On the outskirts of Fallujah, just weeks after Islamic State had been driven out of the city by the Iraqi army following two years of jihadist rule, a team of Sunni and Shia Muslims visited a compound where hundreds of people who had fled the city were being held.
They brought supplies – food and water – to those cramped into the tiny space, as would be expected by humanitarian organisations working in the region. Aid groups have been working tirelessly in Iraq and Syria since ISIS' devastating campaign first shocked the world in 2014, serving the most needy and vulnerable on the front lines.
But something about this was different. The recipients of this aid weren't the families who had been traumatised by militants; who had spent years living in fear and then weeks trapped, starving, as Fallujah became a battleground between government and ISIS forces.
These were ISIS fighters.
A team from the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), a US-Iraqi non-profit organisation that's been active in the Middle East for a decade, took food and water to ISIS militants; providing respite to those who had been captured as Fallujah fell.
Hundreds of suspected ISIS members were being held in the detainment compound not far from the city. Some would have been innocent men and boys; separated from their families as they fled Fallujah and sent for interrogation by the Iraqi army. Others were confirmed militants. All were given food to eat and water to drink by PLC.
The reason? "Love means going to the hard places".
'Only light can drive out darkness'
Matthew Willingham, PLC's senior field editor who's based in Iraq, wasn't able to take part in the aid drop in early August, but was watching on a video feed. The highly sensitive nature of the visit meant that only Iraqi Muslims entered the compound. Among them was a man named Sadiq.
He gave water to a bound prisoner dressed in a yellow jumpsuit, who he recognised from an ISIS propaganda video posted online. This man, a tribal sheikh loyal to Islamic State, had stood and watched as a friend of Sadiq's was brutally executed.
"You killed my friend," Sadiq said, as he poured water into the man's mouth. "But I've come here to feed you."
Willingham said they had been warned against the trip by Iraqi leaders, and even friends, who told them they'd gone too far this time. The detainees deserved to suffer after what they had done.
"But we believe only light can drive out darkness. Love is the only real answer to hate," Willingham wrote in a blog post. "So we went anyway."
"We always want to be careful," he explained to Christian Today. "We don't want to come across as cowboys; we don't want to be kidnapped, we don't want to be blown up or tortured. But we also don't want to live exclusively by the principles of risk management. We don't want to be controlled by fear."
PLC seeks guidance from its extensive Iraqi network before undertaking any trip, but unless it's told categorically it is too dangerous, they usually go ahead. Willingham's wife and two small children live with him in Iraq. They are well aware of the risks and have had hard conversations about the possible repercussions of work on the front line. And yet they keep going.
"Ultimately, this is how we meet people who otherwise won't be cared for. This is how people get seen, this is how they are going to be helped – when people are willing to step in and risk something, when they've got skin in the game," he says. "As long as we live behind these fortified borders, it's going to be harder to see reconciliation happen. We've got to go to them, let them be heard, and acknowledge their pain. It's beautiful to see how humanising people changes the conversation."
When Sadiq and his fellow Muslim colleagues delivered aid to the Fallujah detainees, prisoners openly wept. A member of the PLC team addressed a group gathered in a courtyard of the compound. "Brothers, we are all Iraqi! Why did you give up on Iraq?" he asked. "We live in one country – we shouldn't give up on this place. We are brothers. We can't change what happened in the past, but we can change what will happen – and rebuild as brothers again."
"One of the most striking things to me about that delivery in particular was seeing the intense emotion in the faces of those men," Willingham says. "They were just overwhelmed, many of them with guilt."
While the team had been expecting an aggressive reception, they were instead greeted with row upon row of broken men. When Sadiq spoke to a group of convicted ISIS members – some of them jihadi leaders – they broke down, weeping. "They kept saying: 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry'," Willingham recalls.
"Love has the power to convict."
As a Christian, Willingham says he saw the love of Christ in action that day, revealed through Sadiq – a Muslim.
"I see this as the love of God reaching down into the world," he says. "That's a Christ-like love, extended to his [Sadiq's] enemies. Not people he disagrees with, but his enemies. People who murdered his friends. That is the love of God in Christ."
The journey for PLC began 10 years ago. At the height of the Iraq War in 2006, Jeremy Courtney and his wife Jessica moved to the country, despite the dangers. They had felt a call to provide practical help to people in desperate need, and so left their home in the US to be part of the solution to so many broken lives. PLC was born.
Now a decade on and with two young children, they couldn't have imagined where that journey would lead them.
What started as an organisation to provide life-saving surgery to Iraqi children suffering from heart defects became much more when ISIS rose to prominence in 2014 with the invasion of the Nineveh Plain. The relentless persecution of religious minorities including Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims shocked the world, but there were few organisations left to help following the withdrawal of US troops.
"More than a million people were displaced and in need of food, water, shelter, medicine and every single other thing people need to survive. And we had a very important conversation in the office: are we going to sit by and say we don't have a mandate to serve in this time, or are we going to respond to this moment and take responsibility for this stewardship we've been given?" Jeremy Courtney told Christian Today.
"It was a very short conversation."
As one of the only organisations left, and with a tremendous network across Iraq, his team quickly decided they had to respond, and began to do so immediately. They took food, water and medicine to the front lines, meeting people in their time of desperate need. "I remember how terrifying those days were," Courtney recalls.
In the years since, as Islamic State has gained and lost territory, Courtney has visited a number of ISIS-held cities and towns in Iraq following the departure of the militants. He has seen the horrific devastation jihadists have left in their wake and met families who have lost everything in the conflict. The most harrowing experience, he says, is when he visited Sinjar after militants overran the Nineveh Plain, slaughtering 5,000 men and taking thousands of women and girls into captivity to be used as sex slaves. "We saw mass graves, clothes strewn about the countryside where people had been mown down by ISIS as they fled," he says.
"We've walked through bombs and air strikes. Seeing these things has become a very compelling feeling, and is part of why we do what we do. Seeing the suffering and wanting to be part of the healing on the other side... showing that resurrection on the other side is possible."
Their mandate to "love anyway" – regardless of race, religion or creed – has led the team at PLC to help victims of ISIS' reign of terror not just in their immediate needs, but also in building a brighter future. They've delivered 100,000 pounds of emergency food aid, but have also given small business grants to widows, are involved in peace-making initiatives and are helping get children back into the classroom. Earlier this year they delivered thousands of egg-laying chickens – a sustainable source of protein – to vulnerable families in Sinjar and are helping displaced men and women living in IDP camps to make and sell their own soap. Seeing lives restored and people beginning to glimpse some hope for the future "is a beautiful thing to watch," Willingham says. "You see them come alive."
Taking Jesus seriously
PLC is not religiously-affiliated, though it describes itself as "a faith-oriented community". Christians, Muslims, and those of no faith work side by side.
For the Courtneys, Willingham, and many members of their team, however, their mission is driven by their love for God.
They are "trying to figure out what it would mean to take Jesus seriously when he says 'follow me' and 'bless those who persecute you'," Courtney says.
While they actively help victims of ISIS persecution, they also believe in the importance of re-humanising the ISIS militants who are waging such death and destruction in the Middle East.
"You may have seen... [ISIS] described as monsters, animals, and an apocalyptic death cult. Those words just obscure the fact that these are largely men and boys, and in some cases women, who want to belong, a place to feel safe, and to have meaning. Who are looking for a way to put food on the table for their kids," Courtney says.
He believes that the number of ISIS fighters who are simply normal people who join to earn money to provide for their family "is probably pretty significant". We have to "look at those in ISIS and in similar terror [groups] around the world and see them as individuals", he says.
"ISIS is comprised of people we know – or people who come from groups and places we know... [they've been] affected by violence, economic policies that have put them in a place of being dis-empowered and disenfranchised... And so in some ways, ISIS are not just guys in black masks waving swords in the desert – they're our friends, our people, who have found themselves in a situation that is probably not going to be resolved by bombs and bullets alone. We want to combat the darkness with light, and drive out hate and fear with love."
The way to do this is though "ideas and compassion", he says. When PLC first approached Iraqi officials with the idea of visiting suspected ISIS militants in detention, they were met with incredulity. But the team explained that there were two ways forward.
"We said, you've got tens of thousands of ISIS fighters in captivity now, how are you going to treat them? In a way that further radicalises them, and drives them away from mainline society? Or will you use this moment to love you enemies, and incorporate them back into society?
"It was a fascinating discussion. We knew it was the right thing to do."
The team was, however, concerned about backlash they may receive for serving militants potentially responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. "But the truth is, I'm not aware of any [criticism]," Courtney says. "A lot of our base is Muslim and Christian, and actually both faiths have at their heart... love your enemies."
Courtney is adamant that this is the only Christian response, though he echoes Willingham's insistence that PLC's practical involvement has resulted from years of working in Iraq. "It's not like we woke up one day, read a Bible verse that said love your enemies and decided to go to ISIS," he says. "[But] the message of the gospel story is one of love that pursues the other all the way to death. God... taking on flesh and dying in pursuit of those that have become his enemies."
That's the message PLC wants to live out: "Following in those footsteps, laying down our lives and pursuing those who have become our enemies, even unto death."
Courtney doesn't know for certain if they'll do anything similar in the future. The conflict in Iraq is so volatile it's hard to plan ahead. "But what I will say is that this is in our blood and bones," he adds.
"If opportunities continue to present themselves, and we have willing partners and we find willing people in the Muslim clerical community who can help us... We're not foolhardy. We're not looking to rush into known ISIS territory, waving some kind of Christian or American flag, we don't have a death wish, we do what we do in a very calculated and wise manner.
"We're not looking to make headlines, we're looking to make change, and there are certain ways that that has been facilitated. If we find moments and ways [in the future], we will absolutely keep stepping in."