The pictures make it very clear what is going on. An elderly local merchant, known as Ahmed, opens his metal safe, takes out a wad of cash and hands it to a young man waiting beside him. The young man is smirking.
The camera as caught the 73-year-old local red handed, paying money to a member of a local extremist group. As a result Ahmed was one of 14 individuals arrested two months ago on the charge of financing terrorism.
According to Article 4 of Iraq’s counter-terrorism law of 2005, “a person who incites, plans, finances, or assists terrorists to commit the crimes stated in this law shall face the same penalty as the main perpetrator”. The penalty is death and it seems that the locals arrested in this sting may well face it too.
The arrests were announced at a press conference held by local police in the northern city of Mosul recently. Commander of the local police, Mahdi al-Gharawi, reported that the 14 arrested people were all from the Maash souk, or market, in eastern Mosul – this is one of the largest, wholesale vegetable markets and every day many smaller traders buy their stock here.
NIQASH Special Reports: To fund their activities, al-Qaeda use Mafia-style techniques in Mosul. They extort a monthly \'tax\' from many businesses there. It\'s an open secret. But locals know that if they don’t pay, they will be punished, possibly killed.
Around four months ago, a campaign aimed at “drying up terrorist organizations’ funding” was launched, al-Gharawi said. “Ninawa, the second biggest province in Iraq in terms of population, is considered the main source of funding for terrorist groups in Iraq. This is why [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki ordered the formation of a special security committee to combat blackmailing in the province.”
The first major success had been the apprehension of one man known as Abdul Haq, who had been in charge of collecting money for al-Qaeda in the Maash markets. “After we arrested Abdul Haq, we were able to use him to lead us to further arrests,” al-Gharawi explained.
A sting operation had been conducted during which Abdul Haq had been made to tour the markets, extorting money – but he was being trailed by police officers wearing civilian clothing.
“The merchants didn’t notice that he was accompanied by security forces and we were able to photograph those paying money without them being aware of what we were doing,” al-Gharawi explained, in an exclusive interview with NIQASH. “Now they’re in prison awaiting trial.”
The Maash market didn’t seem to be faring a lot better. On a recent visit, business was slow, there barely seemed to be any traders and most of the people there seemed worried and even frightened.
Previously this place was packed with vegetables and fruit coming in from Turkey or Syria but now there’s a hardly anything here. According to one vegetable seller, the reason is the high cost of payments being extorted by al-Qaeda. Yet hardly anyone here would speak about their experiences, or others’, of extortion and blackmail by terrorist groups – and those who did insisted on anonymity.
One of the merchants talked about being caught between a rock and a hard place: “If I don’t pay, then al-Qaeda will target me. If I do pay, the security forces will arrest me. In fact,” he added, “I’ve stopped importing vegetables from Turkey for the time being. I’m waiting until this crisis passes.”
After speaking to various sources inside the markets and around local import offices, it becomes clear that when extremist organisations found out about the state authorities campaign, they launched a kind of counter offensive in the markets.
The extortion payments had gone up considerably, one local importer told NIQASH quietly; he was extremely frightened about speaking to a journalist. “Previously each office was paying US$200 per truck coming into the country. And there are usually five trucks a week. But now they’re asking for huge amounts, between US$5,000 and US$6,000 a week!” the importer explained. He and his colleagues had learned about this after phone calls from representatives of the terrorist organisations.
According to records carried by the prime blackmailer, Abdul Haq, the terrorist organizations had been pulling in around US$200,000 or more every month with the cash coming from up to 300 different sources in the Maash market alone. Police chief al-Gharawi says the records they found on Abdul Haq are full of victims’ names and numbers.
But the vegetable wholesale market is obviously not the extortionists’ only target. According to the local security committee formed to look into this, that al-Gharawi heads, al-Qaeda has a stake in many other businesses too.
There are around 3,650 privately owned electricity generators in the city – they sell their excess power to locals and each generator owner pays US$200 a month to terrorists. There are around 650 pharmacies in the city and each of these is obliged to pay around US$100 per month. Doctors, currency exchange shops and building contractors are all forced to pay similar “fines”.
Local police recently closed down around a hundred exchange shops apparently due to incorrect licensing. But insiders say that the real reason for the mass closure was because the exchange shops were being used for money laundering.
The security committee looking into terrorist financing reckons that groups belonging to ISI are raking in millions. “This amount is distributed to armed personnel and used to finance terrorist acts all over Iraq,” reports compiled by the committee and made available to NIQASH, said. The reports also note how the blackmailers work, with different ISI members responsible for collecting money from different parts of the city.
Al-Gharawi says that four months after the campaign against terrorist extortion began, funding for al-Qaeda had still only gone down by 30 percent.
If the government really wants to dry up terrorist groups’ funding, al-Gharawi says, then the focus should be on major building and reconstruction projects as well as on state-owned institutions.
There have also been reactions at street level. The terrorist organizations have taken up other methods – kidnapping civilians, for example – and they have also reverted to making threats by phone, rather than in person. And at Maash market in Mosul, the importers have reacted by simply changing their cell phone numbers.
However because the terrorist organizations have contacts everywhere this is often just a short term solution for those being blackmailed. For example, one merchant tells how he bought a new cell phone number one day but received an anonymous call the next.
His anonymous caller said he was from the ISI and that the merchant only had two options: pay US$6,500 or death. After negotiating, the merchant was able to reduce the amount by around two thirds and when he eventually did pay, he made sure that he did it outside the marketplace and he also did it in two instalments. This was to avoid arrest by local police.
Another trick importers are using is to have their goods brought in by small cars, rather than obvious trucks. And still others have simply closed up shop, until they know exactly who they should be scared of: the ISI or the local police.
The campaign against extortion has had an effect, says Abdul-Rahim al-Shammari, head of the Ninawa provincial council\'s security committee. Those being blackmailed have started to cooperate more with the state’s security forces because they’re now equally afraid of being arrested for financing terrorism, he explained.
One question that is still being asked though, is this one: If everybody knew about the extortion by terrorist groups, then why did it take so long for anyone to do anything about it?
Firstly, local authorities said, the security situation had only recently improved to the extent that it was possible to make these kinds of arrests. Secondly, local authorities had found it very difficult to fully prosecute people like the merchant Ahmed, who was captured on camera handing over money. In the past, many had been arrested and then released. However a new determination to prosecute may mean that Ahmed, and his fellow detainees, may well face the death penalty.
But as a source inside the justice department told NIQASH, “of course, the court may well take into consideration why Ahmed and the others were paying money to the terrorists in the first place.”
*This article was revised on April 24 to reflect the changing situation for reporters in Mosul.