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City in Focus: Raqqa, Syria

Raqqa, SyriaThe city of Raqqa in Syria has been identified as the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate or governing body. The development of a caliphate implies that the Islamic State intends to be a powerful force. They currently control an area larger than the United Kingdom with ambitions to expand. As the group continues to grow in vast regions of Syria and Iraq, it has implemented an extreme policy of adherence to Islamic Sharia law. These laws promote many human rights atrocities including forced marriages and sex slavery of women and girls.

NBC’s Richard Engel and James Novogrod recently interviewed several girls who escaped their enslavement and told of their nightmare at the hands of the Islamic State. A portion of that interview is included here:

Farida says there were 80 girls in that large room in Raqqa, the ISIS capital in eastern Syria. They were all about to be bought as slaves by ISIS fighters. She remembers the girls wept — and the men laughed…

Farida says there were 80 girls in that large room in Raqqa, the ISIS capital in eastern Syria. They were all about to be bought as slaves by ISIS fighters. She remembers the girls wept — and the men laughed…

The slave auction lasted for several days. The men would come into the large room to pay an ISIS official and then take away one or two or three girls each. Farida, 19, doesn’t know how much money she was sold for and, until we showed her a video on an iPad, she had never seen a slave auction from the perspective of the buyers.

Farida stared at the video of about a dozen ISIS fighters. The militants laughed and cracked jokes about their sexual prowess, the older ones saying the younger men weren’t ready for all the fun they were about to have with their personal sex slaves.

Farida recognized two of the men in the video, one with long hair and a man sitting next to him on a couch. “They came to buy girls. I saw them there,” she said. She didn’t know their names—but Farida realized this wasn’t just any day at the slave auction in Raqqa. It was her day on the dock. The men were joking about buying and abusing her as well as her friends, classmates, and cousins. Farida couldn’t take her eyes off the iPad.

“I see this and I don’t think of my case, I think of all the girls, because they would do everything to them,” she said. “We want justice.”

Farida and the other girls in the ISIS market are Yazidis, members of the small religious minority in northern Iraq that ISIS has targeted for extermination and enslavement.

Hweida was also taken from her village of Kuchu. She’s a 12-year-old. “We were surrounded. They told us to convert [to Islam], but we wouldn’t,” Hweida said in a halting voice. She spoke so quietly it was hard to hear her. “They took us to the school in the village and separated the men. Then they took us away.”

On the night Farida was bought at auction by a Libyan man who called himself Abu Atheer, she broke a piece of glass in the bathroom and slashed her wrists. It was her first of what would be seven suicide attempts.

She broke a piece of glass in the bathroom and slashed her wrists. It was her first of what would be seven suicide attempts.

Bleeding and unconscious, Farida was taken to an ISIS infirmary, where she recovered for five days. She was then locked in an ISIS prison reserved for unruly Yazidi slaves. “There were four other girls,” she said. “It was so dark, we didn’t know if it was day or night. We were locked up and they constantly beat us.”

Abu Atheer was furious that Farida had tried to kill herself before he got to enjoy her, so he sold her to an Iraqi ISIS fighter. Before he could rape her, she tried to hang herself with her veil. “Three times I tried to hang myself, to be strangled,” she said, putting her hands to her throat.

The Iraqi man was also angry and sold Farida on to a group of Libyans. They eventually moved her to an outpost by a gas plant in the desert outside the city of Deir e-zour in eastern Syria. They told her she would never escape the desert. The Libyans were brutal. Farida says she was unable to hold out and was raped by several men over the course of the following two months. “We said we are human beings. They said, ‘You are our property,'” she said. “They said, ‘You are infidels. We will do what we want with you.’”

“They raped girls who were 9 or 10 or even 8. They said they preferred the young ones.”

Hweida, just 12, wasn’t passed from one fighter to the next like Farida. Instead, Hweida was kept with the same 50-year-old man. She lived in a house in Raqqa. Farida says the ISIS fighters prized the younger girls and were at pains to part with them. “There are girls younger than her (Hweida),” she said. “They raped girls who were 9 or 10 or even 8. They said they preferred the young ones. They would say the older ones know a few things, the young ones know nothing.”1

The true stories shared by Farida mirror the experiences of countless women and girls in the territories controlled by the Islamic State also known as ISIS/ISIL and Da’eesh or Da’esh. Accounts of brutality and sexual violence against women and children have been well documented by NGOs and the United Nations. Amnesty International reports that the Islamic State militants are enslaving and abusing “hundreds, if not thousands” of women and children, particularly Yazidis and Christians.2

In April 2015, Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, returned from Syria and Iraq with harrowing reports about the treatment of women and children at the hands of the Islamic State. “Sexual violence is being committed strategically, in a widespread and systematic manner, and with a high degree of sophistication…Women and girls are at risk and under assault at every point of their lives…Girls are literally being stripped naked and examined in slave bazaars,” she said, describing how they were “categorized and shipped naked off to Raqqa or Mosul or other locations to be distributed among ISIL leadership and fighters.”

Bangura listed additional examples of the horrors suffered by women, including one who had been temporarily sold and married over 20 times. After each occasion, she was forced to undergo surgery to repair her virginity.3

“ISIL have institutionalized sexual violence and the brutalization of women as a central aspect of their ideology and operations, using it as a tactic of terrorism to advance their key strategic objectives,” said Bangura. She also described how women were promised to fighters and how the Islamic State raised funds through trafficking, prostitution, and ransoms. Sexual violence was used to displace populations, to punish, humiliate and demoralize dissenters, to extract information for intelligence purposes, and to dismantle social, familial and community structures in order to construct a new caliphate.4

Although it is incomprehensible that such policies could be enacted, the Islamic State is publicly and unabashedly continuing its reign of terror in the regions under its control.

On June 19, 2015, the group distributed an official announcement that it was sponsoring a contest in honor of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Contestants were asked to memorize verses of the Koran.

The top three winners were promised female sex slaves as their prizes.

The top three winners were promised female sex slaves as their prizes.5 According to Middle East Media Research Institute and the Clarion Project, the official Da’Wa and Mosques Department in Al-Baraka province in Syria promoted the contest as Ramadan celebrations began.6

In another recent UN report on Raqqa and surrounding locations, Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry described the methods used by ISIS to control the population. The authors of the report concluded that ISIS “seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey.”

The report is based on over 300 firsthand accounts from victims and eyewitnesses, and provides a unique perspective from Syrian men, women, and children who have escaped the state or who are living in Islamic State controlled areas.

According to the report, “Islamic State has institutionalized the oppression of women. Women have been targeted and killed, often by stoning and regulations dictate what women must wear, with whom they may socialize, and where they may or may not work.” Distressing accounts were collected of forced marriages of girls as young as 13 to Islamic State fighters. This and other reports detail horrific abuses of minority women and girls, particularly Yazidis abducted in Iraq and subsequently taken into Syria and sold into sexual slavery.7

Indoctrination of children is common, and in the city of Raqqa, it is reported that “children are gathered for screenings of videos depicting mass executions of government soldiers, desensitising them to extreme violence.” Children have also been the victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of executions.

In addition to the abuses against women and children, beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, and mass executions are commonplace in the Islamic State.8

Understanding Who the Islamic State Is and How It Justifies Slavery

Graeme Wood, an expert on the Islamic State, recently wrote an in-depth article for The Atlantic examining the origins of the state, its nature, motivations, and tactics. He said that the West and particularly US government leaders don’t understand the group and are very “confused” about who the Islamic State is and what they want. Wood believes this confusion is hindering efforts to combat the state and is causing serious strategic errors. He explains that the emergence and spread of the rule of the Islamic State is both serious and unprecedented.9

One year ago Abu Bakr-al Baghd “stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph (successor of the Prophet Muhammad and leader of Islam) in generations—upgrading his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed from around the world was unprecedented in its pace and volume and is continuing.”10

Wood believes that we have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State by tending to see jihadism as monolithic and applying the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. “Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it,” he said.11

According to Wood, another way that the West is misled is by a “well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature” as well as to deny that the Islamic State is Islamic. The most articulate spokesmen for this position “are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to ‘moderns’ and in conversation, ‘they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.’ They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”12

Graeme controversially insists that, “the reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam…Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, ‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects ‘what their religion has historically and legally required.’

The Islamic State justifies its practices which include sex slavery.

Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition’…Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.”

Because of this strict adherence to the example of Muhammad, and a literal and detailed interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts, the Islamic State justifies its practices which include sex slavery and the obtaining of concubines, even those who are married or who are children.

Some supporters of the Islamic State have denied that the group was using women and children as sex slaves until the Islamic State magazine Dabiq published an article in February 2015 justifying the practice of selling women and children.13

“Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State”

The article titled “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” took up the question of whether Yazidis are lapsed Muslims who are marked for death or pagans who are fair game for enslavement. A study group of Islamic State scholars had convened, on government orders, to resolve this issue.

If they are pagans, the article’s anonymous author wrote, “Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”14

The magazine also published the following statement aimed at those who do not subscribe to the Islamic State’s version of Islam. The quote is attributed to Mohammed al-Adnani and delivered by the spokesman for the Islamic State group: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women…If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”15

Further proving the Islamic State believes that slavery is justified by their religion, the group’s Department of Research and Fatwas (religious edicts) issued a pamphlet titled “Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves.”

According to BBC News, the document appears to be genuine and was posted on a jihadist web forum. The text indicates that Christians, Jews, and Yazidi women can be taken as slaves and that women can be bought, sold, and given as gifts; they can be disposed of as property if a fighter dies.16

They Would Rather Die

The Clarion Project reported that, rather than surrendering to a life of sexual slavery, many women and girls are committing suicide after being captured. Irifan Mahdi, a woman who works with survivors who have escaped, reported that at least 150 Yazidi women and girls killed themselves after they were forced to become Islamic State sex slaves.

Mahdi spoke in detail of the horrors these women and girls faced in an interview with the Sputnik news organization’s Arabic website.17 She told the story of Jilan Barjess-Naif, age 17—a beautiful, green-eyed girl with rare blonde hair who slashed her own wrists in a public bathhouse. She was separated from the less attractive girls and singled out for special rape treatment before being put up for sale in a sex market. After she committed suicide, Islamic State members threw her body from the bathhouse into the nearest garbage dumpster.

Jilan’s sister, Jihan, committed suicide a few days after being captured and transferred to Raqqa to be sold at a slave market.

Their pregnant mother, also captured, gave birth to a child in a cave. She was freed recently and returned home “as a mad woman” after the suicides of her daughters. Islamic State members also executed six of Jilan and Jihan’s siblings and their father and arrested 20 other members of the family.

According to Mahdi, the fate of the Barjess-Naif family from Qar-Aziz in the Sinjar region of Iraq is by no means unique. She knows of 150 Yazidis who committed suicide and believes that the real figure is considerably higher. “They preferred to die than to live in brutal sexual slavery and violence by organization members,” she said.

“The bodies of some who committed suicide were thrown to the dogs,” said Yazidi nurse Amal Hasou, who works in an IDP (internally displaced people) camp. Hasou said Islamic State members even told the girls that if one commits suicide, her body would be thrown into the garbage and served as a meal for dogs.

Most of the girls cut their wrists or used the hijabs they had been forced to wear to hang themselves. Some threw themselves to their deaths from the vehicles used to transport them.18

The widespread abuse and enslavement of women and girls in Raqqa and throughout the Islamic State is unacceptable. We have an obligation to raise our voices in prayer for justice, freedom, and restoration for these victims.

Specifically pray for:

  1. The dismantling and disarming of the Islamic State and for the repentance and conversion of those who have taken part in it
  2. The prison doors to be literally opened for the countless women and girls suffering at the hands of Islamic State militants
  3. The restoration of victims
  4. For hope to arise in the hearts of the women and girls who have been captured in order that they would choose life instead of suicide
  5. Peace in Syria and Iraq and in all areas threatened by the Islamic State


  • Header photo credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee. “Iraqi refugee children at Newroz camp where they are being helped by the International Rescue Committee” Photo modified.
  • 1. Richard Engel and James Novogrod, “ISIS Terror,” NBC News, February 13, 2015,
  • 2. “Iraq: Yezidi women and girls face harrowing sexual violence,” Amnesty International, December 23, 2014,
  • 3. “Senior UN official warns of ‘widespread and systematic’ sexual violence in Syria, Iraq,” UN News Centre, May 7, 2015,
  • 4. Ibid and “Interview with Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict,” UN News Centre, April 14, 2015,
  • 5. “Memorize the Quran, Get a Free Slave Girl in ISIS Competition,” The Clarion Project, June 21, 2015,
  • 6. “ISIS holds Koran-memorizing contest with lure of sex slaves,” RT News, June 25, 2015,
  • 7. “Convention of the Rights of the Child,” United Nations, February 4, 2015,
  • 8. Terrence McCoy, “ISIS, beheadings and the success of horrifying violence,” The Washington Post, June 13, 2014,
  • 9. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015,
  • 10. Ibid
  • 11. Ibid
  • 12. Ibid
  • 13. Heather Saul, “Isis infighting: Tensions rise over use of Yazidi sex slaves, loss of Kobani and poor services in areas controlled by group,” The Independent, February 21, 2015,
  • 14. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015,
  • 15. Rose Troup Buchanan, “Isis justify capture and sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and girls,” The Independent, October 13, 2014,
  • 16. Paul Wood, “Islamic State: Yazidi women tell of sex-slavery trauma,” BBC News, December 22, 2014,
  • 17. Sputnik News, June 14, 2015,
  • 18. “150 ISIS Sex Slaves Commit Suicide, Some Fed to Dogs,” The Clarion Project, June 18, 2015,

4 Comments on “City in Focus: Raqqa, Syria”

  1. Verónica López Says:
    July 15th, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    Praying tonight for Raqqa. Thanks for sharing this information. May God restore the life of victims and the ones who participate on ISIS.

  2. Sarah Tompkins Says:
    July 16th, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Will definitely be praying and will be encouraging others to do the same.

  3. disqus_F1usUyOAel Says:
    October 27th, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    While i am a firm believer in the power of prayer, is there nothing else we can do as well as lift our voice up in pleading to the father. Are there any other ways we can act, is there anything else we can do?

  4. drhill Says:
    March 8th, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    US Marines are outside Raqqa tonight. ISIS will be purged. May God bring justice down upon the heads of this Islamic filth.