It’s nearly 2:00 a.m., and we’re with a convoy of elite commandos driving to a small farming village on the outskirts of Fallujah.
They have got intelligence that there’s a former ISIS commander nicknamed Abu Bakr living there with his family, who they know is responsible for previous attacks. They’re hoping to surprise him in the middle of the night, grab him, and get out as quickly as possible.
We pass the last army checkpoint, and the unit is on its own, with no backup, driving in the dark in silence to avoid detection. It’s a prime spot for an ambush. And the target could escape if he’s warned they’re coming.
They breach the house. The women are tied up, the children taken to a separate room. The men are blindfolded and pulled into another room for questioning. They initially mistake one of the men for the target. It’s not him, but his cousin. As they start questioning him, he faints.
We are not allowed to film or watch the interrogation. Abu Bakr is not at the house, but the questioning yielded another location nearby. With no further information, they decide to take the chance that they can get there before the target is alerted, filing through the long wheat in single file to avoid possible booby traps and surround the house.
Shouts of anger, as another family is woken in the middle of the night. This time, they have got him. Abu Bakr, a slight, 20-something man carrying the weight of dozens of deaths, if the evidence is correct, is arrested, blindfolded, and loaded up to be taken back for questioning.
The family are told to stay inside on their knees. They won’t see him again for a long time. We did not witness extreme physical violence or verbal abuse. We did witness harassing questioning, stress positions, and dehumanizing treatment.
Extended and severe use of methods like these can be considered torture under international law. Their work is to protect Iraqis. But with raids like this happening across the country almost nightly, it’s easy to see how some residents feel more threatened than protected. The commanders argue their methods are essential to stop the terrorists regrouping.
While ISIS’ remaining supporters here are mostly on the run or in hiding, the threat they pose is far from over. A double suicide bombing at this busy market in Central Baghdad in January killed dozens of people, injuring over a hundred more. It was a cruel reminder that ISIS is still capable of ripping lives apart, lives like 21-year-old Malak’s.
She lost her husband, Ali, that day. They’d been married for little more than a year. Now Malak has been left to care for their baby daughter, Mawj, who was just a few months old when she lost her doting father. Relatives say she was the light of his young life.
Malak can’t speak to us herself because she’s still in mourning, much longer than the traditional 40 days. Her mother, Wathiqa, says her daughter hasn’t been the same since she lost her childhood sweetheart.