Jun 11, 2010  
     Al-Qaeda turns to mafia tactics
                  By Saad al-Mosuli  

MOSUL - The street emptied at the sound of gunfire, the men scattering in 
separate directions. A corpse was left behind, the lone victim of the shooting. 
After a few hours, someone covered its face with a sheet of paper - a gesture 
of respect for the dead. 

This is Mosul, my home. Since 2003, I have worked as a reporter here, mainly 
for local newspapers. Stories of murder and abduction are part of my routine. 

Al-Qaeda still thrives in my city, long after it was driven underground in 
other parts of the country. Once a pillar of the local insurgency, the group - 
also known as the Islamic State of Iraq - now operates as a mafia, funding 
itself through extortion and blackmail. 

Though deeply unpopular, its reputation for ruthlessness has also made it very 
powerful. Unlike other insurgent groups, al-Qaeda never restricted itself to 
fighting the Americans. Right from the start, it showed it was ready to kill 
Iraqis too. 

At the height of the conflict in 2005, the group frequently abducted large 
groups of men. Hours later, their decapitated bodies would be dumped in the 
street. The severed head would be balanced on top of the corpse, often 
alongside a DVD containing footage of the beheading. 

Al-Qaeda may no longer be as brazen in Mosul, but it is still viewed with 
dread. The group's strategy for survival in the city is, in part, the product 
of pressures it has faced elsewhere. 

Over the past few years, the United States military and Iraqi government forces 
have largely succeeded in cutting off al-Qaeda's access to funds and fighters 
from abroad. 

As a result, the group's members in Mosul are now mostly locals - natives of 
the city, or Arabs displaced from the nearby town of Tal Afar. 

The shortage of foreign funds forced al-Qaeda to look within Mosul for its 
income. It found a source in the many businesses that still operate here, 
helped by the city's position along trade routes linking Turkey, Syria, Iran 
and the rest of Iraq. 

Merchants in every conceivable sector give a levy to al-Qaeda. Payments to the 
group enable the local economy to function, keeping markets stocked with 
essential goods and guaranteeing the passage of construction materials and farm 
produce across the nearby borders. 

Though no businessman would speak about the subject to a journalist, their 
casual conversations are filled with stories of extortion. 

Suspicion and fear have destroyed a close-knit community of merchants, who once 
shared in each other's successes. Established enterprises have been hit 
hardest, some of them targeted by newcomers seemingly linked to al-Qaeda. 

An acquaintance told me he was offered US$100,000 to sell his shop to a 
businessman newly arrived in Mosul. After making inquiries, he was tipped off 
that his son would be kidnapped as soon as he made the deal. His payment for 
the sale would be demanded as ransom. 

Another friend who operates a currency exchange said all his neighboring 
businesses gave a tax to al-Qaeda. The group's agents would visit every month, 
threatening to kill or kidnap those who failed to pay up. 

A friend who owns an electricity generator initially refused to pay the levy. 
He relented after being warned his generator would be bombed if he held out. 

A shopkeeper told me he had received a phone call demanding payment from an 
unknown group, just after he had paid his monthly tax to al-Qaeda. He informed 
the original gang of the phone call, and was not bothered by any further 
demands from the other group. 

The wealthy are not the only victims. A street vendor who takes home no more 
than 15,000 Iraqi dinars (about US$13) a day also said he was paying 30% of his 
profits as tax to al-Qaeda. 

Mosul's severe insecurity and political feuds have created the perfect 
environment for al-Qaeda to operate. The city has a mixed population of Arabs 
and Kurds. More than a year since elections to the provincial council, leaders 
of both communities have been unable to reach agreement on government. 

Religious minorities, such as the Christians, complain of being trapped between 
the competing interests of the larger groups. 

Though Mosul's streets are choked with checkpoints and men in uniform, their 
presence does not seem to affect the insurgents. The officers rarely speak to 
journalists, insisting they are not authorized. Their spokesmen are usually 

The security forces seem to inhabit another world to the civilians. It feels as 
if we live in separate valleys, with mountains between us. 

A friend told me the security forces were technically correct to claim they 
were cracking down on al-Qaeda's supporters when they raided certain local 

But, the friend said, the authorities' statement was only half the truth. Most 
merchants disagreed with al-Qaeda's ideology and had been coerced into offering 
them financial support. 

The government has pledged to rid local institutions of corruption and the 
influence of the insurgents. 

However, the people of Mosul wonder how easy this will be. Many of us believe 
the militants have deep contacts within the state, especially as they seem to 
know all about the latest contracts and tenders issued by the government. 

Al-Qaeda also appears to have thoroughly infiltrated the security forces. 

A friend of a friend who works in the police force recently took a vacation out 
of town, accompanied by three colleagues. All the officers were in 
plainclothes, traveling with civilians on a minibus. 

An insurgent boarded the vehicle and called out the names of three of the 
policemen, asking them to step forward. One of the officers protested, saying 
he had long stopped working for the force. 

The insurgent responded by showing him a copy of the police payroll. "Is that 
not your signature, confirming receipt of your salary two days ago?" he asked. 

The three men were led off the bus. The man who tells the story says he never 
heard from them again. 

Saad al-Mosuli is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Mosul. 

(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. 
Used with permission )

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