When two suspected ISIS fighters nicknamed “the Beatles” were hauled before a US court last month, facing charges over the brutal killing of four American hostages, it was hailed as a landmark step in bringing members of the despised terror group to justice.
But for 38-year-old Maisa Salih, and the other relatives of the more than 8,300 Syrians who were abducted by ISIS and are still missing, the long-awaited trial brought no comfort.
“It’s not a victory for us,” she told VICE World News from her apartment in Berlin, Germany.
Despite her family’s visceral hatred for ISIS, major blows against the terror group – last year’s territorial defeat of the caliphate, and the killing of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – have only added to their torment.
“If there is no ISIS, then where are our loved ones?” she said. “Where are the thousands of people that have been kidnapped by ISIS? Our victory will be when we get information.”
Salih’s family has been living a nightmare since her sister Samar, the youngest of five siblings, was abducted by ISIS in the Syrian town of Atarib on the outskirts of Aleppo in August 2013.
Samar, aged 24 and working as a human rights activist and relief worker who had joined the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, was walking back from a friend’s house with her fiancé, Mohamed, and her mother, when three large cars with tinted windows sped towards them.
Four armed, masked men jumped out, grabbed Samar and Mohamed by the hair and beat them, before bundling them into the car and racing away. Their unknown abductors later made contact with the Salih family using Samar and Mohamed’s Facebook and Skype accounts, initially pretending to be the missing couple, before subsequently saying they were from ISIS, and threatening the family. They never made contact again.
At the time of the kidnapping, Salih, like most of the world, had never heard of ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym of Daesh. The Sunni terror group had only announced its existence four months earlier, and was still 10 months away from grabbing the world’s attention with the shocking capture of Mosul.
The lightning fall of Iraq’s second city was a key step towards the group building a vast military-political “caliphate” that at its peak would stretch across a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq, ruling over an estimated 8 to 12 million people, including more than 30,000 fighters, and commanding an annual budget of more than US$1 billion. It even tried to issue its own currency.
For Salih, it would be months after the kidnapping before she even ever heard the name ISIS. Salih, herself an activist who had joined peaceful demonstrations against Assad and worked as a journalist for opposition-affiliated media outlet Orient News, had been arrested by Syrian authorities in March 2013 for her opposing the regime. Her family withheld any news of Samar’s kidnapping from her during her detention, breaking the devastating news to her shortly after she had been released from seven months in jail.
“When I went to jail, there was no ISIS. Suddenly when I get out, there is this thing called ISIS, and they have kidnapped my sister and her boyfriend,” she said. “The whole world was turned upside down.”
Despite the Salihs’ extensive efforts to locate Samar and Mohamed, exhausting every lead they could drum up, they haven’t been heard from since.
“At least when I was in a regime prison, my family knew where I was. But with ISIS, you can’t get any information,” she said. “We keep trying, but it’s always people lying, people trying to get money from us.” To this day she doesn’t know exactly why her sister – who she describes as a strong, principled and fiercely independent woman – was targeted, other than she fit the broad profile of those targeted by ISIS at the time.
“They were kidnapping all activists without reason, whether they worked as humanitarians or worked in media, they were all targeted,” she said. “Was it because she wasn’t wearing a hijab? Because they were activists? Really, we don’t know why.”
Samar and Mohamed are among the more than 8,300 Syrians who remain unaccounted for after being kidnapped by ISIS during its reign of terror. For their families, the US-led coalition’s celebrated military victory over the so-called caliphate has brought no closure, only more questions about the fates of their relatives, forgotten victims of the war against ISIS.
Salih and others like her are frustrated by the lack of answers about what has happened to their family members – whether they were executed by their captors, killed in the military offensive against the group, or remain detained, somewhere.
They believe the answers remain out there for the taking, whether through forensic examinations of former ISIS detention centres and mass graves, or, crucially, through intelligence held by the thousands of former ISIS fighters, most of whom are in the custody of the autonomous Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
“These fighters are banks of information that could be providing us with leads about our loved ones,” said Salih, who wants the US government to interrogate the captured fighters.
“They are our hope as a family.”
But amid the chaotic aftermath of the war on ISIS, the thousands of Syrian abductees have been almost forgotten by those with the ability to make a difference, say the families and their advocates.
“People are celebrating that there’s no Daesh any more in Syria and Iraq and it’s victory,” said Salih. “But nobody cares about what we can do to find our people.”
According to the Syria Campaign, a UK-registered non-profit that advocates for human rights and democracy in the war-ravaged country, the US-led coalition and Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have provided little useful assistance to help families in their search for their loved ones.
“It’s convenient for members of the US-led coalition to act as if the fight against ISIS is over,” Laila Kiki, the group’s executive director, told VICE World News.
“It means they don’t have to engage in any meaningful way with the search for the missing. Thousands of families are calling out for information about their loved ones. They want the painful uncertainty to be over and for justice to be done.”
Western governments say that, despite the criticism, they have been supporting processes to get justice and accountability for the victims of ISIS in Syria. A spokesperson for the US State Department said that Washington supported the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, a process intended to prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes in the conflict by collecting and analysing evidence of crimes and preparing files for criminal proceedings.
The Office of Global Criminal Justice has provided $10 million towards seeking accountability for war crimes, including gathering evidence and preparing case files for prosecution, while the State Department has been working to build the capacity of Syrian teams to document and exhume mass graves for criminal accountability purposes, and account for missing persons more broadly.
The US Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment on whether it was interrogating detained ISIS suspects about the missing.
Meanwhile, the UK has also provided £1.5 million to the International Commission on Missing Persons to help find those who have disappeared in northeast Syria, including creating a database of missing persons from known mass graves in areas previously controlled by ISIS.
But even the officials acknowledge that those measures may not yield any answers in many cases – “We may never learn the truth behind many of these difficult cases,” the State Department spokesperson said – and campaigners say their efforts are insufficient.
They acknowledge that missing persons investigations are inherently slow processes, involving extensive collection of data from families and the painstaking exhumation and analysis of remains. In the case of Syria’s missing, the process faces even greater challenges: a lack of infrastructure for forensic analysis, the dispersal of family members across the Middle East and Europe, and major disruptions from last year’s Turkish military incursion, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even so, according to the Syria Campaign, the support for the work has been inadequate, with local exhumation teams often going without paychecks, and crucially, captured ISIS fighters not being interrogated about the missing.
“Current efforts have not helped families find their loved ones,” said Ameenah Sawwan, justice and accountability campaigner for the Syria Campaign.
“They need to interrogate captured ISIS fighters about the whereabouts and fate of the disappeared and provide financial support for the exhumation of mass graves to help identify the bodies being discovered all the time… in and around Raqqa."
Hannah Grigg, senior program officer at the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, which investigates missing people in Syria's northeast, said the Syrian Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria, who hold most of the former ISIS fighters, were “overwhelmed” by detained fighters in its custody, and lacked the resources to bring them to trial or pursue missing persons investigations. Syrian Kurdish officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, she said, many prosecutors from Western countries who were building cases against their citizens who had joined ISIS simply had not considered seeking answers about the missing, and lacked the contextual information about the cases to do so. Others were more reluctant as they didn’t see the missing person investigations as part of their job, she said.
“Historically, there has often been a wall between criminal accountability processes and missing persons investigations. So a lot of prosecutors and accountability mechanisms simply do not see this area of work as their responsibility,” she said.
For Salih and other campaigners, the need for answers only grows more urgent with time. Physical evidence inevitably degrades over time, while ISIS fighters who may hold critical information have escaped Kurdish custody, or have been executed in rushed Iraqi trials.
Meanwhile, despite the territorial defeat of ISIS, Salih’s family remains stuck in the same limbo it has been in for more than seven years. Samar’s absence haunts each member of the family, now scattered by the conflict across four countries, with her mother, who witnessed the abduction, hit especially hard.
“She blames herself because she was there and she couldn’t do anything,” said Salih, who describes her mother as “like a ghost.”
“It’s my pain, it’s my family’s pain. It keeps coming every day, with thousands of thoughts.”
As for Salih herself, she said she doesn’t even know what to wish for regarding her sister’s fate.
“I don’t know what’s right to say about Samar and my hopes for her,” she said.
“I hope she is fine. I hope she is still alive. I hope she was not tortured so much when she was kidnapped.”
But if she’s being honest, she says, she and her family have no hope at all. If Samar is still somehow held by ISIS fighters, “she is in a very, very bad situation.”
“You know the stories about ISIS and how they treat women,” she says.
“But even if she has died, we need to know, so that the story is ended. Without endings, we live every day like a nightmare.”●