In June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Salafi jihadist militant group Islamic State (ISIS), declared his caliphate in the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul. Three years later, Iraqi military forces captured that mosque, celebrating victory over ISIS. But during those three years, Mosul’s population had to endure physical and psychological oppression under ISIS, with thousands of civilians killed and displaced. The photographers presented here took risks to capture intense moments during the battle for Mosul in order to give a voice to the silenced.
Younes Mohammad is a Kurdish freelance photojournalist whose work focuses on areas of conflict. Born in Dohuk, Iraq, and now based in Erbil after 24 years as a refugee in Iran, he mainly works for national and international newspapers and magazines. In this photo series, Younes shows the suffering that civilians had to endure during the fight between coalition forces and ISIS in Mosul. “In the past two years, I got injured two times by shrapnel, but danger is part of my job. It was my destiny to document what happened. I felt it was an opportunity to document my past and my family’s past.” Younes’ work has been internationally published and recognized.
The photos that Gabriel Romero, a freelance photojournalist based in Los Angeles, California, took in Mosul do not merely document the battle for the city against ISIS. His photos are a testament to the dignity, strength, and resilience of the people of Mosul. “I see photojournalism as an agent for change, that you can do something for the lives of others, something that is bigger than yourself.” Gabriel’s work specializes in areas of conflict, including environmental and humanitarian issues, and has been published internationally.
On Sunday, July 10, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the army’s victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which the jihadists had controlled since June, 2014. The recapture of the city was the biggest defeat to date for ISIS. As conflicting reports surfaced about the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (also known as Kalif Ibrahim) in the fight over Mosul, Iraq’s leader celebrated it as a major victory, simultaneously announcing the end of the Islamic State. But is it really the beginning of the end of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization?
Having its origins in the 2000s, the Islamic State (IS, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, or Islamic State of Iraq, ISI) is a Salafi-jihadist militant terror organization, born of remnants of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi offshoot of Al Qaeda, in Syria and Iraq. What are its goals? The establishment and expansion of a caliphate (state of god), based on an extreme 7th century interpretation of the Koran, and ultimately eliminating other belief systems from the world. ISIS considers Shiites to be apostates, while Sunni Muslims are judged to be the “true believers” of Islam. According to ISIS, nationalism, tribalism, Baathism, secularism and other beliefs and doctrines are a violation against Islam. ISIS argues that most Muslims practice a “soft Islam” and not the “true” one. The Islamic State orients its actions toward the historical tradition of the very first Muslims, a time that was characterized by wars of expansion. Its simple maxim: If the first Muslims did it that way back then, it can’t be wrong today.
While the Islamic State calls itself an executor of the only true Islam, many other Muslim groups, including some linked to Al Qaeda, have found the group’s interpretation of Islam too extreme and brutal, accusing ISIS of promoting a version of Islam that has nothing to do with the “proper” interpretation of the Koran. Kidnapping, military use of children, sexual exploitation of women, slavery, beheadings of captives, and mass executions have become trademarks of the Islamic State. ISIS also has drawn widespread condemnation for its destruction of cultural and religious sites, use of chemical weapons, and extreme application of Sharia law. Its cruelty is part and parcel of the extremists’ strategy: By engaging in public executions in city squares or by uploading professionally produced videos of beheadings onto social media, ISIS looks to demoralize, humiliate, and provoke their enemies while at the same time intimidating and warning them.
Social Media as Recruiting Tool
Many have wondered how the promotion of horrific violence and a fundamentalist utopia has attracted followers from all over the world — even from non-Islamic countries. Through a sophisticated use of social media, the Islamic State’s public relations machinery has succeeded in rebranding the jihadists’ holy war, largely in videos which appeal specifically to young people with less stable family backgrounds and dim prospects for the future.
With the help of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts, overseen by a cadre of operators on social media, have been enormously effective. The terrorist group maintains a 24-hour online global recruiting operation, with sympathetic volunteers and supporters dedicated to disseminating its messages and ideology in multiple languages. Their recruitment videos are high quality and their online magazine, Dabiq, is in English and several European languages and includes articles on the establishment of the caliphate and its religious foundations, as well as battlefield updates.
ISIS recruiting efforts have been highly effective. According to a 2015 report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), the estimated number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq exceeds 20,000. In July, 2017, a group of 20 female Islamic State supporters from Germany, Russia, Turkey, Canada, Libya and Syria — most of whom had been recruited through social media — barricaded themselves with guns and explosives in a tunnel underneath the ruins of Mosul’s Old City, though they subsequently were captured by members of Iraq’s federal police.
Battling ISIS in Syria, Iraq and beyond
The human toll of the Islamic State’s campaign of terror continues to grow. Even though the battle against the Islamic State for Mosul has ended, a profound humanitarian crisis persists, according to the United Nations. Since ISIS took over Mosul in June, 2014, nearly a million civilians have fled that city alone. Approximately 700,000 Mosul residents remain displaced, living in humanitarian camps for displaced persons. Many people are malnourished and dehydrated, along with being traumatized by the violence. Overall in Iraq, an estimated 3.3 million people have been displaced by the Islamic State. Hundreds of thousands of residents cannot return home as their houses have been destroyed or heavily damaged. These displaced Iraqis are in need of shelter, food, healthcare, water, and sanitation.
While the battle for Mosul may have significant military implications, ISIS may not see the loss of Mosul as the devastating setback Iraq’s leader described. According to Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, “The Islamic State gave up on Mosul months ago, possibly even years ago. Holding the city was always just a propaganda play for it, one that will allow it in years to come to continue its utopian boast, even if it doesn’t control it any more. The Islamic State isn’t a ‘normal’ political movement working towards ‘normal’ political goals. More than territory, it wants to accommodate the world to its ideology and, if that means taking over massive amounts of territory only to lose it a few months further down the line, then so be it.” In addition, the Iraqi army has more ISIS strongholds to take on as the terrorist group remains in control of several other towns in Iraq.
Neither the rumored death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi, which US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently doubted in the Washington Examiner, nor the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, are likely to bring a quick end to the terror group and its international reach. Recent attacks in Europe, including Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and London, have shown that the Islamic State already has become a danger to civilians in Europe and elsewhere. As a result, analysts suggest a multi-pronged approach to countering the ISIS threat. “Local actors, regional states, and the international community should work to counter ISIS’s financial strength, neutralize its military mobility, target its leadership, and restrict its use of social media for recruitment and information operations,” stresses Charles Lister, a former Brookings expert and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Countering the [Islamic State] is a long process that is not simply done by using military power, but must be led by local actors.” Even if the military operation against the Islamic State is successful, the battle against its ideology will take years to succeed.
For more information
The Brookings Institution
International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR)
The Mapping Militants Project, Stanford University http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/1
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with thousands of photographers around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,800 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website,www.socialdocumentary.net.
Fall 2017 Vol. 3/No. 2
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic
Management Sciences for Health
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Catherine Karnow, San Francisco, CA
Independent Photographer and Educator
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor, National Geographic
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Director, Contact Press Images
Jamey Stillings, Sante Fe, NM
Steve Walker, Danbury, CT
Consultant and Educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Amy Yenkin, New York, NY
Independent Producer and Editor
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2017
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE
Barbara Ayotte, U.S.
Emma Brown, U.S.
Caterina Clerici, U.S. and Italy
Catherine Karnow, U.S.
Monia Lippi, U.S.
Younes Mohammad, Iraq
John Rae, U.S.
Sascha Richter, Germany
Gabriel Romero, U.S.
Anne Sahler, Germany and Japan
Astrid Schulz, England
Mick Stetson, Japan
William Thatcher Dowell, U.S.
Quan Tran, U.S.
Frank Ward, U.S.
Cover photo by Gabriel Romero from Liberation and Longing: The Battle for Mosul. A Peshmerga soldier in the Yazidi town of Bashiqa, Iraq.