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Understanding ISIS’s crimes in Kocho: a demographic analysis

August 15, 2019

In 2018, Dr. Valeria Cetorelli and I established the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project with the objective of identifying every victim of the attack on the Yazidi community of Sinjar by the armed group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS). By combining our two disciplines, we hoped to establish a reliable dataset that would have multiple short, medium, and long-term uses. This included assisting in identification of remains in mass graves, and providing reliable information for use in planning for and prioritisation of members of the Yazidi community, including provision of counselling, increased medical interventions, and gender- and youth-specific needs. Significantly, we envisaged the dataset providing information of high probative value for use in criminal prosecutions before national, regional, and international courts and tribunals. Consequently, we took a similar methodological approach to the one previously used by the Demographic Unit of the Office of the Prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

On 10 July 2019, the Project published its first paper, a demographic analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho, in which we sought to answer the following questions:

  • How many victims of ISIS’s attack on Kocho can be identified by name, and what is the likely number of victims who remain uncounted?
  • What gender and age are the identified victims, and what types of violations have they suffered?
  • Do the results of the demographic documentation confirm the findings of testimony-based documentation?

The purpose of this blog post is to present the main findings of the report, on a date exactly five years after the Kocho attack. Before presenting them, we first briefly set out details of the attack.

ISIS attack on Kocho

On 3 August 2014, ISIS attacked the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, targeting the Yazidis, a millennia-old and oft-persecuted religious community. After controlling the main roads and strategic junctions, ISIS set up checkpoints and sent mobile patrols to search for Yazidi families. Within hours, Yazidis who fled too late or who had remained in their villages, found themselves encircled. Almost all villages were emptied within 72 hours of the attack, with the exception of Kocho village, which was not emptied until 15 August 2014. (See pp. 7-13 of the paper for a detailed overview of the ISIS attack on Sinjar, and of the events in Kocho between 3 and 15 August 2014).

On 15 August 2014, ISIS ordered Kocho’s residents to gather in the village school. Women and younger children were forced upstairs, while men and adolescent boys were kept on the ground floor. ISIS berated the Yazidis for their adherence to their religion, and gave them a choice: convert to Islam or remain as Yazidis in which case they would have to leave the Sinjar region, relinquishing their possessions. The Yazidis decided not to convert. ISIS fighters then ordered the men and older boys to surrender their valuables, before taking them out of the school in groups. Survivors described being shoved into vehicles that were driven short distances, though not all to the same location. ISIS fighters pulled the men and older boys from the vehicles and forced them to kneel or crouch on the ground before shooting them. Since ISIS was ousted from Kocho in May 2017, at least eleven mass graves holding human remains have been discovered in and around the village.

After most of the men and older boys had been taken out of the school, fighters ordered the women and younger children downstairs where their valuables also were taken from them. ISIS fighters began to select unmarried girls, mostly those between the ages of 13 and 16, and took them away. The remaining women, girls and boys were forced into vehicles and taken to the Solagh Technical Institute, closer to Sinjar town. There fighters continued to take away adolescent girls, as well as boys who were over the age of seven. Testimonies suggest that the boys were taken to ISIS training camps, where they were forcibly trained and later made to fight. In the early hours of 16 August 2014, ISIS fighters separated women deemed to be past childbearing age. After ISIS lost control of the area, a mass grave was uncovered in the grounds of the school. After sunrise on 16 August, fighters loaded the surviving residents of Kocho – all women and children – into trucks and buses and transported them to holding sites deeper inside ISIS-controlled territory where it is alleged that they were registered, sold under ISIS’s system of sexual enslavement, and suffered a range of mass atrocity crimes during their captivity. The fate and whereabouts of thousands of Yazidis are still unknown.

Many of the crimes committed against the Yazidis by ISIS have been documented by the United Nations, NGOs, and the news media. In 2015 and 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released separate reports determining that ISIS was committing genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes, in its coordinated assault on the Yazidis of Sinjar.

Much of the world’s understanding of what happened comes from testimonies of survivors, the majority of whom are female. Some, including 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, spoke out publicly while many others gave their accounts confidentially to a range of documentation entities. Earlier this year, the excavation of Kocho’s mass graves began. Yet, five years on, a full understanding of the scale of ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidis, and the identity of all the victims, remains unknown. It was to tackle this information gap that Dr. Valeria Cetorelli and I established the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project.

Demographic Analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho

The project’s first paper conducted a demographic analysis of ISIS’s attack on Kocho. It analysed data from two independent sources (p. 13). The first was a list of victims gathered by trained Yazidi enumerators, primarily from close family members and occasionally from more distant relatives, friends and neighbours, in camps for internally displaced persons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The second source was a list of victims compiled by one of the few Kocho community leaders who survived the attack. Information on victims’ status – dead, missing, or rescued – was updated to August 2018. The data was, as detailed in the paper, screened, merged and validated. A dual system estimation was applied to determine the likely number of victims who remain uncounted.

The consolidated list of victims contains the names of 1161 people believed to have been present in Kocho on 15 August 2014, almost all of whom – if not all – would have been forced into the school by ISIS fighters. The dual system estimation indicated that the total number of victims, including those who remain uncounted, is likely to be 1170. This accords with various testimony-based estimates of there being approximately 1200 people in Kocho on 15 August 2014. Kocho’s population appeared almost equally split along gender lines, with 579 of the identified victims being male and 582 being female. Kocho had a young population age structure, with 558 (48%) of its residents aged under 20 years.

The demographic analysis supported the data gathered from testimonies taken from the survivors, which indicated that while Kocho’s entire population was targeted by ISIS, the violations suffered varied depending on the gender and age of the victims. Of those who were reported dead or missing (some victims’ relatives were unwilling to list them as having died in the absence of witnesses to their murder or confirmation of the presence of their remains in the mass graves), 90% of men aged 20 years and above  – 257 out of 290 – were reported as dead or missing.

Far fewer women were reported as dead or missing – 26 (14%) among the 187 women in the age range 20–39. There was, however, a sharp increase in the number of women over the age of 40 who were reported as dead or missing, with 42 (52%) of the 81 women aged 40–59, and 42 (88%) of the 48 women aged 60 years and above being so reported. The demographic analysis accords with survivors’ accounts which described ISIS executing men and adolescent boys in and around Kocho on 15 August 2014, while older women were executed hours later at Solagh, a few kilometres away. Exhumations of multiple mass grave sites of Kocho’s victims are ongoing.

A demographic analysis of those who were rescued from captivity – a catch-all term governing a diverse range of situations through which abductees returned to their families – also revealed important insights into the ways in which ISIS targeted Kocho’s Yazidis.

The number of boys and girls under 10 years who were reported as rescued is 135 (86%) and 119 (83%) respectively. Among those aged between 10 and 19 years, 56 (41%) and 84 (69%) were rescued. Only 28 (10%) of the men aged 20 years and above were identified as rescued. The number of those rescued was 161 (86%) among women in the age group 20–39; and 39 (48%) among those aged 40–59. As one might expect, given the number of older women reported dead or missing, only 6 (12%) among those aged 60 years and above were reported as having been rescued.

Children and women of childbearing age were much more likely to have been kept alive in ISIS captivity and, consequently, to have the possibility of rescue. Following ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria, the fate and whereabouts of the still-missing women and girls (as well as boys under the age of 7 who were more likely to have been allowed to remain with their mothers) remains a painful and largely unanswered question. Hope still remains, with reports of Yazidi women being rescued during raids in areas once held by and now liberated from ISIS. Recently, several Yazidi boys who had been forced to fight with ISIS have also been rescued. Precisely how many survived the training and/or the battlefield remains unknown. Nevertheless, the data gathered by the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project indicates that more boys who were trained and made to fight as part of ISIS have survived than testimonial evidence has previously suggested.

With the Security Council’s establishment of the United Nations Investigative Team to promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh (UNITAD), we are inching towards accountability, most likely in the form of trials before domestic courts. As the Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project progresses, similar analyses will be conducted for all Yazidi villages and Sinjar town. It is hoped that the analyses, and underlying data, will provide reliable information that may easily be entered into evidence in prosecutions across multiple jurisdictions.

Sareta Ashraph is a barrister specialised in international criminal and humanitarian law, and is the co-principal of the LSE Middle East Centre’s Yazidi Victims Demographic Documentation Project. From February to August 2019, she served as Senior Analyst on the UN Investigative Team for Accountability of Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). In 2018, she authored the Global Justice Center’s report ‘Gender, Genocide, and Obligations under International Law’. While serving as Chief Legal Analyst on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria from 2012-2016, Sareta led the reporting for the Commission’s June 2016 report “They Came To Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis“, which determined that ISIS was committing the crime of genocide, among other international crimes. She is an associate tenant of Garden Court Chambers in London. @SaretaAshraph

A Novel Rationale to the Classification of Hostilities between Occupying Powers and Non-State Armed Groups

July 23, 2019

Marco Longobardo is a Lecturer in International Law at the University of Westminster, where he also teaches public international law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law and other related subjects. He undertook his doctoral studies at the Sapienza University of Rome and previously lectured at the University of Messina and in the context of international humanitarian law courses for the personnel of the Italian armed forces. He has published extensively on public international law issues and he is the author of The Use of Armed Force in Occupied Territory (CUP 2018).


Based on the research conducted for my book on The Use of Armed Force in Occupied Territory (CUP 2018), this blog post addresses the contentious issue of the classification of hostilities in occupied territory, focusing on the rules applicable to the hostilities between the occupying power and non-state armed groups. This brief analysis does not explore the main legal framework governing the use of armed force in occupied territory, that is, a law enforcement scheme, but rather, it focuses only on the rules on the conduct of the hostilities (on the relationship between law and enforcement and conduct of hostilities in occupied territory, see my book, pp. 229-238). It is argued here that the rules on conduct of hostilities that are applicable in international armed conflicts (IACs) govern the occupying power’s use of armed force in occupied territory when hostilities occur. After a brief overview of state practice and judicial precedents, this piece will offer a novel argument in support of this conclusion.

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10 recommendations for solving the issue of ISIS detainees in North East Syria

July 8, 2019
Detention centre for IS detainees in North East Syria © Nicolas Sion

This post has been written by Nicolas Sion, Head of Development, Fight for Humanity with input by Anki Sjőberg, Co-Director and Founder, Fight for Humanity.

On 23 May 2019, more than 50 people, legal experts, representatives of States and international organizations, as well as representatives from North-East Syria met in Geneva to examine possible legal solutions for members of the Islamic State detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces in North-East Syria. The meeting was co-organized by the NGO Fight for Humanity and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Fight for Humanity is a non-governmental organization that works to convince armed actors, notably armed non-State actors, about the need to respect people’s rights in the areas of their control or influence.

More than 2,000 foreigners from 70 different countries, 3,000 Syrians and a similar number of Iraqis – men, women, children with alleged links to ISIS – are reported to be detained by the Self-Administration in North East Syria (NES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The NES/SDF has called for the support of the international community to prosecute these individuals after many of their countries of origin decided to not to repatriate them.

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News Roundup 3rd June – 16th June

June 18, 2019

3rd June – 9th June

‘Weaponisation of hunger’: Idlib’s farmers victims of scorched-earth campaign

More crop fire in Kirkuk as Iraqi ministry reports over 30,000 acres burned so far

Torching and Extortion: OSINT analysis of burning agriculture in Iraq

A taliban commander’s double life, in a war he couldn’t leave behind

Palestinian self-made weaponry on the rise

Children used by anti-Boko Haram groups struggle against trauma

Islamic State claims first attack in Mozambique

Militarizing the Peace: UN intervention against Congo’s ‘terrorist’ rebels

Sudan paramilitaries raped and assaulted protesters and medics

Colombia: Rights experts condemn killing of reintegrated former rebel fighter, call for respect of peace process

10th June – 16th June

Focusing on armed non-state actors: Protecting education in armed conflict

Foreign jihadists involved in Hama fighting

Orphans of French Isis fighters fly home from Syria

Iraqi Shi’ite groups deepen control in strategic Sunni areas

Saudi Arabia says Iran behind Houthi missile attack on airport

Khalifa Haftar’s armed groups militarise oil terminals, NOC warns of destruction of oil infrastructure

Shutting up shop: Libyan conflict squeezes southern Tunisia

Islamist insurgents overrun Nigerian army base in northeast: security sources

Mali attack: At least 95 killed in ethnic Dogon village

Sudan rebel leader ‘deported’ as military steps up street patrols

Between paradox and panacea: legalizing exploitation of natural resources by armed groups in the fight against conflict resources

June 18, 2019

Daniëlla Dam-de Jong is an Associate professor of public international law at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University. The current contribution builds on earlier work.

Tin ore from mine held by armed group and tin ore from non-conflict mine © Sasha Lezhnev

Natural resources have financed numerous armed conflicts in the past decades. In response, several initiatives have been developed to stop the trade in these so-called ‘conflict resources’, focusing predominantly on one particular actor: armed groups. As these initiatives are tailored to respond to particular threats to international peace and security, the question of the (il)legality under international law of natural resource exploitation by armed groups remains unanswered. This contribution inquires whether there are circumstances in which international law provides a right for armed groups to exploit natural resources. It concludes that current international law does not provide an explicit legal basis for such a right.  Nevertheless, a case can be made for assuming the existence of a right for armed groups to exploit natural resources when two cumulative conditions are met: the group exercises effective control over territory and exploitation must be strictly for humanitarian purposes. The contribution proposes to apply the principle of usufruct from occupation law to these situations, as it strikes a balance between the rights of the sovereign State and the responsibilities of the de facto authorities in the areas under their control.      

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Collection of bodies in Mosul: An act of revenge, humanity – or both?

June 11, 2019

This blog post is cross-posted on the blog of Utrecht Law School’s Montaigne Centre. This is a research centre that focuses on the rule of law and administration of justice.

Last week, I listened to a podcast in NPR’s Rough Translation series that was on collecting the dead in Mosul, Iraq in 2018. The podcast is about Sroor Al-Hosayni, a 23 year old Iraqi woman who heads a team of volunteers who removed dead bodies from the rubble of Mosul, eight months after the city was liberated from its occupation by the Islamic State (IS/ISIS). Fascinated, I did more digging on the internet and found that Sroor’s work as a ‘body-collector’ has also been covered by the BBC and VICE news. In this post, I use these sources to recount the main parts of Sroor’s role as a ‘body collector’ and show how her story brings to light a set of rules in the international humanitarian law (IHL) framework on ‘the collection of the dead’ that rarely get any attention in academic writings.

In particular, Sroor’s story vividly illustrates the necessity of the rule in IHL that parties to an armed conflict should search for and collect the bodies of the dead ‘without distinction’ i.e. without taking account of their affiliation. The fact that Sroor gets into trouble with the authorities for collecting IS bodies evidences wider trends of counter terrorism legislation impeding humanitarian action. Sroor’s story also illustrates the danger that the unsupervised removal of bodies may not only pose a health and security risk, but may also interfere with the gathering of forensic evidence needed for the prosecution of war crimes.

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News Roundup 27th May – 2nd June

June 3, 2019

Satellite images show crops on fire in Syria rebel enclave

Female Isis captives reveals role in helping CIA hunt for Baghdadi

Children of IS fighters held in “Secret Detention Facilities”

France returns seven nationals who joined Isis to Iraq, where the verdict comes quick

UN says Afghan captives held by Taliban subjected to abuse

In Palestine and beyond, tear gas takes environmental toll

Egypt using militias in Sinai to help carry out human rights abuses – HRW

Al-Shabaab in Kenya: Cross-border attacks and recruitment

Analysis: Islamic State claims in the DRC

DR Congo forces kill 26 rebels in Ebola zone near Beni