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Mosul, an inside story, part 2: ISIS and the ugly face of extremism

Iraq -

Over the coming weeks, in a five-chapter series, we will share an inside story of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. It will be told through the eyes of former Cordaid employee Othman Khalil, who grew up in the city during the Iraq War and survived occupation by ISIS. In love with his maimed city, he began humanitarian work right after the liberation battle. And he hasn’t stopped since.    

“Sometimes people say ISIS was born in Mosul. It’s not true. They started in the desert areas, far outside the city. From there, they moved around freely between Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, recruiting their fighters, preparing their attacks. Their leader, Al Baghdadi, had spent time in an American prison in Iraq. This is how he started rising to fame.

Othman took Frank van Lierde on a tour of Mosul in February 2023 and visited sites that hold painful memories.

By early 2014, targeted jihadist attacks inside the city increased in number and extremist groups controlled parts of Mosul, part of the time. Then one day, in June, three hundred ISIS fighters entered Mosul. World media exaggerated things, saying there were thousands of them, making them bigger than they actually were. But three hundred is already a nightmare! You cannot imagine what only one armed extremist can do in a city. Let alone three hundred. Within a week, on June 14, they had conquered Mosul. We all knew this was more than just another wave of killings. This time, the city was lost.

Three hundred vs. seventeen thousand

How can three hundred fighters take over a city of millions, defended by over seventeen thousand Iraqi soldiers? If every soldier had only shot one bullet the jihadists would not have stood a chance. But Iraqi soldiers came from completely different areas, making them less intrinsically motivated to defend a city that wasn’t theirs. And ISIS fighters were extremely scary, apt to do anything, anytime, from using chemical weapons to suicide attacks. They chose to take Mosul because they knew that the Sunni population had been underserved for decades and were traumatised by the US raids and attacks. Their resentment, grievances and frustrations made them lean more towards armed, fellow Sunnis who, in the beginning, claimed they would support them and do them justice.

“Mosul fell after only a week.”

Besides all this, there were many hidden national and international political agendas that had something to gain from the quick collapse of our city. And collapse it did. Mosul fell after only a week.

Life stops

I was 19 and about to start my first year of mechanical engineering at university. However, the university was taken over by ISIS. I knew going there would be a waste of time. Degrees would not be accredited by the government in Baghdad. Besides, most of my professors had fled the city. So I quit my studies.

From the start, I knew ISIS was evil. So I did everything I could to avoid them. Like staying inside even more. I even started sleeping during the day, when their fighters and informants could be in the streets, and staying awake at night.

With the universities taken over by ISIS, Othman quit his studies. Degrees would not be accredited and his professors had fled the city. Picture taken outside a book/stationery shop in Mosul in 2023 by Frank van Lierde.

Quickly, the new rulers had sealed off the city. We had considered fleeing, as a family, but we didn’t have the means. And there was the insecurity of jumping into the unknown. And the hope that maybe, just maybe, they would only stay for a couple of weeks, like they had done before. So we stayed. And we had to deal with ISIS for almost four years.

The ISIS occupation has been the worst thing in my life. Nothing compares to it. Life is about growing, going forward, moving on. Now, life stopped.

Adapting to the impossible

The city was sealed off and there was a constant risk and fear of being arrested or being killed for doing the wrong things. We adapted. By no longer shaving and sticking to new dress codes. Our trousers couldn’t cover the ankles. In public places, women had to be fully covered, even the eyes.

“We did go outside, about once a month, to go to the market and buy a stock of essential food items.”

Cell phones were forbidden. First, only the ones with cameras, then sim cards were forbidden, then cell phones altogether. Music was forbidden. Cigarettes were not allowed. Many men, like myself, were avid smokers. No wonder people secretly started trading these very thin cigarettes that were easy to hide. ISIS has left now, but these thin cigarettes are still around.

We also adapted by staying inside, more than we had ever done before. It’s the main reason I was never arrested. We did go outside, about once a month, to go to the market and buy a stock of essential food items. When passing the ISIS checkpoint, we knew exactly what they liked and disliked, what to say, how to look, and what clothes we had to wear. They didn’t like you to be nice and clean.

Who could you trust?

Every single person lived in fear. ISIS fighters and officials wore uniforms, but their informants and spies didn’t. So who could you trust? No one. Even young guys I knew had joined them. Not because they wanted to, but because if they didn’t they’d be killed, or one of their relatives.

We heard of people being extorted. They first had to pay sums of money, and then sell their houses, otherwise, they’d be killed. Or they had to pay a ransom to get back relatives who had disappeared. Suddenly, there were hangings and other forms of public executions and punishments. People disappeared. There’s a big crack in a rock, just outside the city. A dangerous hole that has been there for ages. Back in Saddam Hussein’s days they already wanted to fill it up. Under ISIS it was one of the places they used as a body dump. The bodies are still in there. It’s too hard to take them out. After the liberation, people started using it as a waste dump.

The killings

How did ISIS impose its rule? Not by going door to door, collecting cell phones or other stuff. They just killed youths who used a phone, wore the wrong clothes, and said the wrong things. Either in the street, on the spot, or in public executions. I have seen many people killed in the street. You couldn’t look at them openly, it was too dangerous. With executions it was different. If you happened to be near them, often in crowded marketplaces, you were forced by ISIS to watch. Shopkeepers were forced to stop selling during the event.

ISIS carried out public executions around the city. Othman saw many people killed in the street.

You see that electricity pole out there in the street? On it, like in many other places, they’d hang dead bodies, with a sign saying “a rat”, or “a traitor”. The ways they killed were horrible. People died by hanging, in cages, in pools, and in cars that were shot with rocket-propelled grenades. They were beheaded or killed by electric shock torture. Once, they even let loose a lion in a crowded place. Their sadism had no boundaries. And all these killings were recorded on video and shown in the streets. Everybody saw it, nobody talked about it. We all kept it inside ourselves.

Seeing someone die is very hard. But not being able to do anything, to help, soothe or comfort someone who is dying, is terrible. They always screamed. The only executed person who died quietly was Saddam Hussein. When they scream for help it’s bad enough. But what I remember most, is those who say goodbye. They bid us farewell, the bystanders, including their family members, wives, and children, who were also forced to attend. If you tried to help, you’d be shot immediately.

“No, not all of us were sheep. Some people did resist and speak out. And almost all of them were women.”

She was a rebel

The fear worked very well. The terror turned us all into sheep. In fact, maybe sheep have more courage than people in Mosul at that time. Unlike the days of 2005, there was no talk whatsoever of resistance or organised opposition. Even at home we hardly talked about the horrors we all witnessed. My dad did, a little bit. The only way he had been able to keep his job and feed his family, was by pledging allegiance to the new rulers.

No, not all of us were sheep. Some people did resist and speak out. And almost all of them were women. Mothers. I remember this woman. Her son had been killed for a silly issue, like using his phone. Her grief was such that she couldn’t keep everything inside any longer like most of us did. I still see her, shouting in the street, telling ISIS members they weren’t real Muslims but terrorists. Some would say she had collapsed. No, she was a rebel. And she was shot.

ISIS had taken over the public services of the city amazingly fast. They were well organised. Any counter, any city office you sometimes had to go to, was taken over rapidly. Sometimes you had to go out, to get food, to get some kind of stamp, clearance or certificate. They were everywhere.

Poor guys

They also had a very well-oiled machinery of death. There were centres in town, where men were trained to commit suicide attacks. At one point, we knew our neighbour’s place had been taken over and that suicide attackers were trained there. They were drugged. It was frightening, poor guys. Who knows the horrors they were going through, the pressure and torture they had experienced? I hated them and I pitied them. Young men my age, entered and exited the building, completely dazed. The only thing you could do, when seeing them, was to furtively greet them with a nod. And then, later, you would not see them anymore. We didn’t even talk about this at home. Too dangerous. Too hard.

This was life under ISIS. All my inner standards had changed. Before, not having breakfast was a bad start to the day. Now, spending a day without seeing a killer or seeing someone die, was a good day.

We lived like this for three and a half years, until October 2016. This was when the liberation of Mosul started. And it didn’t come gently.”

Stay tuned

Next week we will publish Part Three of Mosul’s inside story where Othman speaks of Mosul’s liberation. Find it on our website or via our LinkedIn account.

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid