Abu Omar decided to leave his house in Mosul and take his family to other accommodation. The reason? A member of the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State climbed onto the roof of his home recently and planted one of the group’s distinctive black flags there. The flag makes his family and his home a target for allied air strikes, Abu Omar, as he wished to be known for security reasons, told NIQASH.
But when his family tried to leave, they were shocked to find that fighters from the Islamic State, or IS, group told them that they couldn’t leave.
At a meeting in Abu Omar’s house in the Al Arabi neighbourhood of Mosul, he says he feels sure that his family will be killed now.
Sadly, Abu Omar and his family are not the only ones to get a black IS flag on their property. There are dozens of other families who are facing a similar situation around Mosul.
The home of Abu Mohammed – as he wished to be known for security reasons - and his family is under similar threat in the Ghazlani neighbourhood; they also have a flag on their property now and they also fear that this will make them a target for international air strikes.
When he complained to a cousin who joined the IS group, Abu Mohammed was told him that his property has a flag because he did not pledge allegiance to the leader of the IS group and the group’s fighters have instructions to put the flags on the rooftops of all those who have not done this. The flags would not be used to decorate the homes of “real Muslims” who did pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled leader of the IS group, thus supposedly hiding them from planes flying overhead.
US planes flying overhead have dropped a lot of leaflets in Mosul asking the city’s people to stay away from the IS group’s headquarters, training camps, hospitals and even from houses where leading members of the group are known to live.
Another Mosul man who wished to be known as Ammar told NIQASH that he had begged IS group members to allow him and his family to leave their home, which is near the Turkish embassy in Mosul and which is now being used as the IS group’s main headquarters. He has already sent his sons to stay at a relative’s house.
“Three IS group members knocked on all the doors of the houses around here, near the embassy,” Ammar told NIQASH. “They told them not to leave their homes. They said if any person does leave their property they will be considered an enemy and the IS group will confiscate his property.”
With an ironic smile, Ammar said that the IS group members left after telling all the families there, “you are not better than us. If we die, you die too”.
All of the Mosul locals NIQASH spoke with were extremely worried that the IS group’s flag-raising tactics were working, saying they had heard rumours of aerial raids in Heet, in the Anbar province, where planes had apparently targeted buildings with the IS flag on and mistakenly caused civilian causalities.
This method of confusing matters and using camouflage on the ground is part of the IS group’s new set of tactics, developed after it was announced that an international coalition, including the US, would began air strikes on IS group targets in Iraq. Avoiding civilian casualties is known to be of great concern to the international alliance but this is also difficult because the IS group is well hidden inside a number of cities, both in Iraq and Syria.
The IS group managed to take control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in early June this year, after years of having a presence and developing allies there already.
“The international alliance depends heavily on aerial pictures taken by surveillance aircraft and by satellites in order to determine targets for airstrikes,” Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher into armed militias in Iraq who also advises the Iraqi government, told NIQASH. “There is no effective intelligence effort on the ground.”
Obviously this increases the chance that there might be civilian causalities, al-Hashimi says. Especially when the IS group are using their flags to complicate things further. Al-Hashimi believes that many of the flags are being posted on the houses of members of other Sunni Muslim militias in the area who had worked together with the IS group to start with but who now refuse to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
With its “war of flags” it is certain that the IS group, which is cunning with its use of propaganda, is trying to kill two birds with one stone. It hopes to escape aerial bombardment and cause errors that would see civilians killed or injured. The latter will allow the IS group to accuse the international alliance of waging war against innocent Iraqis and gain more support from disgruntled locals in Sunni Muslim-majority areas.
“It is obvious what the IS group is trying to do with their flags,” says Ali al-Saray, a local journalist who specialises in writing about politics. “It’s trying to stop armed individuals inside their areas from confronting them and also give foreign intelligence false information. If the international alliance bombs civilian sites carrying the IS flags, the organization will use that in its media war.”