© 2015 The New York Times
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
The Islamic State militants have set up an organized slave trade, transferring ownership through contracts. A Libyan man gave this "Certificate of Emancipation" to a 25-year-old Yazidi woman who had been his slave. He explained that he was planning to carry out a suicide bombing, so he was setting her free.
(Credit: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
NEW YORK — Just outside Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, there is a refugee camp where more than 2,700 Yazidis languish in makeshift tents more than a year after being driven out of northern Iraq by Islamic State fanatics.
I was there recently, chatting with a couple who showed me photos on a mobile phone of a man who was beheaded in their village. "They are slaughterers," said Anter Halef, a proud man stripped of hope. In a corner sat his 16-year-old daughter, crying. I asked her why. "We just ran from the war and …" Feryal murmured. Uncontrollable sobbing swallowed the rest of her sentence. I had seldom seen such undiluted grief etched on a young face. Life had been ripped out of her even before she had begun to live.
The Yazidis, a religious minority viewed by the Islamic State jihadis as devil-worshipers, constitute a small fraction of the 2.2 million refugees who have fled to Turkey from the Syrian war and from the spillover violence in Iraq. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has described the killing of Yazidis as an act of genocide.
Across the wide area of Syria and Iraq that it controls, the Islamic State group enacts its nihilistic death cult drawn from a medievalist reading of the Koran. They slit throats at public executions, butcher "infidel" communities like the Yazidis en masse and turn women and children into sex slaves as they build a self-styled caliphate based on oil revenue, absolutist zealotry and digital slickness.
From time to time the group exports the terror it finances with oil revenues from its sprawling fiefdom. The downing of a Russian passenger jet with 224 people on board and the random slaughter in Paris of 130 people enjoying a Friday night out, and the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, in San Bernardino, California, put an end to the complacent nostrum that the Islamic State was a local threat.
Nobody can switch off the Islamic State blockbuster. Its magnetism is undeniable. The group traffics in movie images whose effect is at once riveting and disturbing. In an environment of growing unease, rightist politicians like Marine Le Pen in France or Donald Trump in the United States find their nationalist messages resonate. It's already clear that the 2016 American election will not be politics as usual. Fear and its other face, belligerence, will be front and center.
How bad that gets may depend on what the Islamic State does next. A whole relativist school has emerged that's inclined to belittle the militants as a small Internet-savvy bunch of thugs, a "J.V. team," as President Obama once called them, whose importance we only magnify if we confront them with the means they themselves use against the West — all-out war, that is.
For this school of thought, massive retaliation is precisely what the jihadis want; it will drive recruitment. Better to exercise the Obama doctrine of restraint. After the Paris killings, Vice President Joe Biden declared: "I say to the American people: There is no existential threat to the United States. Nothing ISIS can do could bring down the government, could threaten the way we live."
Nothing? Try saying that to the people of Brussels, in near lockdown for several days after the Paris attacks. Or the people of San Bernardino, where one perpetrator of the mass shooting, Tashfeen Malik, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
The central question looming over the coming year is whether or not the Islamic State is an existential threat to Western societies, and by extension whether or not it can be allowed a continued hold on the territory it uses to marshal that threat.
Today, the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa, much closer to Europe than the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, is tolerated as a terrorist haven, whereas Al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary was shut down by military force after the attacks on New York and Washington. It is as if the metastasizing jihadi ideology of which the Islamic State is the latest and most potent manifestation has sapped the West's will.
At year's end, for the first time, in some polls, a majority of Americans favored the use of ground forces against the Islamic State — a policy rejected by President Obama, although he called in a speech to the nation after the San Bernardino attacks for Congress to give authorization to the use of military force against the terrorists.
President François Hollande declared after the Paris attacks that France is now at war with the Islamic State and that far greater urgency must be brought to the fight. But he has been a lone voice. So far, the Obama administration prefers to believe that its air-campaign strategy is working and that, post-Iraq, putting military forces on the ground is folly.
I do not see how the Islamic State can be seen as anything other than an existential threat to Western societies. It stands for the destruction of all the Western freedoms — from the ballot box to the bed — that grew out of the Enlightenment and the rejection of religion as the ordering reference of society. It would take humanity back to the Middle Ages and target every apostate for destruction.
The wait-them-out, relativist school has at the very least to clarify why it is confident that the militants will not use the land they hold and the oil revenues they amass to develop weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, or to launch a devastating cyber-attack on the West. It needs to explain why it believes time is on our side.
Freedom is not for everyone. The road to Raqqa is in many ways the road from freedom's burden — from personal choice and its dilemmas to submission to an all-encompassing Islamist ideology. If the free world and potential allies from the region are to fight this magnetism, they must rouse themselves from liberty's consumerist drug.
For evil, unmet, propagates. To allow the Islamic State to consolidate its hold over territory and minds over the coming year is to invite, or at least to accept, an inevitable replay of the Paris or the San Bernardino slaughters. It is to accept that the Syrian debacle will worsen for another year. And that, in turn, will further exacerbate the anxiety and fears on which nationalist, often Islamophobic politicians in Europe and the United States thrive.
At the Yazidi refugee camp, Anter Halef said to me, "We no longer have a life in this world. It's empty." He was broken, but at least, unlike his children, he had lived his life. "ISIS has no religion," he went on. "No sane man would slaughter a child. In one night, they killed 1,800 people."
Since we spoke, Kurdish and Yazidi fighters have retaken the town of Sinjar, the area that the Halef family comes from. The Kurds are investigating a mass grave said to contain the remains of older women that the Islamic State, which had held the area since August 2014, did not want to use as sex slaves.
Perhaps the Halefs will be able to return one day to Sinjar, the scene of these abominations. By my impression was that, for the teenage Feryal Halef at least, there was no road back.
I do not know precisely what had happened to her but she had been destroyed, just as the journalist James Foley had been before he was beheaded in August 2014. I will never forget that young Yazidi woman's eyes, turned into empty vessels. They demanded that humanity rouse itself.