View on Gender: The limits of tech in hostage rescue

Yazidi Girls_Hossein Fatemi_Panos
Copyright: Hossein Fatemi/Panos

Speed read

  • Satellite imagery is of little use in finding those ISIS is holding in cities
  • Local mediation has proved more effective than military operations
  • Rescued Yazidi women and girls need urgent physical and psychosocial care

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

On 7 March, Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil received the Anna Politkovskaya Award at an event in London, United Kingdom. Named after the Russian journalist murdered in Moscow in 2006, the award honours female human rights defenders working in conflict zones. [1] In Dakhil’s case it celebrates “her courage to speak out and give a voice to” women and girls of the Yazidis, an ethnoreligious group that primarily lives in northern Iraq and has been brutally persecuted by Islamic State (ISIS).

Accepting the award, Dakhil, who is Iraq’s only female Yazidi MP, spoke of the thousands of women and girls kidnapped by ISIS, and their subjection to torture, rape and other atrocities. [2] She called on the international community to do more to help.

Her words left me wondering what role technology — particularly communication and satellite imagery — could play in locating and helping to rescue women and girls abducted by extremist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. I had been alerted to this idea by a BBC documentary that followed Yazidi journalist Nareen Shammo as she attempted to negotiate some of the Yazidi women’s release using a mobile phone (see film below).

“Historically, quiet diplomacy has been the best route to securing hostages’ freedom.”

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International

But in the case of the Yazidis, satellite technologies are of limited use, says Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response advisor for campaign group Amnesty International.

Firstly, “satellite imagery works very well for tracking movement in less populated areas” but not in more populous places, such as the Iraqi city of Mosul, where many of the captives are being held, she says.

Secondly, families often already know roughly where their abducted relations are. Sometimes the women and girls gained access to mobile phones without the knowledge of their captors, while “in other cases, it’s quite clear that their captors were allowing them to make phone calls”.

And thirdly, the idea that foreign governments could identify hostages and extract them by sending in commando units is “a very fantastical option”, Rovera says. We saw such attempts by the United States in Yemen and Syria, and they ended pretty badly, she says. [3]

Overall there’s been “no particularly sophisticated initiative that’s been a breakthrough” in securing the Yazidis’ release, she says.

Instead, the biggest factor has been local efforts and networks involving “mediation or intervention by tribal chiefs, local Arab Sunni leaders — personalities who have some influence”, Rovera says. “It’s been individuals who have managed to ‘acquire’ the girls in one way or another — either because they paid money or claimed they wanted to take them as their wives or whatever — and then quietly sent them back to their families.”

Historically, quiet diplomacy like this has been the best route to securing hostages’ freedom, Rovera says.

Where the international community can help is by supporting the Yazidi women and girls who have returned to their families and need urgent physical and psychosocial care, she says, “to help them to get their lives back”.

See below for the BBC documentary about negotiating Yazidi women’s release:


[1] ‘Refusing to be silenced’ returns to the London WOW festival (Reach All Women in War, accessed on 25 March 2015)
[2] Escape from hell: torture and sexual slavery in Islamic State captivity in Iraq (Amnesty International, December 2014)
[3] Ewen MacAskill Failed Yemen rescue attempt highlights US forces’ recent poor recovery record (The Guardian, 8 December 2014)