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Bearing witness to the crimes of the Islamic State

Ayad Salih works to build information about life under the rule of the Islamic State
M. Youssef est chrétien, mais il avait beaucoup d’amis musulmans à Mossoul avant l’arrivée de l’État islamique (Chloe Cornish/IRIN)

In his office in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, Ayad Salih paces the floor, talking animatedly into a mobile phone. Eventually, he hangs up. There is, he says, some good news.  

“Yesterday, the governor of Mosul announced that 75 people from the Department of Elections had been killed,” he explains. “But we’ve investigated and it seems it isn’t true.”

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was seized by so-called Islamic State (ISIS) last June and now serves as the militant group’s de facto base in the country. A population of roughly 1.7 million pre-ISIS is thought to have shrunk to around one million as hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the fighting or fled an unwanted occupation.

Salih, head of the Iraqi Institution for Development (IID), comes from Mosul originally and has a network of contacts still feeding him information from within the occupied city. His informants are not only recording incidents of brutality, but also providing updates on the city’s diminishing health services, drinking water shortages, the rising costs of fuel, even the taxation and street-cleaning systems introduced by the Islamists.

They say they are defying the Islamists’ blackout not just because it might help humanitarians smuggle the right aid in, but also because they feel it is important for the future of Iraq. But with those caught almost certain to be killed and aid workers unable to access ISIS areas, is it really worth the risk?

Still documenting

The UN estimates that up to eight million people live in territory controlled by ISIS in either Iraq or Syria. To put that in perspective, the Iraqi capital Baghdad has a population of just over seven million people and is the second largest city in the Arab world.

For those living under ISIS rule, life seems to be getting worse. At least a quarter are estimated to be in need of aid, but the real number could be far higher.

Accurately quantifying humanitarian need is almost impossible due to the information blackout imposed by the Islamists. Phonelines have been cut, mobile phones are banned, internet surveillance is extensive and people accused of spying face death. ISIS uses this lack of information to fuel its own propaganda machine.

In the face of the vice-like grip the militants maintain over the societies they control, groups like Salih’s can seem insignificant. But while the United States, Turkey and other global powers squabble over a military solution to tackle ISIS, at least Salih’s informants and others like them are on the frontline bearing witness and documenting the crimes.

Using their contacts, most of whom were previously trained on recording human rights abuses, they produce substantive reports about the humanitarian situation inside Mosul. Getting the information out is a challenge in itself.

“In Mosul, they are innovative and creative after many months of these problems,” says Salih, explaining how residents circumvent the ISIS blackout. “They are trying to rely on internet coverage coming from other areas, using large antennas to grab signal. These signals are being captured and consolidated.” Sources with families in Mosul say they communicate by night. Much of the information is supplied by younger, tech-savvy people.

“But ISIS goes to any group of young people in the market to search their phone history,” says Salih. “What would happen if they were caught sharing information? They'd kill them.” He says two young people were killed for being caught twice using their mobile phones, as they were suspected of leaking security information.

Despite these dangers, Salih says IID informants are “willingly trying to contribute…. Of course they are anonymous, and we tell them to erase any information they send to us.”

Not just activists

Aid bodies are also keeping an eye on ISIS territory. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is collecting market price data to work out if people in areas held by ISIS or affected by conflict are going hungry. 


WFP’s “mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping” unit investigates the food security situation in places where staff cannot physically go. Right now this includes the violence-torn governorates of Anbar, Salah al-Din, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, where Mosul is.

Information comes from live telephone interviews with local informants, who have connections with the Iraqi charities that WFP works with. “We certainly want to do this responsibly, and using operators is the most responsible thing to do,” says WFP remote monitoring expert Jean-Martin Bauer, citing concerns for the protection of informants. Operators “check that people are in a safe location and able to respond to a survey without putting themselves at risk.”

The data shows a trend towards food insecurity in Anbar and Ninewa, two regions where ISIS is particularly dominant.

Too high a price?

But is the risk really worth it? In the case of Anbar and Ninewa, for example, there is relatively little that WFP can do with the knowledge of food shortages. Is information really valuable if you can’t act on it?

Activists and humanitarians would say yes. Firstly they point to the successes, like in April when the WFP was able to use its information to reach the city of Haditha – which is partially besieged by ISIS – and provided enough food to feed 15,000 people for a month.

But more fundamentally, Salih says, while their reports can do little to help now, they may have an impact on Iraq’s future. He argues that his correspondents in Mosul take the risk of reporting on the situation because they have a long-term goal: peace.

“It will be very helpful for us to have the information after liberation, to have the truth, that minorities weren’t killing other minorities. If there is false information we will see a wave of revenge.”

Jotyar Sedeeq of the University of Duhok’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution explains that evidence of resistance to ISIS from within these areas will help rebuild Iraq post-conflict.

“Many people, notably the IDPs (internally displaced persons), think that most people who stayed in areas controlled by ISIS are either engaging in ISIS crimes or supporting ISIS. That is why accurate reports and a real justiciability process are crucial terms for any reconciliation.”

Although the predominantly Sunni Muslim ISIS has attacked adherents of its own sect, it is best known for the persecution of Shia Muslims and Yazidi, Christian and other ethnic minorities – stirring hatred between different groups. Sedeeq says that for lasting peace to take hold, communication between the different sects in Mosul is of paramount importance.

“What happened in and around Mosul has broken down social relations which were strong for decades,” says Sedeeq. “[To counter this] some initial steps can be performed by organisations, like disseminating the stories of those people who helped the survivors of ISIS.” Favourable reports about the people remaining under ISIS are “very rare,” he adds.

In Mosul, where people of all sects lived together before ISIS moved in, accounts of communication and cooperation are commonplace.

It took IRIN just half an hour in a popular marketplace in northern Iraq to find Amir Emanuel Youssef, a Christian displaced from Mosul, selling tea. He is in contact with his Muslim neighbour in the city, a friend of 20 years. Amir’s neighbour managed to salvage many of his belongings before ISIS militants took over his house, telling Amir that they would keep his things safe until he could return.

“He is a dear neighbour,” says Amir, “and I trust him a lot.”

Unsurprisingly, communication has been sporadic; they last spoke three weeks ago. “I talked to my neighbour who is keeping most of my furniture, including many books about Christian culture, like Bibles, books that were precious to me. He asked me, ‘What shall I do with these books?’ They (ISIS) are searching the houses.” Amir’s frightened neighbour wanted to protect his friend’s library, but discovery of Christian literature in his house could leave him open to accusations of being Christian, and harsh punishment.

“You are more important to me than books,” Amir told him. “Just burn them.”


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