The latest Islamic State moneymaking operation appears to be the trafficking of people from the besieged city to safety.
- By Samya KullabSamya Kullab is an independent journalist based in the Middle East.
QAYYARAH, Iraq — It was after sunset when the smuggler finally arrived. The man’s face was concealed with a scarf, and he wielded a rifle.
The man’s instructions were clear and curt. “I don’t want to hear a sound,” he said. “I don’t want to hear your voices. Follow me.”
He was speaking to a group of 40 men, women, and children who had fled the Islamic State-held town of Abbasi in northern Iraq. A driver had brought them from the banks of the Great Zab, a river that flows through Iraq and Turkey, to a half-finished house in a remote mountainous village and told them to be quiet and wait for dark. Parents gave their children sleeping pills and counted the hours in silence.
Ghazi Ahmed Hussein was the only one in the group who had previously spoken with the smuggler over the phone. From a refugee camp 25 miles south of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, he described his escape from the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” — and the men who smuggle people out.
Before the smuggler would take them anywhere, Hussein said, he wanted payment. The group doled out $200 per person above the age of 12, a significant sum in a country where the average monthly salary is around $600. With $5,000 worth of curled-up notes in his pocket, the smuggler led them under the cover of darkness.
“We walked for 11 hours, me with my 5-year-old daughter in my arms,” he said. “At one point there was a valley — I’ve never seen the place before in my life — and suddenly other groups arrived. We became 300 people.”
Hussein’s smuggler left them here, and two other masked men took over. “They started coordinating the group,” he said.
The military offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul has displaced more than 73,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more expected. That will be a boon to the Iraqis who have developed a business model for bringing people to safety in exchange for hefty sums of cash. Thousands of Iraqi refugees have already escaped Islamic State-held territory by enlisting the help of smugglers, paying between $200 and $1,000 per person depending on the area.
However, little is known about who the smugglers are and how they are able to operate and evade capture by the brutal extremist group. Interviews with a dozen internally displaced Iraqis from Islamic State areas, Kurdish security sources, and aid workers suggest they are mostly entrepreneurial locals — some with connections to Islamic State members themselves.
“ISIS people are doing the smuggling to make money,” said Salwan Samoody, an Iraqi police officer in the Jadah refugee camp south of Mosul, where a number of people from Hawija, Nimrud, and the besieged city itself have fled.
If Islamic State members are involved in the smuggling operation, they are almost certainly risking the ire of the jihadi organization. “[Islamic State leaders] want people to remain as indicative of the success of the state project,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.
To that end, the Islamic State has worked to deter would-be migrants and their enablers. The Islamic State also mined territory to prevent civilians from fleeing months before the Mosul offensive was launched on Oct. 17.
Those mines, however, are one of the main reasons some suspect the smugglers have ties to the Islamic State: Refugees consistently report that the smugglers were not just armed but skilled at maneuvering the minefields known to have been planted by the group.
Police documents retrieved from the town of Shirqat, 50 miles south of Mosul, show that among the town’s prison detainees were individuals accused of smuggling out families. The documents do not record penalties, but several refugees in the Debaga camp outside Erbil said those caught while attempting to flee were required to pay a fine of at least $500. “If I was caught a second time, they said they would execute me,” said Hazim Nazim Hussein, who was displaced from the town of Hawija.
Ibrahim Hasan Mohamed, also from Hawija, said he had heard Islamic State members had ambushed families attempting to cross the river. “For us, there were three possibilities: Get caught in a trap and be arrested, die stepping on a mine, or reach the Peshmerga front line,” he said.
For smugglers, the stakes are even higher. The price of being caught is almost always death: In August, SITE Intelligence Group reported that the Islamic State publicly executed five men in western Iraq for smuggling people into the “lands of disbelief.”
A British Islamic State fighter said the group is aware of the rampant smuggling of people in and out of its territory. Much of the smuggling activity, he explained via the Telegram messaging app, was being carried out by local Iraqis looking to make money. “Everyone is trying to stop it,” he added, declining to comment on whether local smugglers might be assisted by individual Islamic State members.
“It’s their land.… They know the farms, the hills, the deserts,” he said, when asked how locals could make the journey without being caught or killed. “No army can put a full line of mines across its entire border. Impossible.”
The United Nations’ ethical standards don’t normally allow it to condone the smuggling of people. However, it is compelled to be more accommodating in this context because for some it’s the only way out.
“It’s something that traps us a lot because people are also profiting,” said Francesco Motta, the director of the Human Rights Office of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. “Smugglers are more likely local people linked with ISIS, local people who are supporters and able to act with a level of impunity or seem to know well-connected people.”
“But we can’t say for sure,” he added. “After this mess is cleared, we will learn what is really happening.”
Unsurprisingly, the refugees themselves don’t ask many questions about their smugglers’ identities. Most said they obtained the relevant contact information from others who had escaped successfully. Those displaced from Hawija, for instance, recalled that they first heard of people being smuggled out of Islamic State-held territory in 2014, soon after the group captured the town, when government employees and members of the Iraqi security forces, fearing execution, began to flee. As the situation worsened, displaced residents said, ever more people started relying on the same smugglers who assisted in those early days. “We learned about him from person to person,” said Mohamed, the refugee from Hawija, now in Debaga. “None of us knows who they really are.”
Smugglers in the so-called caliphate work differently depending on geography and the military situation. One refugee described being smuggled out of the extremist group’s territory by a petrol salesman, who hid him in the backseat of his car. Another man, Arkan al-Jabbour, paid $2,400 to get his wife and three children out of Mosul, with the smuggler driving his family all the way to Syria to avoid crossing the Iraqi security forces’ front lines.
Jabbour is convinced his smuggler had an understanding with an Islamic State member. “He made an arrangement with the guard on the last checkpoint,” he said.
Those who fled Hawija said their smugglers were organized and efficient right up to the moment they were told that they were free.
“He said he wouldn’t go unless there was a big group,” said Ghazi Hussein, from Hawija. Refugees from the area reported that they met up to four or five smugglers at different points of the journey. They were instructed to cross the Great Zab alone and told that someone would be waiting for them on the other side. Hussein’s group began their journey at 11 a.m. and made it across the river by 4 p.m. There, as they were drenched from the chest down, a masked man greeted them. “Are you Abu Haidar’s people?” he asked.
He had come with a pickup truck large enough to fit 20 people. In two 20-minute trips, the group was taken to a house in the village of Helwat, where they waited for the man who would take them to the valley and from there to the front line.
When they arrived at the minefield separating Islamic State-held territory from the Peshmerga front, they were ordered to walk in a straight line, one behind the other, while the smuggler led the way. “He knew the way. He knew exactly where the mines were,” Hussein said. After hours of walking, weak with thirst and hunger, Hussein said they saw the light of the Peshmerga front line.
“He told us, ‘You’re safe now. Go,’” he said.
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