On 2 March 2015, the British tabloid The Sun published an article claiming ISIS militants had tricked a woman into consuming her captured son’s remains. The ghastly story spread rapidly across both news sites and social media outlets, but the sole source for the story was the notoriously sensationalistic Sun.
The New York Post‘s version of the tale read:
“I hate IS because of what happened to an old Kurdish woman from a nearby tribe,” he said.
“Her son was captured by IS fighters and taken as a prisoner to Mosul. She was determined to find her son and went to IS headquarters and asked to see him.”
“They brought her cups of tea and fed her a meal of cooked meat, rice and soup. She thought they were kind,” he said.
“But they had killed him and chopped him up and after she finished the meal and asked to see her son they laughed and said, ‘You’ve just eaten him,'” Abdulla told The Sun.
While a number of news outlets passed the shocking rumor along (with no apparent effort to verify it), the story raises several red flags. The first is that the account is a single-source, second-hand one: not only did the individual from whom The Sun sourced the tale fail provide evidence for the claim, but he admittedly did not witness the outrageous scenario himself. No additional information about how the man learned of the horrifying events was supplied in the article, making it quite possibly the manifestation of an urban legend local to Mosul.
Second, no names, dates, or any supplemental detail were provided for the claim. No background information about the incident was included, nor was any proof supplied to corroborate it. The woman was described as brave in confronting her son’s known captors, yet despite being armed with the knowledge that ISIS (or “IS”) had abducted her son, she accepted and ate prepared food in a scenario that defies logic. Had she suspected ISIS militants of kidnapping her son and gone to investigate, would she be likely to accept possibly tampered-with food from the men she believed had harmed her child? Would ISIS’s kind treatment be so readily accepted in such an overtly adversarial interaction?
Third, the rumor mirrors many stories of unwitting cannibalism that far predate the Islamic State. It is nearly identical to the plot of a number of cultural tales, everything from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (in which a queen’s two sons are slaughtered by a Roman general who has waged war against her people, then baked into a pie which she unknowingly consumes) to an episode of the satirical animated series South Park titled “Scott Tenorman Must Die” (in which the show’s antagonist, Eric Cartman, feeds the killed parents of an enemy to him in a bowl of chili).
While it is not impossible ISIS militants fed a man’s remains to his mother, the story originated from a single sensationalistic source and was passed on by many other outlets without any additional investigation. No details were provided to determine whether the story was based in fact or born out of fear of Islamic State. The tale bears many common features of an old urban legend, including a horrifying twist ending and the involvement of villains du jour. Ultimately, no substantive evidence suggests that the events described have occurred at any point in recent history.