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‘We Hope for Battle’ : Kurdish Women Fighters strike Fear into Islamic State (ISIS) Terrorist Group in Iraq

In 2014, under Islamic State rule, as many as 7,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves

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On a quiet Monday evening, young female soldiers play volleyball as the sun goes down over their base, a converted schoolhouse.

Not far from mass graves along the side of the road where hundreds of people were killed by IS, the women say they joined up not to fight, but to fight back.

Of all of the victims Islamic State militants have created in this region, Yazidi women arguably have the most reason to be angry.

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“Militants took our daughters and sisters and sold them in other cities,” said Najwa Ali Ismail, a 25-year-old soldier.”I joined the peshmerga to defend my homeland.”

At an all-female base, a peshmerga soldier stands guard on Nov. 14, 2016, in Snuny, Iraq (H. Murdock/VOA)
At an all-female base, a peshmerga soldier stands guard on Nov. 14, 2016, in Snuny, Iraq (H. Murdock/VOA)

In 2014, under Islamic State rule, as many as 7,000 Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains surrounding Sinjar. Thousands died of exposure.

Others were slaughtered in the city and thrown in the mass graves they had been forced to dig. Roughly 5,000 other people were also killed in an attempt to wipe out the religious sect — an act the United Nations has called a genocide.

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As members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, the women fighters are now preparing for battle — if called upon — with daily exercises and weapons training, according to unit leader Capt. Xatun Ali.

Ali, the original member of the unit, solicited the peshmerga forces for a place in their army after fleeing her home in 2014. She spent nearly two weeks in the mountains before peshmerga soldiers beat back enough jihadists for civilians to flee.

Many starved, she says, and some women chose suicide over rape. After she escaped, her family suggested she flee to Europe, like so many other refugees. But she wanted to stay and fight.

Leaders say hundreds of women have joined the Yazidi brigade, and thousands more have requested to join, Nov. 14, 2016 in Snuny, Iraq. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Leaders say hundreds of women have joined the Yazidi brigade, and thousands more have requested to join, Nov. 14, 2016 in Snuny, Iraq. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Since the IS take over of much of this region, this brigade has grown from one to hundreds, and thousands more Yazidi women have asked to join.

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“Any weapons kind of weapons we use on the frontlines are to defend our daughters and our people. As Yazidis, we do not believe in attacking and murdering people,” Ali said. “But nowadays terrorists are blowing themselves up and killing people. They are like fire. We must fight fire with fire.”

Young female fighters say they they hope to battle Islamic State militants after mass rapes, executions and kidnappings that the United Nations says amounts to genocide, Nov. 14, 2016, in Snuny, Iraq. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Young female fighters say they they hope to battle Islamic State militants after mass rapes, executions and kidnappings that the United Nations says amounts to genocide, Nov. 14, 2016, in Snuny, Iraq. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Ali fought on the frontlines when Sinjar was captured by peshmerga soldiers a year ago. Now her troops are training to defend not just other Yazidis, but also Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in Iraq.

In the meantime, she says her brigade, like other peshmerga troops, is focused on holding the IS lines back, and healing the ruined towns and cities IS left behind.

“Since the mass graves are on the roadside, people see them and it makes them sad,” she said. “There are people in there from age 1 to 90. We need to move them.” (VOA)

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

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English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

English, ISIS, Supporters, Messaging
FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)