Eye on Iraq: Meeting the man behind 'Mosul Eye'
Omar Mohammed, a historian and blogger, documented the atrocities of the Islamic State [IS] group in his city Mosul for two years under the pseudonym Mosul Eye. The blog became a main source of information and news for the outside world on what life was like under Islamic State rule.
The 32-year-old had to keep his identity hidden or risk being killed. As the Associated Press noted: "By day, he chatted with Islamic State fighters and vendors, and observed. Always observed. By night, he wrote in his native Arabic and fluent English on a WordPress blog and later on Facebook and Twitter."
In December last year, Omar revealed his identity, writing on his blog: "I can't be anonymous anymore. You can see me now, and you can know me now. I told my mother that her Omar is Mosul Eye, she cried, wished she was close to me to give me a hug, she said: I knew there was something going on with you!"
Omar talks to The New Arab about his experience.
"It was like I was freezing inside, the fear had become a normal feeling, like witnessing the daily executions," he says.
"In the last article of the constitution that Islamic State group fighters were distributing in the city, they wrote: you have experienced everything, each type of regime, or even secularism, now is the time of the Caliphate.
"I will never forget what I have listened to and what I have seen, but I have to share it."
Since revealing his identity Omar has lived in protected places due to death threats.
The information that Omar shared with the world, with enormous difficulties, was fundamental in getting to know more about the terrorist organisation in Iraq's second largest city.
Omar camouflaged himself, pretending to support the group, while working as a taxi driver, or in a bakery or grocery store, so he could collect as much information as possible on the Islamic State group. He also wanted to understand the motivations that had driven so many from all over the world to build their Caliphate in Mosul, his city.
Then one day, at the end of 2015, Omar decided to run away, because staying in Mosul had become too dangerous for him. Even fleeing was dangerous, but he had to risk it, as he was "dying, day by day."
Omar said farewell to his mother and brother and paid a smuggler a thousand dollars to take him to Turkey to escape. With him, he took some books and a hard drive with information collected about Mosul's life under IS. And with those small share of belongings, he went away.
See in pictures: Islamic State families struggle with life after the 'caliphate' in Mosul
'Mosul accepted Islamic State group'
Omar has a strong look of melancholy on his face as we spend two hours talking about Iraq, the war, the past and the future. He reveals that his brother was killed in Iraq, a victim of an airstrike.
"The people of Mosul will carry the mark of 'accepting IS' for many years to come," Omar says.
"But Mosul did not welcome IS," the blogger continues. "Mosul welcomed the new situation. The people of Mosul wanted to emancipate themselves from Baghdad, from the sectarian policies of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki's government."
Iraqis today face a fragmented political landscape five months after the ouster of IS, with the dominant Shia community split, the Kurds in disarray and Sunnis sidelined.
|Destruction in the former residential area around the Nuri mosque in the old city of Mosul, eight months after it was retaken by Iraqi government forces from the control of Islamic State group fighters [Getty]|
"Mosul was a city animated by clashes between Sunni and Shia for years. A city of violence and retaliation. A dangerous city. People were insulted daily by security forces," Omar recalls.
"So, I say that even if Mosul risks having the mark of accepting IS, the truth is that the fall of the city has deep rooted causes and the people of Mosul just wanted to welcome whatever showed some sign of change."
Omar says that Mosul was a city where corruption was rampant: "You could be arrested for a trivial reason or for no reason," he adds. "People did not want to be with IS, but they did not want to be with Baghdad anymore either. It was as if they all felt they had no choice."
|People did not want to be with IS, but they did not want to be with Baghdad anymore either. It was as if they all felt they had no choice.|
Why did people in Mosul feel like they had no choice?
"In June 2014, the city was ready to collapse," Omar says.
"But the fundamentalist groups were in town since 2005, they were among us. They were part of the city. But to understand it we need to go back to 2003, it is after the American occupation that everything has changed," he continues.
"In 2004 the terrorists burned a soldier alive. Then the long period of car bombings began. The Americans smashed the police system and the army, and this was the first glaring mistake which generated a chain of disasters. The following years were a mix of government insurgency and corruption."
Omar explains that even if a citizen was afraid or felt threatened by these extremist groups, they at the same time did not feel safe in denouncing the police, who were corrupted and extorting money.
"The Americans were there, they saw everything. Everyone knew everything, but they closed their eyes. And the more everyone closed their eyes, the more well organised and widespread terrorism became.
"The terrorists began to collect money from people in Mosul in a systematic way and had a massive control of the city's economy. You could not build a school without going to them or paying their fee. It is not new – the Islamic State group's management of bureaucracy is something that Mosul knew well and for some time."
He also adds that the group controlled the local government, and so, no one could do anything without paying them.
|The Americans were there, they saw everything. Everyone knew everything, but they closed their eyes. And the more everyone closed their eyes, the more well organised and widespread terrorism became|
What do you think was the main mistake of the West in Iraq?
"Not the occupation, not 2003," Omar says. "But 2011, when the Americans decided to leave, without a project, without a vision. Without a long-term strategy."
Omar believed that what was hidden in the previous years, had regained strength after 2011. "Baghdad started to marginalise Sunnis again, isolating the people of Mosul," he says.
"It is necessary to clarify this great misunderstanding on the first days of [Islamic State] occupation. I am a citizen of Mosul and what I saw was that people welcomed the situation, what they thought was liberation from the government.
"People thought that things would change, that those men would be liberators from the injustice of the corrupt Baghdad government. So, everyone closed their eyes when IS arrived, but when they realised their atrocities, it was too late."
But Omar thinks that the Western government also waited far too long before acting. "They waited for IS to commit the most horrible of crimes to be outraged. I wonder, we are in a world where a drone can see anything, so why did they wait until 2014 to act?"
Why did you decide to risk your life to share information on Islamic State's occupation?
"I felt obliged to do it. I wanted to protect my memory because things are forgotten, and it was vital to share in detail what was happening, from the executions to the daily propaganda," Omar says.
"I am a historian, I must be objective. I was nothing compared to their propaganda, but I had to do something. It was not a nightmare – it was a new state, with a law, a new nationality, new rules.
"There were foreigners, Asians, Americans – Mosul was the centre of the world. It was with these foreigners that I showed myself as very convinced. After a while, you forget the fear.
"Mosul was a prison. In your own home you felt insecure, and so after a while I realised I no longer lived in a city but in a large prison, an open-air prison. And I needed to write down what I was witnessing."
Did anyone you know decide to support IS?
"One of my students, a brilliant mind, joined them. He wanted to be a historian, to study like me. But a few months after their entry into the city, he became a solid and convinced supporter of the group," Omar reveals.
"I continuously asked myself what defined or created a jihadist in Mosul and what I found was that a jihadist in Mosul was someone with a mixture of problems. They had feelings of isolation and marginalisation and a deep problem of interpretation of the sacred texts. For young boys and men, this created an unrealistic world of what they believed were the ways of Allah, without any real knowledge," Omar says.
"Then there were the deep economic reasons. The corruption that did not let people live, and of course, the fear. There were years when I left my home in Mosul and I did not know if I would come back. I greeted my mother every morning as if it were the last time I would see her. We were living in a life where you could be stopped at a checkpoint for money and be killed for no reason whatsoever."
|There were years when I left my home in Mosul and I did not know if I would come back. I greeted my mother every morning as if it were the last time I would see her|
What do you think about the post-war period of Mosul?
"Not all crimes are equal, but it seems that today in the application of law against IS supporters there are no differences," Omar says.
"More than justice, there seems to be a collective punishment method being applied. My internal sources tell me that when IS family members, such as wives of fighters, ask for documents like birth certificates from public offices, authorities tell them that they must divorce or denounce their husbands, or the documents will be denied.
"So basically, if these women and children do not denounce their husbands or fathers, the whole family suffers. They are unable to get relevant papers and documents, depriving them of basic life opportunities like going to school, seeking medical care, or receiving aid.
"To get out of this vicious circle we must build a civil society on new bases – one that sees the victims and the people of Mosul as human beings. Otherwise the same mistakes of the past will be repeated," Omar adds.
"We must create a youth movement that has access to resources and knowledge, these are the only means to cure this disease of misunderstanding and fear. If we do not treat this disease, the future will be worse than it was in the past."
You can follow the Mosul Eye blog here
Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya.