The Ghosts of Islamic State 'Liberated' Areas of Iraq Still Terrorized by Violence

Officially, Islamic State has been driven out of the Hawija district of Iraq. But the jihadist groups are still there and continue to terrorize the populace. They often show up in the dark of night.

Simon Prades / DER SPIEGEL


The days are clear and bright. As long as you have a wide-open view, it's safe, they insist. As long as you can see the contours of the rows of trees at the edge of the village, the bushes between the last fields and the edge of the desert.

But in wintertime, the days are short. As soon as darkness falls following a brief dusk and all outlines, colors and movements are swallowed up by the uniform blackness -- that is when the fear begins. That's what the residents of Gharib say, and urgently request that you start your journey in time, that you leave their village, that you leave the region.

Because at night, the horror returns.

Sometimes, the villagers say, the dogs sound the alarm. On occasion, tracks can be seen the next morning. And frequently, it is possible to hear the voices of the men who return at night to taunt, to threaten and to kill those who have officially been freed of the yoke of Islamic State (IS).

Map of Iraq

Map of Iraq

In early October, the Iraqi army rolled through the terrorist group's last significant stronghold in the country, the Hawija district, located southwest of Kirkuk. After just a couple of days and a few brief skirmishes, the government declared that IS had been defeated, driven away. Destroyed.

But that wasn't true then and it still isn't true today. At least not for the more than 100 villages in the fertile region, crisscrossed with rivers and irrigation canals. Even though the Hawija battle was supposed to be a fight that IS stood no chance of winning. Mosul had been retaken by the Iraqi army in the summer after months of bitter fighting, as was the city of Tal Afar. Aside from a couple of desert areas, Hawija was all that IS had left -- the same region where the series of IS triumphs, which began quietly at first, got its start back in 2013.

Getting there isn't easy for foreign journalists. The reporter from DER SPIEGEL was only able to reach the district after several attempts, and only his long-time Iraqi fixer was able to reach the village of Gharib. People from Hawija made the journey to Kirkuk for the sole purpose of reporting on the situation back home.

IS got its start in Iraq as a response from a part of the Sunni minority to the political dominance of the Shiites. The history of this uprising begins in Hawija, shortly after the prime minister at the time had a peaceful Sunni demonstration, called to protest against the capriciousness of the Shiite central government, violently dispersed. And this district of Hawija, where everything began, was to be the last area liberated from IS.

'It Nearly Cost My Son His Life'

The government troops headed north under the official pretext of driving out IS. In truth, however, their main objective was taking back the regional oil capital of Kirkuk, located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) way, from the Kurds. "The army announced: We have won! But in reality, we just drove through everywhere," recalls Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Araf, full of disdain. "We didn't clear up anything outside of the cities and didn't leave any troops behind for security. This rush was a mistake. It nearly cost my son his life."

Gharib is situated in the northern part of the Hawija district near the Zab River. The name of the village means "strange, foreign," which is fitting given the situation in which most of the families that returned following Gharib's official liberation find themselves. Only 500 of the original population of 3,000 are still there or have returned. Shepherds are afraid of going too far beyond the edge of town ever since several of them were attacked at night by IS troops. Even months after the liberation, there is no electricity and hardly any light at night, but plenty of fear of each noise heard outside.

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The men of IS, who held Gharib in their clutches for over three years, know every path, every corner, every house and almost every dog in the village. They weren't outsiders. They were neighbors and relatives. Some of them belonged to the feared Nassif clan at the edge of the village, the charismatic leader of which attracted the first young followers back at the end of the 1990s.

Some of the IS men were killed in the October skirmishes and a few others fled toward Turkey. But the rest are still around, not far away. They have only withdrawn into the thickets along the Zab and Tigris rivers or into the Makhoul Mountains and desert valleys -- all of which are within marching distance of Gharib and other villages. Long before the downfall of their "caliphate," IS set up hiding places, dug tunnels and deposited supplies.

And now, they are coming back at night -- on foot or by boat, quietly and yearning for revenge. The villagers stand watch in shifts and have mounted a spotlight on almost every house so as to be able to see who is approaching in the dark. Though it would be careless to assume that things are safe during the day. Such an assumption cost Ali, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Araf, a knee. Two of his cousins got it even worse.

The Two Husseins

Wracked by pain, his left leg stabilized with metal rods, Ali Araf is lying in a house in Kirkuk -- to which his family fled from IS back in 2014 -- and telling his story. They had set off to the homes belonging to the Nassif clan on the other side of the village. Why? At first, Ali demurs, but then admits: "We wanted to go in and destroy the place! To prevent them from ever coming back! The Nassifs have brought devastation to our village."

The leader of the Nassifs bears the same first name as Ali's father, the lieutenant colonel: Hussein.

When the two Husseins were born, there was a clear hierarchy in Gharib, just as there was in all of Iraq: The Sunnis ruled the country just as the Sunni Ottomans had for centuries ruled the three provinces that Britain turned into Iraq following World War I. And for decades, their omnipotent namesake, Saddam Hussein, had held a tight grip on power.

The Sunnis of Hawija lived well in his empire. Most of them were farmers, but they were favored by the system. Ali's family was related to the clan of Saddam Hussein's first wife. They are fond of talking about Sherif Mohammed, an uncle who became an intelligence officer and who behaved like, and ultimately began to resemble, Saddam Hussein.

But then came the confusion from which the country still hasn't recovered, a disorientation triggered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003, sweeping away Saddam's empire in just three weeks. And it was Sherif Mohammed -- who glorified Saddam's infallibility until the last possible moment -- who was the first to invite the advancing American troops in for a meal. In his home! The enemy! The Zionist-imperialist-capitalist agents of evil! But since the early days of April 2003, when the last units of the glorious Iraqi army disbanded, they have also been the victors.

Overnight, the self-righteous became lambs. And suddenly, the radical Islamists, who had been viewed with suspicion by the secret service and laughed at by the villagers, found that nothing more stood in their way. In Gharib as elsewhere in Hawija, there was nothing ignoble about joining al-Qaida early on. Officially, of course, they were terrorists and hunted down by U.S. troops. But even in Baghdad, many of the country's new leaders were discretely complimentary of the "honorable resistance" against the Americans, with whom they now worked on a daily basis. The decades of practiced opportunism, of lying for survival, didn't simply vanish. They were merely adapted to the new set of circumstances.

In Gharib, Hussein Nassif, who would later become an IS leader, became the flag-bearer of this lost pride. He distributed cassettes and, later, DVDs of sermons from Saudi Arabia and indoctrinated his young followers in meetings held under the cover of darkness. He dropped out of middle school, villagers say, and his own father kicked him out. But he was clever and charismatic. The Americans took him into custody on several occasions, but he had powerful supporters in Baghdad and was always released.

The Glowing Embers of a Fire

Finally, in summer 2014, he didn't return as a penitent ex-detainee but as a new ruler, in gold-embroidered robes and a personal security force made up of 30 cousins. As an IS emir, he decided who could live and who must die in Gharib -- up until last October.

On that Wednesday afternoon in December, Ali recalls, he and the others entered the first house belonging to the Nassif clan. It was empty, and they toppled over cabinets, shattered the dishes and moved on to the next house. It, too, was vacant, but on the roof of a house on the very edge of the settlement, he says, they saw the glowing embers of a fire.

"First, we shouted: 'Down with Daesh!'" he says. "Daesh" is the Arabic acronym for IS. "Then Abdulrahman Sherif, the oldest among us, said: Give me the rifle and the mobile phone, I'll go take a look! We only had a single Kalashnikov with us and we collected a few rocks."

Abdulrahman led the way. The door was ajar, as it had been for weeks. But there were rocks behind it to prevent it from blowing all the way open in the wind. They were new. The trespassers separated and went from room to room. It smelled of soup and fresh bread. Then Abdulrahman opened the last door, the one leading to the pantry behind the kitchen. That is where the IS men were hiding, and they suddenly burst out. "They looked like monsters, their hair and beards were long and unkempt, and they opened fire immediately," Ali says, describing the moment. "Abdulrahman was hit and collapsed, dead. Hossein yelled: 'I'll slow them down! Run! Run!'"

Ali glanced back as he was running and saw his cousin standing in the front door, his arms spread wide and a rock in his hand. He heard shots and ran for his life. When they later recovered Hossein's body, there were bullet holes in his eye and chest. "I was 30 meters away," Ali says, "when one of the men aimed at me, fired and hit my knee."

The gunfire alerted the entire village and residents ran to see what was going on. But they approached slowly, shooting from a distance. The IS men took cover. Ali managed to heave himself over a half-meter tall earthen wall. "But the man who had shot me ran right towards me, ultimately crouching on the other side of the wall."

Ali lay unmoving next to the cold wall. "I saw a pool of blood growing quickly. My blood. The IS fighter steadied his weapon on the wall right above where I was lying. I quietly prayed that he wouldn't look over the wall. He fired like he was out of his mind and I felt the hot cartridges falling onto my chest and face."


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