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the establishment and regulation of slavery

by the Islamic State

Nadia Al-Dayel, Principal Investigator

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A Crime Against Humanity

Starting in the early hours of August 2014, a crime against humanity was performed on a scale that we are still struggling to understand. The terrorist organization branded as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) attacked a region in Iraq and established a stronghold of slavery and sexual violence across its territory. 

This report investigates the slavery structure of the Islamic State. It classifies information on vital aspects using evidence from United Nations-mandated investigative missions, news reports, and academic analysis. It details how slavery was structured across the territory controlled by the Islamic State from 2014-2018. It describes how the accumulation of territory coincided with the practices of slavery, highlighting how this terrorist organization restructured itself from an insurgency to a state-like apparatus. 

 Further details are available in a publication for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism--the Hague and in an open access research journal article published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, co-authored with contemporary warfare expert, Andrew Mumford, and foremost slavery expert, Kevin Bales (CMG).

1. Background

The Islamic State is a Salafi jihadist insurgent terrorist organization with transnational affiliation to other violent, non-state actors.  It is otherwise known as IS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL and Daesh.

 The “Islamic State” did not happen overnight, nor were its atrocities committed on civilians an act of impulse. There was a level of strategic planning when it captured villages and “erased” the border of Iraq and Syria. What began as a small Al-Qaeda insurgency in 2004 escalated into a threatening state project with global aspirations. Each rebranding--from “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” to the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” to the more recent “Islamic State”--restructured not only internal management, but of external goals.

From an insurgency to a state project


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi establishes Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)


June: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killed by US Army airstrike.

Al-Masri takes over as AQI leader

October: Al-Masri establishes Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) l

ed by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi


April: Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi and Al-Masri killed 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims leadership of ISI


April: ISI joins Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian Al-Qaeda)

Rebranding to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL)


February: Al-Qaeda central dissolves alliance with ISIS

June: rebranded as the "Islamic State" 

Caliphate and religious authority claimed

The Islamic State project attracted the largest number or foreign fighters ever recorded by a non-state actor. An estimated 25,000-100,000 people from over 100 countries migrated  to Islamic State controlled territory from the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 to September 2016.  The number of foreigners are a distinct concern. These fighters served in different areas, from trainees and conscripts to security force and operational support staff and media producers.

2. Sinjar 

In early August 2014, the world took notice of a humanitarian need to assist minority ethnic groups in Iraq. However, the Islamic State began consolidating a considerable amount of control across the Nineveh governate territory much earlier—instilling discrimination and brutality as an institutional practice. 

The Kurdish word for the Sinjar area is Shingal, a district is located in Iraq’s north-west province of Nineveh. It is only 50 kilometers to the Syrian border, past the anticline Sinjar Mountains that stretch for 100 kilometers. Turkey is 90 kilometres away, and the town of Sinjar a two hour’s drive west of Mosul. In 2013, the population of the city of Sinjar was almost 90,000 with nearly half a million people living in its surrounding villages. The Mount Sinjar region contains the largest percentage of Yazidis.

Approximately 400,000 Yazidis lived in the Mount Sinjar area. They have been historically discriminated against from Saddam Hussain’s rule and threats from Sunni extremists. Yazidis themselves claim that they have endured up to 74 attempts of being destroyed by others due to their faith. In other words, they have experienced generational trauma, undoubtedly compounded by the enslavement conditions instilled by the Islamic State project. 

In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State began occupying Sinjar. This expansion of Islamic State territory was in part made possible by a lack of security forces. 

The Sinjar Mountains and surrounding area.

Some of the Peshmerga forces that were in charge of manning checkpoints and protecting the districts and surrounding cities in the Sinjar area retreated. However, the former head of the Peshmerga forces, Jabber Yawar, claims that this caught them by surprise and occurred in areas that were not heavily defended. Additionally, the lack of security was compounded by the withdrawal of Iraqi forces after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria overtook parts of Mosul earlier that year. The Peshmerga force was left as the only force patrolling the territory. Due to this lack of security, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly formed a special cabinet and began providing weapons to civilians who would voluntarily stay and defend the area against Islamist militants. This move was to no avail. The capital city and the Nineva Plains swiftly became overrun by the Islamic State.

Mount Sinjar was next. 


3. Capture & Containment

The strategic and bureaucratic manner of the Islamic State’s attack in Sinjar, Iraq on the Yazidi population contributed to several aspects of the terrorist’s capacity to grow militarily and financially.


The specific planning by the Islamic State determined that gender and age defined the route to enslavement: 

  • Captured children became future “fighters” through indoctrination and forced training.

  • Men who weren’t murdered upon capture became forced laborers,  tasked with digging trenches to fortify defensive positions for the Islamic State.

  • Women and girls—termed sabaya and even addressed as Al-Sabi (slave)—were caught in a vicious cycle of gender-based sexual violence and horrific conditions of slavery with multiple owners.

On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked Sinjar. This event would begin a siege that lasted for months. The attack trapped the vulnerable Yazidi community in the mountains, exposing them to the harsh winter. It was a turning point of the Islamic State establishing a system of slavery with captured civilians, bureaucratically administering this international crime as a societal norm. At the time of the attack, the Islamic State was riding high on its fifth captured oilfield and Mosul dam (the biggest in Iraq). The Yazidis—when and if they were allowed a choice—had two options: convert or die. From estimates provided by human rights organizations and local authorities, it is reported that between 2,000-5,000 Yazidis were killed. Approximately 6,000 were kidnapped from the Sinjar attack alone. Some were even buried alive, including women and children.


The brutal characteristic of how the Islamic State killed civilians is contrasted against the systematic process that spearheaded it. The attack happened in the early morning of August 3, 2014. There was a primary attack site, then secondary attack sites in the “Sinjar massacre”. 


Within just 72 hours, the civilians from Sinjar, Kursi, Snuny and Kocho were divided and transported to Mosul, Baj, and Tel Afar in Iraq. They were registered at locations throughout Iraq and Syria. Slave markets were found in Al Shaddi, Raqqa, and Tadmur (Palmyra) in Syria. Training areas for children were found in Mosul, Tal Afar, and Baj, Iraq, as well as across northern Syria. The Islamic State had control of the border and major roadways, and that made it easy to transport the captives back and forth. 


The United Nations and US-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh swiftly took action in response to the brutal occupation of the minority Yazidi population. The following timeline shows dates pertaining to the Islamic State’s capture of territory for slavery purposes, and reactions from the United Nations and Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh. 

4. Slavery

From survivors’ testimony to investigative missions mandated by the United Nations, we know how Islamic State practiced slavery in the territory it controlled across Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2017. 

For current information on the rebuilding of Sinjar:


Nadia Murad's Initiative


 Nadia Al-Dayel, Principal Investigator 

More information, citations and references are available in the open-access article

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