Special Correspondent | Baghdad | Niqash.org | – –
NIQASH’s Mosul correspondent explains why people in the city did not resist the [so-called] Islamic State group at first, why his family and others decided to stay and how extremists kept control of a city of around 2 million.
Mohammed* is NIQASH’s Mosul correspondent. He grew up in Mosul and has been covering events in the city since 2007, risking his own life and others to get information to the outside world. After the extremist group known as the Islamic State took Mosul over in June 2014, he was one of the first journalists in the world to file stories from inside the extremist-held city. He was forced to leave when the group began arresting local journalists but he has continued to write about events in Mosul. His family and many friends remain inside Mosul.
In this sombre accounting of the chain of events that have led to the current fighting around Mosul, he explains why the people in the city did not rise up and resist the [so-called] Islamic State group – known colloquially as Daesh in Iraq – at first, why his family and others decided to stay in their homes and how the extremist group managed to control a city of around 2 million.
*Real names cannot be used for security reasons.
On the day that Daesh took over my hometown, I was in Baghdad. The friends I was with became hysterical. So did I. My family was in Mosul, so was my heart and soul. Our phones didn’t stop ringing and we were incredibly concerned, wondering what would happen. I didn’t sleep for two days.
Daesh’s fighters entered Mosul through the city’s Western neighbourhoods, coming in through the desert, from the direction of Syria. At first, my parents insisted on staying at home. But it became clear quite quickly that Daesh were not going to withdraw like they had done in the past. They used to launch quick attacks on the Iraqi security forces in the city and then withdraw. But it quickly became obvious that this time was different.
“At the beginning, Daesh were actually quite kind. They said they had come to serve the people of Mosul and to see justice done.”
It was dangerous in Mosul even before June 2014. The area my family used to live in – on a road connecting Mosul and Syria – has been one of the most dangerous parts of the city since 2003. Daesh was not in control in the city in 2013 but there’s no doubt they were something of a shadow state.
The year before Daesh took control of Mosul, the 150 kilometres between Baghdad and Mosul was their playground at night. The official security forces would withdraw to their headquarters after dark because they were continuously being attacked at night and they were unable to defend themselves.
And we all knew that if Daesh wanted to kill somebody in Mosul, nobody could stop them. One day I was going to work in one of the small minivans that act as public transport. The bus had stopped in a crowded parking place when I heard gun shots. I turned around and saw a young man, dressed normally in pants and a shirt, empty his gun into a car right next to our bus. In front of all the people watching, he kept shooting until he ran out of bullets and then he ran off. Nobody tried to stop him. Later on, we found out that the driver of the car was a prison officer.
Three days after Daesh took control of Mosul, I returned home from Baghdad. One of the first things I saw when I arrived was a parade organized by Daesh in which their fighters were driving military vehicles they seized from the Iraqi army. Some people were celebrating during this parade and declaring their support for Daesh. But I don’t think they really knew what was going on; I think they were driven by emotion and instinct rather than logic.
In fact, at the beginning, those who were celebrating didn’t even know who was in charge. Some people thought there had been a revolution of some kind and that local police officers, the sons of the city, were going to be in charge. You have to remember that before Daesh took control of Mosul, there had been a lot of demonstrations in the city against the Iraqi government. They felt that the al-Maliki government and their security forces was treating them unjustly, imprisoning them and marginalizing them. So they were happy.
And at the beginning, Daesh were actually quite kind. They used to say they had come to serve the people of Mosul and to see justice done. They promised to rebuild the city and said we would all be able to live in peace and safety.
Personally I never, ever thought Daesh was a good thing, I tried to convince some of my friends of this. We would often argue about it. I asked them: Why would you expect those criminals who murder police, soldiers, journalist or politicians, to do anything positive? One of my friends told me to shut up. We were arguing loudly. If the members of Daesh heard me talking like this, they would most probably kill me on the spot.
To my mind, even the things that Daesh did that some people in Mosul thought were good – such as cleaning up the city, for example – were only a way to gain people’s trust and get more followers.
In those first few weeks, I just used to roam the streets, watch what was going on and file my reports. It seemed as though everybody was drunk. Nobody knew what was really going on. We used to sit in the cafes, smoke and listen to music. Members of Daesh were around, they’d wave at us and they appeared to approve of what we were doing.
I stayed in Mosul for about three weeks after Daesh came. I had started working as a journalist in 2007 but after one of my colleagues at the radio station I worked at was killed, I began going to work in sports clothes. Nobody except my family and closest friends knew what I did for a living. So when Daesh began to arrest local journalists I decided I had to leave.
My immediate family and many of my friends are still in Mosul. They stayed because they honestly thought Daesh would only be there a few months. By the time they realised Daesh were staying, it was almost impossible to enter [the nearby semi-autonomous zone of] Iraqi Kurdistan or get into Baghdad. The authorities there wouldn’t let you in.
Leaving Mosul also required a lot of money, not to mention that you’d be leaving your home and all your possessions behind.
When I left Mosul, I only just managed to get into Iraqi Kurdistan by hitching a lift over the border with some of the local journalists I knew, who were returning home after working on stories about displaced people – and that was after a day of waiting at a checkpoint in over 40-degree heat.
Daesh also changed. At the start, they let people leave town. But at the beginning of 2015, they decided that people could only leave if they fulfilled certain strict conditions. Anyone going out of the city had to leave money or their families were held like hostages until they returned. One of my friends had a sick baby that needed emergency care. Daesh allowed him to leave but only if his family remained. There were also secret ways of leaving the city for a long time and people smugglers working, but it’s become more and more difficult.
“Terror is the main method of controlling the city. Right from the beginning, Daesh was beheading people, or executing them out in public.”
To get news from outside Mosul, people in the city have, firstly, radios and then mobile phones and satellite receivers. Some have Internet on their phones but only on a very limited scale.
As journalists we could only report on the city by talking to a handful of people on the phone. Some mobile networks have continued to work, in some parts of the city, and we always had to wait to be contacted. We never contact them. Even that is extremely difficult now. That’s why the picture that we see of Mosul in the media is blurred. Some of the stories from the city are simply not true and the only pictures we see are those supplied by Daesh itself.
Up until recently I had been able to stay in fairly regular contact with my family. But just over a week ago, Daesh issued an order saying that it would execute anybody who had a mobile phone, a SIM card or a satellite device in their possession. My mother called me one last time and told me this would be the last time we would be able to speak. She was so sad.
Now I would say that about 90 percent of people in Mosul cannot communicate with anyone outside of the city.
Of course, life doesn’t stop. Human beings are resilient and if they must adapt, they do. Some aspects of life in the city for the past two years have remained relatively normal. People still go shopping, get married, have children, work around the house. Hospitals still operate but the education system has virtually come to a standstill. I really worry about all the students who are missing out on education: What are we going to do about them?
All traces of culture – poetry, literature, music – have disappeared; although some people still play music and practice art in secret.
Food and clothing are freely available. The city’s needs are filled by truckers coming from Syria, and these have never stopped. Cigarettes are banned by Daesh but smokers still manage to get them smuggled in – though they’re usually poor quality and cost about four times as much. One thing that is scarce if medicine. If you can even get what you need, it will cost you a lot.
I have been asked before how Daesh managed to control such a large city. Daesh’s administrative system was akin to a series of government departments. It’s based on the idea of different “diwan”, or offices, taking responsibility for certain things in the city. They actually used some of the existing infrastructure in Mosul, like departments for municipal services, power and health. They ordered the employees there to keep working. Anyone who refused was punished.
For security they established their own police department and also a department for their morality police, to make sure that people are obeying their rules – things like not smoking, women wearing the niqab and so on. They also have an office that prosecutes anybody who criticises Daesh. To find these critics, Daesh relies on a network of loyal informants. Often these are women and children.
But really, terror is the main method of controlling the city. Right from the beginning, Daesh was beheading people, or executing them out in public, basically to frighten and terrorise the city’s people
They kill for the most trivial reasons: For making a phone call, for using a word that might offend God. They killed thousands and threw their corpses into a hole in the ground, instead of returning the dead to their families. They are savages.
It’s a very tough situation psychologically. Some families have lost three or four members, either through Daesh or some have been killed by airstrikes too. When Daesh kills somebody, the deceased is classified as an infidel even if he was a Muslim. So, his family cannot mourn him properly. In a lot of cases, the organization doesn’t even return the body.
I think it is important that we also focus on the psychological impact Daesh has had. If they are allowed to have a lasting impact on peoples’ psyches, then that is disastrous. People in Mosul have witnessed murder, horror, siege, bombardment and extreme poverty.
I have no doubt that most of the people of Mosul truly hate Daesh now. People have changed their minds since the group began showing its real nature. I believe that after all the looting, killing and kidnapping, even those who celebrated Daesh’s coming now feel differently. I would estimate that today only a tiny percentage – maybe 3 percent – are genuine supporters of Daesh. And a lot of those people are teenagers, or they are criminals, or people who had a similar frame of mind to Daesh in the first place.
The son of one of our neighbours joined Daesh and I used to see him driving around in an SUV that once belonged to the security forces. He carried a gun and I would make sure I didn’t look at him when he passed our place. I’ve since heard that he was killed in an air strike last year.
Why don’t the people of the city rise up and resist Daesh? I have tried to answer this question many times. But it’s complicated. I hope I can do the answer justice.
First of all, I want to point out that there is some resistance in Mosul. It’s just that it’s not strong and not organized. Which means we cannot depend on it.
And there are other reasons too. When Daesh came, they basically got rid of any other armed groups in the city. These were told to join Daesh or leave, or be killed. There are not enough weapons in the city to fight Daesh; they control the Iraqi army’s arsenal here. And once again, there is Daesh’s brutality. They don’t hesitate to kill children, women and men if they are threatened. Fear prevents people from joining any resistance.
It’s also about politics. Mosul’s people worry that there are no other alternatives for them. In the beginning they really thought that all other alternatives would be worse than Daesh. They worried that other Iraqis believed they were all terrorists and that there would be acts of revenge, especially from the more extreme Shiite Muslim groups [the volunteer militias known as the al-Hashd al-Shaabi].
To be honest, I do believe there is a high chance of reprisals against the families of those people who joined, or supported, Daesh. I am really worried that these reprisals will happen on a huge scale in those first few days, after the Iraqi army enters the city but before they get a good grip on security there. I feel that the families that supported Daesh should be taken out of the city immediately, and only returned when there is some law and order and justice can be done.
The way I see it, there are a lot of different factors that led to Daesh’s being able to take over my city. The weakness of the government, the absence of law and order, rampant corruption in the security forces, poverty and ignorance, a lack of trust between different sectors of Iraqi society – the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish – as well as the lack of any kind of cultural or religious institution that could confront extremist ideologies with dialogue. All those things need to be addressed.
My hopes for Iraq now are the same as those of my teacher, voiced 13 years ago.
I was a student in my first year of college when the US brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in April of 2003. My teacher gave us a lecture and it was the very first time I had ever heard him speak with such complete freedom and pride. He told us that in ten years’ time, Iraq would be a developed country, one that enjoyed security, economic progress and many freedoms – personal, religious and political. Two years later he was dead, murdered in a terrorist attack.
Still I have hope. I want Iraq to change. Daesh has only done one good thing – and by that, I mean that I hope it has made people reject radical religious thoughts and made them want peaceful coexistence and to rebuild their city. I don’t want my children to live through, or see, the same tragedies that I have lived through and seen.
Related video added by Juan Cole: