MOSUL, Iraq — A year has passed since the extremist group known as the self-declared Islamic State took control of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. On the occasion of this anniversary, the Islamic State, or ISIS as it is widely known, celebrated in its own way. The militants had their cars touring the city streets, playing songs noisily and the fighters distributed sweets to passers-by. Mosques were told that the anniversary was to be a major topic of discussion at Friday sermons and that the slogan of the discussion should be : “The Islamic State will prevail and expand.”
Many people in the city didn't feel quite as happy about the anniversary. Mosul has changed dramatically over the past 12 months. There's been a social coup that residents sum up in a variety of ways.
Previously Mosul was well known for its diverse population. Although the city of 2 million had a Sunni Muslim majority, there were also Christians, Shabaks, Turkmen and Shiite Muslims living. Mosul could be dangerous‑—it had been a base for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, for many years. But there was also a rich cultural life in the metropolis. Now there are only Sunni Muslims, including some Sunni Kurds and Turkmen as well as Arabs.
For the first time Mosul is empty of all of those diverse sectors, says a local researcher, whom we’ll call Muhsen for his own safety. “It's become extremely difficult to overcome the big rift between the different sectors of our society that’s been created,” he said. “Even if displaced people could return to their homes it would be a very difficult decision for them.”
“The presence of ISIS has also fuelled the ongoing conflict between ways of the city and the countryside that we have here,” Muhsen said. “ISIS has favored local villagers who have become more powerful in the city.” He thinks that this is actually one of the most annoying things for the city dwellers, and often a threat as well.
“Villagers have made good use of the ISIS’s presence to increase their influence in our city,” says another local. “Our city has become one big village.”
Over the past year the face of Mosul has changed. The ISIS has destroyed some of the city's most prominent and important historical landmarks—some bits of which, it is suspected, have been sold off for profit.
The faces of the people of Mosul have also changed. It has become a city filled with bearded men and heavily veiled women. Almost everyone goes to their local mosque regularly and nobody drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes, at least not in public.
“My husband has a beard and my daughter and I wear a veil, so that we are abiding by the rules set by the Islamic State,” says Suad, a former employee at the University of Mosul, noting how much her life has changed. “I am no longer able to leave the house unless I am accompanied by a man from the family.”
This is all part of ISIS's cunning plan, Muhsen suggests. “The emphasis on clothing and behavior is well planned,” he argues. “Even the vocabulary that is used by the extremists is becoming more popular among the people— and they don't even notice how their way of speaking is changing.”
The younger people of Mosul are even more vulnerable, Muhsen continues. “Children and adolescents are attracted to the atmosphere of violence and exciting adventures. These children will become a foundation for truly devastating violence in the future because they're seeing terrible acts—like beheadings, amputations, stonings and people being thrown from high buildings.”
“The stronger party is always able to impose its ideology on others,” he concludes.
On a financial level, ISIS has paralyzed the city’s economy. There is a virtual army of unemployed in Mosul now and many local business people believe this is also deliberate.
“ISIS is waging a war against our livelihoods,” says Latif, a former cigarette seller. “It's trying to thwart any project that could generate an income. This means there are no more wealthy people in this city and a new, affluent class has started to emerge.”
Most of the people in this class are members of ISIS, says the merchant, who was recently arrested by ISIS members enforcing the law that says Muslims shouldn’t smoke; he spent time in prison, had his goods confiscated and had to pay ISIS almost all of his savings as a fine. “I lost everything,” he says.
Latif believes that this is also a deliberate ploy. The ISIS is impoverishing everyone in the city so that the poor are forced to embrace the group. ISIS has a finger in almost every profitable pie in Mosul, collecting taxes, taking a share of profits or enforcing fines. This means ISIS ends up well paid and able to set up other moneymaking projects in the city. Mosul locals see this and compare it to their own increasingly destitute circumstances.
On the other side of the coin, Mosul is now cleaner. ISIS wants to be seen as an administration capable of looking after the city, and a month ago the group began a campaign to clean, pave and light the city streets. This was an important achievement, says Abdo, who used to work as an engineer for the provincial council before ISIS arrived, because successive Iraqi governments were never able to finish that job.
“Also, the city is now 90 percent safe,” says Abdo, who supports ISIS. “That is another of the group's most important achievements. The only sources of real concern are air bombardments by the international coalition.”
It may well be true that the city is now cleaner and safer—but it has come at a cost. In a large city like Mosul, ISIS depends on a number of different forces, including its Islamic police and an intelligence network of collaborators and supporters, to control the populace. ISIS appoints its own judges to its own courts and the justice system, while allegedly based on traditional Sharia law, is often amended to suit the group's needs; one of the judges was well known for beating defendants on the head with a shoe.
But ISIS’s biggest and most effective tool is terror. From the very beginning the organization has meted out the harshest, most horrifying sanctions against opponents of its project here. And ISIS has also forced locals to watch these punishments being implemented, making them even more frightened.
One local, Khudair, was detained for several weeks in one of ISIS’s prisons in Mosul. “The worst thing was when they took me to Al Khafsa and threatened to throw me in,” Khudair says, referring to the large cavern outside of the city that has been used as an impromptu burial ground for the locals ISIS executed. “They didn't though, they took me back to prison.”
Whether they're enjoying their city under ISIS or not doesn't matter to most locals—they cannot really leave either way. Mosul locals cannot leave unless they fulfill nigh on impossible conditions.
Samira, a pensioner, had to mortgage her house to ISIS so she could travel from Mosul to Baghdad for a period of 20 days and it took her three days to go through all the bureaucracy that was required before she was able to leave. “If I don't come back within that 20 days, the house will be confiscated,” she explains.
As it is, the only entrance and exit to Mosul is the road leading to Syria—specifically Raqqa, the other major, operational city ISIS holds. Which is why the locals who want to leave believe the only way out is to Syria and then onto Turkey. But this, too, is a subject of discussion and debate inside Mosul a year after ISIS took control here. Even if they manage to get out, where would they go? What will happen to those who lived under ISIS, once the city is liberated? And perhaps most importantly, how long can they wait until things change—or will it be like this forever?
This story is adapted from one that appeared originally on Niqash.org.