The money changer’s return was a miserable affair. When he fled two years ago he left behind a rich man’s home; an expansive villa on the south side of Bashiqa, complete with an attractive stone-flagged patio and pillared balcony. In his rush to escape the ISIS advance he left 16 million Iraqi dinars — nearly $19,000 — in a hidden safe. Islamic State fighters liked his home too.
They converted it into a bomb factory which, in turn, was bombed by coalition aircraft as Kurdish Peshmerga troops recaptured Bashiqa last month. So when Jalal Khaled Juma came back to the house after his two-year displacement in northern Iraq, he met a scene of menace and ruin. Two dead Islamic State fighters, one wearing a suicide belt, lay rotting under rubble in the smashed front yard.
A leg and a rib cage stuck up from the debris and a pile of improvised explosive devices lay stacked by the front door. The safe had been discovered and his money was gone. “It has changed a bit since I last saw it,” he rued, stepping gingerly around the wreck of his home, a bucket of shrapnel in his hand. “I just hope the local guys I paid $US200 ($278) to clear it of booby traps did a good job.”
Every Iraqi civilian returning home to newly liberated areas around Mosul faces a similar threat. ISIS may have gone but their mines, bombs and booby traps remain. Hundreds of thousands of explosive devices have been seeded by the jihadists across areas they once held, making the Nineveh Plain one of the most densely mined zones in the world.
Scores of civilians trying to reoccupy their homes have been killed by IEDs since the operation to liberate Mosul began in October. The Iraqi authorities have devoted scant attention to the issue. It is, instead, a British non-governmental organisation, Mines Advisory Group, that is shouldering the task of clearing Islamic State’s minefields.
The organisation, which played a central role in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines among signatory nations, launched an emergency response in October to prepare for the Mosul operation. It has 72 teams, including community liaison, across northern Iraq, and hopes to add another 20. “ISIS have mined this area on an industrial scale,” said Mick Beeby, MAG’s technical operations officer in the country, as his teams worked through a minefield abutting the village of Tulaband, southeast of Mosul.
“Some have been laid with a purely military aim, to deny the ground to their enemy, but others have been planted specifically to get people as they return back home.” Eleven men, all from the Kakae minority group, have been killed in Tulaband by mines and booby traps. Another six have died in the neighbouring villages, and the twisted roadside wreck of a car on the approach to Tulaband showed where another man had been killed the previous day.
Mr Beeby, a former Royal Engineer who was 19 when he defused his first anti-personnel mine, on the approach to Mount Longdon in the Falklands War, described the dedication of ISIS bombmakers. “They are very organised and have managed to create a huge mine-production system independent of any outside supply source,” he said. He was standing beside a pile of IEDs cleared by his teams from the village over previous days.
MAG have so far defused and removed more than 500 mines from this single site. “ISIS commanders have either had formal military training or four or five years of combat experience in Syria,” he said. “When it comes to minefields they operate like a regular army.” As a minority group, the Kakae people of the area had preferred, for cultural reasons, not to share tented camps with Sunni Arabs during their exile.
Instead they rented rooms among Kurdish communities until Islamic State was driven from the area. Despite the appalling IED threat, economics drove them home. “Our rent was $US400 a month,” said Hamid Mirza Zorab, 73, whose adult son was killed by a booby trap in the mosque of a nearby village 20 days after the family came home. “We rely on our flocks and land. Without them we just couldn’t pay the rent any more. It is better to be in your own home among danger than live as displaced.”
Twelve days after his son was killed, three of his cousins died in Tulaband when they triggered a mine planted in the front yard of their home. MAG, which has operated in northern Iraq since 1992 and has 500 staff here, acknowledges that the scale of the problem challenges their resources.
The country already had several layers of existing minefields and IEDs before ISIS came: some from the Iran-Iraq war; others from conflicts between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga; from both Gulf wars and the ensuing insurgencies. “I can’t build our capacity fast enough to deal with the scale of the problem here,” said Mr Beeby. “We did as much as we could in preparation for Mosul but I have teams still dealing with legacy mines from the Iran-Iraq war.”
The explosive components in the Islamic State IEDs are simple: their bombmakers mix agricultural ammonium nitrate fertiliser with aluminium paste, and with diesel for extra flame and kick. This mix has only half the power of military-grade explosive, so ISIS doubled bomb sizes to compensate. None of the ISIS mine and bomb models are designed to disable. “They are not interested in just blowing a leg off, like conventional anti-personnel mines were designed to do,” said Mr Beeby.
“They make their mines to kill.” Among the array of ISIS devices MAG has disarmed, staff have found a range of ingenuous methods to trigger the bombs, ranging from simple pressure pads to infra-red beams. Daisy chain rigs involving several bombs designed to go off at once are not uncommon. In Bashiqa recently a MAG team discovered a multiple-bomb system designed to blow up the bomber as well as his victims.
“You have to treat every device you find as if it is the first of its type,” said Melvin Smith, a South African working for MAG. “Never assume. Assumption is the mother of all f. k ups.” Mr Smith is supervising the clearance of a 24km long ISIS minefield around Bashiqa, as well as booby-trapped houses. Earlier this month he was called to a destroyed building in the town where the corpses of at least five ISIS fighters, most wearing suicide belts, had been discovered.
Two Peshmerga had been badly wounded in an explosion when they tried to storm the building, which had been left empty ever since. Mr Smith examined the bodies — “smileys” in the vernacular of some MAG de-miners, on account of their deathly grimaces — but decided not to remove the suicide vests quite yet.
“They are at the bloated, seepage stage,” he said. “Seepage affects electronics, so if I started moving them about and accidentally punctured one, and fluid got into a vest’s circuit, it might set it off. So I’ll let them dry out a bit and then drag them out later with my wheeled excavator.”
by Anthony Loyd