Guilty by association: Families of suspected Islamic State members pay a steep price

Aliya Mohammed’s home was looted and destroyed because of her son’s decision to join Islamic State. Months after the fighting ended, she was still living in a camp for the displaced in the town of Hamam Alil, Iraq.
(Alexandra Zavis / Los Angeles Times)
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Aliya Mohammed begged her son not to get mixed up with Islamic State. Now she is paying the price for his decision to defy her.

Last year, as Iraqi forces were liberating the city of Mosul and surrounding areas from a three-year occupation by the extremists, pro-government militiamen carried away her carpets, furniture and plasma television. Then they set her house on fire.

Neighbors and a nephew assisted in the destruction. The word “Daesh” — a derisive Arabic acronym for Islamic State — was left scrawled across a charred wall.


“Why did they do this?” asked Mohammed, who was recently widowed. “I know that my boy was at fault, but my husband didn’t do anything wrong. He just did his work.”

Today, months after the fighting ended, she is trapped in a camp for the displaced in the town of Hamam Alil — one of thousands of people, the majority of them women and children, who fled their homes during the war and now cannot return because relatives are said to have a connection to Islamic State.

Many are afraid to leave the camps. But even if they want to do so, they often find it impossible to get the necessary paperwork. The craving for revenge against Islamic State runs deep — as does the fear that the militants could make a comeback.

A camp in the Iraqi town of Hamam Alil is home to many families who cannot return to their areas because of a relative’s suspected ties to Islamic State.
(Alexandra Zavis / Los Angeles Times )

In and around Mosul, local leaders have drawn up lists of families they say are no longer welcome. Threatening letters have been slipped under their doors and posted in mosques. Names have been stricken from aid distribution lists. Grenades have been tossed through windows. Homes have been bulldozed.

The families present a dilemma for the Shiite Muslim-led government, which has called for reconciliation between the country’s warring sects, ethnicities and tribes. Iraqi officials say they worry for the safety of the families. But they also worry that some harbor sympathy for the Sunni extremists and would help them regroup if given the chance.


“Daesh controlled the city for three years, so for sure, people were affected by their ideology,” said Nuraddin Qablan, deputy president of the provincial council in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh.

He would like to see the families go through some form of rehabilitation, but said there is no money for such a program. So local security authorities frequently impose stringent requirements before they will allow the families to return to their areas.

The families must obtain security clearance. They may need to find a sponsor to take responsibility if they break the law. They may also have to supply proof that the locality where they intend to go is willing to accept them.

All that is hard to do from the confines of a camp. There are families in Iraq’s central Anbar province who have been waiting for permission to return home since mid-2016.

Complicating matters further are the many different security forces — including tribal and sect-based militias — now deployed in former Islamic State areas, each with its own opinions about who poses a threat. Some, for example, will allow the widows of dead militants to return to their fathers’ homes, but not their children.

The war against Islamic State was officially declared over in December, but camp managers say families continue to arrive from areas where the militants imposed their brutal reign.


In January, during an operation to clear Islamic State remnants from the Hawija area in nearby Kirkuk province, Iraqi soldiers and allied militiamen rounded up at least 235 people believed to have relatives among the militants and brought them to camps, according to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Police confiscated their identity documents so they wouldn’t leave.

Rights activists and humanitarian workers recognize the potential security concerns posed by such families. But they say keeping the families in camps amounts to collective punishment and risks alienating Sunni Arabs in a region that has proved fertile ground for extremism since U.S.-led forces toppled the late strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“There has to be reconciliation, there has to be reaching out,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs the camp south of Mosul where Mohammed and four of her children have been living since July. “These children should not grow up with bitterness in their hearts.”

Patrick Hamilton, the International Committee for the Red Cross’ deputy director for the Near and Middle East, said he worries that recriminatory measures could increase.

Some communities may be feeling emboldened to take matters into their own hands. There is also a risk that families and tribes will try to prove their loyalty to the government — or settle old scores — by driving out anybody who has been labeled a “Daeshi.”

“There is a need for there to be a strong, objective application of the law and due process to try and ensure that only those that need to be prosecuted are indeed imprisoned and prosecuted,” Hamilton said. “Otherwise you just end up generating a sense of injustice that breeds another round of violence.”


Mohammed, 50, traces her son’s radicalization to the last time a major offensive was waged against Sunni extremists in the Mosul region, over a decade ago. She shared the story on the condition that neither her son nor their town be identified, to avoid drawing attention to the family.

Mosul was then home to many high-ranking members of Saddam’s military who joined Al Qaeda when the interim administration led by L. Paul Bremer III disbanded the Iraqi armed forces in a purge of regime loyalists.

Police accused Mohammed’s son, then about 15, of providing medical treatment to insurgents at his father’s pharmacy. Imprisoned for nine months, he emerged a changed person.

“He was so angry,” his mother said.

Hoping that he might experience a spiritual rebirth amid the holy sites of Mecca, the couple sent their son on the hajj, a five-day pilgrimage that is one of the central pillars of Islam. Later they found him a “nice girl” to marry. But nothing seemed to assuage his bitterness.

“His father told him, I don’t want you getting involved in anything,” Mohammed said.

But when Islamic State’s black-clad fighters stormed into Mosul in 2014, her son offered his services to the group as a medic. His father threw him out of the house, she said.

Last year, as government forces were approaching, Islamic State militants ordered the family to leave their area, on the southern outskirts of Mosul, and move into the city.


Mohammed’s sister promised to keep an eye on her house. But according to Mohammed, her sister’s son joined in the looting. Her sofas and television now sit in her sister’s living room, Mohammed said.

Over the summer, Mohammed received word that the son who joined Islamic State had been killed in an airstrike.

Another strike destroyed the house where the rest of the family was staying in west Mosul, killing two other sons and nine grandchildren. Mohammed and her younger children had been out collecting water at the time. Her husband also survived, but died of a heart attack soon afterward.

Mohammed spent months trying to replace ID cards that were lost in the airstrike. A city employee eventually told her that he was not authorized to provide the documents to Islamic State families.

Without them, she said, she could not persuade a local hospital to release the bodies of her dead family members. She finally asked her 30-year-old daughter — the only close relative with identification — to collect the bodies and take them to a graveyard.

The daughter sent photographs of the graves to her mother via cellphone text message. Without identification, Mohammed can’t visit them. There are too many checkpoints to get through.


So she sits on a foam mattress in an almost empty tent and scrolls through photos of her loved ones on her phone. Then she kisses the phone and weeps.

Her only wish is to find a safe place to raise her four youngest children — far away from Mosul. Otherwise, she fears they too could fall prey to the cycle of violence and revenge that claimed their older brothers.

The children’s anger is plain. When their mother was asked which of the many local security forces destroyed their home, her 15-year-old son answered for her.

“The Iraqi army didn’t do anything when they came,” he said. “It was the people from the neighborhood who did this to us.”

Twitter: @alexzavis