Convergence: Human Trafficking and Criminal Exploitation by Da'esh of Women and Vulnerable Youth

David M. Luna
Senior Director for National Security and Diplomacy Anti-Crime Programs, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
NATO ARW Responses to Female Migration to ISIS
Venice, Italy
April 28, 2016

Good morning.

Emilio [Viano], thank you for your kind introduction, for your leadership in co-chairing this North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Advanced Research Workshop and for helping the international community confront the threats to our collective security and humanity posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as Da’esh.

Let me also thank the NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) for its kind invitation to speak at this year’s NATO ISIS Female Migration Symposium, and for their leadership in organizing this timely and excellent event.

On behalf of the United States, I would also like to thank NATO, the European Union (EU), and other NATO partners, for our enduring partnership in working together to make our world safer, especially as we collectively confront a wide range of transnational threats from Iraq and Syria to Libya and North Africa and Afghanistan.

Let me also applaud the attending scholars, researchers, and professionals who are here with us this week to address the issue of abduction, trafficking and sexual slavery of women and girls, and the luring and recruitment of vulnerable youth, traveling to Iraq and Syria to join Da’esh.

As I will outline shortly, the United States is committed to strengthening international cooperation to deter, dissuade, and protect our communities against violent extremism from Da’esh and other terrorist and violent extremist groups.

My presentation today will address some of the threats posed by Da’esh and other violent extremist groups, including the use of abhorrent practices to terrorize, abuse, and enslave both women and girls, and their luring of other young sympathizers in their controlled territories. I will also outline possible approaches and strategies to counter and dismantle critical crime-terror pipelines that enable the recruitment, financing, and operations of violent extremist organizations.

Da’esh’s Violent Criminality

Ladies and gentlemen: as the recent horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Bamako, Lahore, and many other locations, have demonstrated, we continue to live in a very turbulent world – a world that shocks our sensibilities with these atrocities and violent acts.

As Secretary of State John Kerry announced recently, in his judgment Da’esh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. He explained that Da’esh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. The Secretary also stated that in his judgment, Da’esh is responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.

We are witnessing a time of great insecurity and instability across the Middle East and Africa. It imperils our common welfare and creates a global threat environment where dangerous webs of criminality and corruption harm and impact the safety of our communities and citizens.

What happens in places like Iraq and Syria has direct consequences not only to our interests in certain parts of the world, but equally, to our homeland, and those of our allies.

The “reign of terror” and criminal acts of Da’esh, and the foreign terrorist fighters who have joined arms with them, are inhumane and reprehensible.

A merciless, self-proclaimed, ideologically-driven terrorist organization bent on creating its warped idea of a global Islamic caliphate, Da’esh is an international organization that exports fear and exploits vulnerabilities to further its ideological, financial, and criminal goals.

We also know that in areas under its control, Da’esh has made a systematic effort to destroy the cultural heritage of ancient communities – destroying churches and mosques; blowing up monasteries, ancient ruins, and the tombs of prophets; desecrating cemeteries and bulldozing centuries-old buildings; and in Palmyra, even beheading the 83-year-old scholar who had spent a lifetime preserving antiquities there.

Da’esh includes convicted criminals among its ranks who help finance terrorism. Da’esh extorts money from local businesses and traders, and loots banks and households alike by using threats and perpetrating violent attacks. Extortion has long been associated with organized crime and criminal groups; Da’esh has taken extortion to a new and grotesque level. Working through long-established regional smuggling networks that Da’esh leverages, it raises money through extorting each step of the oil value chain from those who extract the oil from the ground to those who transport gas throughout ISIL-controlled territories. These illicit activities continue to net Da’esh millions of dollars through black-market oil sales.

Da’esh also generates funding from illegal taxation; trafficking in persons; and trafficking of counterfeits, fake and real antiquities, and cigarettes. These illicit sources of financing allow violent extremist groups to diversify their revenue streams in order to carry out their horrific attacks, procure weapons, and fund their recruitment efforts.

Trafficking Women

The UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (known as the Palermo Protocol), establishes a global legal framework that requires state parties to criminalize human trafficking as it is defined in the Palermo Protocol and address state responsibility for the prevention of human trafficking and the protection of its victims. Under Palermo, trafficking in persons is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for purposes including forced labor or commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or other forms of coercion. Although the term “trafficking” may suggest movement, it is a crime that can be committed against an individual who has never left his or her hometown.

Da’esh’s exploits women by forcing them into “marriages” and abducting Yezidi and other minority women and girls and forcing them into sexual slavery. There also reports that highlight Da’esh’s other criminal acts, including actual markets where women are sold like slaves, which clearly is a form of human trafficking as defined by UNTOC.

Luring and Recruitment of Women

On the subject of this week’s symposium, Da’esh and other violent extremist groups have recruited hundreds of disillusioned and disaffected women and thousands of vulnerable youth from Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world, through various sources and methods, but especially through fraud and deceptive practices and targeted internet and social media websites.

Da’esh continues to make it one part of its tradecraft to recruit women and vulnerable youth to join its ranks and to develop a future generation of violent extremists.

Among the women recruited through on-line and dating websites, many are believed to be naively lured by romance to marry Da’esh’s male fighters who have been promised a beautiful wife during their enlistment in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier some experts discussed the underlying conditions, psychological factors, and other rationale for women deciding to join Da’esh in the first instance. Many of the women who migrate are recruited to join Da’esh to support and marry its male fighters. It is well known that Da’esh provides financial incentives to its fighters to have children in order to create the next generation of child fighters to extend its perverted ideology into the future. Women are also recruited to join Da’esh to attract even more male fighters, become part of its female religious police, or help manage the sex slaves and punish those who are not subservient.

In its recruitment of teen-aged girls and young women, Da’esh markets a utopian vision on-line through websites extolling its “Islamic revolution”, and exploits young women’s desires and vulnerabilities, urging them to leave their families and communities to become a part of their greater cause – a utopian Islamic world – as wives and mothers.

In 2015, three teenage girls from Colorado were recruited on-line by Da’esh facilitators. They were arrested in Germany en route to join violent extremists in Syria. According to reports, these future brides were enraptured by the Da’esh’s romantic fantasies of big houses and loving husbands. Many more have similarly been lured from across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other Western countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, three London schoolgirls caught the attention of the international media when they traveled to Syria to marry Da’esh fighters; within a few months, two of them were widowed and their families fear they are themselves now dead.

Those women who voluntarily make the voyage to Iraq and Syria, are often shocked to see how Da’esh engages in systematic sexual violence as a tool of terror, coercion and control that helps to enforce its twisted ideology, which condones rape, sexual abuse, forced marriages and sex trafficking of women and girls, some well below the age of adolescence.

Some women realize too late that they have been manipulated and deceived. For those who try to leave, some are raped, beaten, or executed.

Young men too are lured and recruited to join violent extremist groups and their global extremist movement with promises of adventure, profit, slaves, wives, and martyrdom. Many are killed.

The illicit recruitment by Da’esh and other terrorist groups of women and young foreign fighters has global security implications that need to be better understood if the international community is to effectively combat and dismantle these criminal networks, including trafficking networks, that support Da’esh and other violent extremist groups globally, make use and address the radicalization to violence of youth.

Prosecuting the Exploitation and Abuse of Women by Da’esh

I do want to note explicitly that when vulnerable youth who are not being deceived but choose to join and stay on as Da’esh fighters, should be treated as accomplices, co-conspirators, and complicit in the criminal activities of Da’esh.

Da’esh and other violent extremist groups recruit vulnerable youth and women, which enables their operations to feed a cycle of radicalization. Its illicit activities help to sustain its violent so-called caliphate, its horrific atrocities, and its terror campaigns in the Middle East as well as further afield.

To put an end to the recruitment by Da’esh of women and vulnerable youths, we must take a comprehensive approach as I would outline shortly including targeting more robustly the specific criminal behavior and the enabling environment that permits some of its illicit activities, including the criminal activity of human trafficking, which is also called modern day slavery.

In addition to being a critical human rights-related challenge, trafficking in persons is a sinister crime. It does not just destroy communities and harm innocent people, it also fuels a network of ruthless criminals and armed groups that create insecurity and instability around the world.

The societal harms and impacts posed by human trafficking are very real. Across trafficking supply chains, corruption helps fuel and enriches not only those criminal networks behind today’s modern slavery, but also subverts police, customs, judicial, and other public officials who protect traffickers, allowing them to cross borders along illicit routes and carry out their criminal activities.

Da’esh has recruited hundreds of women and vulnerable youth through on-line seduction to not only expand its campaign of terror, and also, in some cases, to engage in assist in recruiting others. Da’esh’s enabling and supporting network in Europe is very real.

Men and boys are vulnerable to trafficking by Da’esh, as entire families are sometimes deceived by recruiters promising jobs in Turkey, and are later taken to Syria and forced by violent extremist groups to fight, work, or be subjected to sexual servitude.

Da’esh abducted thousands of women and children from Iraq, primarily Yezidis but also other minorities, forcibly taking them to Da’esh held territory in Iraq and Syria as spoils of war to provide to fighters, where they are subjected to forced marriage, domestic servitude, systematic rape, and other horrific physical, psychological, and sexual abuses. Some of them were further sold or traded, or given as gifts, among Da’esh fighters, while others were prostituted by their so-called “owners.” The boys were forced to convert to Islam, and became soldiers or suicide bombers. Per the UNTOC and Palermo protocol, these individuals could also be considered to be trafficking victims.

Security Dangers of Those Lured by Da’esh: Are they Co-Conspirators?

Before I address the issue of reintegrating women and youth recruited, abducted, or otherwise victimized by Da’esh into society, I do want to make some points on the security dangers related to those that are successfully recruited by Islamic militants. Those who do not believe that they were lured or deceived, and who willfully committed to join and engage in Da’esh’s terrorist campaigns, have been found by some jurisdictions as its co-conspirators.

In a 2015 case in Colorado, a federal judge sentenced a young woman who had been recruited and lured by Da’esh. The woman was arrested at Denver International Airport as she tried to board a plane with a one-way ticket to Turkey. She had planned to cross into Syria and meet an Islamic State militant whom she met on the Internet who had encouraged her to come and had promised marriage. Prosecutors argued that she and the facilitators who were to help her transit to Syria, were part of a conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Many more young men and women have been arrested and indicted in the United States in the past year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the joint counter-terrorism task force for conspiracy and providing material support to Da’esh. According to the criminal complaints and public documents filed in federal courts, some of those arrested had watched Da’esh’s on-line propaganda that glorified religious violence and became committed to travel to Syria to join its terrorist campaigns.

On a case-by-case basis, depending on all facts and circumstances, the criminal charges that have been brought to date in the United States underscore the level of seriousness that the country takes on violent extremist recruitment and conspiracy issues.

Many challenges remain in preventing terrorism and combating radicalization.

As we witnessed in San Bernardino, California, citizens can take dangerous action when they are manipulated and their minds co-opted by terrorist groups like Da’esh and their savvy propaganda capabilities. In these types of situations, these self-radicalized lone-offenders watch, and are influenced by, Da’esh’s propaganda videos and decide to take matters into their own hands.

While the vast majority of migrants from Syria, North Africa and other crisis zones are entirely peaceful, and in many cases are the victims of violent extremism, there is a limited risk that a number of returning foreign terrorist fighters have infiltrated migrant and refugee flows, masquerading as migrants and asylum seekers in Europe. Public reports that one or two of the perpetrators in the Paris attacks allegedly entered Europe through Greece have fueled growing European public discontent, potentially jeopardizing this important avenue for the overwhelming number of genuine asylum seeks trying to enter Europe, as well as posing a safety threat to the bonafide migrants and refugees themselves.

Da’esh and other terrorist organizations continue to invest around the clock in on-line means of communicating and on recruiters to leverage social media, luring new followers – be it fighters or brides. The United States, NATO, the European Union, and other partners across sectors must erode the efforts by Da’esh on social media, print, and other mediums, to block content, messages and material used to recruit and radicalize.

Finally, given the fact that our collective governments cannot track all those traveling to and from Da’esh strongholds in Syria and Iraq, extremist recruits who have already been radicalized to violence like those involved in recent attacks in Europe, are a clear and present danger to the communities where they live upon their return. Since mid-2014, there have been over 70 Da’esh-inspired terrorist attacks in 20 countries outside of Iraq and Syria which have collectively killed more than 1200 people. The numbers of Iraqi and Syrian civilians killed by Da’esh brutality in the same period has been staggering.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Terrorists and their hate propaganda respect neither borders nor laws.

The United States reaffirms its support to our NATO, Arab, and other committed partners. The violent extremism Da’esh and other terrorist groups espouse can only be defeated by a sustained, comprehensive, and collaborative approach, and one that promotes the rule of law and human rights.

As President Barack Obama recently stated, “We must defeat Da’esh and eliminate the scourge of their barbaric terrorism.” President Obama has also noted that in addition to its destruction on the battlefield, “[w]e have to prevent it from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place. And this means defeating their ideology. Ideologies are not defeated with guns and bombs, they’re defeated by better ideas -- a more attractive and compelling vision.”

The United States, along with our partners, will continue to work together under a multifaceted, long-term strategy until our goals are achieved.

Specifically, we continue to make progress in degrading Da’esh’s capabilities through our efforts, such as:

  • strengthening military operations, and providing military training, ammunition, equipment, strategic and tactical guidance, capacity building and financial support – to halt and reverse Da’esh’s expansion and reduce its ability to resource, plan, and execute further offensive and terrorist attacks;
  • cooperating closely on efforts to disrupt Da’esh’s financing and economic sustainment, and the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to territories it has seized – to undermine the foundations of its military and terrorist operations;
  • countering Da’esh’s propaganda and its efforts to recruit new followers – to nurture an alternative vision of tolerance and moderation, with hope for a better future characterized by shared human values and aspirations;
  • re-establishing basic civilian services and security in Iraq, and fostering inclusive and effective governance – to protect and meet the immediate needs of populations at risk;
  • supporting federalism in Iraq that includes cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government, representatives of Sunni-majority areas, and ethnic and religious communities to help nurture long-term peace, good governance, stability, and prosperity;
  • confronting Da’esh, the Syrian people must establish a genuine political transition process leading to a democratic and pluralistic society based on the principles of the Geneva Communiqué; and
  • • supporting the United Nations and the international humanitarian community in providing humanitarian assistance to meet the critical needs of those displaced or affected by conflict and violence.

Since President Obama first issued a call to action on countering violent extremism at the United Nations in 2014 and hosted a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in 2015, a movement continues to grow of communities and civic leaders who are united by their commitment to addressing the specific societal dynamics and drivers of radicalization to violence, and counters the ideology, messaging, financing, and recruitment methods that extremist groups and propagandists employ to attract new recruits and foment violence.

Secretary Kerry and the State Department are leading the efforts of the United States abroad in coordination with the whole of our government—to reach out and work with foreign governments, organizations, and individuals to prevent and counter violent extremism.

We are also working closely with the UN and Member States to support the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which can serve as an implementing plan for the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy on pillars related to prevention and human rights. It calls for a whole of society and whole of UN approach to assisting Members State to prevent violent extremism and encourage Member States to develop national strategies to address key issues, which include gender equality and empowering women and youth.

Through our embassies around the world, we are engaging communities confronting the political grievances, and economic and other factors that exist in some of the areas that Da’esh and other violent extremist groups seek to exploit. As President Obama has underscored:

  • When people, especially young people, are impoverished and hopeless and feel humiliated by injustice and corruption, that can fuel resentments that terrorists exploit.
  • when human rights are denied and citizens have no opportunity to redress their grievances peacefully, it feeds terrorist propaganda that justifies violence; and
  • when political opponents are treated like terrorists and thrown in jail, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The United States currently provides assistance that supports the survivors of Da’esh’s criminal brutality, including through extensive humanitarian assistance, human rights programs, and conflict stabilization efforts. This includes a documentation program administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in northern Iraq, which has already collected over 500 narratives from victims and witnesses of human rights abuses, which includes narratives from victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

All members of our communities need to be active in preventing the radicalization of children and youth and dissuade them from joining groups on-line or at home.

Overseas, through small grants from U.S. embassies and consulates, the Department of State implements projects that focus on activities that link at-risk youth with responsible influencers and leaders in their communities. These activities include youth sports leagues, and leadership, problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills development. Grants also support the establishment of youth support groups for youth in prisons, and amplifying narratives from victims of terrorism and former terrorists that portray the negative effects of violent extremism.

State Department programming also supports community and law enforcement leadership linkages to identify and eliminate problems within the community. Credible influencers – both local leaders and government actors – provide educational, technological, and community development training to help build communities that are resistant to violent messaging, thus empowering participants to strengthen the social fabric of their countries.

CVE programming should engage women who are positioned to counter radicalization both at home and in their communities through various programs. The United States continues to support the networking of CVE women activists. Lastly, we seek to amplify the voices of victims of terrorism, who can credibly articulate the destructive consequences of terrorism, thus helping to dissuade those contemplating violent extremism.

Collective Action to Counter Da’esh and Violent Extremist Ideology Across Borders

In closing, we must continue to better understand violent extremism and its drivers at the international, regional, national, and local levels, as well as how it criminally exploits women and vulnerable youth and how it harms anyone to advance its agenda.

We have to prevent Da’esh from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others to violence in the first place.

We also have to recognize that like other forms of illicit trade, Da’esh and other violent extremists exploit illicit trafficking to finance the operations of today’s terrorist groups.

Finally, the sad reality is that Da’esh is not the only terrorist group engaged in exploiting women and vulnerable youth as we have discussed here this week. There have been cases where Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and many others, are also recruiting and corrupting them with their lies and violent extremism. And just as ISIS has abducted Yezidi and other minority women and girls and forced them into sexual slavery, other terrorist groups are abducting women and girls and subjecting some of them to domestic servitude and other forms of forced labor, to forced “marriages” and sexual abuse with their militants, and forcibly using women and children as soldiers and suicide bombers. In fact, the United Nations has estimated that Boko Haram has used over 100 women and girls in suicide attacks since June 2014.

In addition to supporting efforts to prevent radicalization, we must strongly support efforts to assist survivors, to collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities, and do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable. Our focus right now is on supporting the efforts of national authorities to hold the perpetrators of Da’esh’s atrocities to account.

As I noted already, to advance these efforts we are also supporting the documentation of atrocities for a variety of transitional justice purposes, including potential future criminal prosecutions, as well as funding programs to counter and respond to gender-based violence, and provide assistance to women and girls, including the “Safe from the Start” initiative and the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Protection Initiative.

Through our joint resolve, we must bring Da’esh and other violent extremists to justice.

When nations work together across borders and sectors as agents of positive change, catalyzing and collective action can defeat today’s agents of destruction, secure an enduring global peace, and a commitment to provide dignity to every human being.

Thank you.