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The battle for Mosul is over, but this hidden ISIS danger could lurk for years

Iraq may have ousted Islamic States militants from the city of Mosul over the summer, but the major task of finding and destroying the mines, booby traps and bombs remains. A security firm hired by the U.S. and Iraqi workers are making progress to clear major areas, but it could take years or even decades. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on the safety of Mosul after ISIS.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But first: The de facto capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa, in Syria fell yesterday to U.S.-backed forces.

    However, the largest city the militants once held was Mosul in Iraq. They were ousted from it in July after a brutal 10-month-long fight that killed thousands.

    Now a new major task: finding and destroying the ISIS mines, booby-traps and bombs that litter the city.

    Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports from Iraq.

  • Marcia Biggs, Special Correspondent:

    It was once a center of learning for over 6,000 students of technology, agriculture, and medicine.

    Today, Mosul Technical Institute’s classrooms are burnt to the ground, laboratories reduced to rubble, and books charred and shredded. It’s one of the city’s five universities ravaged by the Islamic State and the battle to oust it.

    Now that the battle is over, a new danger looms, the trail of land mines and booby-traps left by ISIS.

    So this is the wire, and this is where it was buried.

  • Christian, team Leader, Janus Global Operations:

    Yes, they would cut the asphalt, and then they lay the wire in and put the main charge here.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We spent the day with Christian, a team leader from Janus Global, a security and risk management firm hired by the U.S. government to sweep and clear major areas of unexploded ordnance and mines.

    He’s not allowed to show his face or use his last name, for security reasons.

  • Christian:

    There’s actually two more on that road before we get to the target building that have to be excavated and/or rendered safe.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    So, the first building you have to clear, you have got to get rid of the IEDs on the road to that building?

  • Christian:

    Yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    It’s a long process.

  • Christian:

    It is, but that’s what makes it interesting.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    The United States has sunk $30 million this year into clearing former ISIS territories all over Northern Iraq. Under this program, Janus has already cleared 727 buildings, removing 3,000 IEDs, which they say ISIS was producing on assembly lines at an industrial scale.

    But State Department officials and experts say the number of unexploded ordnance in Mosul itself is unprecedented.

    What’s your first line of attack, in terms of trying to clear Mosul?

  • Christian:

    Our priority is more the community, rather than the individual, you know, infrastructure. You have got schools, power, sewer, water, so that the area can accept people back into it. And then, once this stabilization phase is over, we can move into the individual homes, so that they can be safer.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Clearing Mosul is a process that they say could take years, even decades. So Janus is training local Iraqis to do the job, sending them out as a front-line search team, then investigating and removing any suspicious items themselves.

  • Christian:

    We’re not going to be here the whole time, so when we — it’s our time to leave, they will have the capacity built from us, and the mentoring we have done, so that they can do it on their own.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How are they doing?

  • Christian:

    They’re — a lot of them are very apt to learn. They’re quick. They’re smart.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Fawzi al Nabdi is the team leader for the Iraqi local partner. He’s cleared mines all over Iraq for the last six years.

  • Christian:

    What you got?

  • Fawzi Al Nabdi, Team Leader, Al Fahad Company:

    (Through interpreter) We are ready for this, because it’s my job and I love it. The Americans are here to complete our work and to help us. They have greater experience than we do. If we find any mines, we have to stop and they will investigate it and make a plan to remove it.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But he says Mosul is the biggest project he has ever seen, and we’re told it could take at least a month to just get the campus cleared of mines. Only then can they start cleaning it up, so that students can resume classes, this itself a huge task.

    ISIS fighters closed the university back in 2014, and used it as a military base. As coalition forces pounded ISIS targets, this seat of higher learning became a battleground.

    Ghassan Alubaidy is the institute’s dean.

  • Ghassan Alubaidy, Dean, Mosul Technical Institute:

    (Through interpreter) ISIS used our university to manufacture mines and bombs. For this reason, it was the target of airstrikes in the beginning. They struck the institute nine times, and they struck our workshops, too. Now we can’t use them.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    The former commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, recently listed 81 locations where bombs were dropped, but had not yet exploded.

    Facilities used to make weapons were often on the list of high-value targets for the coalition. So now those places are twice as likely to contain dangerous items.

    So, this was once a workshop for electrical engineering students. You can still see the lab tables here. It was hit by an airstrike in 2015. Afterwards, members of the university staff found bomb-making instructions among the rubble. This was likely an ISIS bomb-making factory, and judging by the crater, a high-value target.

    Despite the damage, Dean Alubaidy says he will hold classes this fall in alternate buildings, until the campus is ready. He’s expecting registration to be in the thousands, students who lost three years of education during the fighting and don’t want to lose another one.

  • Ghassan Alubaidy:

    (Through interpreter) On our Facebook pages, we found a great number of students posting that they were full of encouragement to come back. For us, it was unbelievable. We couldn’t imagine it, to see how many students wanted to start again, how they were dreaming of the first day of classes, when they could sit in front of teachers again and start to live their lives again.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Next door, Mosul University has already started classes. Students even volunteered to help in the cleanup.

    But across the river, West Mosul was the site of ISIS’ last stand and bore the brunt of the battle. It’s densely packed Old City, with its flattened buildings, is a challenge for mine-sweeping.

  • Fawzi Al-nabdi:

    (Through interpreter) Most of the homes here were full of mines. And just here in front of us, a man with two kids came back to his home, and when he opened the door, the bomb killed him and his kids.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Ahmed Younes fled back in early July with only the clothes on his back. Residents have been virtually banned from returning to his neighborhood on the outskirts of the Old City, but Ahmed said he got special permission, in order to retrieve some personal items.

  • Ahmed Younes:

     (Through interpreter) We came on our own. We got permission to come, but they are not responsible if anything happens to us.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Right now, there is no plan to begin clearing the Old City or even to determine how many mines there are. It is still out of bounds to anyone but the Iraqi security forces.

    So the Janus team is focusing on progress in the rest of the city, building by building, bomb by bomb.

  • Christian:

    Whoever made this device had a set goal. And to allow him to win, people get hurt. So you kind of compete against him to be better than him to take it out before it can do any harm.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    So, you feel like you’re winning the battle against ISIS?

    CHRISTIAN: Yes, one IED at a time.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Marcia Biggs in Mosul, Iraq.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tune in later.

    Frontline’s latest film, “Mosul,” was on the ground filming the fight as it unfolded street by street and house by house. That’s tonight on PBS.

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