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.
Foto: 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.

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.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2018 (March 17th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

"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."

A Never-Ending Cycle of Revenge

He remembers the furious shouts of the IS men: "That is the retribution for those who are driving us out, who are sending us to the camps and destroying our homes!" Ali says there were at least five of them and that he recognized their voices. The man crouching on the other side of the earthen wall, he says, was none other than Omar Nassif. As head of the IS "security service," he was the executioner for the district capital of Abbasi and the surrounding villages. It was a job that filled him with pride, as many residents say. Everyone knew him and was familiar with his boasting. "I would execute my own brother," he liked to say. "Chopping off heads is a pleasure."

On one occasion, as many in Gharib recall, Omar Nassif told them about his three-year-old daughter. She would always come running to hug him when he came home, Nassif told them. But when he once came home immediately after an execution and still smelled of blood, "she only approached slowly, looked at me and then didn't hug me. For a whole week."

Why did he tell them this story? They shake their heads. Did he want their sympathy for the sacrifice he was making as God's executioner? Did he want to test them? Or was it just another expression of his sick mind that can't be explained? They don't know. Just as they didn't know how to answer back then other than to nod in approval.

It began to grow dark and cold, but the IS men kept shooting, Ali says. "I was sure that the army wouldn't come." But then, the rumble of Humvees could suddenly be heard, those lumbering American off-road vehicles driven by the Iraqi army. And suddenly, the sound of the Kalashnikovs was joined by the boom of heavy, 14.5-millimeter machine guns. The army. The jihadists called out to each other to retreat and they disappeared, one after the other, covered by gunfire laid down by the rest.

Freezing cold and weak from the loss of blood, Ali was still in trouble. Everyone in the village must have thought he was dead. "If I had waved, the soldiers would have immediately opened fire." They had experienced too many ambushes. Hands shaking, he fished his mobile phone out of his pocket and sent a text message to a friend in the village at 6:37 p.m. "Tell the army that I am lying behind the earthen wall, 30 meters from a Humvee."

That's how they finally found him. A car brought him to the hospital in Kirkuk while the soldiers had to move on immediately: A farmer had been watching as seven IS men floated almost silently down the Zab River half hidden by the reeds. This time, the army had the advantage of surprise. They didn't even try to take them alive, instead shooting them all to death.

Fear in Iraq

The group of IS fighters in Gharib, on the other hand, managed to escape. Only the next morning did it become clear from bloody drag marks, which came to a sudden end, that one of them was injured and perhaps killed. They didn't leave him behind. It was as if they were a ghost -- one that had officially been banished but which nevertheless comes back to its own house to cook soup, kill two people, take part in a two-hour shootout and then disappear again.

But they didn't vanish for long. The next night, with the dead freshly buried, a huge fire erupted at the edge of town. Panicked residents called the army base: Daesh is back, the soldiers need to come back! But the officer on duty replied that the darkness made the danger of an ambush too great and they wouldn't be coming. He advised residents to keep their doors and windows closed.

Fear in Iraq takes many shapes. For more than three years in Hawija, the majority of the people feared those who had joined IS. It was a vast, all-encompassing fear, but at least it was calculable, as Adnan Sherif tries to explain, the brother of the two who were killed. Now, it is different.

When the army showed up in the area last fall, he says, IS briefly tried to defend itself in many places, but "in Gharib, they simply ran away." Just hours earlier, he says, Hussein Nassif, the feared IS leader, had held a thunderous sermon in the mosque. "I swear to you, victory is nigh! I swear!" After that, he disappeared, Sherif says, likely fleeing to Kurdish-controlled areas.

But the army kept going; only a couple of members of the local clan militia stayed behind. And the fear returned. One shepherd described how he spent the night outside the village with his sheep two weeks before the deadly skirmish. Suddenly, the shepherd said, a voice commanded him to "Wake up!" Ten IS men had surrounded him as he slept. "Where is the army? Do you have a mobile phone? Give it to us! How much do you want for it?"

Murdered One Night

He told them he needed it, and that he couldn't do anything if they took it from him. "No, no," they said, becoming angry. "We have to pay for it!" It was like they were drunk, the shepherd said. And suddenly, they left -- without the telephone.

The small towns in the Hawija district might be halfway safe, though the capital is destroyed and remains largely empty of people. But in talking with the people from the surrounding area, you learn what it really means when the Iraqi army claims that IS has been driven out.

Foto: Simon Prades / DER SPIEGEL

In Saifi, a village in southern Hawija, the family of a colonel, who had helped lead the anti-IS operation, was murdered one night. They had thought it was safe to return home.

In Rabsa, a village in the east, IS fighters disguised themselves as members of the local, army-allied militia and set up a roadblock. When a regional military commander came by on his way home, they killed him.

"Don't go out after dusk!" says every farmer and shopkeeper. "They're still there! They are everywhere!" IS comes at night to terrorize and kill them -- and to ensure that the diabolic seeds they planted will flourish: the hatred between families of the perpetrators and those of the victims.

Even if these savage, obsessed killers completely disappear one day, Islamic State has managed to establish a machinery of revenge and retribution that will impede any and all attempts to return to lasting peace. Its offspring will stoke the flames of hatred of former neighbors, cousins and sons. And of their fathers, cousins and mothers.

In January, the army finally did show up with 100 men and spent days combing the surroundings of the village of Gharib. The soldiers shot and killed 14 IS fighters when they found the cave they were hiding in.

At the end of January, a farmer from Gharib reported finding a trail of blood near where the Nassif clan's now-demolished houses had once stood. Fifty militiamen set off to the site -- and drove right into an ambush. Three of them were killed and their vehicles were set on fire -- except for two of them, which were taken by the IS unit. Then, they disappeared.

Spreading Like a Tumor

In Gharib, militia members noticed a man who would repeatedly buy huge quantities of biscuits, chocolate and crackers in one of the two village stores even though he lived alone and had no children. He wasn't a member of IS. But why did he need so many snacks? A group from the village militia followed him as he left the village and walked in to the desert, as he so often did. They lost him in the swales, but then, out of nowhere, IS fighters appeared and immediately opened fire, killing two men before disappearing again. The man who bought the snacks turned up again in the village hours later as if nothing had happened -- without the crackers and chocolate.

In the caves that have been discovered one after the other, village residents have found old cans of food and lentils, but also food packets from the Red Crescent that were only distributed after the region was liberated. They have also found freshly charged mobile phones. Who is supplying the murderous ghosts?

Mistrust is spreading through the villages like a tumor, exacerbating a conflict that is already insoluble: What should be done with the relatives of the IS fighters? Which of them is a supporter and which are victims themselves? The law has no answer to these questions. All those who swore allegiance to IS are either in prison, dead or in hiding. And there is no evidence to indicate their families did anything wrong, there are no warrants for their arrest.

But clan rules are different. Relatives can also be made responsible for the misdeeds of family members. They are rules for peaceful times, aimed at extinguishing minor flareups. But they are not designed to confront the vast thirst for revenge that characterizes the present. So, what should the sheikhs do?

They gathered for yet another meeting on a recent winter afternoon in the office of the city council chairman of Abbasi. Sheikh Sabhan Challaf Saqr, leader of the Abu Wahsh clan, is the highest-ranking person present. "Do we want to banish all families of Daesh members? We had 500 fighters, multiplied by five -- do you want to send them all to a camp? That is against human rights. And against the law."

He is immediately contradicted: "I also ended up in a camp when I fled Islamic State. It's only fair if they have to live like that for a while."

Saqr: "Ten years of banishment, that's the penalty for murder. Have they committed murder?"

General mumbling: "No."

'Up to Our Necks in the Shit'

Another speaks up angrily: "The Daesh members killed my brother and I don't want to ever see them again, or their families. Plus, they are still helping them!"

Murmurs of agreement. If the families remain, the man next to him agrees, there will be revenge killings.

"But if we send mothers and their children into camps," another responds, "we will be breeding monsters! When they come back after several years, it's guaranteed that they will join Daesh, all of them!"

Again, murmurs of agreement fill the room. The men fiddle with their prayer beads without lifting their gazes. The debate goes around and around like a top, with the majority bouncing from position to position: Should we allow them to stay? Or should we send them to camps? "We're up to our necks in the shit," Saqr suddenly erupts. "If I stand opposed to deportation, I am putting our villages in danger. If I come out in favor, I also don't solve anything, and Daesh will kill me."

There are attempts to find a compromise position: Those who lived under the same roof and ate at the same table as an IS member should be banished. Those who moved away, fled or swore before a court of law that they have disassociated themselves from their cousin, brother or son -- they should be allowed to stay.

After the meeting comes to an end, the man who lost his brother remains standing with a few others on the street. "No matter what they decide, we too can use the nights. I will avenge my brother's death."

'It Will Never End'

It is a sunny afternoon in Gharib when the wake for the two brothers shot in the Nassif clan's house begins. For three days, according to custom, visitors drop by to pay their condolences, sitting outside drinking coffee and talking. Many have come, but none wishes to be quoted by name. "If Daesh learns that we were here, they will kill us," says an elderly man forthrightly, as though he were talking about the wet ground after rain.

Columns of smoke rise in the distance and the grinding noise of excavators can be heard. The first homes of those families with relatives belonging to Daesh are being destroyed by village militia members and relatives of the victims. "And are you happy now?" an older woman dressed in black demands from her neighbor. Her house is disappearing at that moment into a cloud of dust. He looks on without saying anything.

A young man sits at the edge of the courtyard full of pillows and mats, nervously gripping his coffee cup. "I had to come," he says tentatively, introducing himself as Muthanna. "The two were my best friends." He hesitantly offers his last name: Nassif, from the clan of the IS members.

He says he would understand if the mourners were to chase him away. He only dared to come when the older brother of the two deceased promised him he would not be harassed if he came -- indeed, that he had to come to show what side he was on. "Omar, the murderer, is my cousin," Muthanna Nassif says. "I always stayed away from them, but I was still afraid of coming to the wake. But we have to clearly position ourselves as individuals. Otherwise, we will remain hostages to vengeance. And it will never end."

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