The Blogger Who Took on ISIS
"Obviously I was scared that ISIS would find out where I was and kill me, but I was more worried about the horrible things they would do to my family."
Illustrations by Lisa Raneva
This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia
When ISIS took over the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in early June of 2014, a local resident decided to start a blog, to help keep people in Mosul and outside of it informed of what was actually happening under the terrorist regime. The self-described "non-journalist" launched Mosul Eye, where they simply noted ISIS's decisions, movements and planned actions around Mosul – sometimes getting their information by just chatting to militants on the street. Articles ranged from daily reports on the situation in the city, to updates on counter-military operations and detailed accounts of ISIS's strategy.
The website continued to publish for the duration of ISIS's three-year occupation of Mosul. Some of its posts are rumoured to have helped the Iraqi military find a few of the group's headquarters. But as the website's popularity grew, so did the number of death threats ISIS sent its publisher – usually via emails and comments on blog posts. It escalated to the point the writer felt threatened enough to flee Iraq shortly before the city was liberated in July 2017.
VICE Arabia spoke to the creator of Mosul Eye, on the condition of anonymity, to find out why they started the blog, what it was like to be targeted by ISIS, and what's next.
VICE: What motivated you to start Ain Al Mosul?
Mosul Eye: On the day ISIS occupied Mosul, everything seemed so dark and bleak. By then, I was already using my personal Facebook page to post news and information, so I decided to take it a step further by launching the blog to try and document everything that was happening in the city. Soon after I began blogging, dozens of people were trying to get in touch with me, but I never responded out of fear that they were ISIS fighters trying to track me down.
Where did you find the courage to run a blog like this?
To be honest, I never thought of myself as the type of person brave enough to do something like this. When I started, ISIS was spreading so much false propaganda about how the people of the city had welcomed them and about how under their control, everyone was living in peace and prosperity. All I wanted to do was help people in the city by giving them the truth. The more focused on my task I was, the easier it was to do it.
Where did you get your information from?
I would simply walk around outside and take note of how ISIS fighters were treating people – though I never took so much as a pen or a phone to document what I saw. I would memorise everything in my head, then write it up when I got home.
So did you speak to any ISIS fighters personally?
Sure, sometimes when I saw them in the market or at other public places. I usually felt comfortable enough to get into discussions with them about religion and politics, because I have a strong knowledge of their ideology. Although, once, the conversation got a bit heated when they asked me whether I had pledged allegiance to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. If I had said yes, they might have asked me to do something to prove my allegiance, but had I said no, they could've killed me. Luckily, I managed to evade the question by changing the subject.
What's the closest you've come to getting caught?
One day, after chatting with some ISIS fighters, I stupidly rushed home and blogged about a specific story they had shared with me. A few days later, I saw those guys again and they asked me to explain how that information had ended up on the site. I completely denied even knowing what the website was, and anything about the person running it. They then told me all the ways they were trying to hunt down the guy who owns the site. It was very scary.
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What were they doing to track you down? ISIS had access to the personal information of internet users in Mosul, right?
Yes – and, again, I was very lucky. ISIS did force internet providers to hand over private information of all their customers in the city, so they could monitor everyone's activity. But I had a friend who actually owned an internet provider. I paid him double for my internet connection, so he wouldn't pass on my information.
How did all this affect you personally?
Obviously I was scared that ISIS would find out and kill me, but I was more scared about the horrible things they would do to my family, who didn't even know that I was running the blog. Every time someone knocked on our door, I feared it was ISIS. I would always quietly prepare myself for the worst.
Do you know if you ever directly or indirectly helped the security forces?
I would get messages from people saying that my blogs were helping the Iraqi military target ISIS fighters and their headquarters. Of course I was happy to hear that the information I provided was being used to help the people of Mosul, but I honestly never set out to do anything more than just document what I saw – I'm neither a journalist nor an intelligence officer.
What's the most significant post you published that you think contributed in the fight against ISIS?
I was one of the first people to write about the structure of their organisation and the hierarchies they established within the organisation. That exposed their system, and weakened them.
You eventually had to escape Iraq. Are you back now?
I would rather not say where I am now, but yes, I did decide to leave after receiving a direct threat from ISIS just before Mosul was liberated. I managed to escape through Syria with the help of Turkmen smugglers, after paying them $1,000 (£762).
What are your future plans for the blog?
Personally I would like it to remain active, but maybe with a shift towards documenting Mosul's cultural revival and the way young people in the city are contributing to it. Or I might just stop at some point and get back to my normal life.