An Interview with Omar Mohammed
In June 2014, the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) launched an assault on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Within days, the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS proclaimed its sovereignty over the city. An anonymous blog named Mosul Eye began reporting on life under ISIS rule. With details about daily life alongside social and historical analysis, Mosul Eye documented the transformations that ISIS imposed on Mosul—including the expulsion of Shiites and Christians, the enslavement of Yazidis, strict gender segregation, rape, torture and executions—as well as the impact of air strikes by the US, Turkish, and Iraqi militaries. Coalition forces defeated ISIS in July 2017. Five months later, historian Omar Mohammed revealed that he was the anonymous Mosul Eye. MERIP Editorial Committee member Andy Clarno spoke to him by phone on May 22, 2018.
– Could you begin by speaking about the processes that created the conditions for ISIS to gain power in Mosul?
– Before I speak of this, let me say something important. Mosul wasn’t destroyed in 2014. Mosul has been systematically destroyed since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. But there is a difference between destruction by a terrorist group like ISIS and destruction by a government. After World War I, the British succeeded in having the city recognized as part of Iraq. Many Ottoman buildings were demolished—first under the British Mandate and later under King Faisal. This destruction became a pattern. Every new government tried to hide or demolish what was left by the former government. After 1958, the new republican government destroyed symbols of British and Hashemite power in Mosul. And when the Baath Party came to power in 1968, they wanted to demolish symbols of the royal and republican regimes. So, Mosul wasn’t destroyed in 2014. With ISIS, the destruction was more obvious because they destroyed buildings, historical sites and the whole history of the city. This was the last stage of destruction.
– What was happening that created the conditions for ISIS to gain power in Mosul?
– Back in the 1990s, Saddam’s regime began what is known as the Faith Campaign, which sought to build support for the regime through a more open embrace of salafi Islam. Northwest Mosul was an important base of Salafism. South of Mosul is another area where Salafism was growing quickly because this kind of ideology—Salafism, Wahhabism or extremism—found a perfect environment to flourish.
Saddam gave tribal sheikhs from these regions power in the city, power over the urban population. And with that power, they brought extremism into the city. Over time, Mosul became a more tribal city. There was no longer any need to go to the courts because sheikhs would resolve problems through a kind of reconciliation between tribal leaders.
Historically, Mosul had conservative religious beliefs, but it was Sufi. Sufism was part of our societal traditions, and politically it wasn’t extremist. If we remained with the old Sufism, we wouldn’t have ISIS. But when Saddam brought Salafism to Mosul, everything changed. Mosul was a city that used to celebrate the coexistence of diverse cultures, a city that had Christians, Yazidis, Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds, liberals and women who didn’t wear the hijab or niqab. All of this changed as the city became more conservative, more salafi.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, all of the tribal sheikhs, Baath Party officials and salafi leaders in the city lost power. This was the context for the emergence of a second generation of salafi leaders. They weren’t with the tribes that supported Saddam. They included former members of the Baath Party, including military commanders and soldiers who lost their jobs. This Salafism was more highly organized than before. In 2004, we saw the first attacks against the US Army in Mosul.
By mid–2004, we began to hear about al-Qaeda in Iraq and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
After the US invasion, those who opposed al-Qaeda and Salafism left Mosul, leaving it abandoned. When I say Mosul, I mean the city with a civilian government, a social structure and coexistence. That city couldn’t survive. Conflict began to arise between tribes, but Mosul was in the hands of the jihadis by 2005. By then, it was normal to see the name of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Death became normal. It’s sad, but if a day went by and we didn’t see a corpse in the street, a dead body, a beheaded man or a burnt car, we would say: What happened? Why didn’t anything happen today?
Was ISIS already collecting taxes at that time?
– Not very much. They were more focused on oil because trucks were moving oil from Mosul to Syria and Kurdistan. This was their main source of income.
The civil war that flared up in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 gave the jihadis more reasons to recruit people. In 2010, their power decreased because of a government offensive. At that time, the eastern part of Mosul was safer because it was completely controlled by the government. But there was trouble in the western part of the city, where ISIS had a stronger presence.
In 2011, there were a few months of peace. The number of burnt cars decreased. We were able to go to parks, to travel to Baghdad or Kurdistan, to see foreign journalists. But later that year, the US Army withdrawal from Iraq was the kiss of death for Mosul because it enabled ISIS to reemerge.
From 2011 to 2015, ISIS was collecting taxes on a daily basis. My brother, who died during the battle when a mortar shell hit his house, had to pay taxes to ISIS every month. One time, we had to pay the ISIS fighters with an Iraqi army checkpoint just ten meters away. But we couldn’t report it to the police or the army because ISIS would kill us. They already had access to the police administration. And many people who reported threats by ISIS were found dead in the street.
Overall, several processes came together to create the conditions for ISIS to take power. In addition to ISIS’s growing presence, there was increasing corruption and sectarianism within the Iraqi government and the security forces and growing conflict between the local and federal governments. The area between Mosul and Tel Afar was under the control of the Turkmen wing of ISIS, which was based in Tel Afar. In Mosul, whenever you mentioned the Turkmen—the local term was ʿAafari, someone from Tel Afar—it necessarily meant the Islamists, because they had their foot in the city.
So ISIS didn’t occupy Mosul in June 2014, it was already occupying the city; June 2014 was simply the announcement of ISIS rule. The Iraqi army left so quickly because it was ready to collapse. I didn’t expect any other result. I would have been more surprised if things took a different direction and there was peace in Mosul.
– Your blog, Mosul Eye, provided an important lens into life and death in a city under ISIS rule. Looking back, can you reflect on the changes that took place in the city under ISIS—through the displacement of Christians, the enslavement of Yazidis, gender segregation, rape, execution, stoning, torture and air strikes by the United States, Turkey and the Iraqi government?
– I want to be optimistic. I hope the city will restore its normal life and there will again be civil society in Mosul. But to be honest, the social structure of Mosul was completely destroyed. We will never again see the same social structure. Even if Christians decide to go back or Yazidis decide to forgive or Sunnis decide to forgive not only ISIS but also those who caused the problem, Mosul will never be the same again.
– Obviously there was death and fear and distrust, yet somehow people continued living amidst the destruction. Can you talk about how people navigated the death around them while trying to create space for life and human relationships?
– To talk about this, we have to understand that there were different periods under ISIS rule. ISIS applied its law gradually. Ultimately, ISIS began killing people, executing people, torturing people, beheading people. And what happened to Yazidis, Christians and Sunnis gave the people of Mosul a clear understanding of what ISIS was really about. But until the middle of September 2014, ISIS did not completely control life in the city. And people in Mosul didn’t fully understand what was going on. They were still trying to understand ISIS. And ISIS ran the city in ways that corresponded to what people wanted from government. People wanted the government to give them freedom and to end sectarianism and corruption. Most importantly, ISIS worked on providing services and jobs. Of course, this was because jobs provided people with money that ISIS could collect through taxes.
ISIS had a more effective and responsive bureaucracy than the Iraqi government. If people had problems, they would go to ISIS, and ISIS would resolve their problems. ISIS told people that they could live peacefully as long as they followed orders and didn’t work against them. Many ordinary people found that they could continue living their lives. They had services. They had their shops. They had their lives. And many people found new jobs.
Perhaps the most important thing of all (and this says a lot about ISIS and how they understood the system), ISIS brought back the thing that had been missing since 2003: assistance to farmers. People in the western and northwestern parts of Nineveh province were able to return to their agricultural lives. Many people, especially the tribes and farmers, saw this as an opportunity. No government since 2003 had provided them with the support they needed.
– Was the agricultural crisis part of the reason so many people had moved from rural areas into the city?
– OK. But the first impression started to fade after a few months.
– Of course. ISIS followed a familiar pattern of oppression. They recruited spies in the community, so people stopped trusting one another. They weaponized history to advance their narrative. Then they took their terror to another level. They displaced Christians, enslaved Yazidis, killed Shiites, killed Sunnis. ISIS tried to smash the ancient bonds of coexistence between Mosul’s communities. For 4000 years, my city was a city of culture, coexistence, and life. Mosul was a city with a big heart, home to all of its children. The damage caused by ISIS was immense. Life in the Mosul that I knew came to a halt.
Many people became victims during this second period as ISIS exposed its other face. There were more executions and more rules. ISIS became more focused on extracting money and revenue. Yes, ISIS still provided jobs, but it demanded money. Whatever income you took from your job would go back to ISIS through taxes. People also had to pay for services. You had to pay for everything. Along with oil, this was a major source of revenue for ISIS.
ISIS destroyed the history and heritage of all of Mosul’s communities. They tried to replace it with their own version of history. They forced women into captivity. They banned music. And they imposed new social classes based upon jihadist loyalty.
Before ISIS, we had the middle class, the elite, tribes and workers. All of this changed under ISIS. The new social classes were, first, as ISIS called them, the mujahideen, the fighters. They were local members of ISIS, historically known as ansar (supporters), which means people from the city who joined ISIS. They were privileged, the high class. The second class were the foreign fighters. They also had a good deal. The third class were supporters but not necessarily members of ISIS. The fourth class were the commoners, or the ammaas ISIS called them: normal, ordinary people. ISIS always referred to this as the class that produced apostates, spies, jawasis. My family and I became amma. We were always suspected by ISIS and addressed as cowards.
This new class system completely changed life in Mosul. Those who had been in the middle or upper class lost everything. It no longer mattered what name you had or what family you were from. Everything was about whether or not you were a member of ISIS.
– Were most of the ansar from a particular class background?
– Many of those who became high class were from the tribes or the working class. You see, ISIS changed the whole system. And this hasn’t ended. Now, after the defeat of ISIS, there is another class structure. The new upper class is composed of those who worked against ISIS. The second class are those whose family members were killed by ISIS—the victims of ISIS. The third class are those who remained in Mosul—the amma. And the fourth class are those who left the city. It is like they don’t deserve the victory and are not considered part of the liberation.
And now, the upper class is not only made up of people from Mosul, but also people who came from outside to fight against ISIS. They have the right to do whatever they want because they are in the new upper class.
Another social class has emerged after the liberation, made up of people who joined ISIS and their families. They have been excluded from the new society, just like what ISIS did to the Christians, Yazidis and Sunnis who worked against them. In the new situation, people who joined ISIS and their families—even if the family members did not join or support ISIS—are excluded from the new society.
– During the three years of ISIS rule in Mosul, did people from working class backgrounds and rural areas change their views about ISIS? Or did they continue supporting the project?
– For the tribes, it’s kind of changing. Some tribes supported ISIS because they saw an opportunity for agriculture and for support against old enemies. This is especially true in the northwest which was a disputed area. Many Sunni tribes were deported from these areas after 2003. They supported ISIS because ISIS brought them back to their villages.
After two years, some tribes withdrew their support when they realized that ISIS was not what they had expected. They shifted their support to the Iraqi government.
But there are hundreds of individuals, especially religious people, who still support ISIS and believe in the caliphate. Also, the children and relatives of ISIS members who were killed feel abandoned and want revenge still support ISIS.
Social relations are becoming complicated in Mosul because the real problems were not solved. The government came to Mosul and took the city back from ISIS, but they just defeated ISIS on the ground. They didn’t address the problems that led to the emergence of ISIS. And they are ignoring the consequences of ISIS rule and the battle for liberation.
Mosul is now divided in two. The division happened during the battle, because ISIS withdrew from the eastern side several months before they were defeated in the west. Now there are people from the western side of Mosul and people from the east. Mosul is no longer a single city. And there are more social problems and conflicts. I don’t know what will happen in the next few years, but the city will not be the same.
– During the battle to liberate Mosul, you predicted that ISIS would not withdraw from the city but would instead stay and fight. In retrospect, you were right. The battle involved heavy destruction, including thousands of homes and all of the bridges over the Tigris. Was there another way to end ISIS rule without the further destruction of Mosul?
– They had options, not just one option. When the Iraqi security forces and the international coalition decided to retake Mosul, they planned to retake the east side and then move to the west side from north and south. They wanted to open a corridor to the western part of Nineveh province to push ISIS toward Syria. They thought it would be easier to fight in the desert or along the Iraq–Syria border. But Assad was gaining control over more areas in Syria at that time and the Iranian–backed Popular Mobilization Units decided to block the corridor. There was no way to push ISIS out of the city.
Still, they had many other options. If you go back to Mosul Eye, I even described the situation with maps. But no one was listening. They decided to besiege the Old City of Mosul on the west bank. They bombed the Old City for months even though they knew that the houses could be destroyed with just one bullet. And you can see the consequences. We lost our city just so they could say they defeated ISIS. Yes, of course, thank you for defeating ISIS. But at what cost?
– It has been nearly one year since the last ISIS strongholds fell in the Old City. What is the current status of efforts to rebuild Mosul and enable the return of the displaced?
– There has not been much effort to rebuild the infrastructure, just basic services, especially in the eastern part of the city. This is part of the conflict between East and West. The East wasn’t as badly damaged and is getting back to life, while the West is still suffering.
The Old City is completely destroyed. Just two weeks ago they excavated more than 1,000 corpses that were beneath the rubble in the Old City, including children, women and elders. I believe we still have more than 5,000 bodies to find.
Even with these difficulties, western Mosul is getting back to life. People are eager to go back. There has been less in the Old City. A few people decided to go back to their old markets, but no more than ten or 20 shops have been rebuilt. No one buys anything because there are simply no people in the Old City.
To be honest, rebuilding is easy. People can rebuild their city and go back to their lives. They just need some money. If the government provided more money, the city would come back to life. But historic Mosul is gone. UNESCO received money from the United Arab Emirates to rebuild the al-Nuri Mosque and some other historical sites. But Mosul will not be the same. The city with a diverse society and a longstanding social structure is gone. Now, in my opinion, Mosul is only pictures and memories.
– Do you think there are any prospects for rebuilding the diverse city of Mosul with Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Kurd, Yazidis and Christians?
Cities have always played such an important role, not just in Iraq, but throughout the region. What role do you envision cities like Mosul playing in the future of Iraq?
– There is no positive result of any war. But the only good thing that happened in Iraq after the destruction of Mosul is that now, for the first time in 15 years, we see the people of Iraq seeking their national identity.
You have people saying that Mosul was sacrificed to retrieve the national identity. During the Iraqi election in May, we had for the first time a national discourse between Mosul and Basra, Baghdad and Najaf. It is no longer about Shiite or Sunni. It is about whether or not we can rebuild a national identity in Iraq.
In Mosul, all Iraqi blood was mixed together. You had Sunni blood, Yazidi, Shiite, Christian, Arab, Kurd, Turkman. All of the Iraqi blood was mixed in the ground of Mosul. As a citizen of Mosul, I would accept the destruction of my city to see an Iraqi national identity rebuilt.
– That’s a powerful vision. But as you said before, the real problems have not been addressed: There is still the question of what it will take to address those conditions.
– We have something new happening in Mosul now. We have a growing youth movement. It will take a few years for this movement to organize itself, for the youth to recognize themselves as a force that can create change.
When it comes to history, to our previous society, that was destroyed. When it comes to the future, I’m talking about a new city. And to be completely honest, I am no longer a part of the city. This is not my city anymore. My city is gone.
But in the near future you will see more national discourse. People are recalling their history and their good memories to seek a new national identity. They are thinking about the past and what happened in Mosul and searching for a better future. Hopefully, this will lead to a new system in Iraq. This is the first time for young people from Mosul to visit Karbala or Najaf, the so-called Shiite cities, and for people from there to visit Mosul.
Right now, I am preparing an appeal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other political leaders to announce the new government in Mosul. If they really want to change Iraq, they should go to the sacrificed city and announce their new government in Mosul. This could give hope for a future, for a new Iraq. Not the Iraq of 2003. A completely new Iraq with a new system. We will not be able to change the constitution or the corrupt politicians. But after what happened to Mosul, this election could provide an opportunity to build a national identity in Iraq. It seems to me that, for the first time, Iraqis have agreed on the necessity of having a national identity.