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IS Constructs A 'Can-Do' Image In Mosul

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

An Islamic State banner flies atop Mosul's Nineveh International Hotel.

An Islamic State banner flies atop Mosul's Nineveh International Hotel.

For the Islamic State (IS) group, appearances are everything.

That's why, in recent days, the militant group has focused its propaganda efforts on positive developments in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

IS overran Mosul -- Iraq's second-largest city with a population of around 2 million people -- in June 2014.

But if the assumption is that the city was left in ruins, IS's propaganda machine begs to differ. It is sharing pictures of the city showing supermarkets with shelves stocked full of goods and workers diligently tending the city's public gardens.

Perhaps the most bizarre of IS's recent PR efforts is a series of photographs claiming to show the grand reopening of Mosul's finest hotel, the Nineveh International.

In one photo, shared on Twitter on May 2, a throng of men and black burqa-clad women are seen gathered near the hotel's pool. They are there not to watch a public execution, but to attend a party. In another image, a small bunch of colored party balloons are captured floating against a background of black IS flags.

IS militants eating ice cream in Mosul.

IS militants eating ice cream in Mosul.

In another set of images, workers are shown renovating the hotel's exterior. (IS, which always looks for opportunities to portray itself as a bona fide state performing real government services, likes to show photographs of municipal employees working under its command.)

IS hasn't just reopened any old hostelry. The Nineveh International Hotel is -- or was -- one of the best hotels in Mosul, perhaps even in Iraq. The SouthTravels.com website notes that the hotel is just 10 minutes from the city center and says its 265 rooms boast "luxurious elegance and comfort."

A review on TripAdvisor claims that the hotel is "the best hotel in Iraq" with a "very nice wedding room."

The reviews were, of course, made before IS overran Mosul in June 2014.

'Business As Usual'

That IS has reopened one of Mosul's best hotels is no mere flight of militant whimsy. Like the photographs of well-stocked supermarkets and tidy gardens, IS's five-star hotel is part of a concerted effort by the group to give the impression that it is not just in control of life in the Iraqi city, but that Mosul is living the good life.

The same message of "business as usual in Mosul" was put out in January via British IS hostage John Cantlie. The captive photojournalist insisted that Mosul was an "absolute heartland" for IS, that the city's residents were happy, and that markets were "bustling."

Behind IS's carefully constructed facade, however, a grimmer reality lurks.

Though IS has almost total control of messages coming out of Mosul -- the militant group has shot journalists working in the city -- some news does filter out of Mosul via activists. And they say that life in the city is far from the rosy picture painted by IS propaganda.

Mosul Eye, a local historian who has been secretly documenting IS's activities in Mosul since the militants overran the city in June, has provided a glimpse on Twitter of what life is really like in Mosul. It is not possible to verify the identity of Mosul Eye, but Iraq watchers believe the account is credible.

Some of Mosul Eye's most recent postings describe some of the grim realities of life under IS.

The Mosul Eye, with an advertisement for beards

The Mosul Eye, with an advertisement for beards

On May 2, Mosul Eye wrote that IS members arrested 32 people in Mosul and shot five of them dead, "with no clear reason that led to those arrests."

The group has also issued a decree that forces Christians to hand their homes over to IS's foreign militants, according to Mosul Eye.

Local Iraqi militants who were already occupying houses belonging to Christians have reportedly been ordered to vacate the homes within a month.

IS has also used child militants in Mosul, according to Mosul Eye, which said the group had involved kidnapped Yazidi children.

Some of the ways IS members exert control over Mosul residents appear bizarre: the extremist group recently issued a decree ordering all men to grow beards, while Mosul Eye claims that the group is now insisting that men's trousers be a certain length.

Defiance

IS's reopening of the Nineveh International Hotel can also be seen as an act of defiance in the face of IS losses and pressure from U.S.-led air strikes and Iraqi plans to retake Mosul.

The United States carried out 12 air strikes in 24 hours on May 4-5 in Iraq, including near Mosul.

The posting by IS of images of Mosul residents gathering at an IS-run party at a large hotel in the city gives the message that the militant group is not concerned with the air strikes.

IS also wants to show that it is still in control in Mosul, despite the loss of Tikrit on March 31.

IS has also lost ground in other areas of Iraq, as a map released by Pentagon officials in April showed.

Taste For Luxury?

Beyond the propaganda messages, there is likely another, simpler, reason behind the militant group's reopening of the Nineveh International Hotel: some militants have a taste for the extravagant.

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the butt of jokes last year when he was filmed in a mosque in Mosul wearing what appeared to be either a Rolex or a $5,000 Omega Seafarer which, as CNN pointed out, is the timepiece of choice for the fictional spy James Bond.

Senior IS commander Tarkhan Batirashvili (also known as Umar al-Shishani) demonstrated his penchant for luxury when he appropriated a villa, replete with gilded furniture, a swimming pool, and a Chinese-style bridge in Syria's Aleppo Province. Batirashvili reportedly liked to spend time pondering life while relaxing in the villa's jacuzzi.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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