Earlier this month, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham posted a series of grisly photos purportedly documenting the execution of Iraqi soldiers. Those images, reportedly taken in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, show a group of militants herding their captives toward a ditch to be executed. The militants seem to execute about 150 men but ISIS claimed they killed as many as 1,700 Iraqi soldiers.
Now, in an incredible piece of detective work, Human Rights Watch has, in part, verified the heinous claims. In a report released Friday, Human Rights Watch pinpointed the exact location in which the images were taken. Corresponding satellite images show ground disturbance that apparently matches what the area would look like if mass graves had been dug and heavy vehicles -- as seen in images posted by ISIS -- had been driven there there.
Human Rights Watch determined that the photographs were taken a stone's throw from the Tigris River and a former Hussein palace. The group's analysis picks out individual captives and militants who appear across the photographs, seemingly bolstering the photos' authenticity. The analysis suggests that between 160 and 190 men were killed between June 11 and June 14, though the actual death toll from ISIS executions in Tikrit could be significantly higher. The slides documenting the analysis are reproduced at the bottom of this post.
"If ISIS is serious about executing 1,700 people in Tikrit, then it would be the largest single killing of people in Iraq since 2003," Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy.
The analysis by the execution site in Tikrit marks a major step forward in the use of social media and satellite imagery to authenticate atrocities. According Bouckaert, his group's analysis of the Tikrit events is the first time Human Rights Watch has used such techniques to not just locate killings but determine where the bodies may be buried. The group did similar work in Sri Lanka in 2009 when the army defeated the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group. Although that work showed the use of artillery to target civilians, the Tikrit analysis is unprecedented in its identification of a large execution site.
In the history of documenting mass atrocities, that's an incredible thing. "At the time of Srebrenica, satellite imagery was not available to nongovernmental organizations so obviously we didn't have the capacity to do this kind of work," Bouckaert said, referring to the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now, massacre sites can be identified within hours. Two weeks later, exact geographic coordinates can be determined.
When Hussein brutally put down a Shiite uprising in 1991, human rights advocates, including Bouckaert, couldn't investigate the incident until after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Chillingly, Bouckaert says ISIS executed its prisoners in much the same manner Baathist troops executed Shiites in the early 1990s. "We haven't seen a single execution using this modus operandi in Syria," Bouckaert said. "We have to remember that the fighting in Iraq also involves Baathists who were involved in 1991."
The full Human Rights Watch analysis of events in Tikrit is here: