ERBIL, Iraq — In a crowded room in an undisclosed location in northern Iraq, a Yazidi father is begging an American woman for money to buy back his daughters from the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS.
Via a translator, the man says he has been in contact with a broker—a middleman used as a go-between from ISIS to grieving Yazidi families—who for a high fee will return his children after they were taken and sold as slaves among the jihadis just over a year ago in the ISIS blitz of northern Iraq. The man is desperate and low on cash, and says he’s considered selling his truck to pay for the girls’ release.
In a haze of cigarette smoke and in between rounds of tea, the American, 66-year-old Amy Beam, tells him he shouldn’t sell his truck, but still needs to renegotiate with the broker. The asking fee is too high, she says, and the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), the controversial Canadian organization for which she’s acting as intermediary today, will at most pay $3,000 a head for an ISIS prisoner.
“The families will come to us and say we’re already in contact with the broker, we have it all organized, all we need is the money,” Beam later tells The Daily Beast, whose reporter witnessed the negotiations.
The Yazidis, an ethno-religious group that mostly speaks Kurdish but observes a distinct faith that is neither Christian nor Muslim, are viewed as devil worshippers by ISIS, and therefore singled out by the jihadis in a campaign many say is genocide. Thousands of Yazidi women and children were sold as slaves and subject to rape, and their men were murdered en masse when ISIS overran the Yazidi heartland around Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq in August 2014.
Beam says that a year after ISIS’s rampage through Sinjar, funds are growing short among the Yazidis, who have in some cases already sold all their valuables to ransom back family members. CYCI, Beam says, can fill that gap with its own funds to pay the brokers.
Back at the meeting, the father has become grumpy over an apparent impasse in talks, and insists the amount the broker originally demanded must be met. To break the stalemate, Beam calls a CYCI agent authorized to negotiate directly, and hands her cellphone to the man. A conversation ensues, and eventually the father hangs up and hands the phone back. He appears pleased, and an agreement has been reached.
A fee has been agreed upon for now, but Beam says the actual retrieval of the girls will still have to be carried out by qualified CYCI personnel, and she’s not part of those operations.
The negotiation portion of the process, however, has concluded. In late August The Daily Beast was allowed to attend this session on condition certain names, locations, and transaction details not be revealed for security purposes.
CYCI, publicly the effort of a Canadian-Jewish businessman named Steve Maman, who has been hailed by some as the “Jewish Schindler,” recently has come under a barrage of criticism both in North America and Iraq. Its claims of rescuing some 130 Yazidis and Christians from ISIS, as documented on its website, have been called into question by a number of prominent Yazidis, and concerns have been raised that through its use of brokers it is funding ISIS.
A letter released on August 26 and signed by a who’s who of Iraqi Yazidis—including head Yazidi spiritual leader Babasheikh Kherto Ismael and Vian Dakhil, the lone Yazidi in Iraq’s parliament—cast doubt on CYCI’s rescues and demanded Maman provide proof of his efforts.
Yazidi community leader Khaleel al-Dhaki, whose own attempts at rescuing Yazidis from ISIS were documented in a PBS Frontline documentary, was also a signatory.
The Daily Beast left the August meeting without seeing everything that goes on in CYCI’s claimed process, including money changing hands and women and children being picked up, but generally it didn't appear anything nefarious was going on outside of haggling over the buying back and selling of hostages and sex slaves.
Maman has offered to allow The Daily Beast along on one of his next rescue missions to verify his efforts, but says that given the clandestine nature of the rescues it’s hard to predict when the next will occur. The Daily Beast was invited to one such rescue Maman said already was in progress, but that proved impractical because of the distance from Erbil.
“I don’t know how the transactions are made, they’re very tightly controlled by CYCI,” Beam says after the August meeting. “Steve does very well what he’s doing.”
Maman has raised more than $500,000 over the past year to buy the freedom of 130 Yazidi and Christian sex slaves held captive by the so-called ISIS group. He says he refuses to “stand idly by” as thousands of Yazidis and Christians behind ISIS lines remain prisoners, many repeatedly beaten, raped, and repurchased in slave markets as booty of jihad.
But Maman’s online GoFundMe campaign was shut down by site administrators last month after another Canadian organization, RINJ (Rape Is No Joke), whose mission is to prevent sexual-based abuse, accused it of violating Canada’s anti-terrorism laws by contributing to the international sex trade.
“For every handful of dollars given to ISIS to buy human slaves, another two dozen are forced into sex-slavery. Don't buy a kid! End child sex trade,” RINJ wrote on its Facebook page.
Maman says that controversy actually helped him, and as of late last month donations continued to come in “every 10 to 15 minutes,” proving “that a ‘little light can expel a lot of darkness.’”
Errol Mendes, a professor of international and constitutional law at the University of Ottawa, says that Maman’s organization may be in violation of the new Canadian anti-terrorism law passed in June, although ultimately the question of prosecution must be left up to the authorities’ discretion. Maman dismisses any chance of going to court and calls the entire controversy a “smear campaign.”
But apart from the strictly legal issues, Mendes says, organizations such as CYCI offer solutions that ultimately are ineffective and potentially harmful.
“If this were really effective and [Maman] could release thousands, there would be a cry from the Yazidi community to support him,” says Mendes. “But you have to ask, are they encouraging ISIS to go after other minorities, and potentially reinforcing their practices?”
Since the founding of ISIS, hostage money, mainly from European countries, has been a major source of funding for the extremist group. In addition to bank robberies, oil revenues, extortions, and, more recently, the looting and resale of antiquities on the black market, ransoms bring in an estimated $20 million, according to a U.S. Treasury Department statement released last October, and that’s likely a modest estimate for the revenues since then.
However, Maman claims that because he only pays $2,000 to $3,000 to release the women and young girls, most of which he says is required for various bribes, his initiative cannot be seen as making a real contribution to the multibillion-dollar terrorist entity fueled by massively scaled criminal activities.
“The goal of CYCI is to reunite families and bring them back to their villages. I’m not in the business of humanitarian work,” Maman tells The Daily Beast.
He says that because he works with local brokers to buy back girls who have been repeatedly raped, beaten, and therefore are no longer wanted by their captors, he does not “purchase” them, but rather “refunds” them for their selling price. He describes the system as an underground railroad of sorts in which the women and girls are sent to Kurdish-run refugee camps for food and medical care before being sent to their ancestral villages under the direction of the Reverend Canon Andrew White, a former vicar from Baghdad who led the only Anglican church in Iraq.
White for his part wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday of his complete support of Maman.
“I want to totally and utterly show my support for Steve Maman. He is a total servant of Ha Shem doing the work of the Almighty standing by the despised and rejected, the undercast and forgotten,” he wrote. “If the world had a few more people like him it would be a different place. I totally stand with him and for him he is my hero.”
Because Maman maintains a distance from the actual negotiation process, he says he doubts that lawyers would be able to prove that funds from the organization made it into the hands of those considered terrorists. Maman says that any legal contestations would be unfounded.
CYCI is backed by thousands of private donors, including Pamela Geller, a controversial New York-based critic of Muslim extremists and mainstream media. (In May, she sponsored a drawing contest of the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas, at which two Muslim gunmen where shot and killed as they attempted to attack the event.)
Geller appears in a CYCI promotional video with a triumphant soundtrack, showing the teary return of a Yazidi mother and her four children to their family in the village. A number of children hold up a sign reading “Thank you Pamela Geller for my liberation,” followed by a slogan, “‘Never Again’ is NOW.”
She calls accusations that the organization is funding terrorism “absurd,” and charges that it is European governments who are guilty of funneling real amounts of money into, and therefore propping up, ISIS.
When asked to describe her involvement with the CYCI campaign in regards to a wider fight against Islamic extremism, Geller says that “all those whom jihadis have targeted for murder or slavery—Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists—need to recognize that we face a common threat and common foe, and that we need to stand together for freedom and human rights.”
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With the publication of the August 26 letter, criticism of Maman and CYCI has intensified, not just from those who say the group supports terrorists, but also from Yazidi leaders in Iraq who say they don’t believe Maman’s claims of rescuing so many Yazidis.
“Over the past several weeks, Yazidi advocates have approached Mr. Maman on several occasions, requesting evidence of his alleged rescue work. In response, Mr. Maman dismissed our inquiries and refused to provide any information,” the letter says. “The CYCI/Liberation Iraq project has brought a high level of visibility to a delicate and sensitive rescue effort that should have been kept low-profile. We are concerned that this may be reckless.”
The letter also raises concerns that CYCI had entered into direct negotiations with ISIS, and calls into question claims it has rescued Christians, saying that it was Yazidis—not Christians—directly targeted by ISIS genocide and sexual slavery campaigns.
ISIS continues to capture Christians and target their churches for destruction. ISIS-affiliated groups have also taken to publicly executing Christians in Libya. However, according to the extremists’ own publications the Yazidis are unique in being specific targets for sexual violence and enslavement.
“Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ [experts on Islamic jurisprudence] say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword,” reads an article in ISIS’s October 2014 issue of its Dabiq propaganda magazine, referring to Yazidi women. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [a religious tax on non-Muslims] payment.”
Christians and Jews, the publication says, must become Muslim or be taxed if they wish to remain in the so-called caliphate, whereas Yazidis can be enslaved wholesale: “After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”
“We sent Maman a letter, and said he should give us the names of these girls,” says Yazidi parliamentarian and letter signatory Dakhil, who spoke to The Daily Beast by phone on Monday. She adds they will be satisfied “[i]f he tells us who these girls are, what are the names of those girls, and how much he gave to a person to bring these.”
She says that through her contacts with Yazidi families whose women and children had been enslaved by ISIS, “We don't know of a single girl who got away because Steve Maman bought her.”
Dakhil doesn’t deny that Maman’s efforts, if genuine, would be appreciated, even saying she had at least twice been contacted by the CYCI to discuss coordination, but says she became suspicious at the group’s claims of rescuing Christians. She says that, to their knowledge, “all of these women are Yazidi, we haven’t heard about any kidnapped Christians.”
Maman has so far continued to dismiss his critics, telling The Daily Beast and also posting frequently on social media that he and CYCI have come under fire in Iraq due to corrupt local politicians and rival networks that see CYCI as competition in securing government reimbursement for buying back Yazidi women and children. To prove his efforts are genuine, he also provides numerous photos of what he says are rescued families being fingerprinted and documented after their CYCI-orchestrated rescues.
Beam for her part says she has only a tenuous relationship with CYCI, and in fact only attended the August meeting after first being invited by a friend to meet with his family members who had recently escaped ISIS, and not to negotiate another release.
However, when The Daily Beast initially contacted CYCI to speak with its personnel in Iraq and view its operations, it was directed to speak and meet with Beam, who nonetheless later insisted on distancing herself from the organization. She says her involvement with CYCI was only to verify rescues and cross-reference them with her own records by Maman, that she is not a CYCI agent and she was never paid by them. She explained that she was only serving as a one-time intermediary at the August meeting after first being contacted by Maman in July, when she witnessed one of CYCI’s direct-rescue missions.
“I think last month Steve called me and said, ‘We have an organization from Canada and we want to help the Yazidi girls to escape from ISIS,’ and he asked me if I could help,” she says. “I told him of course, I will meet with anyone who can help us with these kidnapped women.”
She still says CYCI’s critics’ attacks are unfounded, and also defends CYCI’s use of brokers, but is careful not to say that money paid to the middlemen reaches ISIS.
“It’s incredibly rare now a woman can escape on her own,” Beam insists, adding that the brokers are necessary in this process, although many are selling these women and children back to their families for a profit. She adds that in fact some brokers might be using the funds to finance their own escapes from ISIS’s declared caliphate.
“They may not be Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS], but living in Daesh territory,” Beam says describing the brokers. “He might come up and say, ‘I don’t want to buy her to rape her, I wanna buy her as a commodity.’”
That doesn’t mean the women’s original ISIS owner is aware of or approves of the broker’s intent, Beam adds, saying that she knows of brokers killed by ISIS for attempting to return the women to their families. “I feel the brokers are sincere… I would not say these are bad people,” she says.
The Daily Beast first met with Beam, a self-described journalist and activist, in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, where she keeps an apartment with spare beds for Yazidi families she says are sometimes in transit, and sometimes just want to visit.
She says she has a doctorate in education and eventually left teaching to work as a software developer before entering semi-retirement. She first came to Maman’s attention when, working to write a book about the Yazidi genocide, she began making detailed records of missing families.
“Steve Maman contacted me and asked me as an American writer on the ground to be present and witness and verify their rescue operation,” she says. “I was present at the liberation of one family in late July… I am not part of the CYCI team that negotiates, plans, and executes the releases of Yazidi women and children.”
Beam says she has been involved with the Yazidi plight since last year, when, living in Turkey writing and managing a tour company, she first came into contact with Yazidi refugees streaming in from ISIS’s rampage over northern Iraq.
When not in the Middle East she says she legally resides in Barbados, and over the years has grown distrustful of the American government, a big reason why she chooses to live abroad. She also believes she has been banned in Turkey for her views sympathetic to the country’s Kurds.
Beam says her disenfranchisement with her homeland stemmed from the suspicious death of freelance journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991. Casolaro’s death was ruled a suicide, but Beam, citing a friend close to Casolaro, insists he was eliminated to cover up a story he was working on uncovering a vast network of government corruption. She says she also believes Americans have been misled about the 9/11 attacks, but dislikes the term “truther” because it’s a label used to discredit.
“I don’t know who my enemy is,” she says. “It took me a long time to figure out my government had been taken over from the inside out.”
Beam volunteers her personal politics as part of a framework in which she also believes government agencies are spying on her and CYCI’s efforts in Iraq. Attempts to stain Maman and CYCI, she says, are part of a larger conspiracy and regional power plays.
Maman, via his process of documenting his rescues, says he has all the proof he needs to verify his success, even though his critics have continued their attacks. If allowed to continue to work in Iraq, it appears CYCI will continue making its claims, and its critics will continue making theirs too.
Nothing The Daily Beast saw in August proves definitively that either side in this issue is correct, but the meeting we attended appeared genuine, and at least a part of what CYCI says it does is real. The release of Yazidi hostages, negotiated in nondescript locations and executed on the back roads and deserts of northern Iraq and Syria, is by necessity a secretive affair.
Still, Maman has a coalition of Iraq’s most prominent Yazidis—whether wrong or right—determined to end his operations.
Beam, who has since told The Daily Beast she’s no longer associated with CYCI at all, maintains it’s the real deal. When asked again to address whether money paid to brokers to retrieve Yazidi women and children from ISIS might in turn be paying the extremists, she once more carefully avoided saying it did, but questioned if such a small sum should really be an impediment to reuniting a family.
“You go tell a man that he can’t have his children back from ISIS when he’s been offered the opportunity because $3,000 might end up in the hands of a terrorist organization,” she says. “Go and tell that to his face, it’s obscene.”