by ISW Iraq Team
The city of Mosul has witnessed an increased effort by extremist groups, likely al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but possibly the Ba’athist group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), to seize control of the city. Reporting from Mosul is severely limited at this time, not because violence has been reduced, but instead because journalists were targeted in late 2013, effectively placing the city under a media blackout. A campaign of intimidation is underway, suppressing reporting and masking all but the most spectacular attacks. Attacks upon local government figures and Mosul University students indicate that security conditions in the city center are very dangerous at this time. ISF operations in Anbar do not reduce threats to other urban capitals in Iraq, especially Mosul, where the militant organizations AQI and JRTN have both been active.
In a likely effort to isolate the city, armed groups launched a campaign on October 2013 against media reporters and journalists. Reports indicate that journalists received threats via e-mails and text messages. After killing 5 journalists, around 40 others departed the city to safer areas. Half of them moved to Kurdistan and others left to Turkey. Reportedly, there was a hit list of 40 journalists. It is unclear who issued the hit list but according to a survey conducted by the Journalist Freedoms Observatory, the threats were likely issued by “terrorist” organizations, security forces, or influential political parties. It is not possible to assess confidently whether the threats were issued by AQI or by JRTN. The survey’s implication of the local government is noteworthy. The local government has not visibly worked to overcome this condition, either because they have also suffered intimidation, or because they do not want to provoke ISF mobilization in Ninewa. Targeting of journalists is likely part of a larger campaign, to keep the city isolated and closed off from international visibility.
As a result, there is a limited quantity of reporting on violent events in Mosul. This requires a different lens through which to view violent events that are reported in news media. The following violent events are indicators of an orchestrated campaign to control local institutions within the city center.
Targeting of Local Government Employees
In an effort to paralyze the local government in Mosul, armed groups targeted the employees of the local government. According to anonymous employees of the local government, around 80 employees were killed by unidentified gunmen between November and December of 2013. The targeting of employees forced the government to stop providing bus transportation for employees, as bus stops and bus routes were highly vulnerable.
Wide targeting of Mokhtars [neighborhood governmental representatives] in Mosul took place on September 29, 2013. A Mokhtar is a person who has lived in an area for a long time and therefore possesses great deal of information on that area. Mokhtars in Mosul therefore likely support the ISF with local intelligence. In one day, five Mokhtars were killed while five others survived because they left their homes before they were stormed by unidentified gunmen. This targeting caused 18 others to resign, while the rest suspended their activities. Mosul’s mayor, Hussein Ali Hachim criticized the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for not providing adequate protection for the Mokhtars. According to Hachim, ISF escorted Mokhtars to ISF headquarters and back in military vehicles, increasing their signature, and therefore making them visible targets. Hachim himself survivedan assassination attempt on December 11, 2013 when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his motorcade in the area of Tel Kayef, northern Mosul. The attack resulted in the injury of the mayor along with several of his bodyguards.
Meanwhile, Commander of the 3rd Division of the Federal Police General Mahdi al-Gharawi, issued an opposite accusation. Gharawi stated on January 19, 2014 that most of the Mokhtars were used by the “terrorist” groups and were killed by the same groups after they were not useful anymore. Mokhtars likely faced pressure by both the ISF and armed groups in the province to provide information and influence. Their intimidation and targeted assassination has likely left a void of social structure within Mosul that increases the overall threat to the population and to the security forces.
Other targeted groups in Mosul have included Mosul University students. Around 14 students were killed by unidentified gunmen in the second half of 2013 which made other non-local students depart the city. A student who survived the attacks stated that the killings were done indiscriminately. The attacks were carried out in the well-fortified Hadaba Street, close to the university and students’ shared living quarters which, suggesting that non-local students had been the deliberate target. In a separate campaign of attacks in November 2013, a number of Yazidi students were killed. Yazidis are a non-Muslim, ethnic minority. On November 28, 2013 unidentified gunmen opened fire on bus drivers on whom Yazidi students relied to commute from their homes in northern Mosul. This incident, along with others stopped more than 2000 Yazidi students from attending the University of Mosul by December 23, 2013.
The crisis in the University of Mosul was confirmed by official accounts. Universities in Iraqi Kurdistan offered Yazidi students the opportunity to transfer their enrollment, and Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Ali al-Adib approved of a request submitted by 14 students from Baghdad to transfer to universities in the capital.
These incidents are indicators that AQI or JRTN may be establishing control of neighborhoods within Mosul. They are also grave signs that the Iraqi Security Forces do not control the city. While all eyes are focused on Anbar, it is essential to observe warning signs of AQI’s next campaign objective, which elements of AQI outside of Anbar have a prime opportunity to pursue. If these incidents are indeed perpetrated by AQI, we can discern that its campaign objectives lie beyond controlling Fallujah, and indeed that the organization has scoped a wider path to restoring an Islamic state in Iraq.