On August 15, 2007, Iraq’s Yazidi community was the victim of the worst terrorist attack anywhere in the world since September, 11, 2001, and the second-worst in modern history.
Four simultaneous suicide bombers detonated themselves in two villages almost entirely populated by the religious minority group. At least 500 people were killed; credible reports place the overall total death toll at 796.
The attacks were the culmination of growing tensions between the Yazidis and Sunni extremists, and bore all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor organisation. Cell phone footage of a Yezidi mob stoning a woman to death for being a romantic relationship with a Sunni Muslim set off a downward spiral of confrontation, which Guardian journalist Michael Howard described in a report from northern Iraq in August of 2007:
[G]unmen pulled 23 Yezidi workers off a bus near Mosul and shot them dead. Hundreds of Yezidi students at Mosul university have since either fled or moved to universities inside the Kurdish autonomous area. For the past month, said Prince Tahseen, Yezidi leaders in Sinjar had been complaining of threats by Islamists. They said the militants, holed up among local Sunni Arab settlements along the Syrian border, had effectively blockaded Yezidi towns, preventing delivery of foodstuffs and fuel.
The situation today is eerily similar. Thousands of Yezidis feeling ISIS’s advances are marooned high in the mountains, choked off by a mutated version of the same Sunni extremist group that persecuted them seven years ago. One Yazidi says that ISIS killed as many as 2,000 of his co-coreligionists in the space of a single day this week, while extremely graphic photographs posted to various jihadist forums claimed to portray a mass execution of Yazidi men.
The Yazidis were the target of Al Qaeda persecution during the chaotic middle years of the U.S.’s military campaign in Iraq. And today, they’re the target of that same Al Qaeda offshoot as the country continues to collapse.
Only this time, the Yazidis are being targeted as part of a larger, more strategic, and more ambitious jihadist campaign. In the mid and late 2000s, Al Qaeda in Iraq was a craven, bloodthirsty organisation whose brutality seemed aimless and excessive even to Bin Laden and his inner circle.
ISIS is a violent organisation — but it also has a clearly-defined plan for how it takes to over and eventually rule large portions of the Middle East. And its persecution of the Yazidis is part of its roadmap.
The Yazidi section of northern Iraq sits in the border region between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, both places where ISIS is attempting to consolidate its territorial gains and bring the fight to local Kurdish militant groups.
While the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq is highly capable, the militia has been most effective when it’s had some kind of outside foreign aerial assistance — as when the U.S. patrolled a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s, or when the U.S. military had hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground during the U.S. campaign of the last decade.
If ISIS cuts off Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan from one another before Turkey, the U.S., or some other player can mobilize assistance, its conceivable that ISIS will be able to rule over major pieces of Syrian and Iraq infrastructure without a credible threat to it on any of its borders. It could sit atop the Mosul Dam without having to worry about Peshmerga counter-attacks, or rule over Syria’s oil and gas fields without fear of harassment from either the Kurds or a semi-collusive regime in Damascus.
The Yezidi persecution is a replay of the atrocities of seven years ago, and another sign of radical Sunni Islamists’ commitment to terrorizing northern Iraq’s major religious minority.
It’s also a reminder that ISIS isn’t just brutal. It’s strategically engaged in a way that Al Qaeda in Iraq never was.
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