Fri, Oct 06, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Informers played a vital role in retaking Mosul from the Islamic State

Whether for freedom, revenge or money, hundreds of residents provided intelligence that officials said was vital to defeating the extremist group and reducing the toll of the fighting

By Michael Georgy, Ahmed Rasheed and Raya Jalabi  /  Reuters, MOSUL, Iraq

Illustration: Tania Chou

One informer said he hid the SIM card from his mobile phone in a water filter to avoid detection by the Islamic State. Another concealed his in a sack of rice and made calls to his Iraqi handlers from a basement.

They were among several hundred Mosul residents who provided information on Islamic State targets during the victorious nine-month battle for Iraq’s second-biggest city, Iraqi military and Kurdish intelligence officials said.

They included taxi drivers, Iraqi soldiers and defectors from the Islamic State.

Officials said that without their help, the fighting would have dragged on longer, snared in Mosul’s narrow alleys.

“I was really afraid the whole time, because you paid with blood, you paid with your life if you were caught,” said one of the informers, 30-year-old former Iraqi army sergeant Alaa Abdullah, who remained in Mosul after its capture by the Islamic State in 2014.

“My mother used to say: ‘You’re still young,’ but I’d tell her: ‘Every time I see a DAESH fighter, I get a gray hair,’” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “And you can see all my grays now, from all that hatred and fear.”

The city, which was home to about 2 million people before the war, was liberated in July.

The Islamic State’s reversal seemed improbable in June 2014, when its fighters swept into Mosul. The militants were welcomed by many fellow Sunnis, the majority of the city’s population, who complained of injustices at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

The Iraqi army capitulated and fled, leaving its weapons behind.

Mosul was the Islamic State’s most significant conquest in Iraq, part of what it called a “caliphate” that stretched into neighboring Syria.

In Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the head of the world’s Muslims in July 2014.

Yet, by the time Iraqi forces launched a massive ground assault to retake Mosul in October last year, backed by Kurdish fighters, Shiite militias and US airpower, many residents had turned against the group, which exerted brutal control. Its opponents were beheaded or shot.

Acts such as smoking a cigarette were punishable by 40 lashes, residents said.

In interviews with Reuters, nine Iraqi and Kurdish military officials, informers and their relatives detailed how their battle for Mosul unfolded. As Iraqi army commanders and US advisers were preparing the ground offensive, intelligence officers were recruiting informers, building alliances with the region’s Sunni tribes and infiltrating al-Baghdadi’s inner circle.

Iraqi intelligence had tested using informers in the successful operation to retake another Islamic State stronghold, Fallujah, in June last year. Now it was time to apply the tactic on a bigger scale in Mosul.

Reuters could not independently confirm every detail of the informers’ accounts, but key elements supplied by these sources, who mostly did not know each other, were consistent.

“We were working hard to penetrate networks and establish connections that would be beneficial once the military phase began, and it paid off,” senior Kurdish counterterrorism official Lahur Talabany said. “We were able to connect to people close enough to aid us in our efforts.”

Many people became informers because “they truly believed in the cause of eradicating the Islamic State,” Talabany said.

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