I was on Swedish Radio the other day, speaking about the importance of creating a safe haven in northern Iraq to protect Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, Yazidis and the other minorities who are facing ethnic cleansing there. I told listeners stories of rape, murder, and pillage. I told them about women being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, of children being abducted.
Suddenly, the host interjected: “Is this really true? Can we believe this?”
I told him I have been bearing witness to these atrocities for months now, and members of these communities had warning of the potential of such monstrous events taking place for a decade now. We saw this coming.
The next question most people have is: “Why is this happening?”
I thought I would try and provide some answers. I called a man – Abu Adil, who cannot be further identified because of his connection wtih ISIS – who I have been following for a couple of years. When I first came across Abu Adil, he was part of the Free Syrian Army, at that time the strongest of the groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
We got in touch after Abu Adil put a video on YouTube in which he boasted that his unit had an Assyrian Christian fighting with them. Around that time, persecution against Christians by rebel militias was becoming more widely known, and President Assad was trying to rally support among Christians and the international community by claiming that only he could protect Christians, and that the terrorist groups fighting him would slaughter them if his regime collapsed.
I wrote a report, Between the Barbed Wire, which revealed the atrocities being committed against Assyrians, Armenians and other non-Muslims going unreported within the broader narratives of the Syrian Civil War. In an interview about the kidnapping of two bishops in Aleppo in Syria, the former leader of the Syrian opposition George Sabra, a Christian, claimed that I was fabricating these atrocities, so I asked him to put me in touch with one of the leaders of the more Islamist elements of the opposition. I wanted to hear that I was wrong directly from them. A couple of weeks later I got in touch with Abu Adil who told me that I was being deceived by Bashar al-Assad’s propaganda machine: that the President was manipulating us into believing that groups like Abu Adil’s were persecuting Christians in order to win our support.
That was more than a year ago. At that time, Abu Adil referred to himself as a freedom fighter trying to bring down a dictator. I spoke to Abu Adil again last Sunday. He now tells a very different story.
“You have to understand, Mr. Kino, that if I or we don’t try to get you on the correct path - towards finding Allah (God) and following the right prophet - I will be charged, not you. I have to save my own soul, own life, in fact. My sole task is to open your eyes, to make you follow us and be part of the great Caliphate.”
This rhetoric reminded me of what an Imam in Mardin, Southeast Turkey, told me. I’m one of the coordinators of SineMardin, an international film festival that takes place every June, and during the 2013 festival, two producers, two directors and I were having lunch outdoors. After I got back from the bathroom, I saw all four sitting quietly while an elderly gentlemen with a beard and a hat was speaking. Our driver translated from Turkish to English.
“I’m here to save your souls. You must understand that soon a Caliphate will be born and the whole world will become Muslim. It is written. So follow us while you have the chance.”
We smiled. A Caliphate? I asked the Imam if he was threatening us. “On the contrary, I’m enlightening you, I’m saving you,” was his answer. He asked the filmmakers which religion they followed. One of them, a Belgian, said he is an atheist. The Imam had never heard of such a thing. I explained.
“So you don’t believe in anything? But you are European, and that means you are Christian.”
We tried to make him understand that not all Europeans are Christians but gave up after a while. He then warned us that a day would come when we would regret not having a God or worshipping the wrong God.
“To be Christian, for example, is to worship a piece of wood, a cross, and that’s against God’s wishes. For that, Christians will be punished.”
He went on to say that to pray in the language of Jesus - or to speak it - is a sin. There is only one prophet, he said, and we should pray in and speak his language, Arabic. My heart jumped.
This man was telling me these words in a part of what use to be the Ottoman Empire and where almost a century ago they tried to slaughter every Christian they could find, in the genocide against Armenians, Pontic Greeks, Assyrians and Yazidies. He was speaking to an Assyrian whose grandmother lived in this city, whose ancestors going back centuries had developed a culture, a language, and a history on this soil, and he was wantonly declaring his intention to decimate that heritage because of his bigotry. I wanted to rebuke the Imam, but before I got a chance to, my Muslim friend told him that he was a disgrace to Islam, going around threatening people in restaurants.
And now, speaking to Abu Adil, I thought of the Imam, and my heartbeat started to quicken.
“Mr. Kino, first I was with the Free Syrian Army, but in time I realised that I must follow Allah’s wishes. The only fight we need to fight is that of our prophet, Allah and our Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
A Caliphate needs a Caliph, a successor to Muhammed, as the Imam would have known, and now they had him.
“You know, all the true Muslims will come here: it is written, it is meant to be. They are coming from all the infidel countries: America, Great Britain, all over Europe, and of course, all the Muslim countries. In our Caliphate, we live according to the Holy Quran. And we are free: in mind, soul and body. You should come and see how happy everyone is.”
Happy? I asked him about the kidnapped children.
“We have not kidnapped any children. We have saved them. Now they will grow in accordance with the right path - that of the Holy Quran - instead of living in sin with their parents who don’t know what’s best for themselves or their kids. Their parents should thank us.”
He called to mind a mother in Syria whose daughter had disappeared 24 hours earlier. She had only been able to reach her daughter’s mobile phone once, and a male voice answered.
“Your daughter is alive and well. Congratulations! Tomorrow she will be initiated into the True Faith. She will be honored by being wedded to one of our sons. Praise Allah.”
I asked Abu Adil what he thought about that conversation.
”He is correct. The daughter has been brought to the right way.”
So I asked about Niqah Jihad. Did he know what that is?
”Of course I do: women from all over the world come to join our holy war. They are doing their part by letting men relax. But they are not doing it in sin, they are getting married.”
Niqah Jihad is another new term that we have been forced to learn since ISIS invaded our consciousness. ‘Niqah’ means marriage. But in practice a woman ‘marries’ many men a day. An Imam weds the couple, then stands in front of a room while the man rapes his wife. He then divorces them. Now she is ready for another marriage, and another divorce.
I ask him before he goes to eat dinner. “What are your goals?”
”We have reached our aim: we don’t need funds from Turkey, America and Europe and Saudi Arabia anymore. We have our own resources now. We have only one goal left and that is to set the entire world onto the right path. We are going to free Jerusalem.”
He was about to hang up but I needed one more answer: “Is it true that they want to destroy Iran?”
”Of course we will take over Iran. We have followers all over the country. The Shi’a regime will be destroyed forever. We have already started to put our plans into effect.”
The prospect of a consolidated IS invading Iran raises the spectre of another World War. The whole region will quake, and with it, the rest of the planet.
I wanted to ask many more questions, but Abu Adil’s dinner was getting cold. My last question was about Abu Banat. What was the latest?
”Don’t worry about him. Turkey hasn’t released him yet.”
Abu Banat, born in Dagestan, became one of ISIS’s most renowned butchers. He was the leader of one of the terrorist cells in Aleppo, Syria. One day he needed to drive to Turkey to meet new recruiters, bringing with him some suicide belts and other “equipment.” A local policeman stopped and interrogated Abu Banat, asking what he was doing in this small Turkish city. There appeared to be no wrongdoing and Abu Banat was free to drive to Istanbul. The same night the local policemen realised where they recognised the man with the long beard and the funny clothes: YouTube clips of beheadings.
The policeman informed his colleagues in Istanbul and Abu Banat was arrested. The locations the Turkish police raided were loaded with terrorist gear.
People in the displacement camps in Erbil. (Credit: Allen Kakony, ADFA)
Documents that I have demonstrate that during the course of the interrogation, Abu Banat was surprised at being arrested: he couldn’t understand why it had happened. He was established and supported by the Turkish intelligence: they are his friends, he said.
That folly of that support is now being shown by the increasingly autonomous nature of IS. IS now controls the main areas of Syrian oil and gas production and it has also looted large amounts of cash and gold from banks it has taken over. It has stolen weapons from the Iraqi Army, supplied by America, using them to fight the Syrian and Iraqi armies. This entity is organising itself into a state everyday, and the stronger it becomes, the more effectively it can advance its manifesto of global domination under principles of slavery, rape, and murder. A group established on such a mandate can only become more violent over time spent in constant combat and with increased means. Adil’s story of increasing extremism has become a pattern affecting the behaviour of the whole organisation, as the recent horrific mass murder and expulsion of Yazidis and the slaughter of 700 Sunni tribesmen in Syria shows.
The Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs is going to Erbil and Baghdad to see how Sweden and Europe can best help Iraq.
If a safe haven for minorities in northern Iraq is not created, the world will send a message to IS that they can get away with violently imposing their will, however they wish. Not only do we need to allow Assyrians, Yazidis, and other minorities to return safely to their homes, we must build a meaningful place for them in an Iraq that treats and protects its citizens equally, regardless of ethnicity, and promotes a civic and national identity.
But there is yet more work to do if the region is to be saved from total chaos.The policies of Turkey and the Gulf States – supposed allies of the West – must be publicly condemned.
For too long, these states have sponsored and encouraged the same terrorism that they wish to keep at bay from their own countries through authoritarian rule. We are reaping what they have sowed. They have created a chaotic force that has consolidated, is growing ever more self-sufficient, and is knocking on their borders. For too long the people of the Middle East – and the most vulnerable of us have suffered disproportionately for this – have been forced to choose between tyranny and chaos. We deserve security and freedom together.
Nuri Kino is a Swedish-Assyrian investigative journalist, author and founder of A Demand For Action - an initiative working in 15 countries for the protection of Assyrian Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.