By John Ismay
With four massive truck bombs, Al-Qaeda tried to finish the Yezidis once and for all.
The Yezidis, long a persecuted minority in Kurdish Iraq and Turkey, have endured millennia of attacks, massacres, and exclusion from the people living around them, but all of that paled in comparison to what happened to the villages of Jazeera and Kahtaniya on August 7, 2007.
On that day, two towns were murdered. And the world paid little attention.
Suicide bombings were a daily, almost hourly, occurrence in Iraq then. The American occupying forces could do little to stem the tide of ethnic violence. Tribe fought tribe, and sect fought sect. And everyone, it seemed, fought the Americans.
While the conventional narrative of Sunni versus Shia warfare was well established, it papered over the “lesser” fights. People like the Yezidis were invisible in the media landscape, and nowhere was this more clear than when 400 of them were killed that August day in northern Iraq.
After the single biggest terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, hardly anyone came to aid the victims. The Iraqi government made a token effort to assist the hundreds left wounded, maimed, and homeless. Few journalists covered the event, and still fewer bothered to travel to see the aftermath in person.
How is it that a entire people can be wiped out in a day, and the world looks the other way?
In decades past, the U.S. government had been slow to respond to genocide, sometimes wringing its institutional hands as no good options for stopping the killing presented itself. This was the case in Rwanda and Cambodia’s killing fields.
So in 2007, the Yezidi massacre presented the United States Army with a choice: Would it stand aside again and let an entire people be exterminated?
The answer to that question is complicated at best, and shrouded still in the continuing official secrecy of the U.S. government.
What is clear is that the U.S. Army dithered at first, with commanders choosing to see this as an “Iraqi problem” and not theirs. Convoys of Humvees loaded with bottled water and medics eventually made their way from bases near Mosul, winding along highways heavily pitted with blast craters from the nonstop cavalcade of roadside bombs, and along the Syrian border to the remote villages of Jazeera and Kahtaniya.
When they arrived, they found two towns that had been flattened.
Three craters the size of Olympic diving pools were all that remained of the attackers. As they intended, their bodies had vaporized in a flash of intense heat and light as ten thousand pounds of homemade explosives detonated in the bed of each truck.
Each explosion created a blast wave more powerful than any weapon that a military jet can carry short of a nuclear weapon. It’s the closest mankind can come to recreating a destructive force of nature, equivalent to an earthquake or tornado, without atomic energy.
But neither a seismic tremor nor a twister would leave behind the devastation wrought upon those two Yezidi towns.
The photos taken afterwards show nothing but rubble and lakes of blood. The bombs had shattered the low buildings and homes and businesses there, their mud walls simply crushed to dust under the blast wave’s assault.
Entire families, sometimes three and four generations together, disappeared in that flash of light. Their bodies were crushed by pressure as intense as that found on the bottom of the ocean.
And yet, as weak as the Americans’ response was in the immediate aftermath, they decided that there was a blood price to be paid. There would be retribution.
When NPR correspondent Ivan Watson entered the village of Tel Azer in October 2007, more than a month had passed since four suicide bombers decimated the Yezidi community in northern Iraq.
To cover the attacks, Watson travelled from his home in Istanbul and linked up with Kurdish government officials near Kirkuk. He would travel with peshmerga fighters along the border with Syria to reach the remote villages near Sinjar. Ivan and his guards were nervous – knowing the roads they drove were a major thoroughfare for Sunni jihadists crossing the porous Syrian border to join the thriving insurgency.
A combination of the Kurdish words pesh (meaning “in front of”) and marg (meaning “death”), peshmerga is alternately translated as “those who stand in front of death” and “those who confront death.” And that day, both Ivan and his Kurdish guards faced death if ambushed by insurgents.
But to Ivan Watson, it was worth the risk to cover what is now established one of the deadliest terrorist acts of the past several decades. It was an attack perpetrated against a long-persecuted and nearly invisible religious and ethnic Kurdish minority called the Yezidis.
The three nearly simultaneous detonations, along with the fourth planned blast, strongly suggested the involvement of Al Qaeda, which has made geographically separated and coordinated bombings a hallmark of its terror campaigns, as seen in New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001 and in the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Three truck bombs killed at least 400 and possibly more than 750 Yezidis that day in August. Among the victims, scores were crushed to death as blast waves shattered dwellings. The bombs left craters 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep, leading American bomb squad technicians who responded days after the attack to estimate that each truck contained 10,000 pounds of explosives.
The U.S. military named Abu Mohammad al-Afri, who appears in no jihadi website or literature, as the mastermind behind the attack, and launched an airstrike that killed him near Mosul on or about September 8, 2007.
Secrecy surrounds the entire incident, from the first suicide bomb blast to the attack on Al-Afri. And what prompted the attack on the Yezidis is still unknown. The U.S. military, which at the time had tens of thousands of soldiers in northern Iraq, was slow to respond and aid the survivors, barely acknowledging the attacks in public.
Finding information from the U.S. military has been hampered by the systematic dismantling of its databases containing records of the Iraq War. Much data on these types of attacks was contained on classified websites that each unit established when it arrived in Iraq, and when they returned to the states, the websites and the records they contained vanished.
What follows is the best we can reconstruct of a brutal act of religious hatred, mass murder, government ineptitude, and the story of a people who struggle to eke out a livelihood while surrounded by potential assassins.
It’s their belief in a peacock deity called Melek Taus that has doomed the Yezidis to centuries of attacks. That, and their steadfast refusal to convert to Islam.
It’s difficult to establish just how many Yezidis are alive today. Some estimates put the figure close to 100,000 – living primarily in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
The angel Melek Taus, who Yezidis believe is the foremost of seven angels created by a supreme deity to guard the Earth, is also called Shaytan. Unfortunately for the Yezidis, this is the Arabic word for Satan.
According to many of their Muslim neighbors, the Yezidis are heretics. Even worse, they mistakenly believe the Yezidis are devil worshippers, based on Melek Taus’ other name. The former is bad enough for many hardline Muslim fundamentalists, but the latter is unforgiveable and makes the Yezidis legitimate targets for murder under certain interpretations of sharia law.
Many mainline Sunni Muslims hate the Yezidis. Same with many mainstream Shia. The Kurds tolerate the Yezidis who live among them. And the Iraqi government largely ignores them.
Tracing their roots back millennia before the Prophet Mohammed, the Yezidis believe that they are the world’s oldest organized religion. They are an insular people, and do not permit marriage outside their community. Their sacred texts are not shown to outsiders, and this lack of interaction and transparency has fueled suspicion and hatred among their neighbors.
On August 6 2007, some of these neighbors loaded four dump trucks full of homemade explosives and drove to the villages of Kahtaniya and Jazeera.
In Kahtaniya, the first truck detonated in a marketplace. When villagers flocked to respond, and the area was thick with civilians, a second attacker drove his truck into the masses and detonated his payload of explosives – killing first responders, a hallmark of Al-Qaeda tactics.
The U.S. government fingered Al-Qaeda as the culprit, and the evidence appears to support that claim, but the Americans have yet to release any intelligence reports related to the massacre or its aftermath.
Nearly simultaneously, a similar truck loaded with five tons of explosives detonated in Jazeera, killing scores of villagers. According to news accounts of the day, a second suicide attacker was shot dead by Iraqi security forces before he could detonate his explosive charge in the heart of Jazeera.
Photos from the day show some concrete-walled buildings partially standing, but those built from the comparatively fragile adobe-like mixture were destroyed for many blocks all around.
An explosion is a chemical reaction wherein the detonable material burns faster than the speed of sound, turning a solid into a gas nearly instantaneously. This massive release of energy produces intense heat, but the really devastating effects come from the blast wave – a wall of air being pushed at speeds that can exceed 24,000 feet per second.
Even when standing well away from an explosion, you can see the flash before the bomb’s roar and blast hit you. But in Jazeera and Kahtaniya, the victims were near enough that the explosions that the two events appeared simultaneously. If you’re too close, that blast of air will assault every part of your body. Every air-filled space and void inside you will be affected. Lungs are flattened and may rupture. Sinuses get hammered, causing eardrums to tear. The brain is thrown violently against the skull. A beating heart can be stopped.
If far enough away, these effects can be temporary and a person may recover. But often times they are fatal, as was the case in Jazeera and Kahtaniya.
These blast waves can reflect and bounce, just like sound waves.
Standing behind an earthen wall can sometimes save you, as could laying in a trench – if the waves flow over and around you. But standing in full sight of the bomb with nothing to shield you is a recipe for death.
When the truck bombs exploded in those two towns, the massive release of energy raced outward. And then, since nature abhors a vacuum, air raced back to fill the void created by the bombs. This whipsawing action caused the mud-walled buildings in its path to heave, sway, and fall.
Before long, word of the attack reached the regional headquarters for U.S. forces in the northern sector of Iraq. At the large American base near Tikrit called Contingency Operating Base Speicher, a report came in that there had been a series of massive explosions in a remote area near Syria.
The report arrived in the form of an instant chat message on an encrypted computer network. Pronounced “Sydney,” this Combined Information Network Data Exchange connected American military units all over Iraq, and the initial report was announced by a young Army captain over a microphone to the hundred or so soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were standing watch in 25th Infantry Division’s watch center.
The U.S. Army unit responsible for the region containing Jazeera and Kahtaniya was the Third Brigade of the 1st Calvary Division, called “Three One” for short.
“3/1 reports multiple explosions in the villages of Jazeera and Kahtaniya. Suspected truck bombing. Massivecasualties expected. No Americans killed or wounded,” announced the officer.
The operations center was led by the “battle watch captain” – an Army major who had spent his career flying attack and reconnaissance helicopters. He looked at the 3/1 liaison officer, and then to the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer nearby.
They didn’t need to say anything aloud to each other by this point. After months of working together, the major knew the EOD technician would do what needed to be done without being asked.
The EOD officer made his way over to the captain, and asked for more information. He wanted to know what was being done, and how soon an EOD team would be sent to conduct an investigation on the truck bombs.
Insurgent bombings had become so devastating and frequent that the Americans had long since established a robust program to deconstruct these “improvised explosive devices” and reverse engineer them. The better EOD knew how the enemy was building their bombs, the better they’d know how to defuze them.
Evidence and remnants of these types of bombs were handled the way police handle a crime scene. Photos were taken, measurements were made, latex gloves were donned before picking up anything of interest, and the remnants were deposited into mylar plastic bags before being shipping back to Baghdad for analysis.
EOD teams were often able to pick up DNA evidence and fingerprints of the bomb makers and attackers. This information often led to special-forces missions in which American commandos in helicopters dropped from the sky at night rushed into houses to capture or kill those responsible for the bombings.
It was an endless cycle of violence and retribution.
The EOD technician stood before the army captain and expected to hear that 3/1 was rolling columns of soldiers to respond, along with an EOD team that would be able to figure out exactly what happened.
But instead the captain looked at him blankly, shrugged his shoulders and said:
“No Americans were killed. So how is this our problem?”
The EOD officer’s eyes bulged in bewilderment, not sure of what he just heard. Surely there must be some misunderstanding, he thought.
“You’re kidding me,” the EOD tech said. “You gotta be fucking shitting me. We got hundreds dead from a bunch of truck bombs, and 3/1 isn’t gonna do a fucking thing?” he asked.
“You gotta send a team,” he insisted. “We need to know what happened.”
The young bomb officer had become numb to the everyday violence during his tour in Iraq. The usual toll on American forces in the area was three killed and one wounded from IEDs every day. On bad days, when an armored personnel carrier was destroyed, they might lose ten killed.
But nothing compared to this.
Not even close.
The stunned EOD tech thought to himself, “Is this the new normal? Is this going to happen every day now? Or every week?”
He called back to his battalion’s ops center on base and briefed his commanding officer. They knew the Army had to respond. The commander gave the lieutenant permission to go over the 3/1 captain’s head and straight to the man who could force the 3/1 battalion commander’s hand: Colonel Garry Patton, 25th Infantry Division’s chief of staff.
The lieutenant waited until the next “commanders’ update brief” hours later, when he’d be in the same room as Col. Patton. The discussion was short and to the point. Col. Patton listened carefully, then turned and gave 3/1 a direct order.
Outside Mosul, at Forward Operation Base Marez, diesel engines rumbled to life, soldiers from 3/1 donned Kevlar body armor and loaded their weapons.
They passed through the gates, and sped towards the Yezidi massacre.