The northern Iraqi province of Ninawa is one of the country's best producers of cereals and grains. And now the extremist group known as the Islamic State is making good use of the province's potential; the Islamic State, or IS, group has been in control of large parts of the province since last June, including the provincial capital, Mosul.
The extremist group has issued instructions to local farmers that they should give 10 percent of their total production to the IS group. The IS group classify this payment as a kind of religious tax they describe as “zakat”, a payment that was traditionally a sort of combination donation and tax made to the church. This is why now, whenever local farmers are involved in harvesting, a member of the IS group or what locals describe as one of the IS group's “ghosts”, or spies, is present to ensure that the correct percentage of harvest is set aside.
“When there is nobody there, the collection of the IS group's share is the responsibility of the combine drivers,” Ahmed al-Fattah*, a member of a family that has been farming in this area for decades, told NIQASH. “And the shadow of the IS group is always hanging over us so we don't trust anyone. That's why paying a share to the IS group is unavoidable.”
“These people are basically acting like thieves but using religion to justify themselves and the power of the sword to make us obey. They told us that if we don't give them a share of our production we will be killed,” al-Fattah noted.
And while the IS group is only able to justify collecting a percentage of the harvest from Muslim farmers, it is taking all of the harvest from properties owned by former residents who might have been Shiite Muslims or Christians and who were forced to flee.
“Farmers here have two choices,” a local businessman who works in agriculture told NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “They can either deliver their harvest to silos managed by the IS group or they can sell it to one of a small handful of grain merchants. This has led to a steep decrease in grain prices. Prices for a ton of wheat or barley are about half of what they were last year.”
Some merchants are buying up the grain and storing it, in the hopes of making a bigger profit later on.
The IS group's own grain silos, formerly the property of the Iraqi government but now under IS control, are becoming full already, even though the harvest is smaller this year, local farmers say.
Mosul and its surrounds used to export thousands of tons of grain outside of the province in the past. But currently grains are being brought into Mosul, after being harvested in other areas under the control of the IS group such as Hawija in neighbouring Kirkuk province and Shirqat in Salahaddin province. Outside of Mosul local merchants buy the crops from the farmers, then transport them to Mosul where they sell them to the IS group, who then store the grain in their own silos, or sell it on to other local merchants.
This is part of a deliberate strategy by the IS group. On May 15, the extremists issued instructions in Mosul for farmers and traders, saying that no grain could be exported outside the city until Mosul had “become self sufficient”. The reasoning behind this is clear to locals. If the million-plus inhabitants of the city, who eat bread every day, become hungry they will be increasingly hard to control. That's why the IS group is working on the issue of food security – it's for their own ends, they say.
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees.