How ISIS uses human shields in fighting coalition forces

By Hollie McKay

Published July 11, 2017

It’s the stuff of horror movies.

While ISIS has almost entirely been decimated in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic group still controls other pockets of the country and swaths of neighboring Syria – including its self-styled capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. The terrorist group has increasingly resorted to using civilians as human shields – making the battles all the more challenging and frustrating and ultimately leading to more deaths within the ranks of Iraqi troops.

“Suicide belts are strapped on to helpless civilians – including women and children – by ISIS,” Karim Aljobory of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces told Fox News. “This was a big dilemma. We didn’t know who was a bomber and who was not. Many of our men died from these people forced to be bombers.”

A high-ranking Iraqi military official confirmed numerous incidents of ISIS “using human shields and fighting from civilian homes, mosques, hospitals and schools.” However, launching attacks from civilian-centric locations is hardly the only way in which the jihadist army uses human shields.

Sometimes, the gambit is as blatant as tying up locals and placing them in front of the ISIS fighter who is then able to attack from behind the civilian. Fox News also witnessed incidences of ISIS filling its cars with children to flee from city to city, knowing the coalition warplanes would thus not bomb them. ISIS also kidnapped and drugged boys as young as 8 and placed them at the very front of their frontlines.

Yazidi sex slaves have been forced into underground ISIS prisons and literally draped over their captors as protection against coalition strikes. Several survivors of such strikes have scars from absorbing the strikes. Entire families have been held hostage by ISIS operatives who take over their homes and shuffle them from place to place. If they don’t play along, they’re slaughtered on the spot. Female ISIS members have reportedly stooped to utilizing their own babies: They have been known to carry their infants to appear to be harmless mothers and thus avoid being attacked. And in remaining strongholds such as Raqqa, ISIS has pushed civilians into the city’s center to live in tents on the street and thus act as one giant shield to maintain domination over the heart of its “caliphate capital.”

According to Mubin Shaikh, a counterterrorism expert on ISIS for the U.S. military and nonmilitary agencies, ISIS, especially in urban combat zones such as Mosul and Raqqa, also hijacks homes of civilians and booby traps the structure, then secretly herds civilians inside – well aware that it will soon become a target for an airstrike.

“Sometimes, (they) will even trigger a secondary explosion so the military is left dealing with an investigation of women and kids killed,” he said.

ISIS has, moreover, come to use human shields as a financing apparatus, extorting money from civilians by threatening to use them as shields if they don’t pay up.

While the tactic of using people as shields is hardly new in war, ISIS’ rampant use of it has been unprecedented. As a result, it took Iraqi and partner forces nine months to liberate Mosul, despite initial hopes it would take only a few months. And in the waning weeks of the battle for the city, human shields became even more commonplace as a weapon of war. Now with the Raqqa fight heating up, shield deployment is also on the rise.

“An enemy is most dangerous when on the defensive, or when they are fighting for survival,” said Matt Degn, a professor in counterterrorism at the American Military University. “This is not an easy fight, ISIS is not the ‘JV team.’ ISIS does whatever it takes regardless of consequences to accomplish their tactical operations and strategic goals.”



One high-level Iraqi official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Fox News that the use of human shields has been at the forefront of military planning, and in the quest to prevent collateral damage, a larger than anticipated number of Iraqi soldiers have lost their lives.

While officials have not released exact figures to eschew a loss in morale, it is estimated that hundreds of losses have been incurred monthly in the ISIS war.

“Using human shields has made things very difficult for the liberating forces, as it forced them to expose themselves to the enemy, especially in close quarters combat in Mosul’s Old City,” the official explained. “The Iraqi forces, particularly the counterterrorism forces, have been under strict instructions from the commander-in-chief, Prime Minister Haidar Alabadi, to do their utmost to protect civilians, and as a result they have sustained high casualty rates. Unfortunately, there have been civilian casualties too.”

ISIS uses shields not only to delay strikes on ISIS targets, but also to endanger advancing troops by ensuring that they can only advance to a point that is “manageable” to the terrorist group, Shaikh said.

In addition, the Islamic group uses human shields to stir up anti-coalition sentiment for the times when civilians are caught in the crossfire. For example, reports are civilian deaths surged this year – with one alleged U.S. strike killing as many as 200 people in March and prompting international outcry.

“The media will then amplify the detrimental impact of civilian casualties. No one wants to see women and kids killed by our bombs,” he said.

So how do Iraqi forces and their coalition partners purport to avoid killing helpless civilian shields while still defeating the barbaric enemy?

“We have limited our use of airstrikes in the Old City of Mosul, because buildings are very old and it could cause them to collapse and kill civilians, also an ISIS tactic. We attacked on foot when we could, accompanied by bomb squads to dismantle IEDs,” Aljobory, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces leader, explained. “We use snipers and light, as well as mid-sized rather than large weapons, to avoid hitting civilians.”

Aljobory additionally pointed out that when several ISIS fighters are grouped together they use hellfire missiles, which have a “controlled, limited destruction range,” generally up to 50 feet, to minimize civilian casualties.

“When you look at how many civilians were able to escape this cruel occupation, added Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan, deputy commanding general of Operation Inherent Resolve. “It becomes clear how careful Iraqi Forces have been when attacking.”

Often, the Iraqi and partner coalition forces simply have to wait until a high-value target leaves the premise, and then a precision capture or kill will be attempted -- or wait until civilians flee before striking. 

“The U.S.-supported coalition forces in Iraq are adhering to the rules of combat to the best extent possible, including not attacking human shields used by ISIS,” said Amit Kumar, president of counterterrorism firm AAA International Security Consultants. “ISIS forces have used the hesitancy on the part of the U.S. as a ploy to save themselves from attacks. This makes the task of battling ISIS very difficult.”

Hollie McKay has been a staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay