He began his conversation on Facebook in an unusually serious way. Abdul Hamid*, a man living in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State since mid-2014, was messaging to tell a friend living in Dohuk that this would be the last time he would write.
The Internet company he used had asked him for his full name, his address and a copy of his identity card, he said. “It’s a trap set for Internet users,” Hamid explained. “It’s going to make it easier for the extremists to find whoever they want.”
The Islamic State group, which has controlled the northern city of Mosul for over a year, has already locked the citizens who remain here, in the city. The group has enforced strict rules on who can leave, when and how. And now it seems the extremists are determined to close one of the last windows that around one and a half million residents of Mosul still have on the world.
The Islamic State, or IS, group recently issued new rules that will censor anyone in Mosul using the Internet and, in the long run, decrease the number of Internet users. The IS group is also enforcing new rules about the use of broadcast satellites in an attempt to stop Mosul locals from watching satellite television stations.
They raided my house and searched my computer, accusing me of running an anti-IS Facebook page. In the end they arrested me for anti-Islamic notes and pictures.
On April 11, the IS group sent a message (see bottom image) to all of the Internet service providers still operating in the city that they must provide certain information to the group’s so-called information centre. This includes how many subscribers they have to their service, the full names and addresses of all subscribers as well as information on technology they are using to provide Internet services and how far their transmission reaches.
“If it is discovered that the subscribers’ names are false, or wrong, or if some of the names have been omitted, then the Internet service provider will be held personally accountable,” the message said. Reading between the lines, those running Internet companies in Mosul knew this was a death threat – so they obeyed the orders.
After Mosul fell to the IS group in mid-2014, the Iraqi government disrupted or blocked Internet and mobile phone services in the area. However the IS group kept communications alive by allowing Internet service providers to operate via privately-owned satellite systems that are outside of the government’s control.
As news agency Reuters reported earlier this year: “Mobile networks are largely inoperable in the Islamic State-held swathes of Iraq, areas which also have little fixed-line broadband infrastructure. Militants instead use satellite dishes to connect to the web, or illicit microwave dishes that hook them into broadband networks in government-held areas”.
To access the Internet what is known as a V-sat terminal is needed and then, a subscription to services; the V-sat terminals can be bought for between US$2,000 and US$3,000 at electronics markets in the city, Reuters reports.
Those satellite dishes and other technology, often sold by Syrian traders, are then usually managed by Iraqi civilians or members of the IS group posing as civilians. Anyone who subscribes to the service, or who uses an Internet café, can then get online. Since June 2014, the number of Internet cafes in Mosul has increased dramatically due to the high cost of getting the Internet at home and the poor quality of service to private residences. Now only certain kinds of people in Mosul get private Internet: Those in the city who still earn enough money to afford it, those who must remain in contact with the outside world either because of business or family, such as owners of currency exchange shops who manage their rates online, and also individuals who are very active, running pages or accounts on social media.
For several months the IS group has been cracking down on local Internet users, especially anyone considered an activist on sites like Facebook. Dozens of people have been arrested.
“They raided my house, searched my computer and my phone and then they blindfolded me and took me away,” says one young man from Mosul, who recently arrived in Istanbul after fleeing the Iraqi city. He had spent ten weeks under arrest in a basement in the centre of the city. “They accused me of being the administrator of a Facebook page that supports the international coalition [fighting against the IS group] and the Iraqi army, and they said I’d given information about the IS group to those parties. But they couldn’t prove any of it. In the end I was arrested because they found some publications on my computer that they think are anti-Islamic as well as some jokes, pictures of good looking women and some notes that they felt had sexual connotations.”
The campaign against Internet users in Mosul is continuing, particularly because the international coalition has stepped up airstrikes against IS targets inside Mosul. The extremists believe that locals are identifying targets from inside the city, sending messages to anti-IS forces outside the city. Given that mobile phones cannot be used in the city, they assume that the only way that these kinds of messages could be sent is via the Internet.
So the fact that the IS group will know the names and addresses of those subscribing to Internet services will make it easier for them to find the “spies” they believe are sending the information – for one thing, they could begin by investigating the Internet users in the areas that the international coalition is striking more regularly.
As a result of the new IS rules on Internet services, a lot of locals in Mosul have decided to stop going online. NIQASH selected a random group of ten people in Mosul who had been active online, on services like Viber, WhatsApp and Facebook. All ten said they were now afraid of going online and that they didn’t want to reveal their personal information or their addresses. Seven said that they would cancel their Internet services subscription at the beginning of May.
It’s obviously impossible to generalize based on a sample of this size but it seems clear enough that the number of Mosul locals going online regularly is going to decrease.
And then there are Mosul’s satellite channel watchers. It seems that soon, Mosul locals will also be prevented from seeing what’s going on in the outside world.
A plan formulated by the IS group to ban satellite TV in Mosul is being carried out gradually. It started in mid-March this year when the extremist group halted sales and maintenance of satellite dishes. And for the first time, the confiscation of satellite dishes is being used as a punishment, in lieu of a fine by the IS group’s morality police, or Hisbah. The morality police patrol the city looking for individuals who infringe the IS group’s strict rules on pious lifestyle. This includes men who shave their beards, anyone caught smoking, women whose veils are not hiding enough and so forth.
Punishments can range from minimal to severe but recently they started to involve satellite dishes too.
Younis Shabaan*, a heavy smoker living in Mosul, was recently caught puffing on a cigarette by the Hisbah patrol. He was told off and his identification card was taken from him; he would need to show up at the Hisbah office in a week’s time to pay a fine, he was told. When Shabaan went, he took his satellite dish with him to give it to the morality patrol officers. While he watched, they destroyed the dish before giving him back his ID card. This type of punishment involving the destruction of satellite dishes is becoming more common.
A week ago, the IS group distributed another document. In this one, they listed 20 reasons why locals should stop watching satellite TV. The reasons included the fact that satellite TV was spreading false news about the IS group, it promoted of heresy, Shiite Muslim beliefs and female exhibitionism and because it was distracting good Muslims from worshipping.
In practice though, most people in Mosul who can watch satellite TV stations are still doing so. The full ban on the channels doesn’t begin until the start of the month of Ramadan, which begins in June 2016.
At the moment it seems more likely that people in the city will still be able to communicate online than they will be able to watch TV shows beamed in from outside Mosul. Then again, given that all fronts appear to be preparing for fighting in Mosul, it’s hard to say: The only thing that is clear right now is that the extremists want to isolate the city from the rest of the country, and the world, both physically and metaphorically.
*Names of individuals still in Mosul, or with families still in Mosul, have been changed for security reasons.