A construction project underway. Al-Qaeda are thought to be extorting a percentage of the cost of many similar projects in Mosul.
Every month Mosul businesses pay money to what is known as the Islamic State of Iraq – generally acknowledged as a group of Sunni Muslim extremist groups prone to violence and including al-Qaeda.
The payment is known locally as “jizya”, the term for an ancient tax in the Muslim world. However in Mosul, jizya is more like the protection money extorted by the likes of the Italian Mafia, than a real tax. And the majority of businesses – from pharmacists to builders - in Mosul pay this.
But it turns out that it is not only the general public who are paying jizya to al-Qaeda. As one public servant in the northern Iraqi state of Ninawa, where Mosul is situated, told NIQASH, several state-funded construction projects have been halted, or passed onto other contractors, after Islamic State groups tried to extort money from them.
For obvious reasons though, most people are reluctant to talk about this. You can be killed for resisting the extortion demands and it’s generally a dangerous subject.
Political activist and long time critic of Ninawa’s local government, Mahmoud Khalil, told NIQASH that when Atheel al-Nujaifi became the governor of Ninawa in early 2009 he had to face the fact that Ninawa was ranked most the corrupt of all of Iraq’s different states.
Part of the reason for this is apparently due, not just to what one might consider standard government corruption in Iraq, but also because of the amount of money paid to al-Qaeda operatives, often a percentage of the total cost of construction projects that end up never being completed.
State authorities are reluctant to talk about it because the payment of protection money to the Islamic State groups could well be seen as a weakness on the part of local government. Instead, insiders told NIQASH, they have been adding extra funds to a project\'s budget so that the contractors can deal directly with al-Qaeda. In this way the state government pays the Islamic State operatives by proxy and doesn\'t deal with them directly.
There have also been some overt attempts to combat the protection money racket. But mostly these have not been successful. A special investigating committee formed in 2009 by Ninawa’s al-Nujaifi and headed by Hassan Mahmoud, a judge and the second deputy state governor, was unable to come to any real conclusions. A new investigating committee was formed recently to make another attempt.
The state government has also tried to centralise decision making on construction projects, including the tendering process and the supervision of the projects. Formerly this was done by a number of different offices scattered around the region. The more centralised procedures are supposed to keep information on the various projects as private as possible.
But as one local police officer, who preferred to remain anonymous, made clear this wasn’t necessarily working either. “Why does everybody talk about how terrorists have infiltrated the security forces, yet nobody dares to mention that they have infiltrated the civil services too?” he asked. It seemed clear to him that state employees must be giving away information on government-funded projects to Islamic State groups, including the names of the contractor companies and even their contact details. “Otherwise where would they get that kind of information?” he surmised. “And this has led to blackmail and to the deaths of many innocent people,” he told NIQASH.
One contractor who works on smaller construction projects commissioned by the state, told NIQASH how he and his colleagues pay cash to individuals they only know by a nickname. These people visit them quite publicly to collect the money, he said. And although previously Iraqi media have reported that the Islamic state groups charge a specific percentage of the total cost of the job, this man disagreed: in Ninawa, the amounts could vary. Sometimes the amounts were negotiable and other times they were not. When the representatives of al-Qaeda have a lot of information about a project, “it is more difficult to manoeuvre on price,” the man explained. “Trying to do so can be fatal.”
As a result of security conditions in Mosul since 2004, local engineer Mustafa*, a government employee, explained that many of the better established, experienced construction companies with sound financial reputations have closed their local offices. Which means that only novice firms, willing to take the risk of working there and often without a lot of experience in the field, are building Ninawa’s schools and paving Ninawa’s roads. They pay protection money to the Islamic State groups using advances they have already had from the state government.
Unfortunately this also has an impact on the quality of local reconstruction projects. Quality may not be very high or the projects may end up abandoned – in fact, abandoned building sites are a regular Mosul eyesore and cause a lot of ill feeling amongst locals. Meanwhile the contractors, who run out of money to pay the Islamic State groups tend to abandon their projects and flee the area, sometimes even the country.
Mustafa reports another result of this kind of illicit activity. Finding themselves unable to complete the project at the quoted price while under pressure to pay jizya to blackmailers, the original contractors may well commission another firm to complete the job for them at a lower price. As Mustafa points out, often the company that finally completes the task will be using the cheapest materials and taking plenty of shortcuts. That is why many of the local projects are so poorly done and eventually need to be repaired, usually on an ongoing basis. This appears to be especially true of newly paved, local roads, he says.
A source at the investment commission in Ninawa, which encourages and supervises new investments in the state, who also wished to remain anonymous, told NIQASH, that jizya payments imposed by the Islamic State groups are obviously discouraging potential investors in the region, especially foreign ones. The commission recently announced more than 300 potential projects for investment but nobody had bothered to bid to be part of them. Only 44 licenses for similar projects had been granted since the beginning of 2008 and most of these were for projects based in safer parts of the state, and therefore usually outside of Mosul’s city limits.
Officially, local administrators have pronounced that Iraqi government bureaucracy, a scarcity of land and property and Iraqi laws around investment are blocking efforts at reconstruction. But unofficially, many agree that the amounts of money that the Islamic State groups are able to extort is one of the biggest problems. “It’s just that nobody has the courage to say that the investors are afraid of al-Qaeda too,” the source told NIQASH.
Both local and international investors prefer to put their money into safer parts of the oil-rich, and potentially wealthy, nation, such as the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan or other states where al-Qaeda style groups do not have as much control.
This argument also explains why the state administration formerly headed by Duraid Kashmoula returned a lot of money, slated for reconstruction projects, to the national treasury in Baghdad. When Islamic State groups took control of the area in late 2004, the state government could really only say that it controlled its own council buildings. Meanwhile the US military and Islamic State insurgents battled it out on the city’s streets.
Asking around, it seems that the Islamic State’s activities are expanding beyond Ninawa’s construction projects. It also appears to have gone into the real estate business.
A resident of the Tal al-Ruman neighbourhood in the southwest of Mosul told NIQASH that a few weeks ago he went to drill a well on what appeared to be government owned land. He wanted to provide himself and his neighbours with a better water supply as not enough was coming via state services during the long, hot summer. He was unhappily surprised, he says, when strangers came to his house to demand a payment of IQD3 million (around US$2,500) for drilling on land that belonged to the Islamic State.
And the strangers may well have had a reason for claiming the land was theirs. A former employee of the local land registration department recalled how in late 2008, three of his colleagues and his department manager were arrested by the Iraqi military for cooperating with terrorists. Apparently, the ex-employee said, they had forged documents relating to a large piece of state-owned land in the Rashidiya area of Mosul. It actually belonged to a Ministry of Agriculture research centre. But part of this land was sold to the Islamic State.
Further investigations showed that the department had not been facilitating the transfer of property correctly for at least five years and that there had been fraudulent real estate transactions worth millions of US dollars; one of the parties regularly involved in those transactions was the Islamic State.
Islamic State groups had threatened employees of the department, saying they would plant bombs in the offices. Some employees had been murdered and others had left their jobs; some had even fled the city. Those who remained forged property transaction documents, dating the land sales back to before 2004 and putting blocks of land into the names of non-existent individuals.
*Unfortunately it is too dangerous for any Mosul locals to give their real names and many will only ever speak on condition of anonymity.
NIQASH has been able to compile a short, although by no means complete list of civil servants killed by al-Qaeda between 2005 and 2011. They were murdered because it is suspected that they refused to cooperate with al-Qaeda or be blackmailed.
These are: Darwaz Nazir Mahmoud who worked in real estate registration and who was murdered in front of his house in Mosul’s western Rifai neighbourhood in 2006 and his colleague, Khawla al-Sabawi, a real estate department manager shot near her home in Mosul’s eastern Wahda neighbourhood in February 2011.
Then there is also the oil products manager murdered inside his home in Mosul’s northern Sadeeq neighbourhood in 2006 as well as one of the directors of Iraq’s Central bank, Khair el-Deen Sabri and his two guards, all of whom were killed outside Sabri’s house in the Mosul’s western Hadba neighbourhood in 2007.
Additionally there was the director of Mosul’s municipal council, Khalid Mahmoud, and his driver, who were both killed in Mosul’s northern Baladiyat neighbourhood in 2008 and Riyadh Jarallah, the head of the Iraqi Identity and Civil Affairs department in Mosul who was assassinated as he left his office in the west Mosul’s Bab Sinjar area in 2008.