- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Since the Islamic State captured Mosul last month, it has burned shops selling alcohol, ordered veils placed over the faces of mannequins in store windows, and implemented discriminatory policies that forced the majority of the city’s Christians to flee. You’d think that was dramatic enough — but a number of apparently false stories about the jihadist group’s behavior in Iraq’s second-largest city are spreading like wildfire through the Western media.
The latest culprit appears to be U.N. official Jacqueline Badcock, who told reporters on Thursday that the Islamic State had issued a fatwa ordering women to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). The procedure is quite rare in Iraq — it is far more common in sub-Saharan Africa — and is not typically something that jihadists demand. As Agence France-Presse reported, instituting FGM in areas under the control of the Islamic State, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, could place 4 million women and girls at risk of undergoing the procedure.
Thankfully, Badcock’s claim has been widely debunked by reporters and analysts. NPR’s Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, reported that residents of Mosul, including a doctor and a tribal leader, had not heard of the fatwa. Meanwhile, an alleged Islamic State decree announcing the implementation of FGM was revealed to be a hoax. (The U.N. office in Iraq did not respond to requests for comment on the source of Badcock’s claim.)
But the furor over FGM is far from the only questionable claim that has been made about the Islamic State’s reign in Mosul. Last week — as the jihadist group’s very real campaign to force Christians to pay a tax levied on non-Muslims, convert to Islam, or face death reached fever pitch — multiple news outlets reported that the Islamic State had burned down the St. Ephrem’s Cathedral.
There was just one problem: The pictures published by news outlets and shared on social media of the supposed burning of the Syriac Catholic cathedral were from church burnings in Egypt or Syria. To this day, there has been no confirmation from anyone in Mosul that a cathedral was burned.
But the most spectacular story about the Islamic State relates to what would have been one of history’s most spectacular bank heists. Shortly after the group stormed Mosul, the provincial governor in the region told reporters that it had raided the city’s central bank, making off with more than $400 million, in addition to a "large quantity of gold bullion." The alleged raid — which was widely reported in papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post — would likely have made the Islamic State the world’s richest jihadist organization, as well as giving it more resources than many small states.
There’s only one problem: The heist doesn’t appear to have happened. The regional governor who initially described the raid changed his tune in an interview with the Financial Times last week, saying that "nobody until now has confirmed that story." Meanwhile, the chief executive of the association of Iraq’s private banks said that no raid occurred, and that "nothing has been removed from the premises of any banks [in Mosul], not even a piece of paper."
Given the extreme difficulty of reporting in areas under the control of the Islamic State, it is perhaps not surprising that the news coming out of Mosul is so frequently incorrect. And the jihadist group’s well-deserved reputation for implementing its brand of medieval justice does admittedly make it hard to separate fact from fiction. But the next time you read a story and think that it’s too spectacular to be true — you just may be right.