The Daily Death (And Stupidity) When ISIS Controls Your Town
Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq, and in June of 2014, ISIS captured it. Last weekend, the Iraqi Army liberated the city after three years of vicious fighting. I visited Mosul twice this year, the last time just two weeks ago. I talked to dozens of people who had to live under the rule of the Islamic State, and then had to survive the deadliest urban combat since WW2 just to get to safety. Their stories were all harrowing, but also not exactly what you'd expect...
The People Thought ISIS Was On Their Side, At First
ISIS are bad guys. And not the morally complex kind of bad guys Vince Gilligan would write. They may be the West's most clear and unassailable archetype of "a bunch of assholes" since the Third Reich. But over in Iraq, things were a bit muddled. For many Sunnis, the government that preceded ISIS didn't seem much better. President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, had a number of Sunni politicians (including his own vice president) arrested on trumped-up charges, and even sentenced to death. That was pretty much par for the course, for Sunnis in Iraq.
Yup; we're filling out the "brutal, dictatorial asshole" bingo card right off the top, today.
But ISIS is a Sunni organization. So when they first showed up on the scene, promising to protect Sunnis against a government that had often done the opposite, a lot of people took them at their word. Abu Kaes was one of them.
He worked as a chef for a TV station in Mosul, and when ISIS first took the city in 2014, he ran the fuck away, as you'd expect. But then, unwisely only in retrospect, he came back:
"After I made contact with my family, they said there was nothing dangerous. At first, it was strange seeing IS with their long hair and beards ... there were no police, there was no public transit. There was almost no school ... At first they wanted to gain people's trust. Prove they would not be dangerous."
Though maybe ditching the full terrorist uniform to direct traffic might have helped that perception.
I met Abu Kaes at the Khazer refugee camp, outside of Mosul. He eventually fled ISIS control, and the many explosions that surround them. I met his friends, Abu Haider and Abu Ahmed, at the same camp. All of these names are mocking pseudonyms, picked by my sources. Abu means "father of," and it's a common nickname schema in the Arab world. But it was also adopted by many of the foreign fighters who joined ISIS. Like this Canadian convert who called himself "Abu Muslim:"
Like the first disastrous sip of expired milk, Abu Haider thought ISIS was going to be all right at first.
"In the beginning when they came, they were so nice. They told us that even if killed a thousand , we don't do anything, we will show mercy in the world ... But after two months they changed. They were finding excuses to kill people, and they became strict."
During our first trip to Mosul, I talked with dozens more civilians who'd lived under ISIS rule. Every Sunni reported that ISIS had "played nice" at first. I asked Abu Haider why:
"It was just like a political game. Their goal was to convince people ... to make people relax, and then put in their rules."
The ol' bait and switch and then get everybody bombed repeatedly.
Abu Ahmed told us one story to illustrate this, " brother was like police, former police from Mosul, and all government employees who had , they had to take it to ISIS. This was one of the orders. So my brother was like, 'I won't see them. Can you take my pistol to them?' took it to the ISIS fighter and he asked, 'Who's pistol is this?'
'That's my brother's. His name is Hussein.'
'Oh, yes, Hussein, the guy who was inspecting women?'
'I don't know.'"
(ISIS aren't real big on men having direct contact with women who aren't members of their family.)
"Yes, he was inspecting women," claimed the ISIS guy. "But we have an order from Baghdadi, we're not doing anything to government employees. If not, I would cut him into pieces."
Abu Ahmed's brother was strangely not comforted by that statement, and got the fuck out of Mosul. He headed for nearby (and much safer) Erbil. That wound up being a smart decision, because after two months in charge, ISIS went from playing nice to demanding loyalty pledges on pain of death. Abu Kaes explained:
"There is a word, bay'ah, accepting ISIS rule and being faithful to them."
Bay'ah is a pretty complicated concept, but for now, Abu Kaes' explanation is close enough. ISIS wanted a loyalty pledge:
"Some people would not do that. When only a few people followed, they became aggressive. They took 80 of these people, and made a hall a prison, and demanded bay'ah every day."
The people that refused were kept in the prison for several days, until finally, "they would dress them in orange clothes. That means it's the last day. Then they would hang people."
On the upside, I can report that they did not steal horses.
And once that horrific cat was out of the bag ...
Liking The Wrong Thing On Facebook Is A Death Sentence
ISIS is very social media and Internet savvy. But that's just the face they present to the world. The people who live under them can't even safely use Facebook. Phone use is actively prohibited; the wrong sort of social media use can be a death sentence. Here's Abu Kaes again:
"A friend of mine who lives in Yarmouk (a part of Mosul) opened Facebook. He'd 'liked' the Facebook page for the old governorate of Mosul. His neighbor went through Facebook and found out, and he told ISIS. Once he showed them, they captured and tied his hands ... I saw with my own eyes, they tied him and four other accused, and called a civilian to come up and shoot these five people."
His theory is that the civilians they picked to do this weren't really civilians:
"They were ISIS. They did it to set an example for the other civilians. They killed all five."
We don't know if Kaes was right about the secret ISIS agents, but the Islamic State has used civilians to execute other civilians before. Here's a screengrab of a video, wherein they make a six-year-old shoot a dude in the head on a playground:
ISIS's dealings with children are less "happy, innocent kids" and more ... war crimey.
And speaking of unspeakable crimes against children, Abu Kaes told us the story of one 13-year-old:
"He had cigarettes and a mobile phone. One time he called his cousin in the military. ISIS found out, took him, and executed him." When we asked him what kinds of executions ISIS seemed to prefer, Abu Kaes told us that, in his experience, "It depends on the crime. Sometimes they capture, and hang them on a wall, and put three to five bullets in their head. Some were beheaded by saw. Some were hung."
Never thought "death by hanging" would be the best option, did you?
Not that they're above getting murderously "creative," too.
Skirting Brutal ISIS Laws Takes Some Ingenuity
So the mere possession of cigarettes, alcohol, or cellphones could get a Mosul resident executed. But people still found ways to make phone calls, smoke cigarettes, and get drunk. I met Abu Haider during an overnight visit with a Mosul civil defense team (they're the folks who pull civilians out of buildings destroyed by ISIS, the Iraqi army, or the coalition). He still has family in ISIS-held West Mosul.
"One cigarette, now, in ISIS territories, is 7,000 dinars." He told us about his friend, who bought a pack of cigarettes for 25,000 Iraqi dinars, and resold them for 7,000 dinars each to the recently liberated citizens of Mosul. On one hand, that's war profiteering. On the other, he probably helped people cut down on their smoking. So ... wash?
That's about $6 for a single Kool, if you were wondering.
A single egg in ISIS territory cost almost $2 USD. You can buy 30 eggs in nearby Erbil for the same price. Abu Haider said:
"A bottle of oil for cooking stuff, one liter is like $25,000."
Or five dollars. Sounds about right in the US, but Iraq's average income is $4,000, and most of these people haven't been paid in years.
"My family now, they are eating flour and some wheat."
As for calls: Citizens dismantled and hid each part of their phone separately. They made calls out. Nobody made calls in. Phones were impossible to charge openly, but the ISIS fighters still had generators and lights, so civilians took to rewiring those lights and using them to charge their batteries.
Iron-fisted theocratic regimes aren't always great at prioritizing infrastructure.
Our fixer, Mosul native Sangar Khaleel, told us:
"Everyone in Mosul, they became creative. Because, yeah they use the car batteries and stuff for making power ..."
An example: Earlier that night, we'd watched as one of the Civil Defense guys made his own extension cord to power an old CRT-television. Clear And Present Danger came on. At one point in the film Willem Dafoe, playing a special-ops guy, calls in an airstrike on a Columbian drug lord. I suddenly realized I was watching Hollywood's version of an airstrike, with a room full of people who cleaned up after actual airstrikes on a daily basis.
The reality is moderately less attractive than Harrison Ford.
Sangar explained that he had friends in occupied Mosul who fermented their own alcohol. Despite the repressive theocratic hellstate and the constant explosions, "they were drinking almost every night."
Well, that's about the most understandable thing we've ever read.
It's Going to Be A While Before The Beard Recovers In Iraq
On our first trip, we spent two days in West Mosul, and one day in East Mosul, the liberated part of town. East Mosul looks like this:
And West Mosul looks like this:
Which, eagle-eyed viewers may note, could pass for a screenshot from fucking Fallout.
On our second trip, the Iraqi Army had advanced further, and we visited a section of Mosul's Old City that had been liberated from ISIS a couple of hours before. Here's how that looked:
So ... a lot of people in the city don't exactly remember their time under ISIS rule fondly. One trivial little consequence of this citywide trauma is that Mosul civilians react to a bearded man as if he's a scimitar-carrying terrorist.
Replace the gun with a Chrome bag, and the horse with a fixie, and this guy could be in Portland. (They also like scimitars in Portland.)
This immediately became a problem for ... me.
The beard part, that is. Airport security confiscated my scimitar before we ever made it to Iraq.
At checkpoints, soldiers would put their hands on their sidearms when I walked up. Civilians would whisper "Daesh?" in hushed tones. I was warned repeatedly that I looked like a jihadi. Most of the soldiers eventually thought it was funny; none of the civilians felt the same way.
My team and I wound up drinking tea and smoking cigarettes after dinner with the Civil Defense guys. We all started talking, and at one point they came around to joking about my beard and how it made me look like a bloodthirsty ISIS man. Someone said I should have trimmed it before coming, and I insisted I had. Then I showed them my old driver's license photo as proof:
"It says here you're only licensed to drive a reindeer-driven sleigh."
Everyone laughed, pointed to me and shouted, "Al-Baghdadi!" -- as in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Caliph of the Islamic State. They called me that the rest of the night.
I don't see the resemblance.
Abu Haider, who spent more than two years under ISIS rule, complained: "For a man, you are not allowed to shave your beard. Only the mustache you could shave."
I shaved more for my second trip. But not all the way. That would've been letting ISIS win.
The repressive policies were -- as basically all things are -- much worse for women. Although ISIS does have a remarkable knack for making things suck almost equally for everybody.
"If they saw a woman not wearing her clothes properly, they would punish the husband or the father ... they lash the husband, they take money, $50,000, and jail him for a couple of days. In the beginning you could have your eyes showing, but then they told us everything must be covered. Even the eyes."
Because that's an appropriate garment for a city that regularly gets up to 108 degrees.
Abu Haider let me know that, as awful as this sounded, some "funny stuff" also resulted from the years of ISIS rule. Here's his favorite story:
" women were in the clinic, waiting for their turn to see the doctor. A man came in and gave his wife money. But the woman was not his wife! He got the wrong one because they all looked the same."
He laughed. I got the feeling he took every possible opportunity to laugh.
Mosul could really use a good stand-up scene.
What It's Like To Live Through Constant Bombing Raids
Abu Ahmed told us a story about one man in his neighborhood who was caught calling in the location of ISIS soldiers stationed in a nearby house to the Iraqi army. They sent in an airstrike.
"The air strike arrived and destroyed a building. IS ran around the place shooting. None of the neighbors came out, afraid of being shot. IS took their injured men and, to punish the neighborhood, they cut holes in the doors. A single IS soldier stood in each house. IS were killing themselves to kill these families, just to make them afraid."
Stories like that may help explain this chart:
To summarize, airstrikes killed way too many civilians.
Abu Ahmed also told us about the time "an ISIS sniper was on the roof to shoot at a plane, and the whole family died as the result of an airstrike against him. Sixteen people."
The Civil Defense guys I hung out with pull corpses (and wounded survivors, but more often corpses) out of the rubble of those destroyed buildings. They noted that during relief efforts, they have seen "doors welded shut by ISIS," and that "ISIS use snipers on those who try to escape."
At the same time, Amnesty International has also noticed some coalition behavior that may lead to civilian casualties, too: The coalition often drops leaflets on neighborhoods, warning everyone in that neighborhood to stay indoors.
... Right before they bomb the shit out of that neighborhood.
Hundreds of civilians have reportedly died in these strikes. Sources in the Iraqi military have noted that coalition forces are a bit freer with the airstrikes since President Trump took office. There have been allegations that these relaxed standards mean less vetting of air-strike targets, which might be responsible for the disastrous strike on the Jedideh neighborhood that killed as many as 200 civilians hiding in basements. (For his part, the Civil Defense colonel I spoke with said his men had only pulled 109 bodies out of Jedideh.)
They haven't yet invented giant bombs that only kill bad guys.
Seventy-seven percent of the people who died in the first ten years of the Iraq War were civilians. At one point during our time at the front line, the Iraqi Federal Police mortar unit we were with had a duel with some snipers. The snipers shot at us, the police fired mortar shells back at them, and eventually the spotters radioed in to say the sniper was dead. It took seven rounds.
Which is to say, a LOT of explosives peppering the town.
I was so happy when they killed that fucker that I cheered. Later, in the car, our fixer Sangar looked over to me and said: "I wonder where those other mortar rounds landed ..."
"What do you mean?"
"He fired six or seven rounds. One of them killed the sniper. Where do you think the others went?"
"I don't know," I said.
Some of them, he was sure, had hit civilians. That's the nature of war in a city. On my second trip into Mosul, I met a man who'd fled ISIS territory with his entire family, literal minutes before I met him. He told me that his house had been hit by 20 mortar rounds in the last four months. He was lucky, though: His family survived, along with his mother's many, many pet chickens.
Like, an unreasonable amount of chickens to carry out of a war zone.
On the first night of our second trip to Mosul, we sat up at another Civil Defense base that overlooked the Old City. All night, we saw tracer fire light up the sky and listened as airstrikes pounded the city. The next day we visited the site of several of those airstrikes, and a sergeant with Iraq's elite Golden Division explained to me that the main use of the airstrikes was to fuck up the roads enough that ISIS wouldn't be able to drive their explosives-filled vehicles at the advancing Iraqi soldiers. The strategy seemed to work, but it came at a terrible cost. Here's what that sort of thing looks like:
What I can't convey in this article is how it smelled. There were certainly people buried inside. It was impossible to know if those people were ISIS fighters, or civilians. The best case scenario is "both, probably."
The People Turned On Each Other
Remember Abu Kaes, the guy who fled Mosul shortly after ISIS took power, but came back when his family assured him it was safe?
"So I came back for a year and worked in a bakery. Then one day IS came to the bakery and asked, 'Is that you, Abu Kaes?'" Spoiler alert: it was! Double spoiler alert: It wasn't a good thing that IS asked for him by name.
They took him "down many corridors so I would be lost," then questioned him. They thought the show he used to work on might belong to an American station, and that he'd been (gasp!) feeding Americans. "They asked if I had a weapon, or a SIM card." He was questioned until 3 a.m. "They hung me from a wall."
They said they had killed seven other people who were found with SIM cards. Perhaps it was preferable if he'd had a weapon? They seem to be less worried about those.
Possibly because a pistol can't call in an airstrike.
"They were scared I might give my location to the Iraqi army," Abu Kaes said. He only eventually got out because his fellow citizens vouched for him: "After the questioning, ISIS took my picture and went around the city asking if Abu Kaes was dangerous. People said no, and so ISIS had no justification to keep me."
Abu Kaes learned later why ISIS went after a humble chef at all.
"My cousin accused me, he told them I was feeding Americans as well as our own local TV people. IS told me I would be killed for this, and I told them I would never give Americans food."
The bakery Abu Kaes worked for was owned by his brother. And their cousin wanted to kill his brother for ... some dumb reason or another. ISIS was just the instrument of revenge.
Abu Kaes also had another beheading story for us. As a general rule, everyone we talked to had at least one "beheading story."
"They beheaded my friend because of his phone. He called someone in Erbil, and they were like why are you calling people from KRG? So they took him and beheaded him ... a brother killed another brother ... he killed him because of that phone call."
"ISIS have the video on YouTube. If you search for it, you can find it: 'ISIS fighter kills his brother.'"
We'll be content with just a screencap, thanks.
Now that ISIS has been kicked out of most of the city, the denouncing goes the other way. Here's Mr. Mohammed, a teacher we met in the Khazer camp, " Arabs from Mosul are suspected of being ISIS. If anyone hates a person they can go to authorities and denounce them and they can be questioned and imprisoned."
He's heard anyone in Mosul can go to Special Forces and tell them someone is an IS sympathizer: "We want our message sent to Baghdad, to not let a single accusation let someone be convicted being with ISIS."
On the upside, Special Forces guys smile a lot more in Iraq.
But despite having been denounced himself, Abu Kaes plans to denounce his cousin right back as soon as he returns home, "Once we go to Mosul I will go to the Special Forces and tell them what my cousin did. Whatever my cousin did to me, I will do to him. But to the police, not ISIS."
The Blame For ISIS Rests On A Lot Of Shoulders (Not All Of Them Deserving)
Ms. Faeruz is a 32-year veteran teacher. She told us that Hillary Clinton invented ISIS:
"I heard Hillary Clinton say, 'We created ISIS and we are going to destroy ISIS.' Journalists should know this."
Four of her fellow teachers repeated the same story.
We heard the same conspiracy theory from Major Mezher Sadoon, a former Iraqi SWAT officer, who currently heads Iraq's Emergency Response Division. He said he was "not sure actually," if the rumor was true. But he'd definitely heard a lot of people spreading it. It's rampant in East Mosul, and not because they're all big Infowars fans. The culprit appears to be the language barrier. You can find a number of videos all based on the same "shocking" Hillary Clinton speech:
Apparently the "whatever YouTube says is probably wrong" rule hasn't made it to Iraq quite yet.
Her actual speech says this:
"Let's remember here ... the people we are fighting today, we funded them 20 years ago."
She's talking about the mujahideen in Afghanistan, as part of a basic admission that the insurgents we helped train for a fight against the Russians wound up laying the groundwork for al-Qaeda and a number of modern terrorist organizations. It's the kind of thing that's so obviously true it shouldn't be controversial. But if you don't speak great English, "we created them" is the clearest line in her whole speech.
Not that you can blame them. Most Americans seem pretty hazy on what we're up to in the Mideast without a language barrier to blame.
Major Mezher's seen a terrifying amount of combat in his life. (You can read about him in this insane New Yorker article). He says he's tired of war, but he doesn't think the end of ISIS will be the end of anything.
"They are going to sell Mosul, sell Iraq again."
Some (re)assembly required.
Major Mezher has a lot of questions about just what the hell happened to his country, and how a couple hundred terrorists could capture a city of two million.
"ISIS are stupid. But the one who guided them, who are they? There is a brain to guide them and to move them. Who is that brain?"
Many civilians echoed the sentiment: An absurdly tiny number of ISIS soldiers had captured the city. The most common figure I heard cited was 300. The actual number of ISIS soldiers was probably more like 1,500. But considering they were up against 60,000 Iraqi soldiers and heavily armed Federal Police, they should have been massacred. Three different people asked me (as a proxy for America) how this could have happened.
This is an Iraqi Federal Police officer. They, um, roll deep these days.
There are a lot of reasons why the city fell: Iraq's shitty president Nouri Al-Maliki refused to listen when the city government warned him about ISIS. The head of Mosul's defense forces went on vacation right before the attack. Thousands of the soldiers defending the city didn't actually exist; they were paper fictions told so their commanders could take more money from the government. But this stuff isn't common knowledge in Mosul, and the conspiracy theories flow like fine wine from the Alex Jones vineyard
"It's not about ISIS. They are a strong group. I just want to tell you America has strong groups . Why then allow this to happen? Why is this same stuff not happening in Israel? Not the UAE, not Kuwait, Qatar... What I am trying to tell you is, why does America not allow us to live like the Kuwaitis and Emiratis and Qataris?"
For reference, this is how they're living now.
Those are reasonable objections. A lot of Iraq's current problems trace back to the racist and almost comically corrupt government of Nouri al-Maliki, a man the U.S. government backed enthusiastically from 2006 to 2014.
"In 1945, American attacks two countries, and the wars end. Now they have bases in Germany and Japan." Major Mezher knows his history; he knows that the U.S. rebuilt Germany and Japan after bombing them into rubble. "Why not do that here?"
We actually spent around $60 billion trying to rebuild Iraq. But thanks to a combination of incompetence and fraud (by both nations) most of that money was wasted on stuff like half-built prisons in the middle of nowhere, and outright bribery. Twelve billion in cash, the largest funds transfer in federal reserve history, disappeared with very little documentation of where it went. These conspiracy theories are actually doing the U.S. government a sort of favor. At least in the version where Hillary Clinton invented ISIS, we come off as semi-competent.
If you'd like to help the people of Mosul, please donate to the International Rescue Committee.
Special thanks to Sangar Khaleel and Ayar Rasool, whose journalistic instincts and compassion made this article possible.
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