Building an Iraqi Underground Railroad

Building an Iraqi Underground Railroad

By Florian Neuhof


Because this is the unseen battle against the Islamic State group.

By Florian Neuhof

Driving through the Iraqi city of Dohuk in Osman Hassan Ali Abu Shijaa’s Chrysler feels relatively safe. At least, safer than the world Abu Shijaa has had to pass through to reach this relative safe haven. That world is crumbling at the hands of the so-called Islamic State group, and that world is one Abu Shijaa escaped — only to repeatedly return, of his own accord.

Abu Shijaa, a wealthy middle-aged businessman from the village of Khanasor in northern Iraq, is a member of the religious minority the Yazidi. Often left out of conversations of Sunni vs. Shia, the Yazidi religion is ancient, predating Islam and Christianity and deeply influenced by Sufi beliefs. It’s also, according to the Islamic State group, heretical and akin to devil worship. Since last August, the Islamic State group has killed hundreds of Yazidis in mass shootings that have become a grim trademark of the group. It forced many more into slavery, most of them women and children. The elder women are held as servants, while the younger ones are forced to marry Islamic State fighters. Some have been brutally gang raped. 

And Abu Shijaa escaped all that. Since then, he’s returned, slipping into dangerous territory on rescue missions, rescuing some 150 Yazidi women and children. His first mission came about when he managed to establish contact with seven Yazidi women held by an Australian-born Islamic State fighter and his wife. Certainly, there was heroism here — but also a dose of luck. The militant’s wife became aware of the escape, and decided not to intervene. “She wanted to get rid of the girls; she feared her husband might marry one of them,” says Abu Shijaa. The women were taken to a safehouse by a small team near the Turkish border. They disguised themselves in abayas, the traditional black dresses Muslim women wear, and then a member of Shijaa’s team drove them into Turkey, to safety. 

But even Abu Shijaa acknowledges that his efforts are but a drop in the ocean.

There is some entrepreneurial savvy going into what might seem a brazen hero-mission. Other efforts to rescue Yazidis from the Islamic State group are ongoing, says Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. Most rescuers find ways to pay off ransoms. Abu Shijaa, on the other hand, pretends he’s going to do that … and then uses the distraction to dive in and smuggle the prisoners out.

Abu Shijaa’s know-how comes from his business days and contacts: He’s got some farmer in him — he grew wheat and barley and bought and sold other farmers’ produce and livestock — but also worked in the complex Middle Eastern oil biz, importing and exporting oil and petrol. The daring isn’t quite new, either: he occasionally did business illegally. Today, he lives in a sparsely furnished modern flat in a newly developed housing complex in Dohuk, quite an upscale one by Iraqi standards. He is portly, a bit avuncular, with a neatly trimmed mustache and endearing spectacles. While we talked, one of his younger daughters, about 6, came in to bring us sugary tea; he was affectionate,  and spent more than a few minutes interrupting our interview to take calls and texts, all related to this singularly focused work. 

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between ISIS and Peshmerga fighters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, wait for bread to bake at Dawodiya camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community, which fled the violence that broke out between the Islamic State militants and Peshmerga fighters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, wait for bread to bake at the Dawodiya camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Source Safin Hamed/Getty

Early last August, the Islamic State group struck at the Yazidi heartland. Resistance quickly crumbled and thousands fled to Mount Sinjar, an elongated plateau that grabbed world attention during the desperate struggle to fend off the Islamic State group’s onslaught. That’s also when Abu Shijaa lost his business — his home and the areas he used to trade in are now under the Islamic State group’s inimitable control, borne of impressive recruiting strategies, an ability to occupy land, fundraise and organize across borders in an unprecedented manner. Eventually, the attack was repelled when Kurdish militias from Syria broke into the encirclement to establish a humanitarian corridor and to strengthen the defenses on the mountain (aided by deadly U.S. airstrikes). Most of the some half-million Yazidis have since found their way to hastily built refugee camps.

But not all. Last October, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) estimated that around 2,300 Yazidis were being held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. And it was around the same time that Abu Shijaa started to chip away at that number. He used his business connections to build up a clandestine network of willing helpers that reached all the way to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate. (It’s that network that makes the difference, says Qadir Murad, a relative of one of the other women that escaped the Tunisian. “We don’t have the network” without him.) Abu Shijaa has been back to Raqqa, the site of his first rescue, a few times, but most of his time is spent coordinating the rescue efforts from the outside. 

In a tent in the Karpato refugee camp near Dohuk, Khalid Khalid Ali tells of her escape. The camp isn’t squalid, but utterly basic. Families live in large tents with a few kitchen and toilet amenities attached; about 28,000 people live there, a half-hour from Dohuk, part of a veritable set of suburbs of sprawling refugee camps. Her story: She and her five daughters had been taken to Syria after being captured in Kocho, where the Islamic State group added to its notoriety by butchering most of the men in the village. Together with two other Yazidi women and three children from Kocho, they were held in a town near Raqqa by a Tunisian jihadist. She hid her eldest daughters, 12-year-old Hawler and 10-year-old Hawnaz, by keeping them indoors. “If any ISIS fighters had seen the girls, they would have taken them for themselves,” she says. Several Yazidis told OZY that fighters have a habit of marrying prepubescent girls, which Human Rights Watch has confirmed. 

Khalid, for her part, was too old to attract the sexual interest of her captors, and the Tunisian lost interest in his captives. He consented to the women’s plea to be ransomed, and allowed them to call relatives in Iraq. The relatives reached out to Abu Shijaa, and a plan was hatched to snatch the women. Their captor agreed to move the 11 Yazidis to another town, where they would be handed over to intermediaries after he had received tens of thousands of dollars in ransom via an informal money transfer service that still functions in the war-torn region. Abu Shijaa’s smugglers searched the town until they found the Yazidis, rescuing them when the Tunisian fighter was on the way to collect the ransom. The money was never transferred.

But even Abu Shijaa acknowledges that his efforts are but a drop in the ocean. Since he activated his network, the number of Yazidis held in Raqqa has risen, he says, as the Islamic State group has trucked in other captives. And the young boys are particularly endangered; escapees say boys are brainwashed and trained as jihadists. Then there’s the money. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has kicked in funds in the past, is hamstrung by a gaping budget deficit and the costs of keeping its forces in the field. It is now largely up to the families of the captives to raise the funds to secure their release. Joe Stork, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in the region, says he’s pessimistic. The Islamic State group’s mercy “certainly seems limited.”

There is also the constant dark specter of death. Three of his accomplices have been killed smuggling Yazidis to safety, and the Islamic State group’s reach occasionally extends into Kurdish territory, as a recent car bomb attack on the U.S. consulate in the capital Irbil proves. And Abu Shijaa, though not a braggart, seems to take some pride in refusing to lay low; he in fact regularly posts about his successful operations on social media. On Facebook, he has officially exceeded the allowed number of friend requests.