the First Responders Center in Raqqa to seek information on their missing loved ones. The team has created two gravesites outside of the city to rebury their bodies.

While this team has been doing extraordinary work under extremely difficult circumstances, they have little technical knowledge on how to protect the bodies from damage or document what they find so that it is preserved for the future. The majority of remains removed from mass graves remain unidentified. 

Families have had limited access to the First Responders because of the security situation on the ground and the widespread displacement of civilians from Northeast Syria, making it hard for families to register that their loved ones are missing.

To be able to give families the answers they desperately need about their loved ones, the First Responders need specialized training in grave exhumation, forensic investigations, and documentation, as well as support for their own psychosocial resilience to be able to continue this incredibly challenging work. Their work also needs to be integrated into a program that documents the missing in direct engagement with families. 

The First Responders team is collaborating with SJAC and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to professionalize its processes, but security concerns on the ground and now the spread of COVID-19 have delayed in-person trainings.

The most important first step is to conduct exhumations in an organized way. If graves are opened too quickly, the lack of preparation slows down identification processes, and families are often left angry and disillusioned about a process in which they were never engaged. 

You can find more information on the First Responders program here.

Maisa al-Saleh, whose sister Samar was disappeared by ISIS

Resources

Glossary

ISIS: the Islamic State or Daesh is a terrorist Jihadi group made up of Syrian, Iraqi, and foreign recruits. The group gained notoriety in 2014 after it seized control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq and became known for brutal acts such as beheadings and kidnapping. By March 2019, ISIS lost its last significant territory in the region.

US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS: a broad international coalition formed by the United States in September 2014. The aerial campaign launched by the coalition led to a massive civilian death toll and destruction of huge areas.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a US-backed, Kurdish-led alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias formed in 2015 as part of the campaign to defeat ISIS. The alliance played a large role on the ground in the military defeat of ISIS in Syria and is currently in control of most of the territory recaptured from ISIS. SDF has access to vital information that could help unveil the fate of the kidnapped by ISIS but has so far failed the families of the disappeared and has mishandled evidence. 

Syrian Democratic Council (SDC): The political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.

Syrians for Detainees and Abductees committee: A working group formed by the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to focus on finding the thousands of detained and missing people in northeast Syria.

First Responders Team: Team of local people created by local councils in the northeast to undertake exhumations of mass graves.