FEAR THY NEIGHBOR
The Terrifying ISIS Sleeper Cells of Mosul
As the ‘final offensive’ to retake the western half of the city begins, the underground networks of ISIS continue to attack in the ‘liberated’ eastern half.
MOSUL, Iraq—The “My Fair Lady” restaurant was making a brisk trade when the suicide bomber stepped into the open-fronted eatery flanking a busy roundabout in east Mosul and detonated the explosives strapped around his waist. The blast swept through the cavernous interior, killing staff and guests enjoying a lunch of kebab, salad, and soup in one of the city’s most famous restaurants.
The owners had defiantly reopened the My Fair Lady, or Sayidati al-Jamila in Arabic, soon after the so-called Islamic State was forced from the east bank of the Tigris, which bisects the city and now forms a natural barrier against the jihadists. With a reputation for good food, and occupying a prime spot in the bustling Zuhour neighborhood, it quickly became popular with locals and security personnel alike, in the process also attracting attention of the wrong kind.
"The restaurant was targeted because life was coming back to Mosul. This restaurant is the center of Zuhour, and Zuhour is the center of east Mosul," says Mohammed, the son of one of the owners.
The 22-year-old Mohammed, who wears a stylish leather jacket and trimmed beard, is close to tears as he recounts how his younger brother, his uncle, and his cousin were among the 10 fatalities of the Feb. 10 attack. His uncle, Hajji Nasser, was one of the three brothers who ran the restaurant, a well-known figure in Mosul and beyond.
When his death became known, condolences began flooding in not just from the city, but from all over Iraq and even from Iraqis living in Europe. Moslawis are horrified not just by his murder, but also by the terror threat that remains alive in the liberated part of the city even as a major new Iraqi government offensive has begun to take the western half.
The suicide attack on the restaurant was not the first bombing in government-controlled Mosul, as ISIS tries to prevent normality from returning to any part of the city, and these attacks raise questions about the extent to which the city as a whole can be brought under control even if the current offensive manages to push out the dug-in ISIS fighters on the western side of the Tigris.
In December, three car bombs reportedly disguised as a funeral procession killed 23 civilians in a crowded part of Gogjali, an outer suburb. From the other side of the river, the insurgents also target east Mosul with mortars and drones that drop grenades on groups of civilians and even schools that have reopened.
Hostilities on the east bank ceased in January after Iraqi special forces cleared it of insurgents in four months of fighting. But as the bombings show, the military was not able to eliminate the jihadist threat, now embodied by ISIS sleeper cells.
With the elite counterterrorism troops redeploying for the assault on west Mosul, the east is now held by a motley mix of army units, militia groups, federal and local police. Rooting out ISIS cells has fallen to the local Nineveh police and the National Security Service (NSS) intelligence agency.
The Nineveh police, Kalashnikov-wielding men in blue combat fatigues, ride on massive U.S.-made pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and patrol the shot-up neighborhoods of east Mosul, navigating their vehicles past bomb craters and collapsed houses to patrol and set up checkpoints.
For this police force, named after the governorate surrounding Mosul, providing security for the city’s inhabitants is a mammoth task.
In part, this is because ISIS conducted extensive recruitment during its two-and-a-half-year rule of the city.
“There are a lot more cells in Mosul now than before the occupation. When people here saw a lot of the country fall to Daesh [ISIS], they thought the government would never take control again and they joined the Islamic State,” says Col. Isham Mahmoud of the NSS.
As ISIS numbers rose, the police force was decimated. The terrorists embarked on a campaign of extermination after storming the city in 2014. Thousands of policemen and security personnel are thought to have been killed after being hunted down by the victorious terror group. The bodies were dumped in mass graves outside the city.
“Daesh took all the policemen and army members they could find and killed them. The majority of the police were killed,” says Ziad Tarek. The 27-year-old policeman was blinded by a roadside bomb before ISIS took over Mosul in 2014, but was tortured and ordered to repent for his involvement in the security forces by the city’s new masters. Fearing for his life, Ziad went into hiding. Over time, he found out about the death of many of his friends in the police.
Prior to ISIS, the police in Mosul numbered 28,000 men, according to Col. Uday Saber, who fled the city for the autonomous Kurdish region, and whose police unit fought alongside the military as it rolled back the caliphate to the doors of Mosul over the past two years. Only 6,000 men now remain in the ranks of the Nineveh police, according to Col. Saber. “There are many men about whom we have no information, we don’t know if they are dead or not,” he says.
Not all have been killed. Policemen and some soldiers that managed to flee Mosul in 2014 are being trained by the Australian and Spanish military in camps in Baghdad, Kut, and Diyala. A first batch of 1,700 men have completed a five-week training course in Baghdad, and are about to be deployed in Mosul.
In a city where sectarian rifts were in the past exacerbated by the poor behavior of the security forces, bolstering the local police is a wise move.
The Iraqi army divisions stationed in Mosul before the ISIS takeover were deeply unpopular with the local population. Derisively referred to as “Maliki’s army,” the mainly Shia force became synonymous with discrimination against the country’s Sunni minority by the government under the former prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. These grievances helped ISIS rout a force several times their number when they stormed the predominantly Sunni city.
The Shia militias that now hold the ground in the liberated areas of east Mosul enjoy a dubious reputation, and stand accused of serious human rights abuses against Sunni civilians in virtually every campaign they have been deployed.
“It’s important that the policemen are from Mosul,” says Col. Saber. “Before Daesh there were a lot of issues between the Iraqi security forces and the people. The fall of Mosul was more about political than military issues.”
The colonel only returned to Mosul a few days ago himself, and is doing his best to bring back law and order, and above else security. His officers have set up a checkpoint on a busy thoroughfare, where they pick out vehicles for closer inspection. On a side street blocked by a police pick-up parked across the road, the unit has requisitioned an abandoned house. The plain building with cheap furniture and an unkempt garden was occupied by ISIS fighters before the liberation.
On the patio kneel two men, their eyes blindfolded and their hands bound. They have been detained on suspicion of belonging to the Islamic State, and are awaiting interrogation.
ISIS and its precursors have deep roots in Mosul, running a terrorist network that extorted millions of dollars a month and assassinated opponents long before it chased out the army.
After over two years of barbarous Islamist rule, support for the group has ebbed, and more locals are coming forward to help the police.
"The jihadists became active in 2004. It will be difficult to eliminate them. But right now it is different, because we are getting tip-offs from the people," says Col. Saber.
In a residential road cordoned off by blast walls in the Nour area, the police have established a provisional headquarter in east Mosul. On the first floor of a modern house, an operations room is furnished with tables lined up and down its middle, and white boards are hung on the walls next to an Iraqi flag and an ancient Kalashnikov. The boards are filled with columns detailing unit strength and ammunition supplies.
An officer sits at the table, waiting for a couple of budget mobile phones to start ringing. He does not have to wait long. Throughout the day, Moslawis call a hotline number broadcast on Iraqi TV to inform about ISIS sleeper cells in east Mosul. The NSS and the police work together to gather this information, which is handwritten into ledgers and then entered into a computer in the corner of the room.
"We are getting more information about Daesh cells now than before the city fell, because Daesh was so brutal and the situation in the city was so bad when they were in control," says Col. Ibrahim, a veteran of the Nineveh police force, as he sits in the operations room.
The officers can receive up to 200 calls a day, they say. Behind closed doors, security officials admit that one of the reasons they cannot cope with this volume is the detention facilities in the city are packed to the brim, and they have to wait for the suspects to be carted off to a larger facility in the nearby town of Qayyarah.
Fearing retribution, many people in east Mosul are still afraid to speak out against ISIS. For some, this is because the understaffed police are not ruthless enough.
"The police arrest Deash members,” says Mohammed, anger flickering in his eyes as he scans the gloomy insides of his gutted restaurant. “But they let them go again after two days because there isn't any evidence of them committing a crime. People are afraid to tell them about sleeper cells because they fear that they will be killed for speaking out.”