‘We found nothing’: Thousands of Islamic State victims are still missing

A man wearing headphones, right, interviewing another man beneath a makeshift shelter
Syrian activist Mohammed Nour Matar, seen filming a documentary in 2013, is believed to have been seized by Islamic State militants.
(Family of Mohammed Nour Matar)

For Amer Matar, a decade-long search for his younger brother has defined him and changed the course of his life, which is now dedicated to researching and documenting crimes committed by the Islamic State group in Syria.

Mohammed Nour Matar vanished in the northern Syrian city of Raqqah in 2013 while reporting on an explosion that hit the headquarters of an insurgent group. His burnt camera was found at the scene of the blast, and his family soon afterward got word he was in an Islamic State prison. But there has been no other sign of him since.

He is among thousands of people believed to have been seized by Islamic State, the extremist group that in 2014 overran large parts of Syria and Iraq, where it set up a so-called Islamic caliphate and brutalized the population for years.


Three years after its territorial defeat, thousands of those believed seized remain missing and calling their captors to account remains elusive. Families of missing people feel abandoned by a world that has largely moved on, while they struggle to uncover the fate of their loved ones.

“These violations may constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and even genocide in some cases,” the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center said in a report published Thursday. “These families have the right to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.”

The rights group says that between 2013 and 2017, when Islamic State ruled much of northern and eastern Syria, the militant group detained thousands who remain missing and whose families continue to live in a state of grief and uncertainty.

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Jan. 26, 2022

In its report “Unearthing Hope: The Search for the Missing Victims of ISIS,” the organization said that about 6,000 bodies have been exhumed from dozens of mass graves dug by Islamic State in northeast Syria, and retrieved from buildings destroyed in airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition during the military campaign that eventually brought down Islamic State.

This may amount to about half of the total number of missing people in northeast Syria, according to SJAC, although estimates of the missing people vary.

Mohammed Nour Matar had become an activist during Syria’s civil war, and he was often out with his camera documenting the conflict. He went missing Aug. 13, 2013, while covering an explosion in Raqqah that went off outside the offices of the Ahfad al-Rasul faction, one of several insurgent groups that were rivals of Islamic State. He was 21 at the time and was working on a documentary about Raqqah and its residents’ opposition to Islamic State.


Four months later, Raqqah became Syria’s first provincial capital to fall under the full control of Islamic State. When the extremists declared a so-called caliphate in June 2014, the city became the group’s de facto capital. The group ruled the Matars’ hometown of Raqqah through fear, setting up scores of detention centers in different parts of the city, brutalizing opponents and even placing heads of decapitated victims in the city’s Naim Square — Arabic for “Paradise.”

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The rights group’s report documented for the first time the vast web of detention facilities that were central to Islamic State disappearances. Different wings of the militants’ security apparatus systematically used this network of 152 police stations, training camps and secret security prisons to detain kidnapped civilians and members of rival armed groups, in some cases before issuing death sentences or summarily executing them.

It listed 33 detention facilities in Raqqah alone.

The rights group says alleged perpetrators who may hold evidence necessary to identify remains are languishing in prisons of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces “with no fair judicial procedures in sight.” It says other former Islamic State members live in their home countries, to which they returned after the group was defeated.

“The permanent defeat of ISIS cannot be secured without justice for the victims of the organization’s crimes, including those who remain missing,” it said, using an acronym for the militant group.

Amer Matar, who now lives in Berlin with his parents and siblings, said they were told at one point that his brother Mohammed Nour was being held in a jail in Raqqah. Some former prisoners who had seen him there provided personal details that only the family knew.

But as of 2014, the family has had no proof of life.

Matar has traveled to Syria several times to try to get information about his brother, even going to mass graves as bodies were being exhumed.

The International Commission on Missing Persons has started collecting DNA samples from families of missing people, but the process is moving slowly, and Matar said his family had not provided samples yet.

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March 13, 2019

An activist like his missing brother, Matar began collecting thousands of Islamic State documents and 3-D photographs of the group’s detention centers a few years ago. He now works with activists from Syria, Iraq, Germany, France, Japan and the U.S. to set up a virtual museum about the extremists.

Asked if he has found evidence about Mohammed Nour, Matar said: “My mother asks me this question every month or every few weeks. My answer, regrettably, is: ‘We found nothing.”’