Families Torn Apart After Fleeing ISIS
Liberated from life under ISIS, Mosul families are separated when authorities are suspicious about the men in the family, and whether they were ever part of the terror group
ERBIL — They thought they would be safe after escaping from ISIS.
But scores of refugee families were torn apart after some of their members were detained indefinitely on suspicion of working with the Islamic State, according to Vocativ’s interviews with two dozen families and several human rights groups operating in Northern Iraq.
Many refugees presently languish in refugee camps, trying unsuccessfully to contact loved ones, mainly men who’d been arrested by Iraqi police and military; Kurdish security forces; or Shiite militias.
‘Leyla,’ 40, a Sunni Arab from Karach village outside Mosul said her husband Mahmoud, 42, and her son Ali, 20, disappeared into the holding cells of Kurdish security three months ago and she hasn’t heard anything about them since. Leyla didn’t want to give her real name for fear of retribution against her family.
“We started to have psychological problems [after the arrests],” she said, sitting in a tent in Dibaga refugee camp outside Erbil. Together with her remaining children, they kept warm in front of a small portable space heater. “Every day, we stay up late and think about them,” she said.
Leyla said she’d tried repeatedly to speak to the camp administration office headed by the Barzani Charity Foundation. The Foundation belongs to the Kurdish Regional Government’s president Masoud Barzani and Asayish, the KRG’s main security and intelligence force. Both turned her away, she said, with no answers. She doesn’t even know if they’re still alive.
“Under Daesh, we felt that we were in prison,” she said, referring to the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Now we have similar feelings.”
The Hidden Threat
Authorities do have cause to be cautious, given militants have in the past concealed themselves among civilians to escape justice or carry out reprisal attacks.
Since the eastern part of Mosul was retaken from ISIS, there have been numerous suicide attacks, claiming dozens of casualties. And a steady bombardment of the east side by ISIS drones and mortars suggests ISIS forces in the western part are using spotters hidden in the eastern side to help direct attacks, according to Lt. General Sami al-Arridy of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces.
“The big issue is that ISIS members start to change their neighborhood,” said Faisal Jeber, the leader of a volunteer militia of local Mosul residents. “Let’s say I’m an ISIS member or ISIS supporter. When the operation starts, I will move. Neighbors think I moved to the other side while I just changed to a new neighborhood and I’ll tell people … that I came from another place so they have no idea.”
According to the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition here, defeated ISIS militants try to blend in among the civilian population in liberated parts of Mosul and villages that weren’t abandoned in the conflict.
U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the led coalition told reporters that ISIS sleeper cells “pop up in areas that are largely pacified,” and that “significant clearing” was necessary to keep those areas secure.
A dozen civilians in eastern Mosul confirmed these reports to Vocativ, saying they saw ISIS fighters shave their beards and try to blend into civilians or refugees to escape justice or carry out attacks.
Four of the families interviewed by Vocativ said their detained relatives had in fact been trained by ISIS for periods between a week and a month and had later left the organization after becoming appalled by its ideology. Two of the families said those involved were coerced by ISIS to join, the two others said they did it to get money to feed their families.
All four of the families said that after leaving ISIS, the former trainees evaded capture by hiding among different family members around Erbil until ISIS fighters gave up coming by to look for them.
The rest of the interviewed families said that their arrested loved ones had never worked for or trained under ISIS.
Lists and Informants
When civilians are liberated, their IDs are checked against multiple lists of terror suspects by whichever armed force is securing the area. Sometimes they are checked by multiple groups at once, including the Iraqi army, the federal police, the local police, the Kurdish regional government, and the Popular Mobilization Forces — Shiite militias that are now government-sanctioned for the fight against ISIS.
Those whose IDs match a suspect are taken aside and detained. Individuals can also be detained after the fact, usually in a refugee camp, if they are identified as fighters by civilian informants.
All security forces rely on civilians who volunteer to pass along information about alleged suspects, whether such information comes from Mosul; the surrounding villages; temporary refugee holding areas or long-term refugee camps.
Interviewed civilians say they are happy to do their part to deny ISIS a safe haven.
“Every single civilian who recognizes them will turn them in,” said Dorid Daham, a Mosul resident in the city’s Sukar neighborhood.
However, informants can be mistaken or worse. Over a dozen interviewed families whose relatives had been arrested are concerned that informants had been neighbors with whom they had disputes and are now getting revenge.
What happens to a detainee largely depends on whose jurisdiction they find themselves in.
Wafa Abdullah lost her 15-year-old son, Mohammed, while her family was fleeing eastern Mosul two months ago. The Iraqi army arrested the teenager at a checkpoint. She believes he was sent to Baghdad as an ISIS suspect but she has no way to make sure.
“My son is still a child,” she said through tears.
‘Ilham,’ who was escaping from Haji Ali village with her family in late June, said the Iraqi army arrested her husband not far from the village while they were fleeing. She thinks the military got information from neighbors with whom the family had a dispute over water taps in Haji Ali. She did not give her or her family’s name for fears over her husband’s safety.
“They got their revenge,” Ilham said. Neither Abdullah nor Ilham were able to find their family members, despite multiple attempts to contact them through the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
After questioning a detained person in a process that can take between a day and a week, the suspects are usually transferred to the National Security Service, which holds them in a detention facility until they are ready to come before a local court.
The Mosul investigative court, currently in the town of Qayyarah, decides if there is enough evidence to make a formal charge. Court officials told Human Rights Watch in late November that a quarter of all cases are dismissed for lack of evidence. The remaining detainees must then come before the Nineveh Governorate’s high court’s prosecutor.
But this isn’t happening at present. Suspects remain stuck in limbo in Qayyarah detention facilities. Logistical challenges of transporting detainees and disorganization created by ongoing conflict present the biggest challenges, according to a source with the NSS, who did not give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media. HRW said Iraqi officials told them the same thing.
Belkis Wille, an HRW researcher said many people who’d been interviewed after they were detained by Iraqis didn’t complain of ill-treatment during those investigations. But she acknowledged that those who hadn’t suffered were more likely to speak up.
Nihad Pawod, a member of the Iraqi army intelligence, said in an interview that some suspects picked up by the Iraqi army due to informant reports were sometimes flogged in pre-trial detention. “If they do not tell us the truth, we lash them. We treat them the way they treated civilians,” he said.
Captain Ahouqba Nafa of the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division did not confirm what happens during interrogations, saying that it is the army’s job to hand suspects over to the NSS. General Yahya Rassol, the spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, declined to comment.
High-value detainees are sometimes sent directly to Baghdad, according to the NSS source. He did not explain the criteria behind determining a high-value detainee. Pawod said suspects in 22 investigations had been sent to Baghdad.
Those liberated by Kurdish troops or staying in Kurdistan’s refugee camps are investigated by the Asayish. The organization was created in September 1993 to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and espionage in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Asayish officers answer to the Kurdish National Assembly and the KRG. The force is based in Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah and operates throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to Dindar Zebari, head of the KRG committee to evaluate and respond to international reports, suspects can only be arrested under a court order. Detainees can be held for 24 hours “or until the investigations have been finalized and a hearing has been held.”
In practice, pre-trial detention can last for months, according to three former detainees and over a dozen detainees’ families.
The KRG used to have its own anti-terror law, created because of dissatisfaction with Baghdad’s anti-terror laws. But pressure from rights groups who said it was too harsh and indiscriminate led to its suspension in July 2016. The KRG must now apply the Baghdad law or try ISIS suspects on more lenient charges, which it is reluctant to do.
More troubling are reports that some Asayish officers use violence to extract confessions from detainees. HRW reported speaking with 19 out of 183 boys under the age of 17 held in an Erbil detention facility. Among them, 17 reported being beaten with pipes and cables, burned with cigarettes, given electric shocks and threatened with rape if they did not confess to working for ISIS.
Some said they were made to sign confessions they could not read because they were blindfolded, illiterate, or unable to read Kurdish. Most of the detainees were Sunni Arabs.
‘Nada,’ one of the few detainees at Dibaga, who was able to get permission to come to Erbil and visit the women’s and children’s reformatory from the HRW report, said that while her 17-year-old son looked healthy, other children looked very troubled.
“Most of them were crying,” said the mother, also a Sunni Arab. She asked for her real name not to be used. “Some of them get psychological diseases while in the reformatory.”
‘Montaha,’ another Sunni Arab at Dibaga, said that Asayish detained her husband and three of his brothers five months ago as they were fleeing. While she still doesn’t know what happened to her husband, she said she got to see one brother-in-law for 10 minutes under Asayish supervision in a security center in Erbil, with the help of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
“He was shaking. He looked so weak,” she said. “When I went to hug him, I saw restraint marks on his wrists, like he had been hanging by his arms.”
Zebari said torture and extrajudicial procedures are illegal under Kurdish law. “Officers accused of mistreating prisoners will have action taken against their misconduct in the court of law,” he wrote in a statement on his Twitter account.
The Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) is comprised of many Shiite militia groups, most of whom receive funding from Iran, despite answering to the Iraqi government. A few militias under the umbrella are Sunni and some are Christian.
The militias have looser guidelines for arrests than either the Iraqi police or military or the KRG’s armed forces. “Given these groups’ lack of training in screening, the irregular nature of these screenings and detentions, and the detainees’ lack of contact with the outside world, the detained men are at heightened risk of abuse,” HRW wrote in a February report.
Amnesty International had a similar report in January. ” The predominantly Shia militias have used those arms to facilitate the enforced disappearance and abduction of thousands of mainly Sunni men and boys, torture and extrajudicial executions as well as wanton destruction of property,” it said.
Colonel Abdul Kareem, the coordinator of Hashd al-Shaabi forces in and around Mosul denied that these militias make their own arrests in a phone interview.
“None of this information is true,” he said. “Our cooperation [with the Iraqi military] is only sharing information with forces on the ground,” who then make the arrests. He said the militias largely get this information by getting reports from civilians in the area and investigating ISIS weapon factories.
The Iraqi Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. Gen. Rassol, who speaks for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense declined to comment about Hashd al-Shaabi arrests, saying only that they were working with the military to keep the peace in liberated areas.
Six different interviewed families said that some of their members were arrested by Shiite and Sunni militia members.
Asia Khalaf said that her husband, Ali Hussein Mustafa, was arrested at their tent in Jedah 4 refugee camp by a group of men wearing Hashd al-Shaabi patches on their uniforms over two months ago.
“They did not ask any questions, they just took him,” she said. “I am still waiting to find out about him.”
Two interviewed families said that multiple taxi drivers, who had obtained rare permissions from ISIS to drive outside of Mosul, were arrested by Shiite militiamen at a checkpoint in the city of Karbala in central Iraq a year and a half ago. They had not been heard from since, despite the families going around Karbala and Baghdad to look for them.
“Some of the drivers who were friends of my husband said that they were arrested,” said Domoo, speaking from her home in eastern Mosul. She declined to have her last name used. The mother of the arrested man, Zeyad, said that she went around prisons in Baghdad and Karbala to look for him but his name was not on any of the prisoner lists, she said.
“I have just one mission — to find my husband,” she said.
Another family, belonging to the Shabak ethnic minority group, also living in Mosul, had a similar story. A family member named Mahmood was on his way back from Baghdad, when he disappeared. Two days later, other drivers and their passengers said he was arrested by Shiite militiamen.
“My daughter asks me every day — where is Dad?” said Mahmood’s wife, Halla. Her 15-year-old son had to get a job as a bricklayer to support the family in his father’s absence.
Vocativ secured several interviews with members of mobilized tribal militias from areas controlled by ISIS, who are mostly Sunni. Despite falling under the PMF umbrella, these militias, doing government-approved police work in Mosul, are largely locals who do not get funding from Iran. Many of them are deeply suspicious of Shiite militias.
The tribal militias are also empowered to make their own arrests and interrogations. Their members say that because they are locals, they are good at identifying friend or foe. After obtaining a confession or reasonable suspicion, the suspect is turned over to Iraqi NSS.
“Usually we say [to detainees]… that one of your colleagues or friends told about you, that you are part of the same group (ISIS),” said Jeber, the head of one militia that contains Sunni, Shiite and Christian members. “Sometimes we use physical effort but not that bad, not to the degree that it will show. When we send them to National Security, the first thing they say is ‘if there is any sign of violence, we are not receiving them from you. It’s your responsibility.'”
One tribal militia officer, Mohammed Ibrahim Askar confirmed that he and his men conduct interrogations before passing suspects along to Iraqi security forces.
“We question them if sources say that [the detainee] belongs to Daesh,” Askar said. He said that people are not arrested unless the reports are credible. But he did not divulge his standards for credibility or how many informant reports are needed to arrest someone.
“All of them are liars,” he said, of his group’s detainees. “We know how to get the truth.”