by Ambra Visentin 

It has been five years since Unitad, the UN Investigation Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), established at the request of Iraq, began its work. In May this year, Special Adviser Christian Ritscher briefed the UN Security Council on UNITAD’s 10th report. “The threat posed by ISIL is greater than ever – he said – and the team is committed to supporting the efforts of our Iraqi counterparts towards the common goal of holding ISIL perpetrators accountable for their brutal attacks against all communities in Iraq, its people and the country itself, through evidence-based trials for international crimes.”

The group’s mandate is to investigate the horrific crimes of the Da’esh terrorist militias in Iraq. It is made up of 150 UN staff and some 60 contractors and consultants. UNITAD now has 8 specialised investigative units, has established a witness protection and support system, set up a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory, and established a specialised unit to assist in the exhumation of mass graves and the identification of human remains. This work is carried out in cooperation with the national authorities and in collaboration with religious and tribal leaders, representatives of affected communities and survivors of ISIL crimes. “I was impressed by the support given to my team by the affected communities, particularly those I visited in Taza Khurmatu, Hit and Ramadi,” said the Special Adviser. 

Under the investigators’ lens

Preliminary case assessment reports have been prepared on the destruction of cultural heritage, gender-based crimes and serious violence against children, the Sunni population of Al-Anbar and the Christian communities in Ninawa. Efforts have also been made to investigate the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by Da’esh/ISIL. On 8 March 2016, it weaponised several chemical agents and used them as chemical rockets and mortars, as well as improvised explosive devices, in the vicinity of Taza Khurmatu. In-depth and specialised analysis of recovered munitions and materials revealed significant amounts of battlefield evidence, including ISIL payrolls, records and correspondence, enabling the team to identify persons of interest and establish links to potential senior members of the terrorist militia.

Crimes committed against the Christian and the Yazidi community

Interviews with victims, witnesses and religious leaders have identified several Christian men and women who were subjected to forced religious conversions and inhumane treatment while detained in Hamdaniyah and Bartalah in the Ninawa plains, an area to the east of Mosul and close to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), Investigations are continuing to identify senior and mid-level commanders responsible for such crimes who may be held accountable.

With regard to the Da’esh/ISIL attack against the Yazidi community in the Sinjar district, the list of suspected perpetrators, which currently stands at 2,286 persons, including 188 foreign fighters, was expanded and detailed dossiers were developed on 31 persons of interest. In developing an understanding of the network of Da’esh/ISIL perpetrators behind the Sinjar attack and the subsequent killings, enslavement and other crimes committed against the Yazidi population of Sinjar, the team began to assist in building cases against individual perpetrators, in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities, including Kurdish ones, as well as the relevant national jurisdictions of several third States. Even the Yazidi cultural heritage has not been spared from terrorism, as the destruction of 106 sites is evidence of.

Additional leads have been identified in the investigation of sexual and gender-based crimes committed against Shia Turkmen girls, possibly including women who were captured in Sinjar after fleeing Tall Afar and subsequently forced to marry Da’esh/ISIL fighters. The investigation also concerns Shia Turkmen boys who were separated from their families and forced to become child soldiers. Recent evidence also shows that Shia Turkmen children, from infants to 7-year-olds, have sometimes been adopted by terrorist families.

Crimes committed against Kaka’i, Shabak and Shia Turkmen communities

Shia Turkmen from Tall Afar and Shabak have disappeared from villages near Mosul. The capture of the city of Mosul by Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) on 6 June 2014 and intense fighting in Tal Afar on 16 June have displaced an estimated total of more than 500,000 people. Tal Afar and the Ninewa Plains, are home to a number of religious and ethnic minorities, including Shabak and Turkmen, who have been forced to flee the conflict. Both the Iraqi Turkmen, Iraq’s third largest minority group, and the Shabak include a significant proportion of Shia Muslims, whose patterns of displacement were found to be different from those of other minority groups.

Initially sheltered by other minorities throughout Ninewa Governorate during the early stages of the conflict in June, the majority of IDPs fled to Shia-majority Governorates in southern Iraq as the AOGs expanded their presence further into the Ninewa Plains. 

Several field missions and collaborations in the Governorates of Ninawa and Kirkuk have enabled the investigation of evidence of crimes committed against these communities.

The Sunni community in Anbar has also been the victim of terrorist crimes. Three incidents are the focus of current analysis: the execution of 16 members of the Albu Nimr tribe in a sinkhole in the Tharthar desert, the execution of some 46 tribesmen at the Bakr roundabout in Hit, both in October 2014, and the capture and killing of 15 members of the Jam’iyah police station in Hit in early October 2014. The UN team has identified other incidents, including extrajudicial executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and extensive destruction of public and private property and cultural heritage, which remain under investigation.

Crimes committed in and around Mosul

During the occupation of Mosul, there have been several attacks on Iraqi police and security forces, particularly in the southern part of the city and in the village of Hammam al-Alil. Evidence gathered so far points to a range of possible crimes, including torture, enforced disappearances and the mass killing of hundreds of police officers or persons associated with law enforcement officials.

On 10 and 11 June 2014, ISIL carried out mass executions involving approximately 1,000 Shia prisoners in Badush prison. UNITAD interviewed other witnesses, including survivors of the Badush prison attack, identified through statements obtained from Iraqi judicial authorities and the team’s investigations.

In addition, and following the excavation of the main execution site in 2021 and 2022, which contained the remains of nearly 600 Shia prisoners killed, the team has continued its efforts to locate additional mass graves. Work is now focusing on the site of the mass grave where some 85 Shia prisoners are believed to have been shot and buried.

Cover image by Nicholas Hel on Shutterstock

To learn more, read our Iraq conflict factsheet