The Islamic State of Sexual Violence

The Islamic State of Sexual Violence

Of the many terrifying stories emerging from Islamic State-occupied Iraq and Syria, the violence directed toward women is perhaps the most difficult to contemplate.

The Islamic State’s (IS) fighters are committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale: For example, the United Nations last month estimated that IS has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that IS abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse. Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of IS fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.

IS claims to be a religious organization, dedicated to re-establishing the caliphate and enforcing codes of modesty and behavior from the time of Muhammad and his followers. But this is rape, not religious conservatism. IS may dress up its sexual violence in religious justifications, saying its victims violated Islamic law, or were infidels, but their leaders are not fools. This is just another form of warfare.

Why isn’t this crime against humanity getting more consistent attention in the West? It seems this society-destroying mass sexual violence is merely part of the laundry list for decrying IS behavior. Compare this to IS’s recent spate of execution videos, and the industrial scale of the group’s sexual assaults seems to fade into the background. Rarely do they seem to be the focal point of politicians’ remarks, intelligence assessments, or justification for counterterrorism actions against the group. In his Sept. 10 speech laying out his plan for fighting IS, President Obama devoted just eight words to the issue: "They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage."

We both worked as CIA analysts focused on Iraq’s insurgency and counterterrorism during much of the war. We lived and breathed the Iraq conflict for years, yet we don’t recall reading internal or external intelligence products that exclusively focused upon the sexual violence that occurred in Iraq during that time, despite evidence that it was rampant as an instrument of war during the vicious sectarian reprisals of the mid-2000s.

Nor do we remember attempts to track this type of violence in the same way other types of attacks were tracked. We even asked some of our former and current CIA colleagues and they couldn’t recall seeing anything specific either. While these memories are admittedly anecdotal, it suggests that there did not seem to be a particular focus on this topic. And that seems to be equally true right now.

What might account for this lack of attention to this type of violence relative to other types of violence?

First, many of these incidents go unreported, making it difficult for Iraqis, the U.S. government, or international organizations to actually track the violence. (This is not unique to sexual violence during conflict. Some 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported in America, too.) Beyond the crime itself, there are vast social pressures and taboos placed on rape survivors, even more so in deeply conservative Middle Eastern societies. Sadly, this has resulted in multiple incidents in Iraq of the Islamic State’s victims committing suicide.

There might also simply be a bias against covering rape and sexual assault, since they tend to be viewed by some as "women’s issues" versus "mainstream" insurgent tactics. Issues pertaining to rape and sexual violence tend to be written about in reports focused on violence against women and children or focused on humanitarian implications of the conflict, rather than being tracked as yet another terrorist tactic.

Those covering war may be more inclined to cover airstrikes, beheadings, and market bombings because they are historically viewed as "hard" security issues, while threats to women and children tend to be viewed as "softer" humanitarian concerns. Case in point: The State Department’s latest statement on this topic was written not by Secretary of State John Kerry, but by Catherine M. Russell, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

Policymakers may ask fewer questions and request less information because sexual violence isn’t typically considered a useful metric to determine how well the military or intelligence agencies are fighting an insurgency. However, in a world where "hearts and minds" matter, tactics that include sexual violence as a weapon of war should be considered part of these assessments — and part of how the United States wages counterinsurgency. Sexual violence is an important metric for tracking and assessing intimidation and coercion. It also shows how well (or how poorly) a government maintains law and order.

Many policymakers and intelligence analysts have studied political science and war studies at top universities. That might also be part of the problem. Sexual violence is too often academically walled off in gender studies or feminism classes; it should be openly discussed alongside other aspects of war and conflict. Perhaps we were bad students, but neither of us recalls an emphasis on wartime sexual violence during our undergraduate or graduate-level political science and international relations classes. Sexual violence by terrorist organizations shouldn’t be seen as a "women’s issue" just because most victims are women. Rather, it should be studied in courses that focus on warfare, insurgency, and terrorism.

The Islamic State’s campaign of sexual violence will have long-lasting, devastating impacts on the survivors and on Iraqi and Syrian society as a whole. Women must be politically and economically vested to ensure the stability of the country, and as long as many are being victimized in the most intimate way imaginable on a large scale, the future of Iraq seems dim.

At the very least, the United States and other countries should be publicly highlighting the brutal campaign of sexual violence in order to further discredit this organization among Iraqis and its foreign supporters. IS claims to be a group of holy warriors, crafting a new world order. But the rampant sexual criminality exposes its hypocrisy and extreme brutality. Fighting IS’s jihadist narrative is critical to destroying its long-term viability. 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.

Policymakers must internalize that sexual violence is a brutal weapon of war, just as corrosive to creating a stable society as murder and ethnic cleansing. Decision-makers can begin this process in three ways: First, the United States should improve tracking and monitoring of these incidents in the same way it does with other types of violence occurring in Iraq and Syria. Second, sexual violence carried out by terrorist groups should be catalogued as "terrorist attacks" by these groups since it seems this is frequently overlooked in intelligence databases.

Finally, policymakers can sharpen their rhetoric, focusing speeches more on IS’s brutality. Ultimately, the war of ideas is where IS must be defeated. We must highlight and call out this war crime at every turn, because the only group that benefits from ignoring this issue is the Islamic State.