Islamic State's simple but effective strategy to win hearts and minds
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — The men in the video appear tense as the conversion ceremony begins. They are Yazidis, followers of an ancient religion that originates in northern Iraq. But here, they are seen converting to Islam under the watchful eye of armed Islamic State (IS) militants.
After the ceremony the film cuts to a new scene where the men stand together in a group. The converts and the militants call on Yazidis who’ve fled their homes in the region of Sinjar to return to be “protected by the Islamic State.” IS militants dressed in dishdashas welcome the Yazidi men as “brothers.”
These men were likely spared death in exchange for their conversion. Hundreds of other Yazidis have been systematically executed in villages across Sinjar since early August, including 600 in the village of Kocho alone.
Later in the video, a man with a microphone interviews an IS militant.
“Various politicized media outlets published false reports that you had killed the Yazidis, and forced them to convert to Islam, and violated the honor of their women. How do you respond to these reports?” he asks in Arabic.
“This is the opposite of what really happened,” the fighter responds. “The Islamic State does its utmost for the repentance of any infidel — whether Yazidi, Crusader [Christian], or Jewish. We have been fighting for no other reason than to extract people from their ‘kufr’ [‘unbelief’] and to usher them into the fold of Islam.”
The world is now familiar with the most grisly of IS propaganda. The videos that have made international headlines and grabbed viewers on YouTube and Twitter show massacres, executions and beheadings. These shows of uncompromising violence are meant to deter anyone who may oppose the group, and so far, they’ve succeeded: both Iraqi and Kurdish forces have withdrawn from IS onslaughts against populations across Iraq, often without putting up a fight or even hanging around long enough to warn defenseless civilians they were on their own.
Far less dramatic, and largely unnoticed by international media, is the equally strong IS campaign to win the hearts and minds of those they wish to make part of their “caliphate.” While portraying themselves as merciless warriors on the battlefield, IS has also gone to great lengths to show that living under their rule, at least for Muslims, is not so bad.
First 'trust,' then 'atrocities'
Highly produced IS videos, tweets and magazines — even glossy print versions — contain plenty of nonviolent content that caters to a wide audience. In one video, a man describes being part of IS as "paradise." In another, women speak of the purity of IS family life and the joy of being widowed through martyrdom. In some of its most chilling propaganda aimed at foreign audiences, IS has even used captive British journalist John Cantlie to present a video series in English that counters Western media reports of IS atrocities. Cantlie calmly narrates the videos while seated at a desk.
In the recently released issue No. 4 of Dabiq, the IS magazine printed in English, an article outlines "services for Muslims" under IS rule that include street cleaning, care for the elderly and even a children's cancer center in Nineveh province.
In IS-controlled Mosul, according to residents there, the full school curriculum has been changed to reflect the extremists’ ideology. Even popular video games, including a doctored version of Grand Theft Auto, have been altered to include IS flags and fighters.
As it expands its borders town by town, IS issues statements and holds public meetings in the early stages of occupation offering messages of welcome, tolerance and multicultural brotherhood.
By all accounts the militants at first defy expectations: they are polite, even when carrying out evictions and arrests of local residents. According to their victims, they don't swear or yell, displaying more outward courtesy and control than government and police forces often do.
But early promises are quickly replaced by a system of brutal laws and sometimes mass executions.
Speaking by telephone to GlobalPost last week, several of the Yazidi men shown in the conversion video said they remain prisoners of IS in a village in Sinjar. Many of the converts have been allowed to reunite with their wives, who also converted under duress, they said. The converted have greater freedom than other Yazidi captives — the ability to make and receive phone calls, for example.
More female family members remain among the thousands kidnapped by IS. Several of the captives speaking by phone said that their younger children were recently returned to them with their wives, but that IS soon took away the daughters who are 9 and older. As GlobalPost has reported previously, hundreds of Yazidi girls and women have already been sold as wives or slaves in both Iraq and Syria.
“I want to tell you this is how IS operate(s): They make traps,” said Dr. Salim Hassan, a geologist and professor at the University of Sulaymaniyeh. Hassan is from the village of Kocho in Niniveh province, where authorities estimate the Islamic State executed 600 men on Aug. 11. The professor now heads the Committee for Yazidi IDPs (internally displaced people) in Sulimaniyeh, where he is documenting the stories of those who’ve survived IS violence.
“Always when they first control they say ‘We don't kill anyone, you are all our brothers,’ like when they controlled Mosul. But after they win trust they begin to enforce their laws and commit their atrocities. This is their way,” he said.
Choosing to trust the word of brutal militants might seem unfathomable to those living in safe and peaceful societies. In Iraq, violence and brutality are commonplace no matter whose rule you live under.
Many minority groups had no clear safe haven after IS overran much of northern Iraq this summer. They felt the Kurds had abandoned them or even sold them out. Desperate to believe they could safely stay in their own homes, welcoming words from IS invaders may have been a great relief.
A pattern of takeover tactics
When Sunni Muslim IS entered Mosul on June 11, at the start of a great sweep of territory across Iraq, Shia families were told they were welcome to stay and even given phone numbers to call if “anyone hassled them,” according to a local reporter and historian who has been secretly documenting IS activities from within the city under the pseudonym Mosul Eye.
Within weeks, those families had disappeared and IS had seized their homes and property. It’s unclear whether they ran, were taken captive, or were killed.
Christians who were forced out of Mosul also say IS was kind at first. For more than a month, Christian families who had remained in the city after the IS takeover said they were treated well and urged to tell fellow Christians who had fled that it was safe to return. Many did.
But then on July 17, the armed militants delivered an ultimatum: Christians had two days to either convert to Islam or pay a protection tax, or they’d be killed. The only other option was to flee and leave everything behind.
Christian families were forced to abandon their homes, their savings, and their possessions. They walked out of Mosul carrying nothing.
Perhaps no group has suffered from IS deception as much as northern Iraq’s small Yazidi community. The militants have apparently compelled local Arabs, already trusted in their neighborhoods, to persuade Yazidis as well.
When IS entered the Yazidi villages of Sinjar on Aug. 3, survivors report they were told if they stayed in their homes and raised a white flag, they would be safe.
“The man who told us this was our neighbor,” said a survivor who asked to remain anonymous because IS is still holding his two wives and 25 children.
“He is Arab but we have known him for years. We trusted him. He told us IS were taking over the town but as long as we didn’t fight we would be welcome to stay.”
Many families from Sinjar reported being told the same thing from Arab friends or neighbors. It is unclear whether these neighbors supported IS, or were pressured or deceived into relaying these messages.
"We had no reason not to believe it," said one Yazidi man said who now lives at an abandoned building site in Zakho, his family captured or dead.
Another Yazidi man from Sinjar said IS militants charged him with carrying a message to other Yazidis sheltering in the Sinjar Mountains, where tens of thousands had fled in early August to escape IS.
“They told me I must go to the mountain and tell everyone the fighting is over and it is safe to come back down,” he said. He traveled there alone, leaving his family behind. He learned by phone later that his family members were taken prisoner and split up shortly after he left. He didn’t try to go back, and is now living as a refugee in Turkey.
For Mosan Aliaz, 24, his first contact with IS was at his uncle’s house close to the Sinjar Mountains, where he and a large group of his relatives were sheltering in August.
A car arrived. “In the car with them was one of our relatives from the village,” he said. “[The relative] said we had nothing to fear, [that IS] only wanted to change the government and get rid of the Shia. He told us to stay where we were and we would be safe.”
The car left, but shortly after, 20 more vehicles showed up and surrounded the house.
The women and children, along with the valuables, were packed into pickup trucks and driven away. The 90 Yazidi men, along with some of their Shia neighbors, were told they must convert to Islam. All refused. They were then taken to a valley and lined up in rows.
“Two of my cousins ran. They couldn’t help themselves. You should have seen these guys. They were big and mean. My cousins just got scared,” Aliaz said. “[IS] opened fire on them.”
Aliaz stood with his father and his five brothers, the youngest just 13.
“My father said [to IS], ‘My son is 13 years old. Why would you kill a boy?’ They said that is the law and they fired.”
The bodies rolled down the valley and Aliaz with them. Then another round. A bullet hit Aliaz in the arm. Another clipped the side of his head. His ears were bleeding from the shockwaves of point-blank gunfire. But he survived and made it to safety, alone.
The moments before a massacre
In Kocho, south of Sinjar, IS had also told villagers in early August that they would be safe. There had been rumors of IS atrocities against the Yazidi people at that point, but no proof.
Salim Murad, 24, said for a time IS mostly left his village alone.
“They came several times to ask if we needed anything,” he said. “We didn’t think there was any need for us to leave our homes.”
The tribal leader of Kocho, Ahmed Jasa, had several meetings with IS leaders and trusted their word, according to Hassan, the doctor from Kocho who is documenting IS violence.
“He told the people not to be afraid,” Hassan said.
On Aug. 11, people from the neighboring village of Hadmaya fled to the mountains. The Hadmaya village chief didn’t trust IS, Hassan said, so the residents made a collective choice to run in the dead of night.
Later that day IS surrounded Kocho.
“[IS] called all people to gather at the largest school and bring their money, valuables, phones and laptops. An IS man announced, ‘We told you to be Muslim, but you didn’t agree. No problem, you are free to choose. Give us all your valuables and we will take you to the mountain to join your friends,’” Hassan said.
The people were relieved, he said. They believed these words. But instead of the mountain, the trucks took them to an execution site. Only a few survived. The violence in Kocho represented the largest IS massacre of Yazidis reported to date.
“They gave them their word, but then they killed them all, including [tribal leader] Ahmed Jasa,” Hassan said. “It has become a lesson to all people not to trust IS.”
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.