By Robin Wright
October 27, 2016
Shortly after the Islamic State swept into
Iraq, in June, 2014, a clandestine blog called Mosul Eye appeared on the
Internet. It provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering
hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then,
in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily
armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local
markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over
the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.
For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become
the epicentre of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat isis—also known as
ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media
outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the
war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the
southern and north-eastern outskirts of the city.”
“ISIL has seized many SIM cards, and those
who successfully managed to hide them, fear to use them.”
“ISIL has booby-trapped all bridges in
Mosul with explosives and the fifth bridge with car bombs under it.”
“ISIL executed 23 prisoners this morning.”
The blog is run anonymously by a
self-described “independent historian inside Mosul.” Iraqis and Mideast
scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from
Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,”
and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young
intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the
fault lines along historic narratives.”
As a historian, the blogger documented the
troubles Mosul faced under Saddam Hussein and its fate after the U.S. invasion,
in 2003, when various armed factions seized control of the city. On the Web
site, he noted, “Some speak about Mosul as if it is a pure Sunni city, and with
that, they grant a religious character to it, which is contrary to the
historical and social facts. Because this city is characterized over long
historical eras by patterns of harmonious coexistence of ethnic, religious, and
cultural diversity, religion was never the predominant character of this
diversity, but urbanization.”
This interview, edited for length and
clarity, was conducted through social media.
Why did you start this blog in 2014?
This is not the first time terrorists
controlled Mosul. After ISIL’s invasion, from the very first moment, I was sure
that this time is going to be different. At this defining moment, I felt the
obligation to start writing a pure Mosulian history. Maybe one day I will
publish this chapter of history, but I believe it will not be coming out until
after my death, either by assassination or from natural causes.
What are the dangers of blogging from
I persevered to document everything I see
in the city—not only about ISIL but about the people, their dynamics, their
daily lives, and what previous historians missed when they wrote about previous
struggles. I used to go to the markets and socialize with people, with ISIL
members as well. I have gotten into several discussions with them. I argued,
and debated a lot with them.
How have you avoided detection?
They used to listen to me, especially when
I met a group of them at the old markets. I was speaking to them about the
Islamic Sharia in a way that captivates them, due to my knowledge of Islam.
They used to say, “Masha ‘Allah!” (“May Allah give you more knowledge and
wisdom”) I used to laugh to myself and wonder how these fools could believe in
such a naïve God! They cannot tell that the one who’s talking to them about him
rejects him totally!
I always believed that they are just a
group of bonkers, who could be guided in any direction. I spent a long time,
after 2003, documenting the history of the terror groups that appeared [after
the fall of Saddam Hussein] in Mosul. That helped me when I spoke to them. They
used to trust me to a great extent, to the point they told me dangerous and
sensitive information. It was so easy to get them to talk—as soon as I tell
them about some incidents that happened in the past, they cracked open and
talked non-stop, to the point where I once had to stop them because I felt very
disturbed and overwhelmed!
What would happen if you were identified
I feel tremendous fear for my life. I
always imagine that they will find that I fooled them, and my life ends in a
blink of an eye. I started to avoid talking to them, and started to go to the
mosques and stay there for long hours, listening to their lectures. This way, I
put on the “pious believer” appearance, and sometimes I put on the careless
appearance that “all he cares for is finding his way home,” and sometimes I put
on “the reckless fool who does not get what is happening around him.” But, deep
down, I have my eyes and ears wide open, ready to take in anything, and my mind
very clear and alert to register everything, waiting to get home and put down
everything on a piece of paper.
It was not easy to avoid them for long. In
2015, their threats increased, and the risks were getting higher and higher.
What makes me more anxious is: Where would I hide my records? I used to wake up
in the middle of the night to change the hiding place. I never felt rested for
a moment, and still don’t feel rested.
The punishment I face, in case I get
caught, is to be killed and have my entire family killed. Back in 2015, ISIL
sent Mosul Eye a message saying that they will kill me in a way that humanity
has never known, and they will make me wish I would be killed like the
Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh [who was burned to death while trapped in a
cage]. I still have a copy of their threat, and I read it every once in a
What about Mosul is most important for the
outside world to understand?
Even Allah himself paid close attention to
this city in his sacred books; he mentioned it in the Old and the New
Testaments and the Koran. What the world has failed to understand until today
is that Mosul has its own identity and has its own social system, which is
totally different from the rest of Iraq.
Why did Mosul originally fall to Isis?
I do not lean toward the idea of Mosul
“falling” in ISIL’s hands, for this implies that the collapse of Mosul only
occurred at that moment. The fact is, Mosul was ready to collapse at any time,
for a very long time, and ISIL’s appearance was merely the result of many
things that took place before that. One is the security vacuum. And, mostly,
the blemished social structure of the city. And Baghdad’s ill-treatment of the
Mosulis. The city used to be known for its diversity, culturally and
ethnically—where everyone could live peacefully, where people could pray in
unison. But what Saddam Hussein has done to the city—he subjected the city, and
made it susceptible to anything, not only ISIL.
What has changed the most in Mosul under
Pretty much everything has changed. Many of
its original people have left and travelled all over the world. I don’t believe
they will return. Some have decided to stay silent forever, and others are
trying to save what is left. I’m trying to put this in proper English for you to
fathom the extent of the change that took place in Mosul, but I seem to fail.
Anyway, ISIL has wrecked the city, demolished all its historical ruins. The
[U.S.-led] coalition bombed the administrative buildings, and the Mosuli
individual has turned into a senseless creature who has lost all trust in
anything and everything.
What kind of support or sympathy is
there for ISIS today?
There is no support for ISIL in Mosul. They
are left only with weapons that they will use to kill themselves once the
liberating forces make the decision to raid the city.
How do people feel about the looming
battle of ISIS against the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, and possibly the
Popular Mobilization Units (P.M.U.s), the militias made up of predominantly
There is a lot to fear. Let me be frank:
Yes, we are waiting to be liberated. But many issues between Mosul and the
central government of Baghdad are still unsolved. We still fear the military,
the government, and the Peshmerga. We fear more the P.M.U.s, whether they are
officially with the Army or not. Today, they are approaching from Tal Afar. It
is not just about transforming the town into a Shiite town. What will the
results of this transformation be in the long run? We fear a future war will be
waged among the Arab tribes.
How many fighters does ISIS have in
ISIL fighters are between eight thousand
and nine thousand. Half of them are highly trained, and the rest are either
teen-agers or not well trained. About ten per cent of the fighters are foreign
(Arabs and non-Arabs). The rest are Iraqis. Most are from Nineveh’s townships
How do you foresee the battle playing
The battle for Mosul seems to be very
difficult. All the battles now are outside Mosul, in areas free of population.
The population inside the city is still far from the battle’s atmosphere, even
though they feel it, but not as much as it seems in the news. Mosul is a
heavily populated city. About 1.5 million people still live there, which makes
it a very risky battle. We are afraid that genocide might happen, whether by
ISIL, the P.M.U.s, friendly fire, or by the many forces who intend to take
vengeance on the city.
What do the people of Mosul want?
The people of Mosul want to gain their
identity back, the identity that Saddam Hussein took away from them, then Al
Qaeda, then [former Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki’s regime, and now ISIL. The
historian Peter Sluglett illustrated the meaning of Mosulian identity: “Mosul
had always looked more towards Aleppo [in Syria] and south western Turkey than
to Baghdad.” I’m speaking from a psychological and sociological perspective.
Even after ISIL’s invasion of Mosul, Aleppo continued to be closer to Mosul
I don’t know if any study was conducted
about the armed groups of Mosul after [the U.S. invasion in] 2003 or not. No
single Mosuli participated in those terror groups; it is the tribes who built
the foundations for it, and that was part of the clash between civil and rural
societies in Mosul, which was one of the outcomes of Saddam Hussein’s rule. He
empowered rural societies at the cost of the civil society of the city and
What do they want from
government—locally and from Baghdad—given historic tensions?
Politically, all Mosulis want is to gain
back power over their city. And we do not see that it is possible to achieve
this demand without entering an international trusteeship to protect Mosul,
which will allow the city to rebuild in accordance with its history and its
Among Muslims in Mosul, how has life under
the Islamic State affected feelings about their faith?
Religion does not have a significant
effect. It is more of a social status, as in other societies. ISIL has not been
able to convince the Mosulis that its religion was the real religion.
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written
for the magazine since 1988.