ISIS’s Human Trafficking Crimes Get Little Attention

ISIS’s Human Trafficking Crimes Get Little Attention


In the wake of U.S. President Obama’s announcement last week of his plan to combat ISIS, press attention around the militant group continues to grow. However, information on the group’s extensive involvement in human trafficking continues to receive little attention.

The Islamic militant group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has established a large presence in the Syrian Civil War and in June 2014 launched a major offensive in Northern Iraq. In August 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that ISIS had 50,000 fighters in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq. In both conflicts, ISIS has become known for brutal tactics, including the mass killing of civilians, public executions, crucifixions, and other acts. Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have accused ISIS of grave human rights abuses.

Their violent tactics have also included sex trafficking and slavery. In August an Iraqi Special Forces group arrived at an abandoned military checkpoint to find a woman naked and bound who had been repeatedly raped. As they traveled further into the neighborhood they found another woman in the same state.

As little else has been published on ISIS’s abuse of woman, Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, has emerged as an authority and strong voice on this issue. Dr. Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars published a piece entitled “ISIS’s Cruelty Towards Women Gets Scant Attention” in The Wall Street Journal. In the piece Dr. Esfandiari details ISIS’s “barbarity against women,” including forced marriages, enslavement, rape, and forced female genital mutilations.

Since Dr. Esfandiari’s piece, and as more women and girls escape from ISIS, attention on the issue has slowly risen. Recent reports state that as many as 2,500 women have been captured by ISIS near Iraq’s Nineveh Province alone. This week, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper interviewed a 17-year old woman who was captured by ISIS in Iraq on August 3. The young woman, from the Yazidi religious minority, said she was one of a group of about 40 Yazidi women and girls, some younger than 13-years old, who were still held captive and enduring daily sexual abuse by ISIS fighters. She was able to speak to the newspaper because the ISIS fighters had recently returned her mobile phone to her, encouraging her to detail to her family the abuse she was enduring. A similar report came from a 16-year old Yazidi woman who was “sold” and released by an unknown benefactor.

In an email to Human Trafficking Search, Dr. Esfandiari speculated over potential reasons why the media has failed to focus on this issue:

“Perhaps, it is because the focus of the [Obama] Administration and the media has been on the security threat posed by ISIS, while a strong case against ISIS can be made on the basis of their mistreatment and exploitation of women and their violation of human rights in general. I believe that if there were a strong voice in the administration, like that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was at the State Department, on the plight of women in ISIS lands, the media would have paid more attention.”

Why do you think this issue has received so little media attention?



  1. Emily C

    Says September 15, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    It is truly appalling that these atrocities are not more heavily reported. I certainly understand why the Obama Administration would primarily focus on ISIS being a security threat, but the fact that ISIS targets women in such an disturbing and obscene way should not be ignored. The Administration has mistakenly shied away from this issue in an attempt to “keep focus,” but instead missed out on an opportunity to shed light on a very important issue that has been ignored.

  2. Ana c

    Says September 15, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    I am glad the treatment of women is being raised. The media should have picked up on it. Glad to know people raise questions where the media is not willing to go.

  3. Ann

    Says September 16, 2014 at 12:44 am

    It is so sad that governments often ignore the plights of individuals, especially women, and focus instead on military threats. ISIS’s acts have shown them to be capable of great brutality. Even if they were removed from political/military power, they would still be capable of crimes against women and children. Rape is as much an act of war as a bombing is, and in some cases, abuse of women may be more chillingly effective in keeping citizens from rebelling against power. It is a horrific display of power and control.Until women are treated as equal citizens, there cannot be peace.

  4. Sarah Pierce

    Says September 17, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Ann – I really like your point on rape being an act of war. In recent years, rape as a weapon of war has received much more attention – including the UN’s resolution describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security in 2008. I think that makes it even more surprising that this issue has stayed so far outside of media attention. If we are so focused on security issues and rape is acknowledged to be a security issue- how is this issue escaping media attention? Clearly there is more that needs to be done in getting rape recognized as a security threat.

  5. sally

    Says September 27, 2014 at 9:43 am

    BBC Mundo have a video which draws attention to this entitled

    If you don’t understand Spanish Google can translate the text part for you quite well. Contains scenes of emotional distress, as one would expect. 🙁

  6. sally

    Says September 27, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Sorry, just found this in English

  7. Sarah Pierce

    Says October 01, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you Sally! It’s informative and heartbreaking.

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