In Mosul, Locals Wage Psychological Warfare Against Extremists

As the extremist group known as the Islamic State looks increasingly unsteady inside Iraq, there are a growing number of acts of resistance against the group inside the northern city of Mosul, which has been the group’s stronghold in Iraq for over the past two years. Evidence for this includes the number of times one sees the letter “M” written on the walls of schools, mosques and other buildings in the city. 

This letter was not a casual choice: It is the first letter of the Arabic word, muqawama, which means “resistance”. It is an important symbol for those living in the city who oppose the extremist group and all it stands for. Acts of actual physical resistance are still rare, mainly because the city is full of Islamic State members and fighters, many of whom are armed and who will not hesitate to punish those who oppose them. Of course, the extremists do not stand idly by when this graffiti appears. 

They clean it from the walls and try to find those responsible. Local media has also responded to the graffiti, publishing stories about it, mostly gleaned from Iraqi social media users, who post pictures of the graffiti and boast about how the people of Mosul are trying to resist the Islamic State, or IS, group. NIQASH was able to collect dozens of these kinds of stories and pictures too, including an “M” on the wall of the landmark Great Mosque of Al Nouri, which is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, gave his famous speech in Mosul in July 2014. 

The “M” is not the only way that locals are trying to resist the Islamic State group. Another example saw locals in the Dubbat neighbourhood in Mosul – an area where many army officers used to live – wake to find that somebody had placed an Iraqi flag atop an electricity pole during the night. The only flag that is allowed in Mosul is the black one belonging to the IS group. 

The extremists removed the flag immediately and burned it; they also arrested a number of locals, including some younger people and some retired army officers, and took them away, blindfolded, for questioning. Everyone in Mosul knows the price of resistance – certain, and most likely cruel, death. On July 21, the IS group released a new seven-minute-long video that showed two of the extremists holding knives as well as two young Iraqi men in front of them. 

The extremists spoke in French and threatened France again as well as the other countries belonging to the international coalition that is fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They also congratulated Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who had killed over 80 in Nice, France, on July 14. They then proceeded to decapitate the young men with their knives. The whole gruesome spectacle was filmed in Mosul. The cruelty did not surprise Iraqis. 

But what was surprising about the video was the fact that it contained an admission by the IS group that there is resistance to them inside Mosul. The two young men who were killed confessed to having drawn the “M” graffiti and also to having given information to the international coalition. The IS group have been trying to isolate the people of Mosul from the rest of the world for some time now. 

In November 2014, the group banned communication by mobile phones (with varying degrees of success) and in February, they started to stop locals from leaving the city. Today there is no way of getting out of the city without using risky smuggling routes. About a month ago IS fighters started to collect satellite television receivers. Members of the group drive around the city with loudspeakers, calling out to households to hand over their satellite dishes. 

The receivers will be taken to the outskirts of the city and destroyed, the IS members say. Locals say they will need around another month to collect all of the receivers in the city. As one local man told NIQASH, “I asked them if I could keep the satellite receiver because my kids like the cartoons but they said to me, ‘aren’t you ashamed of yourself? The satellite is forbidden. Why would you keep a demon in your house?’.” 

As of July 24, the IS group has issued a decree saying that the Internet is also to be banned in Mosul. Again it’s hard to say how successful they will be with this ban. Although the extremist group say they are banning contact with the outside world, including cartoons and news shows, for religious reasons, it seems clear that it has more to do with preventing contact with external organisations that might attack the city and to prevent locals and their own fighters from hearing about any battle field successes against the Islamic State group and any resistance internally. 

For example, Iraqi pro-government forces have recently advanced in the nearby Qayyarah district, which is just under 70 kilometres out of Mosul. Additionally, Iraqi politicians often comment publicly about resistance against the IS group from within Mosul. In particular, they talk about the so-called Mosul Brigades, a secret resistance network that puts out statements threatening the IS group with death and promising revenge. 

The former governor of the province and former resident of the city, Atheel al-Nujaifi, has talked at length about how he thinks that the people of Mosul will liberate the city themselves as soon as they have the opportunity. However as one resident of the city, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, told NIQASH in a phone call, the resistance in Mosul is mostly psychological at the moment, involving such things as the “M” graffiti and social media. 

Actual physical attacks on the IS group and its members remain limited and don’t pose a major threat to the extremist organisation that still has the city under tight control.
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