ISIS, whom Obama seems to say that we cannot easily defeat, and we remember when it conquered Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in June 2014, they used social media to post the grisly videos and photos documenting the capture and execution of hundreds (it is estimated by some to be 1,200) of mainly Shiite military recruits. Now photos of the bloody massacre can be viewed from out of space. Before reviewing the photos, perhaps one can reflect at how bloody this was and why we should ask President Obama regarding the mess he caused in Iraq:
On Wednesday, more than a year after the massacres, the central criminal court in Baghdad sentenced 24 accused militants to death by hanging for their alleged complicity in the executions.
Although the actual number of dead remains disputed, the killings of the recruits over the course of a few days in mid-June were so brutal that the bloodstains left behind could literally be seen from outer space as satellites deployed by Human Rights Watch were able to photograph them from the sky.
Using a combination of Islamic State photos that surfaced on social media that month, survivor testimonies, and satellite images, Human Rights Watch was able to assemble detailed reports of the atrocities.
The organization acquired a 2013 aerial view photo of Tikrit from a satellite image company and compared it with a similar photo taken shortly after the massacre to determine the locations of two trenches where victims were likely executed. Although the satellite was unable to locate any piles of bodies, analysis of the images suggested the corpses were likely either covered with dirt or dumped into the Tigris River, which is less than 100 meters from this site.
Using photos the Islamic State posted on social media, Human Rights Watch was able to make a headcount estimate that 90 to 110 men were killed in the first trench and 35 to 40 in the second. They also used landmarks from previous images of Tikrit to determine the location of these two trenches as not far from one of Saddam’s lavish palaces.
Last September, the organization published another report on Tikrit, featuring interviews with a survivor and additional video and satellite imagery analysis. The intensified investigation confirmed three additional execution sites, tripling the estimated death toll to between 560 and 770 men.
Two of the execution sites were verified by satellite imagery, and a third was identified by a survivor but had to be approximated.
The largest of the three is a concrete slab within Tikrit’s presidential palace compound, where an estimated 250 to 400 men were executed on June 12 or 13. Satellite imagery, taken on June 16, was unable to locate bodies at the site, likely because they had already been moved to a mass grave. But the pile of dead remained on the slab long enough to leave behind what Human Rights Watch believes are blood stains on the concrete. Adjacent to the slab is evidence of raised earth, which would imply the bodies were indeed dumped into a mass grave.
The complications of documenting these attacks are nothing new to the organization or other human rights groups attempting to shed light on atrocities taking place in locations too dangerous to visit. In January, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International used satellites to better understand massacres committed by Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria. In 2012, Human Rights Watch used them to document the mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Satellite imagery is now used widely enough to act as evidence in court cases, which could come in handy if Islamic State attacks are ever brought to an international court.
As for Wednesday’s verdict, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Christoph Wilcke is concerned the hasty process will delegitimize justice for survivors of the attack.
“For a massacre of this scale, you need to make doubly sure that the accused have all necessary representation,” Wilcke told Foreign Policy. “This cannot have been a fair trial.”
The U.N. has found evidence that could in some cases make the Islamic State guilty of genocide, but until these crimes are taken to a reliable tribunal, those thought to be complicit will be dealing with Iraq’s shady justice system — where the accused in this case were reportedly blindfolded and handcuffed before being sentenced to death.