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making themselves at home
al qaeda ups mafia-style extortion in mosul

Special Correspondent
The northern Iraqi city of Mosul is well known as the base of Sunni Muslim extremists, Al Qaeda, in Iraq. But recently the militants have been stepping up their terrifying game, charging more and more…
7.11.2013  |  Mosul


Recently there was a bomb blast at what is for some people in the troubled northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a piece of recent history. The owner of the Sama shopping mall in the Arabi neighbourhood, constructed at the cost of US$ 1 million and the first shopping mall to be built in Mosul, had refused to pay the “terror tax” that the local branch of Al Qaeda was demanding. The extremist organisation’s answer: On Oct. 23 a bomb, which resulted in 19 serious injuries and deaths.

On the very same day, the organization – known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS for short, or Daash – also bombed a restaurant. Apparently the owner of the Happy Restaurant in Mosul also had not paid the right amount to the extremist extortionists.

These unfortunate business owners are some of the small number who are refusing to pay the “protection money” that the Al Qaeda affiliates are demanding. Everyone else is paying up, say Mosul locals.

This sort of behaviour is nothing new for Al Qaeda – they have been extorting money from Mosul’s people for years, ever since 2004 in fact. The difference in the most recent threats and blackmail is that Al Qaeda is spreading the net wider and putting the prices higher, says a local writer Abdul Qader Mohie Saeed. For the first time, they are targeting mosques in the west of Mosul, schools, university professors and the owners of power generators; the latter are the owners of diesel fuelled power generators and locals pay for their use during breaks in government-supplied electricity (of which there are many).

Another aspect of this was the issue of so-called “phantom generators”. The privately owned diesel-fuelled generators were able to claim government-subsidized fuel so that they could keep the city powered up. But, as the employee of one of the oil distribution companies, told NIQASH, “there are about one thousand phantom generators from which Al Qaeda takes a share of the fuel in one way or another.”

Although the Ninawa authorities had discussed how to try and put an end to the phantom generator schemes many times, so far nothing concrete had happened. The only way out would be a regular, unbroken supply of electricity – that’s what would put Al Qaeda out of this business, the employee explained.

That seems unlikely. Al Qaeda also continues to cream off the top of regional developmental projects being supervised by the local authorities and they’ve also started to prevent Iraqi Christians from buying or selling land in Mosul.

Saeed also had some idea as to why the terror tax was going up. He points out that Al Qaeda had been financing itself by controlling the province’s black market in fuel. There had been an ongoing shortage of fuel in Ninawa and this had driven up prices, Saeed explains. “But when the fuel wasn’t in such short supply anymore, Al Qaeda lost some of its most significant funding here. So they stepped up on extorting and threatening locals to compensate for that.”

And all this is still happening, despite the fact that the province of Ninawa has around 40,000 members of security forces deployed around it. Security is extremely tight here, with many checkpoints, blast barriers and segregated neighbourhoods.

Mosul has long been a flashpoint for the different ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Iraq, and it has also been known as Al Qaeda’s base in Iraq. As Middle Eastern news website, Al Monitor, notes, “on the one hand, the Sunni majority in Mosul considers the state security forces a tool of the Shiite-dominated government and thereforedoes not trust them. On the other hand, Mosul residents fear Al Qaeda taking revenge on their families or against them personally if they cooperate with the security forces.” Which doubtless makes it hard for security forces to do any kind of effective job here.

Over the past few months, as Al Qaeda has become stronger in Iraq again. Police reports indicate that over the past month, six journalists have been killed in Mosul following a spate of ISIS threats against any and all media. Other victims include the mayors of various districts in Mosul, one retired judge, one doctor, a number of real estate agents and dozens of police and army officers. Various properties have also been destroyed.

Up until relatively recently, all of the pharmacists in Mosul had been paying Al Qaeda between US$100 and US$200 every month. But then just a few days ago, the Al Qaeda representatives began to ask for more money, as much as US$20,000 per month. This has led to many pharmacists closing their doors, one local pharmacist told NIQASH. “And they’ve left the city and they’ve gone elsewhere – such as Erbil or Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan – or they’ve left the country.”

Apparently the same thing has happened to the owners of real estate agencies in Mosul. The amounts being asked for have increased significantly and 16 such offices closed because of threats their owners received. It is also thought that a number of communications offices, health clinics and grocery stores that closed recently, did so for similar reasons.

Meanwhile at Mosul’s universities, teaching staff were now also being targeted. One university professor recounted how he had been contacted and blackmailed into paying US$20,000 to people he didn’t know but who said they represented Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“Many of my colleagues have paid a lot of money because they were also threatened with assassination or members of their families were threatened,” the professor told NIQASH. “Some of them have already left the city. Others are seriously considering it now.”

Targeting various ethnicities – such as the Christians and the Shabaks – appears to indicate that the Sunni Muslim extremists are trying to make the area more purely Sunni Muslim.

So what will happen here next? According to Mosul locals, ISIS is already causing mass migration within various sectors of the local populace – for instance, over the past few weeks, after a series of letters threatening media personnel and several assassinations, many journalists have seen no option but to leave their homes in Ninawa and move elsewhere.