The jihadist terror group the Islamic State has adopted a wide variety of violent tactics to subdue and ultimately destroy minority populations in Syria and Iraq– from crucifixions to beheadings to the mass burning of symbols of Western “decadence.” But it is the group’s campaign of sexual violence against minority women that Foreign Policy magazine notes could be the most devastating to those affected.
In an article titled “The Islamic State of Sexual Violence,” former CIA analysts Aki Peritz and Tara Maller note that the scale of sexual violence against women, girls, and boys committed by the Islamic State is prodigious, and will devastate communities ravaged by war for generations to come. Noting that the United Nations estimates about 1,500 boys, women, and children have been entered into sexual slavery after their towns were captured, the authors call what is now tradition for the Islamic State “industrial” level raping and running sex slave operations.
Sex is prominently used in two ways in the Islamic State to promote the goal of jihad and imposition of an extreme Sharia Law over lands the terrorist group determines are rightfully theirs, which can extend anywhere from southern Spain to western China. For some, “sexual jihad” is not textbook rape, but a decision by female jihadists to travel to battlefields and provide “comfort” for mujahideen. Women from as far as Malaysia and Australia have been known to travel to Syria and Iraq to perform this type of jihad.
But most women engaging in sexual conduct with jihadists are not choosing to do so. In fact, most “women” involved in sexual jihad are young girls and teens, abducted from their homelands for being part of a minority population– Christian, Yazidi, Kurdish, or a combination thereof– and forced to engage in sex slavery. Yazidi women in particular have told harrowing stories of being kept in sex slave prisons and raped by multiple Islamic State terrorists, sometimes simultaneously. One 14-year-old Yazidi girl who managed to escape her prison told the Washington Post how she escaped becoming the wife of a jihadist by using kitchen knives to pick the locks in her home and run away to a family friend, long after most of her family had been killed.
Systematic rape used to destroy, ethnically cleanse, or fundamentally weaken societies and populations is nothing new. It was a key weapon used against Tutsis in the 1994 Rwandan genocide to force the population to mix and eventually disappear. It surfaced in Bosnia in the 1990s as well, and, as far back as the 1930s, the Japanese military turned Korean women into “comfort women,” sex slaves disconnected from their people and culture and used as objects for the pleasure of Japanese men, instead.
In all these cases, rape is not merely the product of a lone soldier’s sexual desire. It is a war tactic, used to ensure that decades after the war is over, a people will be unable to recreate basic family structures necessary to the future of any society.
And yet, as Peritz and Maller note, rape is often considered “merely part of the laundry list” of crimes the Islamic State has committed, somewhat less important in discussions than the beheadings, bombings, and assorted violence the authors describe as “hard” war experienced by men, rather than the “soft” war lived by women and children.
And yet rape is not a gender-specific crime for the Islamic State. According to the United Nations, young boys are common among the thousands of Christian and Yazidi captives that the Islamic State has turned into sex slaves. While it is true that most rape victims during wartime are women, the authors argue that this should not deter organizations from seeing rape for what it is: a war crime, not a “women’s issue.”
“Fighting IS’s jihadist narrative is critical to destroying its long-term viability,” they explain, noting that, perhaps more than any other of its crimes, systematic rape undermines the lie that the Islamic State is a righteous organization fighting for Islamic morality. “Its fighters’ behavior toward women should be underscored at every opportunity. It gives the lie to the group’s claim that they are pure of heart,” they argue.
To that end, the authors argue that instances of rape should be documented as “terrorist attacks,” as their objective is clearly the same as the objective of, say, a car bombing or a crucifixion. It is to ensure the complete submission of a population to their own destruction.