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Detailed records show how ISIS controlled land and people

A recently discovered trove of thousands of documents offers new insight into the horrors of life under the Islamic State militant group. Driven out of Mosul in late 2016 after months of fighting, ISIS left behind evidence of how the controlled the city and their would-be caliphate. Amna Nawaz learns more from Rukmini Callimachi from The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we'd like to introduce a new correspondent here at the "NewsHour," Amna Nawaz.

    Amna, welcome.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thank you so much, Judy. It is great to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we are so glad to have you.

    And, tonight, you have the story about these recently discovered trove of documents that give us new insight into what life was like under ISIS.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right. It's a fascinating story.

    It takes us to Mosul, which is the second city in Iraq, the largest city that fell under ISIS control back in 2014. Now, by late 2016, those ISIS forces were driven out after months of fighting, a brutal bombing campaign, and block-by-block battles.

    But they left behind evidence of how they controlled the city and their would-be caliphate. This came in the form of thousands of documents detailing everything from how residents were punished to how taxes were levied.

    The story comes to us from Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter with The New York Times.

    And I asked her earlier what these documents reveal about how ISIS controlled so much land and so many people for so long.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    I think the biggest revelation that you see in these documents is, is it helps us answer the question of the group's longevity, exactly how you put it. Why did they stay in power for so long?

    I think that our listeners have probably heard of the theory that ISIS was financed by black market oil sales. Black market oil sales were a part of ISIS' spreadsheet, but the documents I recovered showed that they were — that they relied overwhelmingly on things that could not be bombed, the people under their control who were being taxed, the commerce that those people generated, which was also taxed, and the dirt under their feet.

    And agriculture was actually an enormously important source of financing for ISIS. The spreadsheets that I recovered included the dally gross revenue sheets for the Islamic State, and it showed that weeks and weeks after the start of the military operations to take back Mosul, the group was making literally millions off of things like the sale of flour, the sale of barley and wheat, sheep's milk, the most boring things possible, which are, of course, the very things that you cannot bomb.

    There's no clear way to bomb a barley field or a flock of sheep without completely ruining the landscape of Northern Iraq.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, Rukmini, you spent over a year searching for these documents.

    Tell me a little bit more about how and where you found them.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    We found the first big batch of documents in December of 2016.

    And I did a total of five trips to Mosul. We ended up finding records in 11 cities, towns, and villages. And the thing that we learned early on is that we were essentially in competition with intelligence agencies who were also trying to find these records.

    So we didn't have almost any luck searching the major ISIS headquarters, the headquarters of their military bases or of their major offices. We learned to stay off the beaten track. And, for example, the first batch of documents that we got was in a tiny village called Omar Khan located southeast of Mosul.

    It's a place where security forces had gone through very rapidly. And so I think they hadn't properly searched it. We went to a building that villagers had identified as one of the ministries of ISIS. Inside the actual building, we found nothing.

    On the way out, I stopped at what I thought was an outhouse before we were about to get into the car. And it was in this outhouse, which wasn't an outhouse, that we found hundreds and hundreds of documents.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And I want to ask you about one specific story that you highlighted in there.

    It's a story of a man named Mahmoud Ismael Salim. He is an agriculture department employee there. He basically signed off on ISIS orders to seize land from targeted groups.

    I'm curious what you heard on the ground there about why people in Mosul decided to stay and basically help facilitate the ISIS regime.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    So, ISIS, as you know, is a Sunni group. They are 100 percent Sunni.

    So, as soon as they took over the area, Christians, Shias, Yazidis fled immediately. And what was left was the Sunni population of Mosul and the surrounding areas, which was still sizable.

    What the people told me is that they stayed for a host of reasons. They wanted to protect their families. They wanted to protect their homes, which they knew would be seized if they left. And it wasn't immediately clear to what extent they would become collaborators with the Islamic State.

    What ISIS did is, soon after taking the city of Mosul, they announced on the loudspeakers of mosques that civil servants needed to go back the work. And, as a result, basically, the entire public servant corps went back to work.

    And so they kept on — they kept the city going as they would have if they were working for the Iraqi government. ISIS used the know-how of the Iraqi government to build its own state. It built its state on the back of the one that came before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rukmini, from the people you spoke with there, is there any concern that after now the city has been leveled in all the fighting, the seeds of discontent have been sown, are they concerned that ISIS could come back?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:


    And you are seeing this — you are seeing this even in the very first days of the liberation. ISIS cells remain in this area. You hear of suicide bombings routinely or people being kidnapped or altercations and deadly clashes with police.

    The same grievances that allowed this group to take hold in the first place are still very much present. People complain of the corruption of the Iraqi state, of not being given a fair shake unless they have what is called wasta, or connections to people in power.

    So all of that remains. And the thing that was actually the most frightening , I think, to read in these documents and to see through interviews that I did with people is how good ISIS was at governing. We don't often talk about this, but the streets were cleaner under ISIS than under the Iraqi government.

    The sewers were less likely to overflow. This is what people told us. And the fact that the Iraqi state cannot take care of those basic things is the kind of thing that festers and causes people to show sympathy for this group.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rukmini Callimachi, thank you for your time.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    Thank you.

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