Monday, July 28, 2014

Life Under ISIS in Mosul

by Jenna Lefler


Over a month has passed since ISIS launched an operation that resulted in its seizure of Iraq’s northern capital of Mosul. In the wake of the offensive that led to the fall of Mosul and several other northern Iraqi cities, ISIS announced a new Islamic caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – styled as “Caliph Ibrahim.” Baghdadi later delivered a sermon in one of his first public appearances at Mosul’s Nur ad-Din al-Zengi Mosque. Although ISIS only recently exerted full control over the city of Mosul, the militant organization has had a palpable and steadily increasing presence in the city since its regeneration in 2010. Now operating as the legal, security, and judicial authority in one of Iraq’s largest cities, ISIS has begun imposing a particularly strict version of Shari’a law and crafting a society in Mosul modeled after the version of Islam that it envisions for its Islamic state. At the same time, it has been working to carry out basic government functions, such as collecting taxes, imposing security measures, and providing water, electricity, and social welfare services. However, ISIS is not operating in Mosul without opposition. Processes aimed at eliminating potential resistance movements in Ninewa have taken shape and they closely resemble ISIS activities in its neighboring Syria stronghold, ar-Raqqa. Recent developments in Mosul allow one to extract a picture of how life has changed or remained constant in Mosul under ISIS rule and to draw conclusions regarding ISIS’s plan to maintain control and crush its remaining opposition.

Previous presence in Mosul

Since August of 2013, ISIS has carried out precisely targeted assassinations in Mosul against government employees, particularly Sunnis, members of the Iraqi Army (IA), Iraqi Police (IP), and Sahwa (“Awakening” members that work with the government), as well as against tribal leaders and religious figures. ISIS also launched small-scale attacks on civilians using Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and small-to-medium arms during the same time period. The strategy at this point was for ISIS to conduct enough attacks to generate fear and undermine public confidence in Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) ability to provide security. ISIS simultaneously worked to cut off Mosul from Baghdad by targeting ISF along the northern portion of the Mosul-Baghdad highway in Sharqat, Shura, and Qayara in early August 2013. The fighting force that was present in Mosul prior to June 10th was also responsible for the extortion of businessmen and others who appeared to be wealthy enough to pay for “protection money.” Before ISIS took full control of Mosul, the commander of Ninewa Operations Command (NOC), Lieutenant General Mahdi Gharrawi, said that the Second Infantry Division arrested eighteen “terror” suspects some of whom belong to ISIS and were responsible for collecting “royalties” from Mosul residents. During this time period ISIS effectively drove a wedge between the ISF and Mosul’s inhabitants.

Response of Mosul Citizenry

Mosul’s populace is exceptionally wary of Iraqi Security Forces. This is because many of Mosul’s majority Sunni population sees the IA as a sectarian force representing Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia led government in Baghdad. After clashes in Mosul turned into full ISIS control of the city, residents reported that ISIS has created a semblance of security and some even indicated that they would rather live under ISIS and Shari’a law than under the IA. Photos even show Mosul residence showing up to watch ISIS parades celebrating their military victory in Mosul. In fact, ISIS-linked Twitter accounts published photos of scores of men lining up to turn over weapons and offer repentances to ISIS, who appeared to be documenting the identities and confiscating the weapons of those repenting. ISIS has also attempted to forge hospitable relations with local clans in Ninewa province. For instance, on July 1st, ISIS published images on the photo sharing site of them serving lunch to tribal elements. The Governor of Ninewa, Atheel Nujaifi, also estimated that 2,000 residents of Ninewa have joined ISIS since the fall of Mosul. Moreover, on July 20th, ISIS posted images on of a militant training camp. Interestingly, these photos clearly show the participation of children in the training exercise, representing ISIS’ first publicized event to reach out to children in Mosul. 

Meanwhile, over three hundred thousand residents of Mosul and the surrounding area, most of whom are non-Sunni, have fled since the ISIS offensive. However, there has been a limited amount of anti-ISIS activity, including the formation of the Revolutionaries for the Liberation of Mosul Brigade though this group’s reported activity is limited to an operation in which they killed “terrorist” Bashar Aqidi, also known as Abu Ahmed on the west side of Mosul and is insufficient to pose a formidable threat to ISIS control. However, ISIS’s recent targeting of former Ba’athist leaders indicates that they are countering any potential resistance that may arise from these groups.

General Governance and Government Functions and Services:
Crafting an Islamic State

ISIS has tried to shape Mosul in accordance with its Caliphate vision. A major step for establishing this type of society in Mosul was the implementation of the Madina Document on June 12th, which calls for the strict implementation of Shari’a law.

On June 18th several sources inside of Mosul reported that ISIS repealed the document for the city because it angered local residents. These reports were likely inaccurate, as evidenced by a subsequent ISIS crackdown on cafes and casinos, forbidding gambling, dominoes, board games, playing cards, non-Islamic music, movies and cartoons, and the use of tobacco and hookah products. ISIS also published images on July 2nd of Mosul residence lining up to offer repentances to ISIS. On July 19th, ISIS again stepped up its efforts at exerting full societal control, forbidding marriages outside of its courts, and prohibiting clothing stores from selling women’s gowns that are “tight, transparent or embroidered.”

ISIS has also established Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the religious authority for its new Islamic caliphate. ISIS released a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at the al-Nouri mosque in Mosul in which he spoke about general religious topics including the importance of Ramadan, Tawhid (monotheism), Jihad, and Shari’a. ISIS also published images of religious study sessions during Ramadan in Mosul as part of its religious outreach strategy.

Government Functions

Aside from constructing a society in accordance with strict Shari’a law, ISIS must carry out basic government functions ranging from tax collection to street cleaning if it wishes to appear as a viable alternative to the government in Baghdad. Some of the government services that ISIS has made a concerted effort to establish in Mosul include taxation, provision of medical services, electricity, security, and relief aid.

During the contest for Mosul, medical services were the first of the aid components to be established, which occurred almost immediately. On June 9th, a day before ISIS established full control of Mosul, ISIS converted a house to a hospital west of Mosul in Meshirifa when a medical complex in western Mosul was evacuated because of the security situation. ISIS made an announcement to residents that the new “hospital” was providing medical services. However, ISIS experienced more of a struggle establishing water, electric, and internet services, with one source reporting that those services had been out of commission for 72 hours on June 17th and that the cost of fuel and food had skyrocketed. However, on July 14th sources claimed that ISIS has allegedly been buying gas from Turkey to supply Mosul with oil.

Enforcing security in Mosul has been a challenge for ISIS. On July 3rd, a human rights activist in Mosul reported that many members of wealthy families are being kidnapped in Mosul due to a financial crisis occurring in the city since government employees in Mosul are not receiving their salaries. This may also be a revenue source for militant groups who can no longer extort businessmen due to the economic stagnation occurring because of the current crisis. The source also stated that insurgents are posted throughout the city, but that citizens feel as though there is a large security vacuum. However, on July 12th Shafaq News reported that ISIS opened a police department in the city of Mosul and is now accepting volunteers to the department, known as the “Islamic Police.” The reports added that ISIS is offering a monthly salary to its new police force estimated at over 400 USD. The new police force also came at a time when locals were frustrated with high unemployment and Baghdad’s withholding of salaries for government employees in Mosul after its fall to ISIS. ISIS has similarly established Shari’a courts in Mosul. On July 15th, a security source reported that ISIS had opened two Shari’a courts, one in the east in the Mosul municipal building and the other in the west, in the Ninewa governor’s guesthouse.

One method that ISIS uses to try and win over the “hearts and minds” of its subjects is through distribution of relief aid. These activities are highly publicized on ISIS twitter pages and ISIS has consistently distributed aid to the people of Ninewa. For example, on July 8th ISIS tweeted a link of pictures of them distributing meat to the poor during Ramadan. A similar batch of aid distribution photos were also posted on July 15th. On July 19th, ISIS religious and judicial bodies also reportedly cut rents to approximately 85 USD in Mosul city, though the economic justification behind this decision was not articulated beyond the reasoning that it was dictated by the Quran. However, not all ethno-religious groups are eligible to receive ISIS aid. Also on July 15th, a Shabak activist in Ninewa province stated that employees of the Ministry of Commerce in Mosul told residents that food rations will not be distributed to Christian, Shabak, and Yezidi religious minorities. The source added that gunmen told the employees not to deliver the aid and the “Ministry of Supply of the Islamic State.” Furthermore, a report stated that health care personnel of Iraqi Christian and Shabak backgrounds were told not to report to work because their services are no longer needed. 

Eliminating Opposition

ISIS has taken careful measures to target possible sources of rebellion and opposition. While ISIS will frequently form alliances with other militant or tribal groups to accomplish a military objective, to negotiate entry into an area, or gain legitimacy with local populations, these allies are often subsequently threatened into submission once ISIS is able to consolidate power and begins to see the allied group as a potential source of opposition. This phenomenon has been clearly demonstrated in Mosul. On June 18th, ISIS warned allied groups not to declare control over areas in Mosul and said that defiance would result in death for such groups. ISIS allows activity by other groups only after they have sworn allegiance to ISIS and that the group turns over its weapons to ISIS. Reports also began to emerge on July 7th of ISIS rounding up former military officers from Saddam’s army in Mosul, indicating a rift in the Sunni alliance that participated in the seizure of Mosul. The militant organization Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) is very closely affiliated with the former Ba’athist party and assisted ISIS as it seized northern Iraqi cities in the June offensive. A leading Shi’a member of the Council of Representatives, Haidar Abadi, claimed that Ba’athists helped ISIS when they were asked to do so, but now those who refuse to swear allegiance will be executed. Another source in Ninewa province reported that ISIS detained 30 senior officers from around Mosul on July 10th. These officers are likely former Ba’athists as well.

Beyond managing and dominating strategic alliances, ISIS also uses intimidation tactics to scare former government forces and non-Sunni groups into compliance. For instance, on July 11th ISIS militants demolished ten homes belonging to IP members in Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, after they refused to repent. ISIS has also worked to minimize or eliminate non-Sunni influences in and around Mosul through fear and intimidation. The most obvious example can be seen on ISIS’s Ninewa twitter page showing the demolition of a large number of Shi’a mosques and shrines in Ninewa province.

ISIS has scared, threatened, and marginalized non-Sunni ethno-religious groups in and around Mosul, leading to the groups’ rapid exodus to other parts of Iraq and neighboring countries. In addition to the destruction of Shi’a, Turkmen, and Christian religious sites, reports indicate that the lives, homes, and property of Shabak Shi’a, Christians, and Turkmen have been threatened or destroyed as well. Initial targeting of these groups had economic objectives. On June 20th, an anonymous source stated that ISIS imposed the jizya (taxes on non-Muslims) on Christians ranging from $250 to “large sums.” ISIS threatened to kill Christians or seize their property if they fail to comply with the newly imposed fee. As of July 14th, local Christians reported that ISIS began marking Christian homes with the letter “N,” to denote a piece of property belonging to a “Nasrani,” or “Nazarene,” a derogatory Arabic word for Christian. ISIS also painted the words “Properties of the Islamic State” on the properties. The letter “R” for “Rafidah” was similarly marked on Shi’a Turkmen and Shabak homes. ISIS later forbade Christians from receiving food rations in Mosul. However, ISIS recently increased its efforts to rid Mosul of these distinct ethnic groups when on July 18th, ISIS told Iraqi Christian families that they have until noon on July 20 to leave the city or face “an unknown fate.” This announcement prompted a flood of Christian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) fleeing Mosul. ISIS reportedly told Iraqi Christians in Mosul that their property now belonged to the “state.” Additional sources say that ISIS threatened death for Christians who declined to leave Mosul. Also on July 18th, a representative in the State of Law Alliance (SLA), Hanin Qadu, said that ISIS arrested 107 Shabak Shias from the village of Bazwaya, located near Mosul. Qadu added that ISIS stole the possessions of those who were arrested. Unconfirmed reports indicate that ISIS intends to move 500 families of “terrorists” and foreign nationals who fought in Syria into the homes of minority families who fled Mosul, demonstrating ISIS’ pursuit of population control Mosul’s.

The Raqqa Comparison

As the most developed region under ISIS control, the ar-Raqqa province of Syria offers a model for what to expect for newly acquired ISIS territories. Like in Mosul, ISIS’s establishment of full control of Raqqa was also not a sudden occurrence, but rather was the culmination of a months-long process to systematically intimidate and marginalize rival groups. Many similarities in governance and control have been visible in Mosul. As was seen in Raqqa, religious outreach was among ISIS’s first objectives following the Mosul takeover. Specifically during Ramadan, ISIS conducted what it called missionary lectures in Mosul. In Syria, da‘wa events generally involve the provision of food and drink to the local population, similar to the lunch shared with local tribes from Ninewa province.

ISIS also quickly started targeting any potential opposition in Raqqa through raids, arrests, and executions. Execution of those who refuse to pledge allegiance to ISIS has been common across Iraq and Syria. The isolation of non-Sunni religious groups and a jizya tax on Christians is also a common feature of ISIS rule in both locations.

There have not yet been reports of ISIS proselytizing their Islamic beliefs by setting up religious schools, as is seen in areas of Syria where ISIS has invested in establishing Quranic schools for children and adults. Something else yet to be seen in Mosul is the formation of a religious police force. In Syria two distinct police forces exist; one for security and another to impose Sharia law. However, the security focused police force regularly patrols inside towns, as was reported in Mosul as of July 15th. The establishment of both religious schools and a police force to impose Shari’a law are two governance structures to look out for as ISIS continues to rapidly expand its governance activities. ISW will describe ISIS governance structures as they appear in Syria in a forthcoming report.


The story of ISIS governance that has unfolded in Mosul since June 10th shows a militant organization that is also capable of implementing basic government functions but does not yet demonstrate how durable that governance structure is. Alongside ISIS’s implementation of Shari’a law, ISIS provides food rations and a form of rent control to try and appease residents; while Christians, Shabak, Shi’a and Turkmen flee Mosul under fear of execution, other residents feel that ISIS has implemented a semblance of security that they say was lacking in Mosul under the ISF. These harsh measures towards minorities may be an attempt by ISIS to rid themselves of residents that may be more difficult for them to govern – in a sense, selecting their own population to rule. However, as electricity and fuel shortages continue and the economy stagnates without government salaries, the Mosul merchant class will likely become increasingly frustrated with daily life. While distributing food aid and providing basic economic subsidies, ISIS in Mosul has not demonstrated that it is capable of sustaining a local economy beyond the short term.  Further, the level of Shari’a law under which Mosul’s populace is willing to live remains unclear. However, it is evident that the more time that ISIS has to consolidate its governance and military gains in places like Mosul, the more unlikely it becomes that they can be dislodged from their territories.