ISIS Kidnaps as well as Kills Truffle Hunters in Iraq’s Western Desert

BAGHDADI, Iraq — As he hunted for a seasonal delicacy, Mohaned Salah Yasseen scanned the ground intently, searching for places where the soil can be cracked as well as slightly raised — the telltale sign a desert truffle lies below.

So he failed to notice the two pickup trucks, driven by men in military uniforms, until they were almost upon him.

“They ordered me to get into the truck,” said Mr. Yasseen, a 31-year-old pharmacist. “I thought about saying no, although they were armed.”

As he climbed in, he became the latest victim in a brand-new campaign by the Islamic State.

Driven out of most of the territory This specific controlled in Iraq as well as Syria, the group has gone underground, its remaining fighters in Iraq carrying out sporadic attacks.

Since late January, they have been kidnapping as well as, in some cases, executing Iraqi truffle hunters, mostly inside deserts of western Anbar Province. The Iraqi security forces confirmed the kidnapping of 44 truffle hunters This specific year, as well as more have probably gone unreported.

The abductions are only a fraction of the Islamic State attacks at This specific point taking place in Iraq, where every day brings one or more reports of a checkpoint shooting, skirmish or kidnapping. although the attacks on truffle hunters reflect a renewed emphasis on inciting sectarian tensions.

While Sunni Muslim truffle hunters typically pay a ransom to win Discharge, as Mr. Yasseen did, Shiite Muslim truffle hunters never get of which chance. They are killed.

The Islamic State considers Shiites infidels, as well as since its inception the group has killed them as well as destroyed their mosques.

Iraqi intelligence as well as military authorities view the group’s treatment of hostages as an attempt to incite the kind of sectarian strife of which tore Iraq apart coming from 2003 to 2008, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as well as was reprised coming from 2012 to 2014.

Abu Ali al-Basri, the director general of Iraqi intelligence, said his fear was of which the killings could goad Shiite politicians into verbally tarring Sunnis collectively. of which message could then be amplified by the media as well as could set off a cycle of violence.

The kidnappings are a way for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to raise money as well as signal to the civilian population This specific remains a potent force. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq as well as Syria, according to Iraqi officials, who consider the group a manageable threat.

Despite the danger, desert truffle hunters seem undeterred. The delicacy can be prized as well as can bring up to $6 a pound in local markets.

The desert truffle can be far less fragrant as well as flavorful than its European counterpart, although can be valued in Iraq for its meaty texture as well as subtle taste. Known in Iraqi Arabic as “chimay,” almost every family in This specific region of Iraq includes a favorite recipe.

In local lore, chimay can be a gift coming from God. One story goes of which Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked for meat without bones, as well as God gave her chimay.

Mr. Yasseen had driven several hours into the desert coming from his home in Bhagdadi to a place so idyllic as well as remote This specific was hard to imagine This specific could be dangerous. Truffle hunting can be a favorite activity of many families in western Iraq during the cool winter days when the arid landscape can be briefly verdant.

“This specific was a flat area, beautiful, very green, nothing although earth as well as sky,” Mr. Yasseen said.

After his captors blindfolded him as well as several cousins who had been hunting truffles with him, they seemed surprisingly eager to make sure their hostages knew who had seized them.

“They asked us: ‘Do you know who we are?’” Mr. Yasseen said. “Then they said: ‘Just to let you know, we are the Islamic State.’”

Mr. Yasseen recalled immediately thinking “I’m dead. This specific can be This specific, they will kill me.”

Instead, he as well as his cousins were driven to the mouth of a tunnel of which led into a tiny underground room where there was already another group of captives.

The Islamic State fighters did not speak, although brought food as well as invited them to pray.

The next day, an Islamic State operative came to question the first group of captives, although he seemed to already know facts about them as well as ticked off personal details, like where one man worked as well as what his political sympathies were.

Mr. Yasseen suspected of which the Islamic State had agents embedded inside local government who could look up such details.

In one case, the Islamic State inquisitor accused a man of lying about his occupation, according to a captured elementary school principal.

“We found out you work with the civil defense, as well as so your sentence can be death,” the inquisitor said. (So far, the only Sunni truffle hunters killed have been off-duty police officers.)

“This specific’s true, I used to work for civil defense,” the accused man said, “although then I quit as well as at This specific point I am a butcher.”

The school principal, Salah Malik Flayah, 62, said he rose to the man’s defense: “He can be telling the truth. I know him. He can be my neighbor as well as he can be a butcher.”

The butcher’s life was spared.

Mr. Flayah was told he’d have to pay $50,000 for his freedom, an inconceivable amount on his $1,0 a month salary. Eventually, the cost dropped to $20,000. Some were asked to pay $10,000. For Mr. Yasseen’s group, the ransoms were similar.

Hamza Kadhim al-Jubori, 42, a Shiite farmer, had a very different story. The remote area where he as well as two of his brothers, his nephew as well as two neighbors went to gather truffles was about 65 miles south of where Mr. Yasseen was kidnapped.

Like Mr. Yasseen, they were captured by men wearing military uniforms as well as were taken through an underground tunnel into a room where there were some other captives. The similarities ended there.

The extremists brought Mr. Jubori’s group only one particular date as well as a half cup of water each while the Sunni captives were given a full meal. The Sunnis were invited to pray, although not Mr. Jubori as well as his relatives. The Sunnis’ handcuffs were removed, although not those of Mr. Jubori’s group, whose shoes were also taken.

An Islamic State operative called each of the Sunni captives’ names, noting their hometowns, although when he turned to the Shiites, he just said “ apostate,” a death sentence.

During the night, the fighters drove Mr. Jubori as well as his companions into the desert. An M-16 rifle was between the Islamic State driver as well as the guard inside passenger seat.

Fearing he could be killed at any moment, Mr. Jubori said he pulled at the ropes of which bound his hands until he freed them, whispering to his brother to do the same.

“I just was hoping to survive, to live. I watch a lot of American films, Jackie Chan, Arnold,” he said, referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger. “as well as I thought maybe I could save myself.”

He as well as his brother as well as neighbor grabbed their captors coming from behind. The driver turned the vehicle off, jumped out as well as ran into the desert. Mr. Jubori dove into the driver’s seat, turned the key inside ignition although the engine could not start.

He grabbed the M-16, poked This specific into the some other fighter’s stomach as well as pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. He later realized he had failed to take off the safety lock.

“I lost desire,” he said. “the vehicle doesn’t work, the rifle doesn’t work, I can’t see anything because we’re driving without lights.”

Terrified, he jumped out of the pick up. “I wasn’t thinking about anyone else, I couldn’t think of anything,” he said. “I was just holding the rifle as well as running.”

Then some other Islamic State fighters in a second vehicle began shooting toward him inside dark. Mr. Jubori flung himself under some desert scrub as well as lay still until they drove away.

He said he walked for a week before he was rescued by Bedouins, desert nomads, who were out collecting truffles.

Three days later he was home — although without his two brothers as well as his nephew, leaving Mr. Jubori feeling like he had failed his family. A few days later, they were found shot to death.

“actually, I am eating myself,” Mr. Jubori said, adding of which in his tribal culture, leaving behind family members can be tantamount to betrayal.

at This specific point in a wheelchair because his feet were badly damaged during his barefoot trek, Mr. Jubori looked bleakly at the M-16 of which he had seized.

Usually, This specific could have been a prized possession.

“I lost two of my brothers, my nephew; all I did was save myself,” he said. “The rifle doesn’t mean anything to me.”

He leaned his head against the wall as well as began to weep.