Reporting Behind Enemy Lines in Mosul
Omar al-Jubory believed the world needed to know what life was like under the Islamic State. He barely got out alive.
Omar al-Jubory began his career as a journalist in the deep end — covering the most dangerous story in the world. The 27-year-old resident of Mosul, employed as a social worker for women and children, watched in shock as the Islamic State took over his city in the summer of 2014. Then he got to work, operating undercover within Mosul to build a network of sources that provided him with information on the Islamic State’s brutal reign in his hometown.
Journalists like Jubory have been the world’s sole source of information about life in Mosul over the last two and a half years. Anonymous blogs like Mosul Eye have revealed glimpses of a city held in an iron grip by the Islamic State, recently describing new restrictions imposed by the jihadi group that curb civilians’ movement to prevent them from fleeing to liberated areas. Their accounts paint a portrait of a city ruled by an totalitarian regime — one with a feared network of intelligence agents and enforcers who aim to control every aspect of citizens’ lives, from the clothes they wear to the information they receive.
Over the course of three telephone interviews, Jubory described matter-of-factly his work in Islamic State-occupied Mosul and how it almost cost him his life. He first worked for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, cataloguing the daily crimes by the Islamic State, and then began selling his work to BBC News. He even was interviewed on BBC once about the group’s use of torture and how it had transformed the syllabus in schools to promote violence. He charged between $200 and $500 for filmed scenes within Mosul, he said, and $50 for a written report. He didn’t work for material gain, he told Foreign Policy: “I just needed the money to sustain myself.”
Jubory painted a picture of a population beaten into submission by the Islamic State, which he refers to pejoratively by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
“Although there was some sort of resistance, it was very weak,” he said. “They would kill children, women, and the elderly … any person who speaks [negatively] about Daesh, they would be killed along with his family. No one dares speak of them.”
Jubory’s work put him in the Islamic State’s crosshairs. In 2015, the group launched a campaign against journalists in Mosul, and Jubory became a wanted man. The Islamic State’s intelligence agents began rounding up his sources, he said, slowly tightening the noose around him.
Jubory had been on the run since then, moving from one neighborhood to another to avoid capture. On Oct. 19, 2016, his luck finally ran out. He was south of Mosul city, traveling without any identification, when a local resident sympathetic to the Islamic State pointed him out to the group’s enforcers. He was arrested, accused of working for “foreign infidel channels,” and brought to a makeshift prison in the town of Hamam al-Alil.
That’s when the torture started. Jubory said his guards used electric cables to shock him; sometimes, he said, they would hang him upside down from one leg and lash him, as they tried to extract confessions that he was a spy.
The Islamic State held Jubory in a two-story home — a nondescript location, he said, presumably to avoid discovery by the U.S.-led coalition’s drones and warplanes. The windows and doors were shuttered, and his fellow prisoners ranged from teenagers to 70-year-old men. He was held in a cell with one man who was accused of contacting U.S. and Iraqi forces to provide them with information about the Islamic State. His cellmate was so weak from torture that Jubory had to help him eat and drink water.
After 10 days, Jubory was sent in front of an Islamic State judge. There was no trial, simply a verdict: Jubory was sentenced to death.
Even after signing his death warrant, however, Jubory’s captors continued to torture him. Once, he said, they dressed him in a prison jumpsuit and set up a camera as if to film his execution. Then they placed a knife to his neck — only to stop at the last minute. “No, we will postpone it,” he remembers one of the would-be executioners saying. “We will come tomorrow to kill you.” Another time, he says, they shot a gun close to his head.
“They’re sadistic and enjoy the torture process,” he said. “They like to make the victim calm and quiet before they kill him.”
As the Islamic State lost ground around Mosul, the jihadi group started to empty Jubory’s prison by executing his fellow inmates. Independent reporting about mass killings bears out this account: When Iraqi forces liberated Hamam al-Alil in early November, reporters discovered mass graves containing the bodies of at least 100 people.
Escape was Jubory’s only hope. He knew that the number of guards at the prison decreased to only three or four at night, as they feared being targeted by airstrikes. He also knew that the bathroom on the ground floor had an air ventilator — a potential passage to the outside world. When he was moved to the ground floor after a number of other prisoners had been executed, he seized his opportunity.
“I felt, that’s it, I have to escape. If I stay, I’m definitely going to die,” he said. “So I asked one of the Daesh people if I can use the bathroom, and when I saw that the opening was suitable for me to escape … I managed to get out.”
Jubory’s ordeal still wasn’t over — fighting was raging to the south, making it impossible for him to leave Islamic State-controlled territory from that direction. Instead, he crossed the Tigris River back into Mosul city, living for three weeks at friends’ houses to avoid capture. He bought pants that ended mid-calf, a long shirt, and a traditional Arab headdress — the outfit worn by Islamic State fighters throughout the city. Dressed like this, he was able to cross the front lines southeast of Mosul and pass into territory controlled by Iraqi forces.
Jubory knows that he is extraordinarily lucky to be alive. The Islamic State has imprisoned dozens of his friends and colleagues, he says. In many cases, he does not know whether they are dead or are still languishing in prison.
Though he survived, Jubory thinks that the first story he covered as a journalist might also be his last. He has stopped reporting and fears going back to Mosul. Even if the Islamic State is kicked out of his hometown, he says, violence is likely to cling to the city for years, and he worries about being persecuted by Shiite militias. He dreams about leaving Iraq but so far has found all his ways out blocked.
“Because of this job, my life is in great danger,” he said. “So although I have passion for it, I don’t think I want to continue.”
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