‘I defeated ISIS’: Young scholar lived secret double life

‘I defeated ISIS’: Young scholar lived secret double life

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Jonathan   December 07, 2017  
 
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‘I defeated ISIS’: Young scholar lived secret double life

The historian carried secrets too heavy for one man to bear.

He packed his bag with his most treasured possessions before going to bed: the 1 terabyte hard drive with his evidence against the Islamic State group, an orange notebook half-filled with notes on Ottoman history, and, a keepsake, the first book from Amazon delivered to Mosul.

He passed the night in despair, imagining all the ways he could die, and the moment he would leave his mother and his city.

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He had spent nearly his entire life in this home, with his five brothers and five sisters. He woke his mother in her bedroom on the ground floor.

“I am leaving,” he said. “Where?” she asked. “I am leaving,” was all he could say. He couldn’t endanger her by telling her anything more. In truth, since the IS had invaded his city, he’d lived a life about which she was totally unaware.

He felt her eyes on the back of his neck, and headed to the waiting Chevrolet. He didn’t look back.

For nearly two years, he’d wandered the streets of occupied Mosul, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by IS. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear the killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

Brutal Sunni-only

He wasn’t a spy. He was an undercover historian and blogger . As IS turned the city he loved into a fundamentalist bastion, he decided he would show the world how the extremists had distorted its true nature, how they were trying to rewrite the past and forge a brutal Sunni-only future for a city that had once welcomed many faiths.

He knew that if he was caught he too would be executed.

“I am writing this for the history , because I know this will end. People will return, life will go back to normal,” is how he explained the blog that was his conduit to the citizens of Mosul and the world beyond. “After many years, there will be people who will study what happened. The city deserves to have something written to defend the city and tell the truth, because they say that when the war begins, the first victim is the truth.”

He called himself Mosul Eye . He made a promise to himself in those first few days: Trust no one, document everything.

Neither family, friends nor the Islamic State group could identify him. His readership grew by the thousands every month.

And now, he was running for his life.

But it would mean passing through one Islamic State checkpoint after another, on the odds that the extremists wouldn’t stop him, wouldn’t find the hard drive that contained evidence of IS atrocities, the names of its collaborators and fighters, and all the evidence that its bearer was the man they’d been trying to silence since they first swept in.

The weight of months and years of anonymity were crushing him.

He missed his name.

From the beginning, Mosul Eye wrote simultaneously as a witness and a historian. Born in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in 1986, he had come of age during a second war, when Saddam Hussein fell and the Americans took over. At 17, he remembers going to a meeting of extremists at the mosque and hearing them talk about fighting the crusaders. “I should be honest, I didn’t understand.”

Enormous banners

As for the Americans, whose language he already spoke haltingly, he couldn’t fathom why they would come all the way from the United States to Mosul. He thought studying history would give him the answers.

The men in black came from the north, cutting across his neighborhood in brand new trucks, the best all-terrain Toyotas money could buy. He had seen jihadis before in Mosul and at first figured these men would fade away like the rest. But in the midst of pitched fighting, the extremists found the time to run down about 70 assassination targets and kill them all, hanging enormous banners announcing their arrival in June 2014.

By then a newly minted teacher, the historian attended a staff meeting at Mosul University, where the conquerors explained the Islamic State education system, how all classes would be based upon the strictest interpretation of the Quran. To a man who had been accused of secularism during his master’s thesis defense just the year before, it felt like the end of his career.

In those first few days, he wrote observations about the Islamic State group on his personal Facebook page — until a friend warned that he risked being killed. With the smell of battle still in the air, he wandered the streets, puzzling over its transformation into a city at war. He returned to find his family weeping. The smell of smoke and gunfire permeated the home.

On June 18, 2014, a week after the city fell, Mosul Eye was born .

“My job as a historian requires an unbiased approach which I am going to adhere to and keep my personal opinion to myself,” he wrote. “I will only communicate the facts I see.”

By day, he chatted with Islamic State fighters and vendors, and observed. Always observed. By night, he wrote in his native Arabic and fluent English on a WordPress blog and later on Facebook and Twitter.

Grotesque shadow

The city turned dark, and Mosul Eye became one of the outside world’s main sources of news about the Islamic State fighters, their atrocities and their transformation of the city into a grotesque shadow of itself. The things IS wanted kept secret went to the heart of its brutal rule.

“They were organized as a killing machine. They are thirsty (for) blood and money and women.”

He attended Friday sermons with feigned enthusiasm. He collected and posted propaganda leaflets, including one on July 27, 2014, that claimed the Islamic State leader was a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Back home, writing on his blog in his other, secret identity, he decried the leaflet as a blatant attempt “to distort history” to justify the fanatics’ actions.

He drank glass after glass of tea at the hospital, talking to people who worked there. Much of the information he collected went up online. Other details he kept in his computer, for fear they would give away his identity. Someday, he told himself, he would write Mosul’s history using these documents.

The most sensitive information initially came from two old friends: one a doctor and the other a high school dropout who embraced Islamic State’s extreme interpretation of religion. He was a taxi driver who like many others in Mosul had been detained by a Shiite militia in 2008 and still burned with resentment. He swiftly joined an intelligence unit in Mosul, becoming “one of the monsters of ISIS” — and couldn’t resist bragging about his insider knowledge.

Once he corroborated the details and masked the sources, Mosul Eye put it out for the world to see. He sometimes included photos of the fighters and commanders, complete with biographies pieced together over days of surreptitious gathering of bits and pieces of information during the course of his normal life — that of an out-of-work scholar living at home with his family.

Logical historian

“I used the two characters, the two personalities to serve each other,” he said. He would chat up market vendors and bored checkpoint guards for new leads.

He took on other identities as well on Facebook. Although the names were clearly fake, the characters started to take on a life of their own. One was named Mouris Milton whom he came to believe was an even better version of himself — funny, knowledgeable. Another was Ibn al-Athir al-Mawsilli, a coldly logical historian.

International media picked up on Mosul Eye from the first days, starting with an online question-and-answer with a German newspaper. The anonymous writer gave periodic written interviews in English over the years. Sometimes, journalists quoted his blog and called it an interview. In October 2016, he spoke by phone with the New Yorker for a profile but still kept his identity masked.

Intelligence agencies made contact as well and he rebuffed them each time.

“I am not a spy or a journalist,” he would say. “I tell them this: If you want the information, it’s published and it’s public for free. Take it.”

First the Islamic State group compiled lists of women accused of prostitution, he said, stoning or shooting around 500 in the initial months. Then it went after men accused of being gay, flinging them off tall buildings. Shiites, Christians and Yazidis fled from a city once proud of its multiple religious.

When the only Mosul residents left were fellow Sunnis, they too were not spared, according to the catalog of horrors that is Mosul Eye’s daily report. He detailed the deaths and whippings, for spying and apostasy, for failing to attend prayers, for overdue taxes. The blog attracted the attention of the fanatics, who posted death threats in the comments section.

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Mosul, Iraq
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Lori Hinnant and Maggie Michael
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