Taxi driver, Nawzat Mansour, is fiddling with his radio, trying to get a signal in Makhmour, a town on the frontlines of the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The 32-year-old tells NIQASH that every day he listens to a local radio station, known as Imam Radio, for a few minutes. “But most of the time they just talk about jihad [holy war],” he says. “They keep saying that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military are infidels. But nobody really believes them,” he notes.
Imam Radio is broadcast out of nearby Islamic State-held territory and is the extremist group’s latest propaganda ploy in the run up to what everyone believes will be the battle for the nearby city of Mosul, an extremist stronghold in the area.
Mansour, who lives in Makhmour, keeps searching for another station. There are other local radio stations, one of which is run by the Iraqi military, who are trying to compete with the Islamic State, or IS, group on local radio waves.
“Imam Radio’s signal is stronger than the army’s,” Mansour concludes. “But we heard that the army is going to try and improve its signal, especially as the date for a final attack on Mosul comes closer.”
Iraqi army commander in Ninawa: We are starting a war on the radio.
In the recent past the IS group seems to have focused mostly on online media and various social media networks to get its messages out to the world. But locally this propaganda war seems to have shifted to a less digital level. Listeners can hear all about the IS group and its preparations for battle at a very low cost – they don’t need to pay for the Internet –and in many sites around the frontlines.
Radio Imam has been broadcasting since September 2015 and its signal reaches well into the areas surrounding Mosul. Shows run for 24 hours and are broadcast in Arabic. Parts of the shows are given over to reciting the Koran and to advising people on spiritual matters. But most of the broadcasts are about waging holy war on behalf of the Islamic State group, encouraging listeners to fight the army, whether Iraqi or Kurdish and broadcasting news about the IS group’s “victories” while downplaying the significance of anti-IS victories.
NIQASH was able to tune into one of Radio Imam’s shows while in the Makhmour district, about 50 kilometres southeast of Mosul, on an ordinary radio. During the show, the announcer explained why holy war was a duty for the faithful and why pious salespeople shouldn’t cheat ordinary people and make extra money.
To counter Radio Imam’s message, the anti-IS forces in this area, known as the Ninawa Liberation Operations Command, launched their own radio broadcast in January this year. This Iraqi army outpost is positioned here in preparation for the coming fight over Mosul; it is composed of the Iraqi army’s 15th division, made up of several brigades.
“We broadcast every day from eight in the morning until ten at night, in Arabic and in Kurdish,” says Firas al-Jibouri, a colonel and the director of the new radio station. “Most of our programmes are about information and on the progress made by the military as they advance toward Mosul. It’s about keeping the spirits of the people who live in IS-controlled areas up.”
Intelligence suggests that a lot of people in Mosul listen to the army radio, al-Jibouri adds, but that they do so in secret for fear of being punished by the IS group.
“We have heard from people who escaped the IS-controlled areas that they were able to hear the army’s radio,” says Najim al-Jibouri , the commander of the Iraqi army’s Ninawa outpost. “It’s good that people living under the IS group can hear our voices too.”
“We are starting a media war on the radio,” he confirms. “But we’re also taking other steps in the media that are going to impact positively on the campaign to liberate Mosul.”
Al-Jibouri would not reveal further details, citing military sensitivity.
Through other sources in the military, NIQASH learned that the Iraqi military had tried to block Radio Imam several times but that they didn’t succeed because the extremists kept switching frequencies.
In Makhmour itself, the locals say they listen to both stations almost every day. But they say that, despite the military’s fears, Radio Imam doesn’t have any impact on them.
At the moment, many locals see Radio Imam as the winner in this battle for bandwidth simply because the extremist radio signal is far stronger. Some worry that sooner or later, Radio Imam will be able to reach even more people and possibly influence them with its extreme messages.
“The Iraqi government could technically stop Radio Imam,” suggests Ismail al-Shahbandar, a doctoral student of media studies at Baghdad University and also a Makhmour resident. “Right now the military radio has a weaker signal than Radio Imam. The army really needs to work on this and improve its signal,” he argues. “We already know how potent a weapon media is in, in this war.”