Mosul, Iraq — Ordinary imams dress in white and speak with a silver tongue. The man standing at the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque on a sweltering Friday in July 2014 was different, spitting fire and brimstone. “He was all in black, wearing a black robe, a black turban, and [had] a black beard,” Yasir Samir Ahmed remembered. “You could barely see his face behind all the black.”
The dark figure was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Yasir is one of the few people willing to speak publicly of having seen him with his own eyes. Yasir was present at the Friday prayers in 2014 at which Baghdadi made his sole public appearance, declaring himself leader of a restored caliphate. That moment, which came weeks after the Islamic State took control of Mosul and a broad swath of the rest of Iraq, would become a turning point for the city — a sign of the Islamic State’s rise to power.
Nearly three years later, Yasir and his extended family would find themselves creeping past the rubble of the destroyed mosque as they fled the final brutal fighting for Mosul’s Old City, where Islamic State die-hards were making their last stand. By then he was starved, bereaved, and expecting a bullet at every turn, so traumatized that he didn’t much care whether it was death or an escape to freedom that would deliver him from the jihadis.
Yasir’s journey offers insight into how the Islamic State found — and then squandered — support in Mosul, ruthlessly manipulating and then exploiting an aggrieved population. As the Iraqi government now faces the monumental task of rebuilding the shattered city, his journey also serves as a warning on how the Iraqi security forces have a narrow window of opportunity to rebuild their relationship with Mosul’s citizenry.
A week after Yasir and a group of relatives, including his father, Samir Ahmed Sofi, fled through deserted streets at dawn to reach Iraqi military lines, they sit on straw mats in an empty apartment in east Mosul. They have bought new clothes, cut their beards, and begun eating again, but the privations of the past few years still show. A quiet and angular 25-year-old, Yasir is now clean-shaven but for a patch of hair under his lip. A black singlet hangs off his body, revealing his shriveled biceps. His 55-year-old father wears a white robe; his stubbled cheeks appear to hollow further with every drag on his slim cigarette.
Absent are Yasir’s brothers, Mohamed and Ahmed. Both were killed by a mortar blast as they fetched water from a well back in May.
“I don’t have any memories left from before this time. Daesh wiped everything,” Yasir said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, when asked to recall the events that led to their deaths. “When I lost my brothers, I lost all my good memories.”
But when prompted further, Yasir’s mind returns to al-Nuri Mosque. It was July 5, 2014, and the Islamic State had taken over the city weeks earlier. Six days prior, at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had declared the caliphate.
The first thing the citizens of Mosul noticed was that with the Iraqi Army gone, they were able to move freely through the city for the first time in years. Yasir and two friends had taken advantage of this, passing abandoned checkpoints to cross the Tigris River and walk in the Old City.
Outside al-Nuri Mosque, a crowd of excited Islamic State apparatchiks had gathered. Curious, the three friends decided to go in. “The security was very intense,” Yasir said. “The cell-phone reception even went out.”
The ancient mosque was a fixture of Mosul. Its leaning minaret, nicknamed al-Hadba (“The Hunchback”), had become a symbol of the city, even appearing on the Iraqi 10,000 dinar bill. “Al-Hadba was like a character, a person,” Samir, Yasir’s father, recalled.
Entering the mosque, Yasir beheld a tightly choreographed scene. An estimated 400 Islamic State members packed inside, in addition to curious bystanders like himself. Ascending the minbar, where the imam delivers the sermon, Baghdadi began to speak. “He told us: ‘You guys have no life here,’” Yasir recalled. “‘The government is pushing you to the edge. We’re going to free you.’”
Many in the crowded mosque responded enthusiastically to an ebullient Baghdadi’s exhortations to wage jihad. And the message resonated in Mosul more broadly. “When they first came, it felt like heaven,” Yasir’s father recalled. “The people welcomed Daesh because they suffered so much when the army was here.”
In the decade following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Mosul had become an insurgent hotbed. Random detention, harassment, and extortion of citizens by harried and suspicious Iraqi security forces had become routine. Yasir’s 14-year-old cousin had been detained while sitting in a coffee shop doing nothing but smoking a water pipe and was thrown in a jail cell for eight months.
But listening to Baghdadi, Yasir said he felt sick to his stomach. The self-anointed “caliph” was not only saying the army and police were bad — he was saying they were infidels and marked for death. “I stayed 10 minutes, then I left. I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I pretended to faint.”
However bad the army had been, the next three years under the Islamic State would be unimaginably worse.
Today, the caliphate has crumbled in Iraq, and many of those present at Baghdadi’s sermon are now dead. Few are willing to speak publicly about having attended. In the climate of fear that pervades liberated Mosul, many worry that an association with the Islamic State, however tenuous, could be grounds for detention, torture, and even summary execution. Foreign Policy contacted two other men who saw Baghdadi speak, but they declined to be interviewed. An imam from al-Nuri Mosque who gave an interview expressing somewhat favorable views toward the Islamic State’s ideology has, according to a local sheikh, been fired from his job and is now wanted in Baghdad.
Even early on, there were signs that life under the Islamic State would not be easy. The jihadis first removed Mosul’s cell-phone towers and satellite dishes, curbing communication with the outside world. As the city became isolated, most people stopped working. While some civic institutions such as garbage collection and medical care remained operational, Samir’s government salary as a dormitory supervisor at the university dried up. Religious police began enforcing Islamic dress codes, banning smoking, and erasing images of the human form. “Then people began to understand who they really were,” Samir said, who estimated that the honeymoon period lasted less than six months.
By then it was too late. A year after the Islamic State conquered Mosul, the coalition air campaign began striking targets within the city en masse. Electricity and other services became irregular. Civilians were executed by the Islamic State for infractions as minor as possessing a SIM card and were killed mistakenly in airstrikes.
As the air campaign escalated in early 2016, Samir decided to move his family from east Mosul to the west. “When the coalition bombed the university, at least 300 people died,” he said. “We thought we would be safe in the Old City.”
Instead the family became trapped in west Mosul, unable to cross the Tigris back to the east. As Iraqi security forces advanced toward Mosul last October, Islamic State fighters began preparing to make their last stand in the Old City’s tightly packed houses and narrow alleyways. “Daesh wouldn’t let us leave,” Samir said.
As Iraqi security forces liberated districts in west Mosul, the siege of the Old City began, and supplies ran low. When his brothers were killed by a mortar blast, Yasir and his father buried their bodies in a hole in the garden of the house in which they were staying. There wasn’t time or space to dig two graves. As the fighting crept closer, the family moved again. A few days later, the house with the grave was destroyed, likely by an airstrike or indirect fire from Iraqi forces.
“A lot of the time, I wished we could all die together,” Samir said. “Otherwise it was like dying all the time.”
Finally, one morning, the whole family fled. “By the time they got out of the Old City, I felt like my eyes were about to pop out I was so emaciated,” Samir said. “We hadn’t eaten in days — we had no water. In this state, you consider yourself dead.”
Walking out through the rubble, they saw that al-Nuri Mosque had been destroyed. In late June, as Iraqi special forces battled their way to within 50 yards of the mosque, Islamic State fighters detonated the structure to deny the Iraqi government a powerful propaganda backdrop. “A lot of people had hoped that the mosque and minaret would survive,” Yasir said. “It was the last piece of Mosul, the last part of its heritage.”
For his father, seeing the mosque destroyed was nearly as poignant as the death of his sons. “When we walked past the ruins, even after all this tragedy, it still affected me,” he said. “When we lost the minaret, Mosul was gone.”
Soon they will start to rebuild their lives, and both hope that the security services will rebuild their relationship with the city. “No one has resentment for the army now,” Samir said. “I lost two sons, and that didn’t happen to just me. But sometimes you have to sacrifice for the greater good.”
The question now is how long that goodwill might remain. “That depends on the army — if they go back to hurting people,” Samir said.
There are already worrying indicators. As Iraqi security forces completed liberating the Old City, nearly every man of fighting age was treated as a potential suspect. Amid restrictions on allowing foreign media to cover the last days of fighting, a series of disturbing videos were published online, showing Islamic State suspects being beaten and executed by members of the security forces. Other images published online showed hundreds of emaciated-looking men crammed into crowded detention centers.
As Samir spoke, Yasir went to look for photos of his brothers — their only tangible links to the past, the only possessions they have held on to from before. He returned with two photos showing his brothers, both in their early 20s, dressed for formal portraits. He sat down and stirred a tulip-shaped glass of tea. “I never went back [to al-Nuri] after that speech by Baghdadi,” Yasir recalled. “A lot of people stopped going to mosques.”
But before they can resume their lives, they will have to return once more. The grave of Mohamed and Ahmed is nearby, and the family wants to give them a proper burial. “I want to bury my sons in the east,” Samir said. “I haven’t mourned for them yet.”