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Naba'a, a 20-year-old Iraqi woman who was forced to marry an ISIS militant, alongside her mother, Hoda. (Zainab Salbi)

'We need a new story'

‘Wife of ISIS’ speaks out about being held captive in basement for 3 months, how she was freed

By Zainab Salbi on August 17, 2017

“Oh, Mohammed. Oh, Mohammed. Look at what was done in your name,” screamed an Iraqi soldier as he discovered a basement full of women and children locked up by ISIS, or Daesh, only 20 days ago in Mosul. Twenty-year-old Naba’a was one of the 32 people held captive by the militants. She is the wife of of an ISIS fighter who has kept her locked her up with his mother, sisters and sister-in-laws since April. When she saw light for the first time in three months, she hugged the Iraqi soldiers who helped her, as he cried out, “Thank you. Thank you uncle.”

The soldier was referring to the Prophet Mohammed as many Muslims in Mosul are resentful of the kind of Islam that ISIS imposes on them. Naba’a understood the soldier’s cry. Her life has changed because her father changed his views on Islam and became a radical ISIS supporter who forced his daughter to marry an ISIS fighter last September. She is now pregnant and is considered a “wife” of ISIS. Such women are being treated as suspects and so are their children. The Iraqi government has set up camps for them and their children outside of Mosul to interrogate them, or wait until they know what to do with them.

Naba’a is scared. She does not want to be taken out of the city and placed in a camp, and she does not know what to do with her unborn child. Her marriage is only registered in the ISIS system, which that is not acknowledged by Iraqi government. And though there is indeed a lot of fear of and prejudice against women like her in Mosul. Many are also acknowledging that separating these women and children in camps is not a good way of dealing with the problem.

“It is time to heal. We need to take the women and children back into our society and not separate them out. If we put them in camps, their children will grow up hating and we will not end this story. We need a new story,” said Ali Alrassam who works with Al-Mesalla, a local organization recently founded to help address the damage to the social fabric of the city. Many civilians in Mosul are echoing Alrassam’s sentiment. Until the issue is resolved, Naba’a has managed to stay living with her mother, sisters and brother in Mosul, hoping that no one discovers that she was the wife of an ISIS member, and that if she is discovered, authorities will understand that she is a victim — not a suspect.

Naba’a’s story started at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. That’s where her father, Nashwan, changed from being a loving parent who earned his living as a tailor for someone that supported ISIS. He ended up in prison by accident after sending a text message to his customer that read, “Your stuff is ready.”Nashwan meant the long traditional dress that Iraqi men wear, which the male customer had ordered from him. But when the text was delivered, the man had been captured by Iraqi police for being an al-Qaeda member and Nashwan was suspected of being part of his operation.

While in Abu Ghraib, he was tortured and eventually indoctrinated in al-Qaeda ideology. Nine months later he was released, but the man he once was had gone through a radical change, a man his children and wife, Hoda, no longer recognized. Hoda, Naba’a’s mother, is Shia’a and, though she was married for 20 years and has five children with Nashwan, Nashwan refused to touch her after his release from prison. On top of that, he refused to eat her food or drink the water she poured for him. He considered her an infidel for being Shia’a. Ten days after his release from prison, he gave her the choice: to get divorced or to be killed. She chose divorce, but with lots of pain at seeing the husband she had once loved changed after nine months in prison.

“The signs were written all over Nashwan for what is to come to Mosul,” Hoda said as she reflected on her life. “The first thing he said when he was released from Mosul is [that] government torture led to terrorism. And the Islamic State is coming.”

It apparently was clear to all prisoners at Abu Ghraib. By the time ISIS arrived a year later, Nashwan was all in. He grew his beard, had discarded his Shia’a wife, married a new Sunni woman, and was giving new lectures on Islam to his kids every day from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. — an Islam different than the one they grew up, marked by its extremity and rigidity. He accepted the ISIS Caliphate immediately.

Naba’a, a 20-year-old Iraqi woman who was forced to marry an ISIS militant, talked in-depth with Zainab Salbi in Mosul about her frightening ordeal. (Zainab Salbi)

Naba’a was 19 when her father asked her to marry an ISIS soldier. “I started crying when I heard him telling me to marry a Daesh member. I was shaking. I did not want to. But then he threatened me. ‘If you don’t accept, I will tell them your mother is a Shia’a and they will killer her.’” Naba’a agreed to the marriage and saved her mother’s life.

She met her husband, Ashraf, on her wedding night as he entered the bedroom. He was nice to her for only the first few minutes. “He cried and said I know it is not easy for you to be with me as you don’t know me. But when I refused for him to touch me, he started being tough and forced himself on me,” Naba’a explains. That continued for the first 10 days of their marriage, while he stayed home away from fighting.

When went back out to join the fighting, Naba’a was left with her in-laws. “I was afraid of my husband’s family. I feared them as I thought they were Daesh followers. So I locked myself in my bedroom and will only come down in times of meal, clean the dishes, clean the house and leave back into my room.” During the occasional visits when her husband returned home to see her, Naba’a would beg for him to let her see her mother and her siblings. He refused but for two times where he held her arms the entire visit and did not allow her to even hug them.

In April of this year, the fighting intensified and Naba’a was taken to the old city of Mosul with other women in her husband’s family. That’s when she and the others were put in the basement along with other women related to ISIS as — wives, sisters or mothers. Thirty-two of them in all were locked in the basement for three months. During that time, they had no access to light, they got two or three date palm fruits per person each day, some lentil and river water to drink.

“I cried from hunger for months,” Naba’a shares. “Inside the basement we were afraid of each other. We did not know who is who and what the belief of the other is. So we each kept to ourselves.” She managed to call her family every now and then to tell them I am still alive using the cellphone she’d hidden in her pocket. But she did not know where she was being detained. Her father had disappeared and to this day his whereabouts remains unknown.

Naba’a lived in that one dress she was wearing for three months, which eventually became a strip of white and black from all her body sweat. Still, Ashraf came every single week, took her by her elbow from the basement to the kitchen, forced himself on her real quick and dropped her back to the basement. He would tell her, “I will die fighting for the last ally in the Caliphate and you will die with me until the last breath.” This continued for weeks until the news came that he had been killed. “They would read the list of those who got killed out loud so we would know. I was relieved when I heard of his death, and I was scared.” Naba’a said.

Part of what fueled her fear is the possibility that she will be transferred to another ISIS “brother,” as they refer to each other. When the wife of one ISIS militant becomes a widow, she can be taken by another brother. But that did not happen to Naba’a. Instead it was the Iraqi soldier who found her and the other women and released them from their prison.

“These few hours until I arrived to my family home and saw my mother and sisters and brother, I cried the whole time. I wanted to hold everyone I saw. I wanted to hug all the soldiers that I encountered in the way. And when I finally saw my mother, I screamed as I fell on her arms,” she said.

By this time Hoda, Naba’a and everyone in the family was crying. “I wish Daesh would have killed me for being a Shia’a and not have to witness what they did to my daughter,” Hoda said.

Naba’a was four months pregnant when she was freed from captivity, and she had wanted to abort her pregnancy. She and her mother walked into a doctor’s office and on the way there she’d told her mother, “If I hear a heartbeat, I will not abort the child. But if I don’t hear a heartbeat, I will.” Naba’a heard a heartbeat and, though the doctor was sympathetic and willing to perform an abortion, she refused. “I can’t kill my child. Daesh killed people. I can not do the same to that child. I heard the heartbeat and I will not kill.”

She is keeping the child, and is hoping to go back to school in September. Though Naba’a is hoping that she will somehow, someway be able to resume her life without her past, it is certain to be no easy journey. Her Iraqi document says she is not married. Her marriage was not legal. Her unborn child will beconsidered illegitimate and she fears that she may not only have lost her future but that of her child as well. Until this issue is resolved, she is shyly engaging with her siblings and telling them what happened to her.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit

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