Syria, Islamic State: Militant group losing ground, images show shocking aftermath

Two feet deep, below a plot of farmland outside the Syrian city of Raqa, lies a large and deadly legacy of the Islamic State group: a mass grave holding an estimated 3500 people.

First responders learned of the burial site in the al-Fukheikha agricultural suburb last month, more than a year after US-backed forces captured Raqa from IS and as they closed in on the group’s final rout of Baghouz further south.

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media_cameraThe deadliest legacy of the Islamic State group – a massive grave of an estimated 3500 people. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP

The belated discovery is the biggest example yet of how the violence IS sowed during the reign of its “caliphate” will be harvested for years to come, diggers and activists said.

Several dozen mounds of dirt line one side of the al-Fukheikha plot, marking the more than 120 bodies already dug up by the Rapid Response Division of Raqa’s civil defence service.

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media_cameraFirst responders learned of the burial site in the al-Fukheikha agricultural suburb of Raqa, Syria last month. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP

“These are individual graves, but behind us, by the trees, are the mass graves of those executed by Daesh (IS),” said Asaad Mohammad, the 56-year-old forensic assistant at the site.

“There are some 2500-3000 bodies estimated there, plus between 900 and 1100 bodies in the individual graves, so at least 3500 total,” he said.

Eight other mass graves have already been identified around the northern Syrian city, including one nicknamed “Panorama,” from which more than 900 bodies had been exhumed.

“Al-Fukheikha is the largest grave since IS came to Raqa” in 2014, said Mohammad.”/>
media_cameraSome victims had been dead so long there was little left of them. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP


Earlier this week, diggers in flimsy medical masks excavated a small bundle wrapped in greying, damp cloth.

They peeled away the fabric to reveal a decomposing body with a detached blackened jawbone, which Mohammad examined.

“Estimated 35 years. Third-degree burns,” he said.”/>
media_cameraAmong the bodies were 560 that were identifiable and were handed over to their families for a proper burial. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP

Apart from his stoic partial-autopsy, the only sounds to be heard were the grating of hand shovels against the dirt, and the rustle of the wind through the nearby fir trees.

His colleagues carefully placed the bundle in a white tarpaulin body bag onto which Mohammad scrawled the date, location, and a word he has become accustomed to writing: “Unidentified.”

By noon, his team of 10 had dug up eight bodies. Some had been dead so long there was little left of them, and the diggers had to weigh down the body bags with rocks to keep them from flying away in the wind.”/>
media_cameraA military plane with the US-backed coalition against the Islamic State group releases a bomb over the embattled village of Baghouz. Picture: Delil Souleiman/AFP

They logged any identifying details into a ledger and loaded the bodies into a white pick-up to be reburied about 10 kilometres away at a proper cemetery.

It has become a macabre routine, said Mohammad — one he was sure will eventually be played out again in Baghouz, the last speck of IS territory further south.

“The same thing that happened here will have happened there,” he said. “Maybe it’s even worse there, because the fighting is more intense as they’ve got nowhere else to go.””/>
media_cameraIn a foreboding sign on Thursday, the IS claimed responsibility for back-to-back suicide attacks. Picture: AP/Felipe Dana


Since the Raqa division began its work in January 2018, it has exhumed more than 3800 bodies, said the force’s supervisor Turki al-Ali.

Among them are 560 that were identifiable and were handed over to their families for a proper burial, he told AFP.

The site at al-Fukheikha could help identify even more of the several thousand people whose fates remain unknown, including foreigners imprisoned by IS.

“We’ve heard accounts from residents of al-Fukheikha that they would see people gathering with someone in an orange suit,” said Ali, referring to the garb in which IS would typically dress its executed captives.”/>
media_cameraNearly 20,000 people travelled through a humanitarian corridor on foot from the IS holdout of Baghouz earlier this month. Picture: Fadel Senna/AFP

US journalist James Foley was wearing such a suit when he was killed, and analysts believe footage of his death indicates he may have been killed around Raqa.

Another American captive, Kayla Mueller, is thought to have died near Raqa as well. Their bodies have never been recovered.

“These mass graves hold the answers to the fate of people who had been executed by IS fighters, who died in coalition air strikes, or who have been missing,” said Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch.”/>
media_cameraSome say the fight against IS is far from over. Picture AFP

Even as the battle against IS as a territorial force comes to an end, she said, there was much more to be done.

“No matter how much we try to deny it, the work against ISIS is by no means over. It’s likely the hard work is just starting.”


US President Donald Trump in recent weeks said Islamic State’s defeat is imminent.

His proclamation was echoed by a chief commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who said: “We will very soon bring good news to the whole world”.

But many believe the IS threat won’t end with the pocket’s recapture and that an insurgency is underway.

media_cameraUS President Donald Trump expects the battle against the militant group to be over shortly. Picture: Jim Watson/AFP

In a foreboding sign on Thursday, the IS claimed responsibility for back-to-back suicide attacks that hit a village kilometres away, leaving more than a dozen people dead.

A few hundred people – many of them women and terrified-looking children – were evacuated on Wednesday from the group’s tiny tent camp on the banks of the Euphrates River, signalling an imminent end to the territorial rule of the militants’ self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across a third of both Syria and Iraq.”/>
media_cameraThe Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces overran Raqa in 2017, after years of what residents described as IS’s brutal rule, which included public beheading and crucifixions. Picture: Fadel Senna

Some 300 IS militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent camp in the village of Baghouz.

It wasn’t clear how many civilians remain holed up inside, along with the militants.

Nearly 20,000 people left through a humanitarian corridor on foot from the IS holdout earlier this month but the militants closed the passage and no civilians left for a week until Wednesday.

Originally published as Islamic State’s horrific brutality exposed

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