This is Omar Mohammed, the historian who documented Islamic State’s rule over Mosul. (Twitter: @MosulEye)
The world now knows who is behind @MosulEye.
Since 2014, there has been a blogger and historian documenting life in Mosul under Islamic State rule.
The Twitter, Facebook and WordPress pages have operated under intense anonymity with the account holder often running for his life.
For years, we did not know who was responsible for the witness accounts, photos and videos from inside the city.
Now we do. His name is Omar Mohammed.
You can move through this story here:
In the beginning …
He packed his bag with his most treasured possessions before going to bed: the 1 terabyte hard drive with his evidence against the Islamic State group, an orange notebook half-filled with notes on Ottoman history, and, a keepsake, the first book from Amazon delivered to Mosul.
He woke his mother in her bedroom on the ground floor.
“I am leaving,” he said. “Where?” she asked. “I am leaving,” was all he could say.
He couldn’t endanger her by telling her anything more.
In truth, since IS had invaded his city, he’d lived a life about which she was totally unaware.
He left and didn’t look back.
For nearly two years, he’d wandered the streets of occupied Mosul, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information.
He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear the killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.
He wasn’t a spy. He was an undercover historian and blogger.
As IS turned the Iraqi city he loved into a fundamentalist bastion, he decided he would show the world how the extremists had distorted its true nature, how they were trying to rewrite the past and forge a brutal Sunni-only future for a city that had once welcomed many faiths.
He knew that if he was caught he too would be killed.
“I am writing this for the history, because I know this will end. People will return, life will go back to normal,” is how he explained the blog that was his conduit to the citizens of Mosul and the world beyond.
“After many years, there will be people who will study what happened.
“The city deserves to have something written to defend the city and tell the truth, because they say that when the war begins, the first victim is the truth.”
He called himself Mosul Eye. He made a promise to himself in those first few days: Trust no-one, document everything.
Neither family, friends nor the Islamic State group could identify him. His readership grew by the thousands every month.
Islamic State’s arrival
The men in black came from the north, cutting across his neighbourhood in brand new trucks, the best all-terrain Toyotas money could buy.
The historian had seen jihadis before in Mosul and at first figured these men would fade away like the rest.
But in the midst of pitched fighting, the extremists found the time to run down about 70 assassination targets and kill them all, hanging enormous banners announcing their arrival in June 2014.
By then a newly minted teacher, the historian attended a staff meeting at Mosul University, where the conquerors explained the Islamic State education system, how all classes would be based upon the strictest interpretation of the Quran.
To a man who had been accused of secularism during his master’s thesis defence just the year before, it felt like the end of his career.
On June 18, 2014, a week after the city fell, Mosul Eye was born.
“My job as a historian requires an unbiased approach which I am going to adhere to and keep my personal opinion to myself,” he wrote.
“I will only communicate the facts I see.”
By day, he chatted with Islamic State fighters and vendors, and observed. Always observed. By night, he wrote in his native Arabic and fluent English on a WordPress blog and later on Facebook and Twitter.
The city turned dark, and Mosul Eye became one of the outside world’s main sources of news about the Islamic State fighters, their atrocities and their transformation of the city into a grotesque shadow of itself.
The things IS wanted kept secret went to the heart of its brutal rule.
‘The information is free’
The most sensitive information initially came from two old friends: one a doctor and the other a high school dropout who embraced the Islamic State’s extreme interpretation of religion.
He was a taxi driver who, like many others in Mosul, had been detained by a Shiite militia in 2008 and still burned with resentment.
He swiftly joined an intelligence unit in Mosul, becoming “one of the monsters of ISIS” — and couldn’t resist bragging about his insider knowledge.
Once he corroborated the details and masked the sources, Mosul Eye put it out for the world to see.
International media picked up on Mosul Eye from the first days, starting with an online question-and-answer with a German newspaper.
The anonymous writer gave periodic written interviews in English over the years.
Sometimes, journalists quoted his blog and called it an interview.
In October 2016, he spoke by phone with the New Yorker for a profile but still kept his identity masked.
Intelligence agencies made contact as well and he rebuffed them each time.
“I am not a spy or a journalist,” he would say.
“I tell them this: ‘If you want the information, it’s published and it’s public for free. Take it’.”
Less than a year into their rule, in March 2015, he nearly cracked.
IS beheaded a 14-year-old in front of a crowd; 12 people were arrested for selling and smoking cigarettes, and some of them flogged publicly.
Seeing few alternatives, young men from Mosul were joining up by the dozens.
The sight of a fanatic severing the hand of a child accused of stealing unmoored him. The man told the boy his hand was a gift of repentance to God before serenely slicing it away.
It was too much.
Mosul Eye was done.
He defied the dress requirements, cut his hair short, shaved his beard and pulled on a bright red crewneck sweater. He persuaded his closest friend to join him.
“I decided to die.”
The sun shining, they drove to the banks of the Tigris blasting forbidden music from the car.
They spread a scrap of rug over a stone outcropping and shared a carafe of tea. Mosul Eye lit a cigarette, heedless of a handful of other people picnicking nearby.
“I was so tired of worrying about myself, my family, my brothers. I am not alive to worry, but I am alive to live this life. I thought: I am done.”
He planned it as a sort of last supper, a final joyful day to end all days. He assumed he would be spotted, arrested, tortured. The tea was the best he had ever tasted.
Somehow, incredibly, his crimes went unnoticed.
He went home.
“At that moment I felt like I was given a new life.”
He grew out his hair and beard again, put the shortened trousers back on.
And, for the remainder of his time in Mosul, smoked and listened to music in his room with the curtains drawn and the lights off.
His computer screen and the tip of his cigarette glowed as he wrote in the dark.
The next month, he slipped up.
His friend, the ex-taxi driver, told him about an airstrike that had just killed multiple high-level Islamic State commanders, destroying a giant weapons cache.
Elated, Mosul Eye dashed home to post it online. He hit “publish” and then, minutes later, realised his mistake.
The information could have come from only one person. He trashed the post and spent a sleepless night.
“It’s like a death game and one mistake could finish your life.”
For a week, he went dark. Then he invited his friend to meet at a restaurant.
They ate spicy chicken, an unemployed teacher and the gun-toting ex-taxi driver talking again about their city and their lives. His cover was not blown.
The notes he took
The historian went back online. Alongside the blog, he kept meticulous records — information too dangerous to share.
His computer hard drive filled with death — filed according to date, cause of death, perpetrator, neighbourhood and ethnicity.
Accompanying each spreadsheet entry was a separate file with observations from each day.
“IS is forcing abortions and tubal ligation surgeries on Yazidi women,” he wrote in unpublished notes from January 2015.
A doctor told him there had been between 50 and 60 forced abortions and a dozen Yazidi girls younger than 15 died of injuries from repeated rapes.
April 19, 2015:
“The forensics department received the bodies of 23 IS militants killed in Baiji. They had no shrapnel, no bullets, no explosives and the cause of death does not seem to be explosion. It is like nothing happened to the bodies. A medical source believes they were exposed to poison gas.”
July 7, 2015:
“43 citizens were executed in different places, this time by gunfire, which is unusual because they were previously beheadings. A source inside IS said that 13 of those who were executed are fighters and they tried to flee.”
He noted a flurry of security on days when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seemed to be in town.
In his mind, he left Mosul a thousand times, but always found reasons to stay: his mother, his nieces and nephews, his mission.
But finally, he had to go.
“I had to run away with the proof that will protect Mosul for years to come, and to at least be loyal to the people who were killed in the city.”
And he did not want to become another casualty of the monsters.
“I think I deserve life, deserve to be alive.”
A smuggler, persuaded by $1,000 and the assurances of a mutual acquaintance, agreed to get him out.
He was leaving the next day. Mosul Eye had no time to reflect, no time to change his mind.
He returned home and began transferring the contents of his computer to the hard drive. He pulled out the orange notebook with the hand-drawn map of Mosul on the cover and the outlines of what he hoped would one day be his doctoral dissertation.
Into the bag went Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, an obscure American satirical novel from 1770 that he had ordered from Amazon via a new shop that was the only place in town to order from abroad online.
It was time to leave.
On December 15, 2015 he left Mosul, driving with the smuggler to the outskirts of Raqqa.
From there he and other Iraqis and Syrians were picked up by a second set of smugglers and driven by convoy to Turkey.
They had no trouble crossing the border.
Making it to Europe
In Turkey, Mosul Eye kept at it: via WhatsApp and Viber, from Facebook messages and long conversations with friends and relatives who had contacts within IS.
From hundreds of kilometres away, his life remained consumed by events in Mosul.
By mid-2016, deaths were piling up faster than he could document.
IS and airstrikes were taking a bloody toll on residents.
His records grew haphazard, and he turned to Twitter to document the atrocities.
In February 2017, he received asylum in Europe with the aid of an organisation that learned his backstory. He continued to track the airstrikes and IS killings.
He mapped the airstrikes as they closed in on his family, pleading with his older brother to leave his home in West Mosul.
Ahmed, 36, died days later when shrapnel from a mortar strike pierced his heart. He left behind four young children.
It was only then that Mosul Eye revealed his secret to a younger brother. The man was proud to learn the anonymous historian he had been reading for so long was his brother.
“People in Mosul had lost hope and confidence in politicians, in everything,” his brother said.
“[Mosul Eye] managed to show that it’s possible to change the situation in the city and bring it back to life.”
As the Old City crumbled, Mosul Eye sent coordinates and phone numbers for homes filled with civilians to a BBC journalist who was covering the battle, trying to get the attention of someone in the coalition command.
He believes he saved lives.
Ending the anonymity
From a distance, finally writing his dissertation on 19th century Mosul history in the safety of a European city, he continued to write as Mosul Eye and organise cultural events and fundraisers from afar — even after Mosul was liberated.
The double life consumed him, sapped energy he’d rather use for the doctoral dissertation and for helping Mosul rebuild.
And it hurt when someone asked the young Iraqi why he didn’t do more to help his people.
He desperately wanted his mother to know all that he had done.
He felt barely real, with so many people knowing him by false identities: 293,000 followers on Facebook, 37,000 on WordPress and 23,400 on Twitter.
In hours of face-to-face conversations with The Associated Press over the course of two months, he agonised over when and how to end the anonymity that plagued him.
He did not want to be a virtual character anymore.
On November 15, 2017, Mosul Eye made his decision.
“I can’t be anonymous anymore. This is to say that I defeated ISIS. You can see me now, and you can know me now.”
He is 31 years old.
His name is Omar Mohammed.
“I am a scholar.”
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