With Baghdadi dead, Syrian families urge the US not to forget its obligations to their loved ones abducted by ISIS


The discovery and subsequent killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US special forces has been heralded as a major blow to the so-called Islamic State, and a way for the U.S. to partially make amends for its withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive. But for thousands of families whose loved ones were abducted, held or killed by ISIS, Baghdadi’s death does not bring them any closer to answers about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.


Since 2014, up to 8,000 Syrians have disappeared after being taken by the group. As the Syrian Democratic Forces began to rout the militants from their stronghold in northeastern Syria, civilians and soldiers started to uncover mass graves, which were exhumed by local investigators.


Now, with differing factions vying for control of northeast Syria, the Assad regime gaining more ground, and with the US seemingly unwilling to abide by its commitments to the country, families fear that their missing loved ones may never be found nor identified. 


“One of the biggest points of concern about the missing people in northeast Syria is that it’s unclear who’s going to control the sites of the mass graves and who’s going to control the captured ISIS fighters,” says Mohammad Abdallah, Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC). “Both the sites of other mass graves and new information could come from these prisoners. Former ISIS fighters could provide a good foundation to the journey of searching for [families’ missing] loved ones.”


The chaos resulting from the US’ withdrawal from northeast Syria has already resulted in ISIS militants fleeing prisons in the area, potentially costing families valuable information. Neither Turkey nor the Assad regime, the two forces trying to control the northeast, have been involved in the exhumation of mass graves nor attempts to identify the victims of ISIS.


“Trump said vital evidence was collected from the location where Baghdadi was hiding. We as families need to know if there is anything that relates to the fate of our loved ones,” says Ensaf Nasr, a member of the detainee rights group, the Families for Freedom, whose husband was abducted by ISIS. “I am deeply worried that we have been abandoned to find answers by ourselves but we need the forensic expertise to find our family members and gather the evidence to bring ISIS fighters to justice.”


“A friend called me early in the morning and told me that Baghdadi had been killed,” says Amer Mattar, a Syrian activist whose brother Mohammad Nour Matar was kidnapped by ISIS five years ago. “The worst part was that it felt unjust, in less than four hours, this man had been proven dead with DNA testing; most of us don’t even have hope of a confirmed death for our loved ones.”


“As the US celebrates the death of Baghdadi, it must not forget his victims, who endure unimaginable suffering not knowing what his followers did to their loved ones,” says Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign. “Though we have seen Trump abandon his allies in the northeast, he must not abandon the families of the disappeared by ISIS, and the US must ensure that the mass graves continue to be safely and forensically exhumed and captured ISIS fighters questioned over what happened to the missing. We cannot rely on Turkey, Russia or Assad to carry out this vital process, which is essential to bringing some justice to the Syrian people.”