The Unseen Horrors of the Islamic State: Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War

[Editor’s Note: This article was featured on Ex-Patt Magazine.]

Throughout the world, the Islamic State is synonymous with horrific acts of violence, most of which are publicly broadcast across the internet. But lurking beneath these horrors are other grave human rights violations which are difficult to encapsulate in YouTube videos. These atrocities threaten the security of the region and the well-being of entire populations for generations to come and include brutal, systematic campaigns of mass rape and human trafficking of women and children. The international community should be outraged and acutely concerned by these human rights abuses at the hands of the Islamic State (IS), and more should be done to make women and children priorities in countering and addressing IS. By failing to do so, the massive humanitarian crisis plaguing the region will only spread and worsen.

Yazidi refugees receiving support from the International Rescue Committee. (Image from WikiMedia Commons)

The situation in Syria and Iraq has grown increasingly dire since the Islamic State emerged as a significant threat in the region. As the Islamist extremist group amassed territory and announced a self-proclaimed caliphate in the region, many accounts emerged of extreme violence against civilians and those not adhering to their specific brand of fundamental Sunni Islam. But it was the attack on Mount Sinjar in Iraq that propelled IS into systematic human rights abuses. In August 2014, the extremist group began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Yazidi minority in conquered areas, and it encircled and attacked Mount Sinjar where many had fled. Those that were captured endured a highly systematic, pre-planned series of violence: men and boys who had entered puberty were executed, while women and children were loaded onto open-air truck beds and taken to large storage facilities for processing into the slave trade. This system has been replicated in other attacks against minority groups, mostly Yazidis, and IS has confirmed in their online publication that the practice is institutionalized and such attacks are pre-meditated.

Since the attack on Mount Sinjar, Islamic State has built up a thriving system of human trafficking and sexual assaults. In late 2014, the UN estimated that around 2,500 people were held as slaves by Islamic State, most of whom are women and children subject to sex trafficking. In her recent New York Times piece, Rukmini Callimachi describes the system as “a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.” UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura outlined the hierarchy by which these women and children are sold, with IS leaders getting first pick, followed by foreigners, most of whom are wealthy Middle Eastern men who will pay thousands of dollars per slave. The remaining captives are then put on the public slave market. Oftentimes, the buyers “grow tired of a girl”, and she is sold back onto the market. The system of sexual slavery has been enshrined in IS practice, and in July, the group released a manual outlining the ways in which the human trafficking industry operates and how one would properly participate in buying or selling a slave. Under this codified practice, sales contracts of slaves are even notarized by Islamic courts under IS control.

For those trapped in the cycle of trafficking and IS enslavement, they are forced to endure frequent sexual violence. The Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department has released many religious justifications for the rape and assault of those enslaved, and IS frequently publishes religious discussions on the topic, including a recent piece admonishing the majority of Muslims who disagree with IS claims that sexual assault of slaves is “spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” In Callimachi’s article, victims give horrendous accounts of sexual violence, with several discussing how their rapes began and ended with prayer. Many of the women and girls are from the Yazidi minority, which fits the IS narrative of religious justification for sexual assaults. Because Yazidis are not Muslim and because they have an oral religious tradition, Islamic State believes that they are not entitled to the protections allowed to Sunni Muslim women and even the limited protections allowed to the “People of the Book” (Christians and Jews); as such, Islamic State considers them commodities and spoils of war who are free to be used as sex slaves. It is believed that IS sexual violence will become more widespread following the recent decision by IS leaders that it is acceptable to sexually assault Christian and Jewish women. While those subjected to sexual violence represent the full age range, the sexual abuse of minors is praised by IS media and younger captives sell for higher prices at slave auctions. It is important to note that Islamic State’s campaign of sexual violence is not specific to Yazidis: Christian and Turkmen Shia women have been subjected to virginity tests and sexual assaults, boys and young men have experienced sexual abuse, and Muslim women and girls have been married off to fighters without their consent. It was also recently reported and confirmed that Kayla Mueller, an American hostage in IS captivity before her death, was also sexually assaulted, frequently by the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group has made great effort to justify its brutal campaign against women through radical interpretations of fundamental Islam, but this is an insult to the religion. It is clear that Islamic State uses sexual violence as a systematic weapon of war and terror against those in its territories.

The international community should be enraged by these practices, and more should be done to address the sexual violence these women and children face. As Islamic State continues to systematically engage in sex trafficking and sexual assaults, the humanitarian crisis will continue to worsen and secondary effects of such violence could threaten the region for generations. Sexual violence is a weapon of war, and it is imperative that the international community address it as such rather than as the byproduct of religious extremism. As Zainab Bangura stated, “Advances by violent extremist groups are almost always coupled with attacks on the rights of women and girls.” She continues, saying that sexual violence is used by Islamic State “to displace communities and destroy existing family structures, to strike fear into the heart of civilian populations, to extract intelligence, and to generate revenue for trafficking, trading, gifting, auctioning, and ransoming women and girls as part of the currency by which [Islamic State] consolidates power.” The entire Yazidi population in the region is being threatened by this practice, and women and children in IS territory are subject to extreme horrors and the most intimate human rights violations.

The stability of these populations are also threatened by indirect effects of sexual violence: domestic violence has risen in the region, and child marriage has risen from 13% to 32% in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. Sexual violence and other human rights abuses contribute to the massive increase in migration and displacement in the region. For women and girls fleeing, many face further sexual abuse: of those refugees who had been smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea, almost every female refugee had experienced sexual violence at some point in their journey. The humanitarian crisis of such direct and indirect effects of sexual violence at the hands of Islamic State cannot be understated. The refugee situation is at an historic high throughout the world, minority groups are threatened by ethnic cleanings and mass rapes, grave human rights violations are occurring, and entire generations are marred by the extreme trauma they have faced. Women and children who have fled or remain in IS-controlled territories are experiencing “polyvictimization” from their combined displacement, exposure to violence, and sexual assaults; this, in itself, is already posing difficulties for humanitarian groups attempting to provide them services.

It is time for the international community to dispel the myth that sexual violence is a terrible but inevitable consequence of conflict. We must do more for women and children subjected to such horrors by Islamic State and treat its use sexual violence as war crime behavior. As UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is celebrated and assessed on its 15th anniversary in October, the UN should use the opportunity to call attention to the involvement of women in peace and security issues and the ways in which conflict-related gender-based violence can be better addressed and eventually stopped. In the coming months, the United States will also be reviewing its 2012 US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, and measures should be taken to further address sexual violence in conflict. In general, the international community should move away from thinking of sexual violence in conflict as a “soft” humanitarian issue; instead, Islamic State’s human trafficking and mass rapes should be viewed as the brutal weapons of war that they are.

The horror and trauma of sexual violence cannot be captured in a viral clip of Islamic State’s reign of terror in the region, but this should not stop the international community from addressing it as a grave human rights violation and terrorist tactic. Women and children subjected to systematic sexual assaults deserve the immediate attention and action of the international community. Without doing so, the humanitarian crisis in and around the region will continue to escalate, secondary effects will continue plague the population, and Islamic State will continue its practice of systematic human rights violations against women and children.

BurihanovNatalie Burikhanov is an M.A. Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce where she is studying Diplomacy and International Development. Her primary interest of study is women’s issues, particularly sexualized violence in conflict. She is currently working as a Policy Intern at Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and as an Anti-Human Trafficking Advocate (Graduate Intern) at Kentucky Rescue & Restore.

Prior to graduate school, Natalie worked as a Legislative Assistant at the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. She hopes to continue working with women’s advocacy upon completion of her degree. You can contact her at, check out her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.


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