Al Jazeera explores the origins and evolution of the world’s most feared and powerful armed group.
The practice of writing a prominent official or scholar for advice dates back hundreds of years, if not more. In the 1690s, for example, Londoners sent letters to the Athenian Mercury, a twice weekly newspaper that published the questions about everything from love to sin. Religious figures have also frequently been sought out for correspondence by people seeking absolution or guidance in times of hardship. Such exchanges have long been a window into society’s fears and anxieties.
Indeed the same may be true for written correspondence from individuals living in parts of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which paints a bleak picture of life for both ISIL members and civilians still living under the its control.
The correspondence, obtained by The Intercept and Al Jazeera, was sent to a religious scholar living in Jordan who has been associated with other groups in the past, but is critical of ISIL. The messages come from people in ISIL-held territory, both members of the group and civilians, who are seeking his religious advice. Wanting such counsel from religious figures is common in the Muslim world, but the recipient of these messages in particularly respected among Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
The religious figure is not named here in order to protect his legal status in Jordan.
The advice seekers are unrelated: one is an ISIL fighter in Fallujah, and the other is a Sunni Muslim civilian living in Mosul.
The correspondence took place from early June to mid August, and coincided with major events in those cities reported by international media – including the Iraqi government’s offensive to retake Fallujah and the increasing pressure on the inhabitants of Mosul in preparation for the operation.
“The battle for Fallujah was a success in that it ended with ISIS driven out and a government established that had representation from the local Sunni community,” says Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of the political risk publication Inside Iraq Politics.
“Having said that, there was a lot of ugliness associated with the campaign, including damage to infrastructure and allegations of abuses by Shia militia groups.”
The messages from these cities offer a glimpse into the effect of military pressure on ISIL fighters in Iraq, as well as the fears of some Sunni Muslims that they would be the target of reprisals when their cities were recaptured by the government.
On June 26, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraqi forces had successfully liberated the city of Fallujah from ISIL. The announcement marked the fourth time that Fallujah had violently changed hands since the American invasion Iraq in 2003. In this case, the city, once known as a centre of Sufi Islam, was retaken only after months of US air raids and besiegement by Iraqi ground troops.
Before heavy fighting in the city began this June, an ISIL fighter reached out to the Jordanian religious scholar for advice, saying that members of ISIL had committed “mistakes” in Fallujah, including acts of murder, and had mistreated the local population.
“There is no time to indulge in details. However, if I survive this ordeal I might get into details. But let’s suppose that the mistakes had to do with murder, what should I do? And if it had to do with violations of Islamic law, what should I do so I face God with clean conscience? Would my repentance for these actions be enough for God to forgive me if I am a member of this group?”
During the run-up to the battle, the fighter said that ISIL members debated whether to allow their own family members and other civilians to flee Fallujah. He estimated that the group had only around 800 members prepared to defend Fallujah from the Iraqi Army, whose numbers were known to be far greater.
“We in Fallujah are under siege by the Shia, the [hostile Sunni tribes], and the apostates. We have decided that we should fight to death. Our morale is high, but the city is under siege and no supplies can come in. The enemy – the Iraqi army – is over 30,000 while the Mujahedeen are only 800 and are shrinking as a result of the air strikes. The American air force bombs us even if someone fires a bullet.”
After the battle commenced, American air strikes on the city apparently took a significant toll on the ISIL defenders.
“In just one day, American bombings killed 75 fighters, and on another day they killed and injured over 40,” the man wrote.
Following the Iraqi army’s reclamation of the city in late June, the man lost contact with the religious figure. But he reached out to him again in July, saying that he and other surviving ISIL fighters had fled Fallujah into the surrounding desert:
“The reason I stopped this communication was because our internet service was cut off after the attack on Fallujah. We were fighting for weeks, many people were killed and injured. The battle was won by the Shia. We fled the city towards the desert which was disastrous due to the conditions we faced afterwards. The US bombing took its toll on us, and killed about 200 more of us. We fled into the desert and I am not sure if God was testing us or punishing us. I am now in the Al Bukamal area and the internet service here is not consistent.”
He recounted to the religious scholar the suffering that he and other surviving ISIL members had experienced while fleeing Fallujah:
“First, we suffered great fear because of the American bombings, and thus there was no safe place for us and no place to hide. This took its toll on us. Then we suffered disorientation and confusion, we were lost in this huge desert. Making things worse was the fact that our guide was killed by the air strikes. We stayed 10 days in the desert not knowing where we were going as we were chased by the bombers from the air. We suffered terribly as result of extreme thirst. Many of us died of thirst and I myself almost died of it, if it was not for God’s mercy. It was the most horrific 10 days that I have ever experienced.”
The man told the scholar that many of the other fighters who had managed to flee Fallujah had instructed their families to leave ISIL territory altogether and move to territories controlled by local Sunni tribes, for fear of what would happen if they were captured by Shia militia groups. Meanwhile, in his new location, still under ISIL control, he claims to have witnessed the same abuses that the group had inflicted in Fallujah.
“Some of us reached Mosul, others did not. But the same mistakes that were made in Fallujah are being made here all over again. In that I mean the mistreatment of population, disregard to proper strategies and the spread of injustice. If ever want our situation to change, we should start rethinking of our actions and mistakes and revision should be considered at the highest levels.”
The man’s messages cut off some time after that, with his fate unclear. In one of his last messages he again lamented that the group had lost Fallujah, “because of the injustices we have committed against the people”.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, and has been under the control of ISIL fighters since 2014. The ISIL force that routed the Iraqi Army is believed to have consisted of little more than a thousand fighters, yet it managed to defeat a much larger force over the course of a six-day battle. The unlikely initial success of ISIL in Mosul is believed to be a product of the widespread unpopularity of the Iraqi Army forces that had been stationed in the city. These forces were predominantly Shia, and were alleged to have carried out sectarian abuses against the city’s mostly Sunni local population.
In a series of messages delivered over the course of the summer, a man currently living in Mosul who reached out to the Jordanian religious scholar described his despair over the future of the city – trapped under the harsh governance of ISIL fighters and facing an assault by potentially vengeful Iraqi government forces.
“I am writing this account because I see our end is near. I live in Mosul, I am a devout Muslim, but not a member of ISIL and I don’t intend to join them anytime soon. I am writing this account to explain our dire situation in this city. Although like many residents of Mosul, we saw the Shia government of Baghdad as a bigger danger and a threat to our lives than ISIL. But as our life conditions deteriorate rather rapidly from bad to worse, some have started thinking of what was unthinkable few years ago: preferring Shia Baghdad’s dangerous rule to ISIL.”
While the man had once welcomed ISIL as possible liberators from the oppressive central government, the brutal treatment meted out by ISIL members to the local population had changed his perception.
“While Mosul is under siege and a war against it is looming in the horizon, the people there have lost trust in everything that comes from ISIL. They even are reluctant to pick up arms to defend the city because of mistreatment and harassment they have been subjected to. We even started hearing those who are saying: it does not matter any more who comes and take over Mosul. [ISIL’s] behaviour and aggression against the residents of Mosul and their capturing and enslaving women from others faiths has turned people away from them….
…People’s morale is down, and I saw that coming, and expected even worse because of how they treated the population and created enemies throughout the region. The situation here is very difficult. I am very confused about the future and often ask myself if we should stay home and await the knives of the Shias when they eventually come to kill us. Should we flee to the desert with our women and children, or keep our families at home and carry arms to defend ourselves?”
In the autumn of 2015, the Iraqi government stopped paying the salaries of public sector workers living in Mosul. While the decision to starve ISIL-controlled areas of funds made tactical sense, it financially left the city’s residents impoverished.
“People are exhausted by poverty; they desperately need money especially after the Shia rulers of Baghdad cut off the salaries more than a year ago,” the man wrote. “Eighty percent of the people here are government employees, so they are directly impacted by cutting their salaries off and face severe problems of trying to feed and take care of their families.”
The callous response by ISIL leaders to this apparent suffering had further embittered the man and other Mosul residents.
“Remarkably, while all this is taking place, ISIS couldn’t care less about the people or how they feel or what they are going through. Every Friday during the prayer sermon, their preachers insult the local population and attack them for not going off to Jihad with them and accuse them of being cowards and hypocrites. Their [morality police] is manned by young men and teenagers who insult and attack older and grown men. These young teenagers often issue tickets and fines to elderly men because they for example shaved some of their beards off, even though people barely have money to eat let alone have any to pay imposed fines. They also often yell at women because they slightly showed their faces or eyes from under their veils.”
In the run-up to the government offensive against Mosul, many Iraqis have reportedly made plans to flee the city by paying local smugglers. In his letters, the man says that ISIL refuses to let people flee the city through normal channels, claiming that those who flee territory under its control are apostates from Islam itself. The man said that he had tried to reason with local ISIL officials on behalf of the women, children and foreigners present in Mosul, to no avail.
“I advised some of ISIL men who I knew in the city to let the women and children out of Mosul before the war starts, especially western women – French, Swedish, Danish, British and others because they have no place else to go. Unlike what happened in Fallujah where Iraqi women fled to other Sunni areas in advance of the battle and found shelter in tribal areas. Western women and their children have no such option. I told them they should give them back their passports and have them go to Syria or elsewhere before the war starts, because the Kurds and the Shia are coming for revenge and they will murder and rape those women. But they mocked and threatened me and refused to listen.
What makes me more confused is that Raqqa is part of House of Islam, [under the control of ISIL] so why can’t they allow people to escape there? Furthermore, ISIL allows Syrians to come from Syria to shop and engage in trade in Mosul, but does not allow Iraqis to go to Syria and do the same thing. I, like many other residents of Mosul, find this very troubling.”
In his last messages, the man said that he initially hoped that ISIL would govern Mosul in accordance with his own understanding of Islamic law. But now, he lamented, “what we see here today is everything else but God’s conditions and instructions. We see injustice rule us, we see aggression and murder take place everywhere around us.”
“Under these conditions we live in, I don’t think any of us would have the power or the motivation to fight the Shias when they eventually come to destroy us,” the man wrote. “Our situation is dire and is much bigger than us, we can only ask God for his help and his forgiveness.”