The practice of writing a prominent official or scholar for advice dates back hundreds of years, if not more. In the 1690s, Londoners sent letters to the Athenian Mercury, a twice-weekly newspaper that published questions about everything from love to sin. People seeking absolution or guidance in times of hardship have frequently reached out to religious figures for counsel. Such exchanges have long been a window into society’s fears and anxieties.
The same may be true of written messages from individuals living in Islamic State-held territory in Iraq, which paint a bleak picture of life for both ISIS members and civilians still living under the group’s control.
The correspondence, provided to The Intercept and Al Jazeera, was sent to a religious scholar living in Jordan who has been associated with radical groups in the past but is critical of the Islamic State. The messages came from two people in ISIS territory seeking his religious advice. Seeking advice from religious figures is common in the Muslim world, but the recipient of these messages is particularly respected among ultra-conservative Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
The religious figure is not named here in order to protect his legal status in Jordan.
The advice seekers are unrelated: One is an ISIS fighter in Fallujah and the other a conservative Sunni Muslim civilian living in Mosul. The correspondence took place during the timeframe of early June to mid-August, coinciding with major events in those cities reported by international media — including the Iraqi government’s offensive to retake Fallujah and increasing pressure on the inhabitants of Mosul as the government prepared an operation to retake that city as well.
“The battle for Fallujah was a success in that it ended with ISIS driven out and a government established that had representation from the local Sunni community,” says Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of the political risk publication Inside Iraq Politics. “Having said that, there was a lot of ugliness associated with the campaign, including damage to infrastructure and allegations of abuses by Shia militia groups.”
The messages offer a glimpse into the effect of military pressure on Islamic State fighters in Iraq, as well as into the fears of some Sunni Muslims that they will be targeted for reprisal when the central government recaptures their cities.
On June 26, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Iraqi forces had successfully liberated the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State. The announcement marked the fourth time that Fallujah, once known as a center of Sufi Islam, had violently changed hands since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this case, the city was retaken only after months of U.S. airstrikes and besiegement by Iraqi ground troops.
Before heavy fighting began in June, an Islamic State fighter reached out to the Jordanian religious scholar for advice, saying that members of ISIS had committed “mistakes” in Fallujah, including acts of murder, and had mistreated the local population.
There is no time to indulge in details, however if I survive this ordeal I might get into details. But let’s suppose that the mistakes had to do with murder, what I should do? And if it had to do with violations of Islamic law, what should I do so I face God with a clean conscience? Would my repentance for these actions be enough for God to forgive me if I am a member of this group?
During the run-up to the battle, the fighter said that ISIS members debated whether to allow their own family members and other civilians to flee Fallujah. He also feared the group would not be able to defend Fallujah from the Iraqi army, whose numbers were far greater.
We in Fallujah are under siege by the Shia, the [hostile Sunni tribes], and the apostates. We have decided that we should fight to the death. Our morale is high, but the city is under siege and no supplies can come in. The enemy — the Iraqi army — is over 30,000, while the Mujahedeen are only 800 and are shrinking as a result of the airstrikes. The American air force bombs us even if someone fires a bullet.
After the battle commenced, American airstrikes on the city apparently took a significant toll on the ISIS defenders.
In just one day, American bombings killed 75 fighters, and on another day, they killed and injured over 40.
Following the Iraqi army’s reclamation of the city in late June, the man lost contact with the religious figure. But he reached out to him again in July, saying that he and other surviving ISIS fighters had fled Fallujah into the surrounding desert:
The reason I stopped this communication was because our internet service was cut off after the attack on Fallujah. We were fighting for weeks, many people were killed and injured. The battle was won by the Shia. We fled the city toward the desert, which was disastrous due to the conditions we faced afterward. The U.S. bombing took its toll on us and killed about 200 more of us. We fled into the desert, and I am not sure if God was testing us or punishing us. I am now in the Al Bukamal area and the internet service here is not consistent.
He recounted the suffering that he and other surviving ISIS members had experienced while fleeing Fallujah:
First we suffered great fear because of the American bombings, and thus there was no safe place for us and no place to hide. This took its toll on us. Then we suffered disorientation and confusion, we were lost in this huge desert. Making things worse was the fact that our guide was killed by the airstrikes. We stayed 10 days in the desert not knowing where we were going as we were chased by the bombers from the air. We suffered terribly as a result of extreme thirst. Many of us died of thirst and I myself almost died of it, if it was not for God’s mercy. It was the most horrific 10 days that I have ever encountered.
The man told the scholar that many of the other fighters who had managed to flee Fallujah had instructed their families to leave ISIS territory altogether and move to areas controlled by local Sunni tribes, for fear of what would happen if they were captured by Shia militia groups. Meanwhile, in his new location, still under ISIS control, he claimed to have witnessed the same abuses that the group had inflicted in Fallujah.
Some of us reached Mosul, others did not. But the same mistakes that were made in Fallujah are being made here all over again. In that I mean the mistreatment of the population, disregard to proper strategies, and the spread of injustice. If we ever want our situation to change, we should start rethinking our actions and mistakes, and revision should be considered at the highest levels.
The man’s messages cut off some time after that, with his fate unclear. In one of his last messages to the scholar, he again lamented that ISIS had lost Fallujah “because of the injustices we have committed against the people.”
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has been under the control of Islamic State militants since 2014. The Islamic State force that routed the Iraqi army is believed to have consisted of little more than a thousand fighters, yet it managed to defeat a much larger force over the course of a six-day battle. The unlikely initial success of ISIS in Mosul is believed to be a product of the widespread unpopularity of the Iraqi army forces that were stationed in the city. These forces were predominantly Shia and were alleged to have carried out sectarian abuses against the city’s mostly Sunni local population.
In a series of messages to the Jordanian religious scholar over the course of the summer, a man currently living in Mosul described his despair over the future of the city – trapped under the harsh governance of ISIS militants and facing an assault by potentially vengeful Iraqi government forces.
I am writing this account because I see our end is near. I live in Mosul. I am a devout Muslim but not a member of ISIS, and I don’t intend to join them anytime soon. I am writing this account to explain our dire situation in this city. Although like many residents of Mosul, we saw the Shia government of Baghdad as a bigger danger and a threat to our lives than ISIS. But as our life condition deteriorates rather rapidly from bad to worse, some have started thinking of what was unthinkable a few years ago: preferring Shia Baghdad’s dangerous rule to ISIS.
While the man had once welcomed members of the Islamic State as possible liberators from the oppressive central government, the brutal treatment meted out by ISIS to the local population had changed his perception.
While Mosul is under siege and a war against it is looming on the horizon, the people there have lost trust in everything that comes from ISIS. They are even reluctant to pick up arms to defend the city because of the mistreatment and harassment they have been subjected to. We even started hearing those who are saying it does not matter anymore who comes and takes over Mosul. [The Islamic State’s] behavior and aggression against the residents of Mosul and their capturing and enslaving of women from other faiths has turned people away from them.
People’s morale is down, and I saw that coming and even expected worse because of how they treated the population and created enemies throughout the region. The situation here is very difficult. I am very confused about the future and often ask myself if we should stay home and await the knives of the Shias when they eventually come to kill us. Should we flee to the desert with our women and children, or keep our families at home and carry arms to defend ourselves?
In the fall of 2015, the Iraqi government stopped paying the salaries of public sector workers living in Mosul. While the decision to starve ISIS-controlled areas of funds made tactical sense, it impoverished the city’s residents.
People are exhausted by poverty; they desperately need money especially after the Shia rulers of Baghdad cut off the salaries more than a year ago. Eighty percent of the people here are government employees, so they are directly impacted by cutting their salaries off and face severe problems of trying to feed and take care of their families. …
Remarkably, while all this is taking place, ISIS could care less about the people or how they feel or what they are going through. Every Friday during the prayer sermon, their preachers insult the local population and attack them for not going off to Jihad with them and accuse them of being cowards and hypocrites. Their [morality police] are young men and teenagers who insult and attack older and grown men. These young teenagers often issue tickets and fines to elderly men because they, for example, shaved some of their beards off, even though people barely have money to eat let alone have any to pay imposed fines. They also often yell at women because they slightly showed their faces or eyes from under their veils.
In the run-up to the government offensive against Mosul, many Iraqis have reportedly made plans to flee the city by paying local smugglers. In his messages, the man said that ISIS refused to let people flee the city through normal channels, claiming that those who flee territory under its control are apostates from Islam itself. The man said that he had tried to reason with local ISIS officials on behalf of the women and children present in Mosul. He also expressed concerns about the Western women who had come to Mosul to live under the Islamic State and were particularly vulnerable:
I advised some of the ISIS men who I knew in the city to let the women and children out of Mosul before the war starts, especially western women, French, Swedish, Danish, British, and others, because they have no place else to go. Unlike what happened in Fallujah where Iraqi women fled to other Sunni areas in advance of the battle and found shelter in tribal areas. Western women and their children have no such option. I told them they should give them back their passports and have them go to Syria or elsewhere before the war starts, because the Kurds and the Shia are coming for revenge and they will murder and rape those women. But they mocked and threatened me and refused to listen.
What makes me more confused is that Raqqa is part of House of Islam [under the control of ISIS], so why can’t they allow people to escape there? Furthermore, ISIS allows Syrians to come from Syria to shop and engage in trade in Mosul, but does not allow Iraqis to go to Syria and do the same thing. I, like many other residents of Mosul, find this very troubling.
In his last messages, the man said that he initially hoped that ISIS would govern Mosul in accordance with his own conservative understanding of Islamic law, but he has grown disillusioned.
What we see here today is everything else but God’s laws. We see injustice rule us, we see aggression and murder take place everywhere around us.
Under these conditions we live in, I don’t think any of us would have the power or the motivation to fight the Shias when they eventually come to destroy us. Our situation is dire and is much bigger than us, we can only ask God for his help and his forgiveness.
This article was a joint collaboration between The Intercept and Al Jazeera.