ISIS on your doorstep: Meet Mosul Eye, the man who defied the terrorists to save his city
Originally published on February 6, 2018.
Readers are warned that this story and audio contains some graphic violent detail which some people may find disturbing.
Omar Mohammed remembers two things from the day his city fell to ISIS: the black flag of the terrorists, and his mother's face.
"She was so afraid," he said, "but in the same time she was pretending to be strong enough to encourage me, and my brothers and sisters, to not be scared."
If her aim was to inspire courage in her children, it worked for Mohammed.
For two years, he operated as Mosul Eye, an anonymous citizen journalist who documented life under ISIS rule, from the horrific atrocities to the average day.
His social media following grew to over 300,000, and while the terrorists released videos threatening to kill him "thousands of times," Mohammed kept his mission secret, even from his own family.
Life in the caliphate
Three days after they arrived in Mosul, even before the fighting had ended, ISIS issued a new constitution for Mosul, stating that the city would now be governed by the law of the so-called caliphate.
They deported Christians, enslaved Yazidis, and killed Sunnis.
They restructured the class system, grouping people from high to low as believers, foreign fighters or the general public. Mohammed's family fell into this lowest class; unwilling to join the Islamic State and under constant surveillance and threat from its adherents.
ISIS brought their own dictionary. They changed the vocabulary of life in the city, even renaming the bank and police station.
Mohammed taught at the university, teaching ancient history. ISIS installed a new dean, who issued instructions to the professors.
"He was looking for an education [system] that graduated fighters, not students," Mohammed said.
He said that the new dean told professors that "Once they graduate, they will join the fight to protect the word of God."
The university was closed and became a military camp in 2015.
"One of my students joined ISIS," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, "he was really a smart guy, he always wanted to finish his studies."
Mohammed said he can't understand what drove this young man.
"I don't know what happened to him, why did he join ISIS," he said.
"I remember I saw him once in the street and he was wearing the uniform of ISIS, with his gun. All I wanted at that moment was to take him out of this, but I couldn't."
"He would have killed me if I'd tried to convince him that he's walking in the wrong path."
As the city he loved crumbled around him, Mohammed realized he had to document what was happening.
"If I don't write the history of Mosul, in this very critical time, I know that we will lose Mosul forever," he said, "because it's a conflict of historical narratives."
He feared that if ISIS records went unchallenged, years from now they could be misinterpreted as peaceful rulers who were ousted by hostile foreign forces.
He would walk through the city, observing what was happening, talking to the people he encountered. At one point, he even went to the hospital and pretended to be a doctor.
"I had a friend of mine who was a doctor working in the hospital," he told Tremonti. "He was a bit tired, and I asked him to take his uniform."
"Then I walked around the rooms inside the hospital. I talked to the people who was killed, who was injured."
"Sometimes also I pretend like I am a taxi driver, because I wanted to see everything myself."
"I wanted also to live it, to feel it because I am writing the history of this city, in this time."
"When I go back home, I start writing down all the things I have witnessed. Then I publish part of this on the blog but I keep the other part secret."
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: In the process of doing now you see some terrible things.
OMAR MOHAMMED: I witnessed women being stoned to death. I witnessed people where their hands were cutted. I witnessed people who were beheaded. I witnessed people who were thrown down from high buildings.
It's like the city was a huge grave with dozens of headless people.
One of the events happened in the city, was two women — they were accused of adultery by ISIS, and they were stoned to death.
According to ISIS law, if she didn't die after being stoned, she will be free.
They were stoning her; the first one died but the other one didn't. Then they should have let her go, but they didn't.
The ISIS fighter said: 'Let's play a game.'
He told her: 'Run away. If you make it, you are free.'
She was dying, she was bleeding from every single part of her body. She was looking at them, but running out, trying to make it to safety. But she was running in the same circle; she didn't realize this. Then she fall down and he shooted her in her head.
This is what I saw in Mosul. This is what the people of Mosul saw, and this is what the children of Mosul lived.
This was a normal day in Mosul.
Mohammed said he saw children recruited, brainwashed and turned into killers for ISIS.
On his excursions, he befriended a young boy in an orphanage, but lost track of him on later visits.
"After a few months I saw a video released by ISIS, there was a child executing a man," he said, "Then I realized that this child is the one who was kidnapped by ISIS."
"They brainwashed him and they used him as a killing machine."
Mohammed forced himself to bear witness to these atrocities, but the trauma of seeing them was exacerbated by his need for secrecy. Not even his mother knew about his secret identity.
ISIS were aware of his blog, and desperate to stop it. They began to threaten him through their propaganda channels, even mentioning him by name in the video where they murdered a Jordanian pilot.
They burned the pilot to death, but told Mohammed they would not give him that "mercy".
"They said: 'We will kill you thousands of times, but you will not die,'" Mohammed told Tremonti. "We will bring you back to life and we will kill you again."
Mohammed eluded them through various tricks: in the beginning he wrote in a style that made people think he was a woman. In Easter 2015, he went to a Christian church and lit candles to send a message of hope to the city's exiled Christians. This confused people into thinking he himself was Christian.
But with ISIS closing in, he realized he had to leave to protect both himself and his family.
In December 2015, a smuggler agreed to take him through the Syrian border to Turkey for US$1,000.
Hidden in the footwell of his car was a book, some papers, and the hard drive that contained the history of Mosul under ISIS.
Mohammed spent the entire journey thinking he would be caught at any moment.
"ISIS will find who is Mosul Eye, and Mosul Eye will be executed publicly," he remembers thinking, adding that they would have made an example of him.
He made it to safety, and is now living in an undisclosed location and completing a PhD.
Revealing his identity
In the battle to retake Mosul, Mohammed's brother was killed in an airstrike. His death hit their mother hard.
"She felt like she is so tired," he said, "She can't continue her life."
Mohammed wanted to give her a reason to keep going, and to give her something to be proud of again.
He told her that he was the Mosul Eye.
She said: "I always thought there was something happening with you, boy," he recalled.
"Then she said: 'I'm proud of you, and I want you to be safe.'"
Where courage comes from
In December, Mohammed revealed his identity to the wider world, because he saw a new role for Mosul Eye.
He believes it is no longer a news outlet, bringing the world into Mosul, but a force for reviving the city, and showing the people living there that they can rebuild their lives in the wake of ISIS.
OMAR MOHAMMED: When we care about the future, we will get this courage.
In Mosul, in my city, I was born in a city during the war between Iraq and Iran. And I'd grown up during the Gulf War in the 90s
Then when I just became an adult, 17 years old, the Americans arrived, 2003.
When I became a teacher in the university, ISIS came and occupied the city.
So I realized that if the last generation worked hard on the future, to protect the future, we wouldn't have ISIS.
Sometimes we risk our lives. Yes I risked my life. I risked my family's life, but it's worth doing. It's for the future, the next generation and it's the history. History is not only about the past. History is about future.
We are humans, we can do even more about this, if we just believe that we can do it.
Listen to the full interview near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
This segment was produced by The Current's Exan Auyoung.