The wars in Syria and Iraq appear to have created another gruesome growth industry: the illegal trade in human organs.
Experts believe the Islamic State (ISIS) has turned to the trade as a source of revenue for its activities.
According to experts, 60 percent of kidneys currently traded on the black market come from Syria. The Middle East has now surpassed East Asia as the primary source for illegal kidneys.
“They have been doing this for years. Why? For the money of course” said Kasim Cindemir, a Turkish reporter who has researched the issue. For extremist groups like ISIS, organ transferring offers a potentially lucrative source of income.
The size of the market for illegal organs is hard to calculate. A widely cited figure from the Global Financial Integrity, an NGO focused on transparency, calculated the annual market for illegal organs to be worth somewhere between $600 million to $1.2 billion. That estimate predates the start of the Syrian Civil War.
“We conducted interviews with defectors and prisoners of ISIS,” said Anne Speckhard, the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). “We were told that ISIS had harvested blood and corneas their slaves and prisoners. However, I should add that all of these witnesses had not seen the practice themselves."
A document uncovered in a 2015 U.S. special forces raid appeared to sanction the practice. The document, which was allegedly from ISIS’s Research and Fatwa Committee, grants permission for the harvesting of organs to keep ISIS fighters alive.
“The report shows [ISIS] grasping for theological straws as it tries to use bits and pieces from different theologians to make its argument for organ harvesting,” said Shlomo Bolts a policy and advocacy officer at Syrian American Council.
Bolts said that given the constraints of the conflict ISIS would only undertake research for such a document if the practice was ongoing.
State Department spokesperson Michael Lavallee said the U.S. is aware of the reports regarding the trade in illegal organs. "While we would have no reason to doubt these claims we also are not in the position to confirm them,” he said, before adding, "[ISIS] has proven that it is capable of the most despicable acts and its involvement in such barbaric behavior would not be surprising.”
The United States is not alone in its concern. The Vatican is set to hold a major conference on the topic of organ trafficking next week in Rome.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been fighting a counter-insurgency campaign against a broad range of rebels groups since 2011 when the Syrian Revolution began.
The Assad regime also stands accused of organ harvesting. Footage posted online appears to show examples of the practice which is corroborated by eyewitness accounts, Bolts said. He also noted that the sale of kidneys is legal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has supported the Assad regime through both monetary and military means throughout the ongoing Syrian conflict.
“While there is no smoking gun, indirect evidence strongly suggests that Daesh has conducted organ harvesting since 2015," Bolts said. "However, there is also strong evidence that the Assad regime has harvested organs dating back to 2012."