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UNITAD – Key Investigations as UN Mechanism Reaches Its Final Reporting Year

22 January, 2024

by Sam Biden, Research Assistant

The United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) has released several reports detailing its ongoing investigations into crimes committed by ISIL. In 2024, the mandate that grants UNITAD its investigative powers will officially conclude. This article summarizes the key ongoing investigations over the last 2 years of reports.

Crimes Against the Christian Community

UNITAD placed a strategic focus on the destruction of Christian cultural and religious heritage, emphasizing attacks on protected objects in Hamdaniyah, Karamlays and Bartalah. Investigations into sexual violence and enslavement remained at the forefront, with persistent outreach efforts and collaboration with local religious leaders serving as catalysts for empowering survivors to share their harrowing accounts, developing field  missions to the most affected areas to obtain crucial first hand evidence. UNITAD utilized internal ISIL records and seized documentary holdings that proved instrumental in developing initial case files and identifying priority persons of interest, especially those who can be reasonably accused of committing war crimes.

UNITAD expanded its evidence base through a multifaceted approach, including the collection and review of digital and documentary evidence, face-to-face interviews and strategic field missions across priority locations such as Hamdaniyah, Bartalah, Karamlays and Mosul. The expansion of information obtained from field missions played a pivotal role in fostering connections with local communities and religious leaders, enhancing outreach and cooperation as planned for in their 7th report. The evidence amassed during this time reinforced preliminary findings, illustrating that ISIL orchestrated crimes against humanity and war crimes, including forcible transfer, sexual violence, slavery and the intentional destruction of cultural heritage on a widespread scale. These field missions continue to allow UNITAD to collect crucial yet personal firsthand information from those most affected by the actions of ISIL. The identification of ISIL leaders directly involved in the assault and takeover of Christian towns in the Nineveh plains, with a focused lens on Hamdaniyah, Karamlays and Bartalah, remained a key focus for UNITAD. The Investigatory scope was broadened further to include crimes committed in Mosul following ISIL’s takeover.

UNITAD continues to underscore their investigative team’s commitment to field investigations, in particular, missions to Hamdaniyah have aided in revealing crucial information. Hamdaniyah remains a central area for investigation, having been overtaken by ISIL in 2014, 40% of its Christian population has failed to return to the region, in part due to the vast destruction of religious buildings. Noteworthy findings include the identification of key locations such as a health clinic where Christians were forcibly transferred, houses serving as detention centers and the local headquarters of ISIL. Additionally, the team intensified efforts to document the destruction of Christian cultural heritage, encompassing churches, monasteries, manuscripts, symbols and artwork within the area.

UNITAD made substantial progress in collecting and analyzing evidence pertaining to crimes against Iraq’s Christian community. The deepened analysis of ISIL documents, coupled with in-person interviews and screenings has further fortified the case assessment report. UNITAD ensured a greater emphasis was placed on identifying and collecting linkage evidence, with this proving to have been a pivotal step toward holding high and mid-level commanders accountable for their roles in the heinous crimes perpetrated against the Christian community.

Crimes Against the Yazidi Community

The Yazidi people have been the subject of genocide at the hands of ISIL. Thousands were shot, executed, enslaved or died while attempting to flee ISIL in and around Sinjar, with the intent to destroy the group both physically and biologically. Much of these heinous acts took place at the Tikrit Air Academy (formerly Camp Speicher) in 2014 when 1,500 Iraqi Shi’a Air Force cadets were killed by ISIL in a targeted hate attack.

After the initial investigations into genocidal crimes against the Yazidi people, UNITAD expanded its lists of alleged perpetrators, reaching a total of 2,286 individuals, including 188 foreign fighters, all allegedly responsible for war crimes. In-depth case files have been developed for 31 persons of interest which span far from the native territory of the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq into third states. Recognizing the transnational nature of the crimes, UNITAD collaborated with Iraqi authorities to build cases against individual perpetrators residing in third states by training the Iraqi authorities to gather open-source intelligence to aid in connecting those residing outside of Iraqi territory with crimes committed in Iraq.

Internal investigations extended across Northern Iraq to locations such as Tal Afar, Kuju, Solagh, Qani and Hamadan, ending with UNITAD discovering their first set of mass graves. UNITAD extended its lines of inquiry to investigate crimes in and around Tal Afar through the establishment of a dedicated task force, aiming to delve into the ISIL leadership and hierarchical structure in Tal Afar. The upcoming excavation of Bir Alu Antar sinkhole is anticipated to provide crucial forensic evidence, potentially recovering the remains of at least 400 to 500 Yazidi men reportedly killed in 2015, adding yet another mass grave to the rapidly expanding list. With these discoveries, UNITAD expanded their on-field investigations to gather forensic and testimonial evidence as to the nature of these mass graves. UNITAD emphasized more detailed investigations into other regions, particularly in the villages of Hamadan and Qani, where further mass graves were found.

Development and Use of Biological and Chemical Weapons

The use and development of biological and chemical weapons by ISIL, including their deployment as a means of spreading terror, has been a major focal point for UNITAD. The 2016 attack against Tazah Khurmatu and ISIL’s takeover of the University of Mosul in 2014 were two key events that heightened the focus in this line of investigation. In total, 3,000 potential victims and witnesses were identified as a result of these events. In particular, the attack on Tazah Khurmatu resulted in serious injuries and loss of life, totaling 6,000 cases of injuries from the attack, with additional long-term repercussions for health and the environment. The team’s analysis of internal ISIL documents supported the identification of key organizational structures and specific members involved in the attacks. The takeover of Mosul University revealed the systematic research, development and production of mustard and other weaponized substances.

UNITAD uncovered significant insights into ISIL’s chemical and biological weapons program in 2021. Evidentiary analysis focused on the identification of suspects and revealing internal ISIL directives aimed at regulating and incentivizing the use of chemical weapons. ISIL’s misappropriation of infrastructure, including the use of the University of Mosul during its takeover for weapons development was exposed. UNITAD shed light on the sophisticated system of internal control and production methods and the range of agents developed. Evidence suggests that ISIL focused on developing a broad range of chemical and biological weapons. Notably, mustard gas, a chemical agent that causes a wide array of serious physical ailments as well as weapons containing clostridium botulinum, a biological agent with lethal levels of toxins that can cause total respiratory and muscular failure, were both under development by ISIL.

With news of these developments taking place at the University of Mosul, UNITAD details the acceleration of investigations into the development and use of chemical and biological weapons by ISIL in follow up reports. UNITAD employed a more hands-on approach that included attending incident sites, engaging with affected communities and Iraqi authorities and preserving substantial volumes of testimonial, digital and documentary evidence as to the development, production and deployment of these weapons by ISIL. New lines were sought to help identify ISIL’s financial, procurement and logistical arrangements for the development and production of these weapons. A heightened focus was placed on identifying additional suspected manufacturing sites and additional chemical/biological agents used in weaponry. The attack on Tazah Khurmatu in 2016 remained the key focal point, leading to efforts to detect potential chemical weapons and identify persons of interest involved in the attack.

2023 marked a significant stride in the relentless pursuit of accountability for ISIL’s chemical and biological weapons program. The investigation during this reporting period yielded substantial evidence from earlier inquiries strategies regarding the production and delivery of the weapons themselves. These key lines of inquiry harnessed new collaborations with technical experts, including those from the Mine Action Service, provided essential insights into a wide array of attacks. UNITADs work extended to collecting and preserving evidence linked to 12 attacks yet continued to focus on gathering further evidence from the 2016 attack on Tazah Khurmatu. This ultimately led to the collection of new battlefield evidence and files, shedding light on ISIL’s operations in Kirkuk and implicating specific persons of interest. A comprehensive report focused on the 2016 attack on Tazah Khurmatu was shared with the Iraqi judiciary, encapsulating critical findings from the ongoing investigation.

Destruction of Cultural Heritage

UNITAD is committed to unveiling the extent of destruction wrought upon Iraqi cultural heritage sites by ISIL. A concentrated effort has been made in investigating 29 new priority sites in the Ninawa and Mosul areas in 2023, with additional sites identified through preliminary investigations. In total, UNITAD conducted a preliminary analysis of 144 sites damaged by ISIL in key areas, revealing critical insights into the pace and main patterns of destruction between 2014 and 2017. Additionally, UNITAD identified numerous Yazidi sites, over 90 Christian churches and places of worship in Tikrit severely damaged or destroyed by ISIL. Preliminary analyses were conducted on the destruction of the Prophet Jonah’s Tomb and the Mosul Museum, demonstrating the widespread and intentional targeting of religious and cultural sites. Notably, propaganda campaigns often run alongside this cultural destruction as a means of furthering their ideology, especially regarding ISIL’s anathematizing view of the West’s tendency to construct cultural heritage sites.

To enhance its investigation, UNITAD has engaged with UNESCO and non-UN entities, along with Iraqi authorities involved in preserving and restoring cultural heritage. This wider collaboration has allowed UNITAD to bolster their investigation with newer investigative techniques. The utilization of satellite imagery to map and analyze various cultural heritage sites alongside the United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) was one of two major efforts to identify the sites that have been attacked. Additionally, the use of this imagery helps support the identification of destruction methods and the timeline of ISIL’s cultural heritage destruction far more accurately. Field-based investigations encapsulated the much-needed firsthand testimonial and documentary evidence, including ISIL videos related to specific attacks and witness testimony. In tandem, UNITAD becomes capable of constructing accurate timelines and attack methods by ISIL, including the identification of individual perpetrators. The need to identify individual perpetrators has led to detailed analysis of ISIL’s structural organization and leadership. UNITAD ultimately aims to identify key leaders, their subordinates, roles and connections with a preliminary case assessment planned for their final reports this year.

Other Ongoing Investigations

UNITAD has amassed substantial evidence related to forced displacement, killings, enforced disappearances, starvation, destruction of cultural heritage and the use of prohibited weapons against various other communities in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, attacks against the Kaka’i, Shabak and Shia people remain prominent, resulting in field missions across Kirkuk and Ninawa governorates to facilitate engagement with communities, religious leaders and victims in the same format as investigations into attacks on both the Yazidi and Christian communities. A preliminary assessment has also been made regarding crimes against the Sunni Muslim community. UNITAD focused on incidents such as the 2016 execution of 15 Albu Nimr tribe members in the Tharthar desert and further execution of 46 tribesmen in Bakr 2 years prior. Furthermore, executions and the destruction of Sunni cultural property occurred within Anbar governorate, with further allegations of torture against the Sunni people.

Both Tikrit and Mosul remained critical areas of investigation with UNITAD continuing its investigation into the mass killing of military cadets and crimes committed by ISIL in Tikrit. In particular, the Tikrit Air Academy massacre mentioned prior as well as investigations into crimes perpetrated against the Iraqi police and security forces in Mosul by ISIL remain high priorities for investigation. Ongoing investigations aim to consolidate an updated case assessment report with expanded investigations into crimes committed in and around Mosul, initially focusing on the mass execution of 1,000 Shia detainees in Badush prison by ISIL in 2014.

Gender-based violence (GBV) and crimes against children have both been key areas of investigation since the inception of UNITAD. UNITAD delves into the capture and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women and girls by ISIL. Notably, the focus has shifted towards gathering evidence against individual ISIL fighters, marking a strategic move in building cases against those responsible for these heinous acts. Additionally, new leads in the investigation of sexual and GBV against Shia girls and the use of forced marriages and recruitment of boys as child soldiers have been made. Disturbingly, evidence suggests the adoption of Shia Turkmen children by ISIL families, including newborns up to seven years old, for use as child soldiers or enslavement have been on the rise. Despite the sensitive nature of these crimes, cultural challenges and underreporting, UNITAD has identified potential witnesses through collaborations with local civil society organizations.


As UNITAD approaches the conclusion of its mandate in 2024, the depth and breadth of its investigations into ISIL’s crimes are evident. The relentless pursuit of justice is clear across key areas. Their previous reports highlight UNITAD’s commitment to unearthing the truth through heightened communal and stakeholder engagement aimed at collecting all potential evidence of ISIL’s crimes. The investigation’s evolution from strategic focuses to hands-on approaches, from initial reports to comprehensive findings, signifies UNITAD’s dedication to accountability.

Image: Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar in August 2014 (Source: UK Department for International Development Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee via CC BY 2.0 DEED

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.