The Middle East has never been a haven for human rights, but throughout the region these days — from Iraq to Syria, Egypt to Libya — the war against ISIS is being used as an excuse for unprecedented, wide scale abuse, torture and unlawful killing conducted by government forces.
ISIS, of course, has its own share of gruesome beheadings, mass killings and burned-alive videos. Although its crimes are sharply rejected by Middle East governments and the region’s social and religious authorities, those same institutions often turn a blind eye to similar acts from within. ISIS has killed many tens of thousands of Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians, Egyptians and Libyans over the last 12 years. Most of them were innocent civilians. These countries’ armies have each responded by violating the laws of war and the international human rights agreements.
As a result, while ISIS is corrupting a generation of Iraqi and Syrian children who live under its brutal reign and are exposed in person or online to its barbaric violence, other Arab children are being ruined as they witness atrocities by government forces.
As with ISIS, in the era of smartphones and YouTube, many of these atrocities are even posted online as instant signs of victory. The irony is that these abuses are actually boosting sympathy and recruitment for ISIS — prolonging the conflict instead of ending it.
Unfiltered and Inhuman
The chilling videos below all depict presumed ISIS members being tortured or executed — by the supposed “good guys.” We almost never see the actual act of fighting that confirms that they were ISIS members. These barbaric acts could tip the commitments of support from the civilized world.
Warning: The videos show graphic and hideous examples of torture and killing. We link to them here only as examples and evidence of the acts being committed by soldiers in the fight against ISIS.
- A detained man sits in the back of a truck while a Kurdish soldier uses a small electric shocker to entertain himself. While the detained man cries, the soldier laughs.
- A teenager is executed by Iraqi army soldiers. “Execute him,” says one soldier before they kill the boy.
- Dozens of people, including policemen beat to death an injured man who was brought to a hospital in Baghdad. “Heil!” one of them cried, meaning hit him hard.
- A group of Shiite militia headed by a cleric beat a man to death with a gigantic hammer.
- A man in a room is killed by Shiite militiamen using rocks.
- A man is dragged by a rope from a fast-moving car belonging to Shiite militia. “I think he is on fire now,” said one of the men in the car.
- An Iraqi army officer cuts the skin off the backs of a group of men who are tied and bound, then fills the wounds with salt. “We will soon put bullets in your heads,” one soldier told the victims.
- A man, whose hands are tied to a door so his body weight would break his shoulders, is tortured by Iraqi police officers while pressing him to confess. “I will die,” the tied man pleaded.
- Iraqi Special Forces soldiers play with decapitated human heads. “You are heroes,” a man told the soldiers gathered to be filmed.
- Egyptian soldiers beat two injured men while they are crawling on the ground.
- Libyan soldiers strip and beat a group of men in a room.
The shocking revelations from the Iraqi videos is that there is an unwritten and unspoken new rule of engagement — no prisoners will be taken alive and torture is preferable to bullets.
One reason for this lawlessness is the lengthy due process involving the death sentence in Iraq, which takes years. In many cases, a sentenced ISIS member whose actions killed hundreds of civilians is freed one way or another before his death sentence is carried out. Foreign human rights groups often criticize the Iraqi government when it carries out executions. All that has made many Iraqis disillusioned about their justice system.
A Breeding Ground for Barbarism
Iraq's failed justice system contributes to these atrocities. During the last 12 years, there have been hundreds of jailbreaks and unlawful releases of dangerous detainees accused of terrorism by corrupt guards. Several general pardons were issued as well to release insurgents. The majority of ISIS’s leadership is comprised of former detainees or prisoners who served months or years in Iraqi and U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is one of them.
The torture of prisoners not only hardens ISIS members, it fails a key mission in combating terrorism: gathering intelligence from captured enemy combatants. Most of these videos show those who commit these abuses as low ranking soldiers with no aim of extracting information from the victims.
Another clear issue is the poor discipline those soldiers and militiamen have. In most of these videos, we see angry men, shouting and operating in a state of chaos. Sometimes we hear them sing or laugh or even dance. Some of them are recording video using their cellphones. In comparison, ISIS videos — gruesome as well — demonstrate their members' high level of discipline.
A XXX Propaganda War
Many of these videos are being used as ammunition by two groups of people throughout the Middle East. The first group is pro-government, including the people who posted them in the first place. In many cases, the torture scenes have background songs praising those who commit the abuses as heroes. The second group is pro-ISIS — people who re-posted the videos with a different song praising the victims of the torture and denouncing the first group. Thus, the videos are a great recruiting and propaganda tool for ISIS. The video of the killing of the teenager is an example. The same tactic was used with both the Abu Ghraib scandal and Guantanamo photos.
On the receiving end, there are also two groups. Those who support these abuses and those who feel angry and seek revenge from the torturers. A child who watches these videos and likes them will grow up thinking that torture is just fine. Another child who feels enraged when watching them will grow up hoping to kill the abusers and torture them in return. The endgame is a lost generation in an endless circle of blood and revenge.
This is not the first time torture and abuse has been used in genocidal purges, of course. Iraq has a long history of such violence. The region's troubled heritage witnessed the victors’ attempts to eliminate and humiliate their defeated foes. The Iraqi army destroyed dozens of Christian Assyrian villages in 1933 and killed about 3,000 Assyrians in an area north of Mosul, not far from where their grandchildren had to flee for their lives in 2014. Angry mobs killed 180 Jews in Baghdad and looted their belongings in 1941. The event was called Farhud and it is used in Iraq as another word for violent seizure. A decade later, 120,000 Iraqi Jews left for Israel. They were roughly 20 percent of the population of Baghdad and made a significant contribution to the state of Israel.
In 1949, the founder of the Iraqi communist party was hanged in a main square in Baghdad. In 1958, the young Iraqi king and most of his family, including women, were killed in a coup. The body of his uncle and a former prime minister were dragged in the streets of Baghdad by the mob. The uncle's body was finally hanged in another main square in Baghdad. Then the coup leader was executed in 1963 and his body was shown on national TV as a man spit on his face.
Dozens of Jews were hanged in another main square in Baghdad in the late 1960s, when Saddam Hussein was supervising the secret police. One of them was the father of the future founder of the Search for International Terrorism Entities (SITE). Political detainees were forced to watch their female relatives raped and their children killed. Videotapes were distributed to government officials showing army officers who plotted coups being eaten alive by dogs. Army deserters had their ears cut. Those who criticized the government had their tongues cut. Public beheadings were organized to intimidate people.
In the late 1980s, about 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed and about 140,000 Kurds were killed, many by a chemical gas attack. About 300 mass graves were found in 2003. In just one of them, 15,000 corpses were recovered.
When Hussein's sons were killed in July 2003 by the U.S. army, the Americans released horrific photos of their corpses to convince the Iraqis of their death. When Saddam was hanged in December 2006 in a facility that was used to torture his foes, the video was aired on Iraqi national TV and around the world showing Shiite men telling Saddam, “to the hell.”
In Syria, the regime of Hafez al-Assad destroyed much of the city of Hama and massacred no fewer than 15,000 people, when hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in 1982. When the Syrian people rose up in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, the world watched while Hafez's son Bashar killed, tortured and gassed his own people. More than 200,000 Syrians were killed and about half of the Syrian people were displaced inside and outside Syria.
Let’s not forget former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who intimidated his people for 42 years. When he was captured by the rebels who revolted against him in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, he was injured and begged them for mercy. “Haram Alaikum,” he told them, an Arabic expression hoping to soften people's stands and actions. They killed him and placed his body in a Libyan mosque, so everyone could see his corpse.
Martyrs and Mayhem
The long history uf such brutality helps explain the depth of the schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In 680, the prophet Mohammed's grandson Husayn ibn Ali went with dozens of his relatives from Medina in Arabia to Iraq to gather support for a rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate. They were trapped by a massive army in Karbala, to the south of Baghdad. Husayn had to watch his sons, brothers, cousins and friends being killed in a Shiite version of the battle of the Alamo. Finally, 71 of his men were killed and he was beheaded.
His sister Zaynab and other women and children were taken prisoner to accompany Husayn's head to the caliph in Damascus, Syria. There, Zaynab held the first “majlis” or gathering of mourners to weep Husayn's death. This practice eventually grew to be one of the most effective recruiting methods in history. Throughout the centuries, majlis after majlis, Husayn's initial 71 slaughtered men grew to about 200 million Shias, representing the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
Instead of finishing him, Husayn's death turned him into one of the most celebrated martyrs in history. It also cemented the deepest divide in the Islamic faith, one that destroyed the Umayyad caliphate and haunted the Abbasid and the Ottoman caliphates. Husayn's killers were hunted down one by one and were killed. Husayn was buried in Karbala, where he had been killed. His grave turned into a gigantic golden shrine. Over the centuries, Abbasid caliphs, Wahhabi extremists from Arabia, Saddam Hussein and ISIS all destroyed or tried to destroy the shrine.
While the tyrants and extremists are gone, the shrine always found someone to re-build it. ISIS’s threat to destroy the shrine was a major reason for the formation of the Shiite militia and the Iranian support that protected Baghdad in the summer of 2014. The annual commemoration of Husayn's death witnesses several millions of Shiites who walk from wherever they are to the shrine in Karbala. Those walkers were attacked hundreds of times during the last 12 years by ISIS bombers.
Zaynab was buried in Damascus. Her grave turned into another shrine. Al-Qaeda and ISIS threats to destroy her grave were also a major reason thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan and Iranian Shiites joined the fight against the Syrian rebels during the Syrian civil war after 2011. Egyptians believe that Husayn's head was buried in Cairo. Another shrine was built there.
Muslims, Christians and Jews; Sunnis and Shiites; Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Israelis; Communists and Baathists; Islamists and seculars all have exchanged the roles of the victim and the executioner in the sad and violent history of the Middle East. The war against ISIS is a just war. There is no need to jeopardize its cause by turning ISIS butchers into martyrs. It has been said that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
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