The Islamic State (ISIS) used to occupy a territory representing one-third of Iraq, composed of major cities like Mosul. There, it set up from 2014 onwards a fundamentalist and jihadist Islamic regime. ISIS relied on local support and violent means of repression such as mass executions, rapes and enslavement of populations to deter any opposition in the territories it controlled.
ISIS has now been defeated by an international coalition in Mosul, Tal Afar and Hawija, which used to represent most of its territory in Iraq. The coalition is still fighting against jihadists in the state of Anbar in Iraq and in Syria.
September 2017. A new life is beginning in the zones that have just been freed from Daesh. In those liberated areas, how do former sympathizers of the regime and its victims live together? Throughout the story of Meethak, a 20-year old Iraqi, we get an insight into the origins of ISIS, those who followed it and the complex post-war period in Iraq.
Part I – Joining ISIS
Where were you born, and why did you leave?
I am 20 years old. I am a journalist and a fixer. I am from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. I left home to Erbil to study English in 2014.
In 2012, ISIS had a remarkable activity in the region of Anbar. They did video propaganda, attacks, etc. In 2013 they began occupying cities like Fallujah. Then around Mosul, Ramadi and all around… They occupied a few towns in my province. But the fights lasted many months before they managed to occupy entirely my city.
My neighbourhood was one of the first to be occupied by ISIS. Every time ISIS would come, I would move to another neighbourhood… Then another… We were moving on. Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left some months after they came, in 2014, along with other people who fled the cities. But it got more and more difficult to leave. The highways got controlled. People had to go through deserts, the Tigers river to join Baghdad and then go out.
I have 9 brothers and 4 sisters. My father used to have 3 wives. I’m against this, for the record! After I left, my family was hesitating to come to Erbil. My father has a mechanical company and he had to finish his businesses. The neighbourhood they were living in was not occupied by ISIS yet.
In March 2015, I took a flight from Erbil to Anbar, and told to my family: “I am here now, and you need to come back with me”. I convinced them to come with me. And two weeks after we left, all the neighbourhood was occupied by ISIS… Just in time. They lived in Erbil with me during one year and now they are back in Ramadi. The city has been liberated one year ago, in 2016, and it is rather safe to live here, although 70% of it is destroyed. My family have started its business again, and they live with the neighbours. But most of the city is destroyed. They own three houses and one of them is destroyed, the other is damaged…
Can we say that all the people who stayed supported Daesh?
No, we cannot say this. There were also people who didn’t support Daesh but who stayed. At the beginning, people stayed in the city even when there was fighting. There were little small frontlines inside the city. There were also people who couldn’t afford enough money to leave their houses and live in other cities. So they had to stay, basically. Because you should consider the economic situation as well. And people have been blocked to leave at the exit also, they were forced by Daesh to stay there.
Do you know people who stayed voluntarily, to support Daesh?
Yes, there was a lot of local support for ISIS.
2003 was shocking for everybody in Iraq. You know, the country was safe until then. Even though there was a war inside, there had been no internal war since the British occupation and the attacks against the Kurds in the 1990’s. When Saddam Hussein was defeated, lots of people lost their jobs, families, their homes. After that, they needed something to hold faith for…
And in 2006 there was a civil war. It is then that the Iraqi community was divided in my opinion. 36 000 Iraqis were killed in one year. Sunnis militias and Shia militias would kick out Sunnis from the areas controlled by Shia, etc. So after 2006, there was no long Iraqi community: only Shia in the south, Sunnis in the west and Kurds in the north. The people who lived this are not accepting the other groups, Shia or Kurds because they didn’t have the chance to live with them, to be culturally connected to them. This helped a lot to radicalize people.
Then the US formed the project of alliance with tribes and Al Qaeda was kicked out from Anbar in 2006. We were celebrating it in the city, and shooting in the air. But we didn’t realize that Al Qaeda is an ideology and lots of people who had been influenced by this ideology were leftover without any chance to make them a valuable individual in the society again.
There was no educational program, no way to teach the members who were thinking to join about extremism. It was easy for ISIS to recruit them. So yes, a lot of my former friends joined ISIS.
What about your relationship with your friends who supported ISIS?
With the ones who supported ISIS physically, I had to cut all connection.
With the ones who supported only mentally, I would call them sympathizers, I was discussing with them but not in areas occupied by ISIS of course. They had dreams. They wanted to be doctor, journalist, whatever. But the environment in Iraq didn’t provide this opportunity. When you are left over without hope, it is easy to be mentally washed brain. ISIS provides you with power and control, and adrenaline. Feeling of satisfaction. This is what makes them keep going. The feeling of having a purpose.
Where are they now?
Most of them stayed there. It is very hard for them to take it for an action. Very difficult. There are no resources for ISIS around there. Basically in Ambar, inside the cities, I don’t think ISIS could have provided weapons. Maybe some of them considered to go further and some of them were fine with only accepting the ideology of the killers in hope that it would work out. But these followers, if one day they get the opportunity and the right atmosphere and the anger inside, could be turned into action. This is why we need to focus on defeating ISIS ideologically more than militarily.
How do you explain that you were not influenced?
I used to be influenced. People are the product of their environment. People tell you that you are killed, that you should fight the occupation. It is easy for this group to spirit this ideology by propaganda, media, however.
In 2012-2013, there were demonstrations of Sunnis accusing the Iraqi government to target Sunnis. This was used by Daesh to be legitimate. In fact, it is true that there were accuses against Sunnis by the government and harassment by security forces. It gives reasons for civilians to have an alternative which is ISIS. This is when religion will be used. Religious groups would use this idea that all that is happening here is because we don’t worship God. This hope has been used to take an advantage, create an atmosphere of accepting the ideology of armed groups who would fight against other groups.
Article written by Cloé CHASTEL