The Islamic State’s Scorched-Earth Strategy

As the jihadi group loses ground in northern Iraq, it’s leaving poisoned wells and burnt farms in its wake.

Photography by Ali Arkady

SINJAR and KIRKUK, Iraq — From the moment Islamic State fighters surged into the Iraqi city of Mosul and then pushed deep into Kurdish-held territory in the summer of 2014, residents of Dibis have looked at their prized forest as more of a curse than a blessing.

This village, located in the hills southeast of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, once used the forest as a picnicking spot. Now, its dense foliage was being used by jihadis for attacks on the town. Local peshmerga commanders feared their foes might replicate tactics they’d used elsewhere, torching trees to shroud their target in smoke, rendering airstrikes useless.

The town’s defenders were right — the jihadis would eventually use the forest as a weapon. But their strategy was different than what the peshmerga expected: Rather than use the foliage as cover for a military advance, Islamic State fighters used it as part of a scorched-earth strategy designed to make the area unlivable for its inhabitants.

On a blustery day in early January 2015, a mob of panicked wild boar clattered through the main fruit and vegetable market — followed moments later by the telltale aroma of burning wood. Kurdish soldiers dashed into the woodland, searching the flaming undergrowth and clumps of oaks for enemy combatants. After recovering the bodies of two men — “Islamic State scouts,” a local security source called them — they formed human chains to ferry buckets of water from the adjacent Lower Zab River.

But it was too late. The blaze, which had been sparked with lighter fluid in seven different places, fed off stockpiled bales of hay and rows of beehives before bursting into a massive conflagration. The grass burned quickly, taking with it herds of grazing cattle and barns filled with precious farm machinery. By the time extra troops were rushed from the nearby front line to reinforce fire fighters, most of the second-largest lowland forest in Iraq had already become the Islamic State’s latest casualty.

Thirteen years of near-unbroken hostilities in Iraq have been desperately unkind to the environment. Heavily agricultural Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates, on the fringes of Iraq’s “Sunni Triangle,” were caught up in the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. As far back as the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein press-ganged agricultural laborers into military service to fight Iran, landholders have had no choice but to adapt to the vagaries of war.

Young shepherds graze their family’s sheep in the fields outside Dibis.

Residents of Chagmaya, near Kirkuk, fled their village when the Islamic State came close to Mosul. With the group now on the back foot, most have since returned and are trying to rebuild their lives.

For farmers still reeling from past troubles, the latest iteration of the conflict has plunged them even deeper into misery — and possibly sounded the death knell for agriculture in large parts of the country.

At least a million acres of prime arable land has been rendered unusable as the Islamic State lays waste to huge swaths of Iraqi territory. Systematic looting has robbed farms of much of the equipment necessary to renew operations. In an unprecedented development, some Iraqis have seen their land purposefully destroyed by their retreating enemies for no obvious military end.

“Living in this area, we’d seen chaos in the past,” said Fahad Hamad Omar, a Yazidi sheikh who was driven from his farm at the foot of Mount Sinjar into a refugee camp on the mountain’s peak, when the Islamic State initiated its genocide of his ancient ethno-religious group in August 2014. “Never before, though, had people deliberately torched our fields. Never had they tried to completely wreck our livelihoods. Never have we encountered such animals.”

What has been lost?

Farmers are struggling to make ends meet in northern Iraq. Due to damaged roads and frequent checkpoints, they have been cut off from distant markets.

Iraqi agricultural officials have been shaken badly by what has happened and haven’t yet been able to assess the full extent of the damage, in part because much of the country’s best land is still in Islamic State hands.

“There are 250,000 acres of farms here, and the Islamic State still controls 40,000 of them,” said Mehdi Mubarak, head of Kirkuk’s Agricultural Directorate, throwing his arms up in frustration when we met in his heavily fortified city center offices.

But even without comprehensive statistics, the magnitude of the destruction in areas recently liberated from the Islamic State is plain.

All 450,000 acres of agricultural land in the Shemal subdistrict of Nineveh, a mostly Yazidi area just north of Mount Sinjar and along the Syrian border, have sat fallow since the jihadis’ five-month occupation of the area ended in late 2014. Every one of the district’s 145 greenhouses was shattered and their generators and transformers carted off to Mosul or Raqqa, according to the town’s mayor. Most damagingly of all for a region famed for its production of thirsty wheat and barley crops, the jihadis either broke, stole, or cannibalized for parts every pump from the 485 artesian wells on which locals rely for irrigation.

The landmine problem is so big in Sinjar, according to one NGO that asked not to be named so as not to draw attention to its presence, that it could take decades to make the area safe. Meanwhile, there’s scarcely a silo or seed store intact in places that the Islamic State has occupied at some point during the war — the group has preferred to use them as watchtowers during fighting.

Sitting in his living room in one of the few houses in Shemal that weren’t damaged in the fight to retake the town, farmer Ali Abdeen Mourad, 46, has to brace himself when asked to describe what he has lost. Islamic State fighters ripped up his underground irrigation network to make pipe bombs. They laced his well with diesel, a likely act of irreparable sabotage that rendered its waters toxic to crops. The recent discovery of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which the occupiers planted throughout his fields as part of their defensive lines, has him fearing that he’ll never plant again.

Two young boys watch over lambs in Chagmaya.

The gutted interior of Dibis’s Security Directorate. Three Islamic State fighters seized two government buildings in this northern Iraqi town last November, then blew themselves up after a three-hour firefight.

A checkpoint outside Dibis. A suicide bomber blew himself up here in November, killing six soldiers.

His gaunt, undersized children now must prepare for another few months of meager rations. “It’s almost as if they wanted to try and kill all of us Yazidis and, if they didn’t succeed, to make life miserable for any who survived,” he said.

The level of destruction at first seemed to be linked to the identity of the people from whom Islamic State fighters were seizing the land. For some Sunni Arab farmers from the Humeyra area of Kirkuk governorate, their early encounters with the new rulers showed some promise. One displaced villager, who asked to withhold his name, said Islamic State administrators initially granted smallholders larger rations of fuel to transport their goods to market. “Apparently caliphates need people to harvest the crops,” he said, snorting.

After the Kurds and the Iraqi Army regrouped and fighting intensified, however, these Sunni Arab farmers, too, felt the force of the Islamic State’s wanton destruction. Electricity lines were cut and farm buildings booby-trapped as the jihadis retreated. Many of these explosives have subsequently maimed refugees seeking shelter while fleeing from territory still held by the Islamic State.

Fearful of ambushes and keen to remove obstacles that blocked checkpoints’ view, the jihadis flattened dozens of orchards, including those that once produced the famed Sharaban pomegranates that are prized throughout Iraq.

“We think they were angry that we weren’t supporting them, so they decided to make life as difficult as possible,” said Rashid Mohammed Swaidy, a farmer, whose house in the village of Drees Khazan on the road linking the cities of Kirkuk and Hawija was reduced to rubble in the fighting.

The long struggle to rebuild

A market stall in Kirkuk. With very little local fruit or vegetables available after the Islamic State’s emergence, traders have had no choice but to import more expensive foreign produce.

In these flat, fertile expanses far to the north of Baghdad, traumatized locals are starting to wake up to the wider implications of the Islamic State’s demolition job.

Fruit and vegetable prices have soared in the absence of domestic produce, with onions that once went for 25 cents per kilogram now selling for 90 cents at Dibis’s bazaar. The price of apples has doubled from 65 cents per kilogram to $1.35, as imported goods from Eastern Europe and neighboring countries fill the gaps in the market.

Even meat has become more expensive, as the chaos of war saddles distributors with extra costs. At an unlicensed livestock market on a highway verge just west of Kirkuk, traders complained that bribes demanded by Shiite militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga at checkpoints have boosted the price of a sheep from 150,000 Iraqi dinars to 200,000 Iraqi dinars over the past month alone.

Already battered by the loss of income, ordinary Iraqis must now contend with food bills that many can ill afford.

“You can’t imagine the humiliation of not knowing if you can feed your family every month,” said Abbas Omar, whose business selling Turkish-made irrigation systems in Dibis has largely ground to a halt as locals rein in spending.

For the Iraqi government, too, the loss of much of its domestic agriculture and destruction of the northern rural economy could not have come at a worse time. The collapse in the oil price has slashed revenues and led to a budget deficit of at least $20 billion. With less wheat and barley coming from its agricultural heartlands, the state has become less food secure and more dependent on Turkish, Saudi, and Iranian imports.

“This was the food basket of Iraq, but now we’re not producing anything,” said Mubarak, the Kirkuk agriculture official. Before the Islamic State, his governorate produced 450,000 metric tons of wheat, 250,000 tons of barley, and 100,000 tons of cotton. Ravaged by war and by farmers’ unwillingness to invest, it currently produces less than a quarter of that.

What's next?

Mehdi Mubarak, head of Kirkuk’s agricultural directorate.

Even in better times, the government would have struggled to foot the bill for the damage to agricultural goods. Now, with Baghdad’s coffers no longer flush with oil money and the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget substantially reduced, there’s little optimism that the country’s destroyed farmland will be revived anytime soon.

Naif Saido Kassem, the mayor of Shemal, said it would take $70 million just to repair the damage to his subdistrict. “Everything from pumps to tractors to seeds will need to be replaced,” he said.

Apart from an initial payment of $45,000 from the central government to clear debris from the streets and string up new power lines, however, he says they’ve received no assistance at all.

In the meantime, many displaced farmers across the country will likely continue to languish in exile. There’s no point in returning until their land is farmable again, they say, even if the Islamic State is on the back foot.

“We are farmers and only farmers. We don’t know how to do anything else,” said Abdullah Aziz Mohammed, a farmer of the Shammar tribe, whose holdings near Rabia, between Dohuk and Sinjar, will remain unusable until Kurdish authorities open up an irrigation channel that they had initially blocked to deprive the Islamic State of water.

Some see the chaos as a veiled opportunity to revamp the country’s agricultural sector, which has been over-subsidized and riddled with problems for decades. The government has traditionally bought wheat and barley for up to three times the market price, gutting the industry’s competitiveness. Rising temperatures that most attribute to climate change and water shortages in the more arid south have long since pushed many farmers off their land.

“We don’t have a coherent agricultural policy. We don’t receive support from the ministries of oil, water resources, and trade. This should be a lesson for Iraq,” said Mubarak.

But to those who are struggling to get by, relief can’t come soon enough. Without a swift return to their land, some suggest that farming will die out in the Fertile Crescent, where it was born.

“Our forefathers invented agriculture,” said Omar, the Yazidi farmer on Mount Sinjar. “It would be a terrible shame if it died here.”

This story was made possible by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

is a Cairo-based journalist. His work regularly appears in National Geographic, the Daily Beast, and Quartz, among others.