Are food products from ISIS-held Mosul making their way to Canada?

Tahini, an oily sesame-seed based delicacy popular all around the Middle East, as well as other foodstuffs, could be making their way from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-held territory in northern Iraq to the international market including Canadian stores, sources told Al Arabiya News. 

Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, which was seized by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in a shock offensive in June last year, has long been famous for its exports of tahini, also known as “rashi al-Mosul.” 

Many Iraqis believe the finest version of the sauce– known in the Iraqi vernacular as “rashi” hails from the northern metropolis. Khadhum Jabar, an Iraqi-based business consultant, said products coming from ISIS-held territories in Mosul could be sold outside its borders with “no problem” with the help of smugglers inside Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan. 

“Their main corridor [for Mosul products] is Kurdistan and from Kurdistan to other places in central and southern Iraq. It is sold under the disguise that is from Kurdistan,” he said, citing grave concerns that ISIS is still being able to sell oil and strategic grains. 

He added: “ISIS has other sources of income like controlling Iraqi border points and highways with Jordan and Syria. ISIS forces truck drivers transporting goods to pay tribute/fees to be allowed to pass into Iraq.” However, products coming from ISIS frontline areas should not come as surprise. 

Many shipments, including clothes or children’s toys, are still making it to the militant-held city. “At first [when ISIS seized Mosul] it was hard for trucks to reach Mosul, but now it is better than before as the trucks could reach the city,” said Basra-based Noor Hashim Yassin, an employee at CMA CGM, a French container transportation and shipping company he said, adding that there were still “difficulties.” 

However, for many companies with a supply route in northern Iraq and other hotspots in the country aim to avoid transporting near ISIS-held lands. “We try to avoid ISIS-held territories at all costs. A lot of the drivers do not want to drive to these routes anymore because of the danger, Bill Shaw, vice president of the U.S.-based World Class Shipping, said. 

“We had to change our strategies in order to get into Mosul.” Shaw, who said his logistics company had to pay “higher fees for drivers going to any areas that are controlled by ISIS,” described only “rare occasions” when he they had to go to Mosul. 

“We had a couple of humanitarian shipments that we are able to get into Mosul but everything is at our customers’ risk. Our customers have to sign a waiver, basically saying that we are not responsible for anything that goes wrong.” 

Asked how it is possible for people to transport products to the heart of Mosul, Shaw mulled: “It has to be people with connections including those who have connection with ISIS.” However, one supplier interviewed by Al Arabiya News said his products sourced from northern Iraq “did not come from ISIS-held lands.” 

Eddie Yacoub, president of Windsor, Ontario-based wholesaler ODECO Trading, said not all of Mosul is under ISIS control. Some tahini factories have shifted from the heart of the northern city to its fringes, he said. 

“No, not all of Mosul is under ISIS occupation, and some areas still have factories,” Yacoub said. “I suspect, it came from places like Alqosh. And many factories have shifted from Bashiqa and Telkaif to [towns in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan] Duhok and Erbil.” 

The Christian-dominated town of Alqosh is located 50 kilometers north of Mosul while the historically Assyrian town of Bashiqa is about 25 kilometers northeast of the city and Telkaif approximately 13 kilometers northeast as well. Unlike Bashiqa and Telkaif, Alqosh, which is 17 kilometers from ISIS frontlines, remains not as affected as other Christian areas. 

The militant presence in the northern militant province has had a large effect on the supply chain, Yacoub added. Yacoub’s company also supplies other Iraqi foodstuff sought after by Canada-based Iraqis such as barley, another famous export from Mosul where factories of the grain product have shifted from Bashiqa to the safer Alqosh. 

“Now, [products are] going from Mosul, Baghdad to [the southern Iraqi seaport of] Basra,” he said, as opposed to the previous route from Mosul to the Syrian border, now largely held by ISIS. Doctors, teachers, nurses and workers at state-owned companies had their salaries halted since July. “Food is available in the local markets with the borders open to the merchants who still buy products from places in Syria I assume are also under ISIS control,” 

Rasha Alaqeedi, an Iraqi researcher at the Dubai-based think-tank al-Mesbar Studies said, adding that Turkish goods could commonly be found for sale. However, there is no indication that militant-held Mosul is a city of plenty. 

A recent Reuters report said the Iraqi government’s decision in July this year to cut off funding for ISIS by axing wages and pensions in militant-held cities as driving civilians into hardship. As a result, ISIS will either “lure people to join them with money, or ISIS will impose even further financial burdens [on civilians] to make up for the losses.” 

By Dina al-Shibeeb

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