Image Credit: Katrine Dige Houmøller

10 Years After Islamic State’s Presence in Mosul: “The Years Made Me Stronger and More Determined to Live”

On June 6, 2014, Islamic State fighters began an attack on Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.

Ali Al Baroodi, a lifelong resident of Mosul, vividly recalls how TV and social media were flooded with images of thousands forced to flee their homes, marching en masse from Western to Eastern Mosul.

As the June heat bore down, mosques, schools, and homes opened their doors to shelter these weary families. Volunteers lined the roads, handing out juice, water, and sweets to exhausted people on the move.

Then, something more ominous appeared: the streets of Mosul were lined with black flags – the same flags Ali had seen in TV reports from Syria. At that moment, he realized something horrifying was on the horizon for Mosul.

Western Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The city succumbed to ISIS after four days of intense fighting. It was a victory by a force numbering some 1,300 ISIS men against a 60,000-strong force including the Iraqi Army and federal and local police.

“It was a very dark era,” Ali recalls, who spent every single day of ISIS’s three-year occupation of Mosul.

It has now been ten years since ISIS seized Mosul, altering the history of Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East. While memories of ISIS’s crimes against the population still haunt many Moslawis, ISIS’s three-year rule has also bolstered the determination of some inhabitants to embrace life with even greater fervor.

Western Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The shadow of ISIS in Mosul

Islamic State didn’t emerge out of nowhere in Mosul. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as ISIS was formerly known, maintained a strong presence in this predominantly Sunni city of 1.5 million people.

“Before ISIS did not exist in public, they were like ghosts. We did not see them, but we could feel them,” says Ali Al Baroodi, a lifelong resident of Eastern Mosul.

Eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

For some time, ISIS had been extorting protection money from businesses regularly.

“They used to take ransom, they used to kidnap people, they used to do all the nasty things you can imagine,” says Ali.

In late June 2014, ISIS declared their ‘caliphate’ from Mosul, projecting its influence deep into Iraq and Syria. The self-proclaimed caliphate quickly expanded to an area larger than Great Britain, housing about six million people – larger than the populations of Denmark, Finland, or Ireland.

It was a hundred times larger and far more organized than Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, as detailed by Patrick Cockburn in his 2015 book ‘The Rise of Islamic State.’

Despite ISIS’s pre-existing presence in Mosul before seizing control in June 2014, much changed between their initial quiet influence and their active reign.

The Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, built in 1172-73, was where Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the creation of a ‘caliphate’ in June 2014, as reported by Al Jazeera. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

A paralysis of civil life

Ali Al Baroodi describes how Mosul transformed into a prison. Civil life came to a standstill. Life became a series of strict rules and prohibitions imposed by ISIS. Any form of expression, including music, education, arts, and photography, became punishable.

“You want to move, but you can’t. You want to change, but you can’t,” Ali says.

Western Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Mosul witnessed systematic human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, according to the 2020 report ‘Mosul After the Battle’ authored by professors from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Mosul in Iraq.

These included mass killings, forced displacement, and death threats for refusing to convert. Men accused of homosexuality were executed. Those accused of adultery were stoned. Women had to wear niqab and could only go outside with a male relative. Children as young as 13 were conscripted as child soldiers, according to the report.

Western Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Ali recalls ISIS’s strategic use of media to spread fear among residents in Mosul, setting up large screens in public spaces to broadcast their executions. He vividly remembers these live killings.

“The faces still haunt me. They will never disappear from my memory as long as I live.”

“Fear still resides in people’s hearts,” Ali says.

He explains how he believes instinctive fear leads people to submit to Islamic State’s rule, and adds: “I am afraid ISIS succeeded in that.”

The lost years

On 10 July 2017, after nearly nine months of intense fighting, the Iraqi Security Forces, supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces and the US-led air coalition, declared Mosul liberated from Islamic State. The intense battle had reduced much of the city to rubble, causing thousands of civilian casualties, according to the Human Rights Watch’s ‘World Report 2018’.

However, the reaction to the declaration of liberation was bittersweet, as Mosul resident Ali Al Baroodi recalls.

“ISIS was gone, but the aftermath and the cost the city paid were very, very high in terms of hardship, inequality, and infrastructure.”

Western Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The aftermath of three years of occupation and war resulted in massive destruction, with approximately 65 percent of Mosul destroyed. The city also lost its multi-ethnic, cultural, and religious fabric.

The 2020 report ‘Mosul After the Battle’ highlights the challenge of determining the total number of people who were killed by Islamic State and by the military operations that led to ISIS’s fall. The fate of many residents remains unknown.

“Maybe there are still people in mass graves, maybe they’re still alive somewhere in Syria. You never know whether they’re still alive or not,” Ali says.

Eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

The report adds that the brutality and psychological harm inflicted on the population have ruptured the social fabric and left an open wound.

“In the beginning, I thought that three years of my life were lost,” Ali says.

But then, he resolved to recover and push back against what had transpired.

Reviving from the ashes

A few weeks after the war ended, Moslawis began working to make life possible again. Those were the days when residents reunited after the conflict had divided the city in two.

Volunteers helped Moslawis rebuild their homes, clearing rubble in the old town, and providing aid, money, and blankets, according to Mosul resident Ali Al Baroodi.

“That was the turning point in Mosul’s story,” he says.

Eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Ali describes that the people of Mosul once again became free to engage in photography, art, culture, and music.

“It was like returning to life after death.”

He explains how today Mosul is experiencing an influx of tourists, diplomats, presidents, and spokespeople. This is an unprecedented sight in decades, signaling the city’s healing. However, Kurdistan 24 describes how Mosul’s residents continue to endure ongoing hardships such as poverty and unemployment after the war.

The bridge between West and East Mosul, Iraq, January 2023. Photo by Katrine Dige Houmøller.

Years under ISIS have profoundly changed Ali’s perspective on life.

“I think that ISIS made me stronger, more determined to live, more dedicated to serving Mosul, and more daring to document life under ISIS.”

By documenting Mosul’s resurgence after Islamic States, Ali aims to contribute to its history. 

“It’s important not to forget what happened and to document every single thing. Otherwise, all the lives and losses would be lost forever.”