The Battle For Mosul — And Why The Threat Of ISIS Won't Go Away

Oct 23, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 1:29 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. ISIS has lost its territorial base in Iraq and Syria, but the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria has raised concerns that the Islamic State could make a comeback. Our guest, journalist James Verini, has written a detailed firsthand account of the culminating battle in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq, the fight to drive the jihadists from the Iraqi city of Mosul after ISIS had taken control of the city. The conflict took nine months and cost the lives of 1,200 Iraqi soldiers, as well as thousands of civilians and ISIS fighters.

Verini writes about the initial appeal of ISIS to the city's residents and the effects of the savage fighting on civilians. James Verini is a contributing writer at The New York Times magazine and National Geographic. His reporting on the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo earned a George Polk Award. Rooney spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book, "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: James Verini, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, your book focuses on the coalition efforts to drive ISIS, the Islamic State, out of Mosul in 2016 and '17. They had come middle of 2014. But many years before that, it had suffered a lot since the American invasion in 2003. Just give us a quick sense of what the civilians in Mosul had gone through in all those years before the Islamic State showed up.

JAMES VERINI: That's right. So, well, we can trace the immiseration of the people of Mosul back many centuries and millennia even. But why don't we - if we just bring it up to recent history, after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Mosul was actually comparatively safe and prosperous. David Petraeus, his first large posting where he made his name was in the northern sector of Iraq based in Mosul. And he really turned the city around after it had been neglected for years by Saddam Hussein and the Baathist government. Mosul was a sort of model of what to do with the occupation.

But, of course, Petraeus was promoted and moved on. And Mosul thereafter quickly fell into an insurgency, specifically a Sunni insurgency, and a post-Baathist insurgency because Mosul had been home to one of the major military training schools, officer training schools. And it was known as a redoubt of Baathist loyalists and Saddam loyalists.

DAVIES: The Baathists being the party that Saddam Hussein used to rule the country, right?

VERINI: Exactly. So soon after 2004, Mosul was overtaken with a variegated insurgency. There were jihadis, but there were also criminal elements, loyalist elements, former fedayeen, as they were known, Saddam's loyalist soldiers. So, like many other cities in Iraq, it descended into violence pretty quickly in the mid-2000s.

DAVIES: So when ISIS arrives on the scene in the middle of 2014, it's interesting that you write that the Islamic State was welcomed by a lot of the people in Mosul. Why?

VERINI: Yeah, for many reasons. But the main reason is political and social. One thing that's often forgotten about ISIS, especially as it functioned in Iraq and that needs to be pointed out more, was that it was as much a political movement, a political revolution, as it was a religious movement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - that's the leader of ISIS - his appeal to the people of Mosul and to the people of Iraq generally was not mainly a - an extremist religious appeal. Rather, it was a political appeal that was to Sunni Iraqis specifically.

And the appeal was, we are going to return you, Sunnis, to prominence in Iraq. You have been ruled now for over a decade by a Shia nationalist government installed by the United States that's doing the bidding of Washington and of Israel and of Tehran. And we, ISIS, are going to restore Sunnis to their rightful place in charge, not just of Iraq, but of the Muslim world generally. And this was hugely appealing to many people of Mosul, particularly the men, young and old men. These are men who, for years now, had been abused or ignored by the Shia-dominated military that was in Mosul and by the police.

DAVIES: Right. And we should note that the Islamic State had a lot of money from oil and from criminal enterprises, so it could fund some civic infrastructure. So what changed over the next two years that made life so hard for the citizens of Mosul?

VERINI: So as you say, they did have a lot of money to spend on civic improvement projects. And at least some of the higher-ups in ISIS really seemed to want to do that. But the Islamic State reached the sort of apex of its territory holding in the fall of 2014. And after that, it became isolated from the rest of Iraq and from the region. So it was more difficult to bring in the streams of revenue that it had been before.

And so, as the revenue dried up and as Baghdad stopped paying salaries to employees in Mosul, things got worse and worse. And it wasn't long before the organization started doing the things that it would become famous for - public executions, arbitrary beatings and increasingly arbitrary and absurd regulations on dress and public movement.

DAVIES: Right. And people like to smoke in Mosul (laughter). The regime prohibited it but really ran the black market on cigarettes, right?

VERINI: That's right. So they - so of course, smoking is haram in Islam. And ISIS, at least ostensibly, forbid it. But really what they were doing was selling black-market Armenian cigarettes. And part of the reason they didn't want anyone buying or selling cigarettes was that they wanted to be selling them themselves. If you were a man in Mosul and addicted to smoking, as so many men in Mosul in Iraq generally are, you could buy a carton of these black-market akhmartyar (ph) Armenian cigarettes one day and then be arrested the next, possibly by the same religious policeman who'd sold them to you.

DAVIES: So in 2016, you know, the Islamic State had ruled Mosul for some time. And the population felt oppressed and abused and, you know, unemployed and suffering from - in all kinds of ways. And the coalition security forces decide that they're going to retake it. They'd already retaken other areas that ISIS had held. And one of the interesting things is that, in other Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, the population left for refugee camps pretty much before the fighting started. That didn't happen in Mosul. Why?

VERINI: For a few reasons. The main reason was that Mosul is so big - between a million, 2 million people before ISIS took over - it was so big that there wasn't anywhere for many of the people of Mosul to go. The refugee camps in Iraq were already full. By that - by the beginning of the battle, there were already nearly 100 refugee camps, and they were all full up after two years of fighting. Millions of Iraqis had already been displaced. So one reason was just logistical. There was nowhere for them to go.

But more - probably more importantly, the Iraqi high command, the generals and the government, encouraged the people of Mosul to stay. They wanted them to stay because they wanted their help in taking back the city and because they bet - and they were correct in the bet - that the people of Mosul had become so fed up with ISIS by this point that they would help the soldiers and the coalition - they would help them uncover weapons caches and tell them where the jihadis were and tell them where the booby traps were. And that is what happened, at least at the beginning of the battle.

DAVIES: So you were there, and you would see, you know, civilians greet the Iraqi troops enthusiastically, give them information?

VERINI: Yes, absolutely, in the - at least in the beginning of the battle. The battle went on for over nine months. And attitudes slowly changed. But at the beginning, on the east side of the city, the interactions between them - the people of Mosul and the soldiers - were fascinating and really touching. The people of Mosul had been living under the thumb of ISIS for over two years now. And the Iraqi soldiers had been fighting ISIS for just as long and had suffered really high casualty rates. So there was a great deal of sympathy between the two groups. It was a sympathy that overcame a great deal of suspicion.

The soldiers, for their part, were really serious about protecting the people of Mosul, at least at the beginning when the Iraqi special forces were in charge of the invasion. And they always set up little infirmaries to help the people with whatever medicines they could find. They always made a point of protecting the civilians. The operation took so many months and in no small part because the Iraqi military realized that it really had to change the way it did things and protect the people of Mosul if it was going to win this battle and win the war.

DAVIES: James Verini's book is "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist James Verini. He has a book about his experiences covering the battle to capture Mosul from ISIS in 2016 and 2017. The book is called "They Will Have To Die Now."

You know, reading the story, you can't help but feel enormous sympathy for what these civilians had gone through. Particularly since before ISIS, they had felt abused by, you know, the Iraqi forces and police forces that were there before. You describe one man that you got to know, named Abu Fahad, who had three kids whose mom wasn't around anymore. How did he lose his first wife?

VERINI: According to Abu Fahad - and I take him at his word - he and his wife and children were in their car driving just outside of Mosul in 2006 - I believe it was - when they approached a checkpoint manned by Kurdish and American soldiers who apparently misinterpreted what Abu Fahad was doing in the car and opened fire on the car, killing his wife.

DAVIES: And his daughter was in the backseat doing what?

VERINI: A number of his children were in the backseat. And in one of the most painful scenes I ever heard or witnessed in Iraq, Abu Fahad recounted to me as he passed out, woke up to see his dead wife under a blanket and to find one of his daughters eating broken shards of glass in the car because she'd already gone kind of insane watching her mother die. And as Abu Fahad was telling me this story in his tent in the Hazu (ph) refugee camp, his son and daughter, Maha (ph) and Hamoudi (ph), began crying. And Abu Fahad very calmly said, can we please change the subject?

DAVIES: So the civilians of Mosul are in a situation where they're living in, you know, tightly constructed, old neighborhoods. And a lot of their neighbors - or some of them - were, in fact, ISIS fighters. And so they would help, you know, the Iraqi troops and the coalition forces with information about these fighters. But that put them in a very difficult situation obviously. You also have the coalition using a lot of heavy firepower on these old buildings - right? - I mean, airstrikes and artillery. What did that do for the civilians there who were in these neighborhoods that ended up getting shelled and bombed?

VERINI: Well, to answer your first question first, yes. One of the fascinating things and one of the troubling things was the number - the extent of allegiance that people of Mosul had to ISIS was never clear. Some people - some of the people of Mosul had been or were fighters with ISIS, as you say. Some of them had just been government employees who kept their jobs under ISIS. Some of them were hired by ISIS.

There were infinite gradations of allegiance and connection with ISIS. And it was usually impossible to determine just how extensive any given citizen of Mosul's allegiance was to the organization or lack of allegiance. As you'll find in the book, I find out that some of the main characters or main subjects in the book have a great deal more allegiance to connection with ISIS than I knew at the beginning of my reporting. This has made...

DAVIES: And in some cases, they had kids who had, you know, activities of their own.

VERINI: Right. In many cases, they had kids, particularly sons, who had joined up with ISIS because in addition to being a political revolution and a religious movement, it was also, in many ways, a generational movement, a generational revolution. It was - there were many young men in Mosul who were extremely ashamed at how their fathers had been treated and how degraded their - how degraded and downtrodden their fathers had become. And they didn't want that to happen to them. That's part of the reason that they joined this movement.

So there were infinite gradations of allegiance to the organization, none of which could really be - or very few of which could be sussed out in the field as soldiers and intelligence officers were making their way through Mosul. So you found, you know, summary beatings and even executions very common of suspected jihadis. As the - as you say, the airstrikes and artillery were a comprehensive extensive. Much of the west side of the city was absolutely destroyed and still is largely in rubble. The east side fared a little better. But many of the most beautiful and important parts of these sites, such as Mosul University, were destroyed as well.

And as the airstrikes went on and the artillery went on and particularly as the Iraqi military introduced its own air power in the form of Hind helicopters, the citizens of Mosul became more and more wary understandably and more and more wary of the Iraqi military's intentions. They came to - many of them decide that the military was no better than it had been a few years before and that it was out to kill them en masse.

DAVIES: Did ISIS deliberately use civilians as shields?

VERINI: Absolutely. It deliberately used civilians as cannon fodder and as shields. And what's more, it deliberately killed civilians as they tried to flee Mosul.

DAVIES: So for citizens who were in, you know, western Mosul, who had hung on through all the warfare of previous years and through ISIS and found themselves in neighborhoods where airstrikes and artillery barrages were coming in and they were surrounded by ISIS fighters among their neighborhoods, what were their options? What did they do?

VERINI: So there weren't many. The options were either stay or go. And the west side - by the time the fighting began on the west side of the city, more camps had opened, so there was more opportunity for the people of Mosul to leave the city. And many of them did. Many thousands of them did from the west side. And you could...

DAVIES: Could you safely leave?

VERINI: Well, so ISIS did target fleeing civilians and shelled them and shot at them and snipe them. By that point, ISIS had decided apparently that anyone who dared leave the caliphate, you know, was an apostate. So you could leave. You couldn't necessarily safely leave, but you could certainly try to leave. And on any given day in the fighting in the west side, if you stood on a hill or on a - on the top of the building, you would see these columns of hundreds and thousands of people marching, walking out of the city.

But many people in Mosul decided to stay for many different reasons. But clearly the - on the west side, it was not safe to stay. The west side was absolutely leveled. And I have no doubt that thousands of civilians died in the fighting on the west side. We'll never know how many, but it was certainly in the thousands.

DAVIES: A weapon of choice for ISIS fighters in Mosul was something called a VBIED. You want to explain this?

VERINI: Yes, the VBIED, or VBIED, is a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. And it proved to be the most lethal and fearful, psychologically fearful, weapon that ISIS had. It was, in many ways, ISIS's answer to the airstrikes. These vehicles were suicide bombing vehicles that were kind of kamikazes on the ground. They were car bombs, essentially. And ISIS had experimented with this - with these things in Ramadi and Fallujah and other parts, but they really perfected the technology in Mosul. They were car bombs, either sedans or trucks, that were gutted and filled with explosive. And then armor of one kind of another would be welded onto the exterior of the car. And the driver would be essentially welded in, so they would necessarily die. And the - ISIS managed to stash hundreds of these things in garages and carports and other positions around the city. And they proved to kill - they ended up killing more Iraqi soldiers than probably any other weapon of ISIS's.

The way that ISIS used them was that it also had a technological innovation that was, as far as I know, was new to this war was ISIS had its own fleet of small drones, commercial drones, the kind of thing you could buy on the internet or at a hobby shop. And it used these drones to fly over Mosul. And through the cameras, it found where the Iraqi positions were, where the Iraqi columns and convoys were and where their command positions were. And once they found the positions, they would order a VBIED deployed, something that was very nearby; they could get to the position easily enough. And this happened hundreds of times over the course of the battle.

And sometimes, ISIS would record the footage from the drones of the VBIED attacks and upload it online. So you can still go online and see these attacks taking place. You can see an Iraqi convoy, an Iraqi position, and then you can see this car or truck coming out of nowhere and exploding in the - if you're watching it, say, on a cell phone, you'll just see the screen of the phone go white as the cloud from the VBIED expands up towards the drone camera. It's a very, very eerie sight.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with James Verini, author of the new book "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate." After a break, Verini will talk about embedding with Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS and why the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria opens new opportunities for the Islamic State. Also, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Lighthouse," starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with journalist James Verini, who's written a firsthand account of the ferocious battle in 2017 to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, which had taken over the city. Verini's book is called "They Will Have To Die Now."

DAVIES: You went with a group of Iraqi Kurdish armed forces - the peshmerga - when they were going to take some villages near Mosul from the Islamic State in preparation for the assault on Mosul. This was a pretty colorful description, I have to say. How were the peshmerga fighters, these Kurdish fighters, different from traditional military units?

VERINI: Well, they were much more welcoming than most military units. They were...

DAVIES: To you, you mean.

VERINI: To me and any other journalist who wanted to ride along or anyone who could in some way help them or just wanted to depict what was going on. They - yeah. So the Kurds - until the last couple of weeks, anyway - really like Americans and are used to dealing with Americans and American journalists. They've always been extremely welcoming.

And so they were happy to have as many journalists as who wanted to come along with their columns and their convoys as they carried out this first part of the battle, which was to mop up ISIS in the villages on the eastern outskirts of Mosul. So it took about two weeks. And the Kurds launched a pretty conventional campaign. They started down the road towards Mosul from Iraqi Kurdistan and just took village by village.

They just rocked up with their columns and their convoys and started shooting and just forced whatever jihadis were left in the villages out of them. And they were happy to have - they were happy to have journalists along for the ride. And if you couldn't fit into one of their Humvees then they allowed you to just bring your vehicle into their column. It was a lot of fun, to be honest.

DAVIES: It's sort of described - like, when they were assembling a bit like a volunteer fire department - right? - people would, in some cases, take taxis to the battlefront and bring their gear. And then at various moments in the assault, they would stop for selfies, to have cigarettes...

VERINI: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...(Laughter) Kind of enjoying the whole thing.

VERINI: Yeah that's - a volunteer fire department is a good way of describing it. One Kurdish soldier described the peshmerga to me as more an attitude than an army. It's paramilitary. It's really not all that official. Many members have no training or their training has been just in fighting. They have - in any given operation, they have a crazy cortege of vehicles that can include the most recent and innovative Humvees or vehicles from the Soviet era or even farther back.

And they have very little training. And they're often quite reckless; in their way, almost as suicidal as the jihadis. But they're also absolutely fearless. And they've been fighting. You know, they've been fighting this cause, in one way or another, for the better part of a century. So they consider it a responsibility and also a pleasure to fight ISIS or the Iraqi military or whomever may come.

DAVIES: Well, there's obviously been a lot of attention since President Trump, you know, ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, you know, leaving the Kurds there, who had been fighting ISIS in Syria, in a vulnerable position, you know, causing them to leave and seek an alliance with the Assad regime.

Have - I mean, you were with the Iraqi Kurdish forces. I don't know how much contact they had with the ones in Syria. But I'm wondering what you might have heard about how they regard their situation.

VERINI: They have a bit of contact. The - there are many political factions and different fighting factions within the Kurdish ethnicity. The only way to really describe it as a unified thing is as an ethnicity and a particular language group. But there are a lot of disagreements among various Kurdish political parties and factions. And, indeed, there was a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s.

The one thing that all of them have been able to count on, in one way or another, is support - bipartisan support from the United States, at least in the last few decades. And I can - so I can tell you that the Iraqi Kurds, although they live in a different country, feel just as betrayed by Trump's decision, as do Syrian Kurds and Turkish Kurds. They see this as a general betrayal of the Kurdish cause.

It's not - it should be pointed out that this is not the first time they've felt betrayed by the West or by the United States. That began in the wake of World War I, when the Kurds were promised by the British an independent territory. And the British did not deliver. But it's the freshest and the most galling for the moment.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that the Kurdish fighters were brave even to the point of being reckless. You spent a lot of time with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, this sort of elite group. And you said that a lot of their soldiers - even senior commanders - just had little use for protective vests or helmets or, really, even taking cover under fire at a - in some times.

VERINI: Yeah.

DAVIES: What do you make of this?

VERINI: Well, good question - I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. I think that their contempt for helmets and flak jackets and taking proper cover - I think part of it had to do with Islam, with their faith and this idea that there's - that you have no hand in your fate, that God decides your fate. I think that was part of it. I think there was a certain fatalism that has to do with Islam but also had to do with the fact that they'd lived in a country that was now - had been - had found itself in a war for the better part of two generations - in one war or another.

I think there was also a desire among the Iraqi troops, especially the hardened troops - the Counter Terrorism, Special Forces - there was a desire to show the jihadis that they were perfectly comfortable with death as well. You know, the famous jihadi expression is, we love death more than you love life. I think there was a certain desire among the Iraqi forces to say, no, actually we're perfectly comfortable with death as well.

DAVIES: It was interesting that, in your conversations with Iraqis, they had opinions about America to share - a lot of them. What did you hear?

VERINI: So the opinions were so complex for many reasons. So Iraqis, of course, have every reason to dislike the United States. We invaded and occupied their country and did not carry off the occupation very well. And Iraqis were perfectly aware that ISIS had been a direct result of the American era in Iraq. And yet, at the same time, most Iraqis I spoke with - and I should emphasize, again, this is Iraqi men we're talking about, many of them in the military - most Iraqis I spoke with still had a great deal of respect for, even reverence for America.

America had invaded and occupied them. And this was a cause for contempt, but it was also a cause for awe. And so in the minds of many Iraqis, the United - America was second only to God in terms of its omnipotence and its omniscience. They believed America and Americans were capable of anything. And you could understand where this idea came from. We, of course, had taken over their country and in many ways ruined it.

But in speaking to Iraqis and getting their complex ideas about the United States, I very rarely heard hatred in their tone or even contempt. Usually it was kind of curiosity. And they often found it very touching that I didn't understand the extent of my own country's power. They found it touching that I didn't realize that the United States was not only backing and funding and arming the Iraqi military but also backing and funding and arming ISIS.

They really did believe this. Soldiers, citizens, intelligence officers who might have known better really, fully believed that the U.S. was - had started this war and was managing both sides of it. And when I would say, wait, (laughter) why would the U.S. be doing - why would we be both backing you and your enemy, a jihadi organization? They said, well, that's what great powers do. That's what a supreme power like the United States does, is it starts wars and runs both sides of them.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James Verini. His new book is "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist James Verini. His new book is about the coalition efforts to extricate ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul. It's called "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate."

You said that you initially came to Iraq in 2016 with a one-month visa and stayed nearly a year and that the reason you stayed had to do with a sense of guilt or shame.

VERINI: Yeah.

DAVIES: What did you feel guilty about?

VERINI: When I was a young reporter in New York, my first real newspaper job was with The New York Observer back when that was a real newspaper. And the first real story I covered was 9/11. I was a 23-year-old cub reporter when 9/11 happened. And I - you know, I covered the destruction of the World Trade Center. So for my entire adult life and professional career, jihadism had been on my mind. And along with everyone else in the world, I watched as the United States reacted to 9/11 by invading of, all places, Iraq, in what was a stridently irrelevant war.

And I think, like many other Americans, I objected to it and came to feel increasingly ashamed and guilty over it as it became clear what we were doing to the country and as the country descended into a civil war as a reaction to our own invasion. I wanted to go to Iraq in the mid-2000s, but I frankly was too cowardly to and too frightened to. And I didn't make it there until 2016, as you say, by which point I had decided, I guess, that I had to face up to Iraq, to the American war in Iraq.

By 2016, I had become something of a conflict journalist, I guess. I covered mainly conflict in Africa, where I was living, and in the Mideast and in Latin America. And I came to feel that if I was going to be an American journalist who covered conflict, that I had to cover Iraq, that I had to write about Iraq, that I had some form of moral obligation to write about it, to write about this place that my country had invaded and in many ways ruined.

And specifically, I wanted to tell the stories of Iraqis. Much, if not most of the American military reporting that had come out of Iraq until that point had had to do with the American military specifically. I wanted to write about Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and I wanted to describe how they were living through this conflict.

DAVIES: You know, you were in plenty of dangerous situations. I mean, you describe once in the book a round of sniper fire hit the turret of a Humvee you were sitting in just above your head. And there were plenty of times where you were moving with troops through city streets exposed to gunfire. And a lot of journalists were killed in Iraq. How terrified were you?

VERINI: I find that it actually reduces my feelings of fear about the world generally. When you're in a place like Mosul, say, all you have to worry about is staying alive and doing your job. If you can just - if you can make it through the day and you can get some good scenes, then you've done everything you could do and you sleep well that night. I never found that I was particularly frightened or terrified in the city. I certainly was extremely saddened at times and terrified on behalf of the people of Mosul or the soldiers I got to know. But I never - I myself never felt - though I knew I was very close to death, I never felt particularly frightened by it. I suppose afterwards you come to realize how close you came and you can get the shivers sometimes. But I have to say, it's never been too much of a problem.

DAVIES: The coalition forces ended the battle of Mosul, said that it was liberated in July of 2017 after - what? - roughly a nine or 10-month conflict. What was left of the city then?

VERINI: So on the east side of the city, there was a great deal left. The east side was - you could tell that it was still a city and that it would recover pretty quickly. It already was recovering by the - when the operations on the west side began. The University of Mosul, which is on the east side, was largely destroyed, but other than that, that portion of the city, that half of the city, was pretty intact - not so on the west side of the city. The west side looked as though some vengeful deity had wiped his hand across the city. It was rubble - blocks and blocks, acres and acres, miles and miles of rubble from airstrikes and artillery and small arms fire and the VBIED explosions. And this was tragic, of course, for many reasons, not the least of which was that this was the center of historic Mosul. This is where the Abbasids had built their city and where the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri had been, which ISIS had taken over, and where so many of the beautiful old mosques and buildings had been. And those will never be rebuilt.

DAVIES: And what about the population? I mean, is it coming back today two years later?

VERINI: As far as I know, no. I should emphasize that I have not been back since 2017, but I know many people who have. And I've looked at contemporary footage and pictures and, no, the west side of the city is not being rebuilt. Most of it is not, anyway. People have returned, returned to their homes, tried to start businesses and many have. But the west side of the city still looks destroyed.

DAVIES: And so hundreds of thousands of people who live there are - what? - in refugee camps?

VERINI: So many people - the camps have mostly been emptied out. Many people have moved to other parts of Iraq. Few have stayed in camps. Many have been incarcerated or tried. In much of Iraq, including in Mosul, many Sunni families have not been allowed to return to their homes because they are presumed to be or accused of being jihadis. And many have left the country as well.

DAVIES: You know, now that the U.S. has withdrawn from northeastern Syria and the Kurdish forces there had to make a chaotic retreat, there's fears that thousands of ISIS fighters, which were held in detention there, may get away or either escape or be released and that it could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State. Do you have a sense of how likely it is that it could become a serious threat again?

VERINI: Well, it never stopped being a threat. The caliphate was dismantled. You know, ISIS' territory in Iraq and Syria was largely dismantled. But ISIS never went away. ISIS persists in being an organization and, as we know, has expanded to other parts of the world, to Afghanistan, the Philippines, Libya. Soon enough, we'll be seeing them in Kashmir, I'm sure. So the threat never went away. Their territory went away. And so long as you have organizations like the Turkish military or the Syrian military or the Russians who are perfectly content to abuse civilians and to massacre civilians, then organizations like ISIS will be successful. People will join them. They will have a cause. They will have a reason for being. So I think, inevitably, our pullout and the resulting influx of Syrian forces and Russian forces and Turkish paramilitary forces will inevitably result in a resurgence of ISIS in one form or another.

DAVIES: James Verini, thanks for your reporting, and thanks so much for speaking with us.

VERINI: Thank you, Dave. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: James Verini spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Verini is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. And he's the author of the new book "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Lighthouse," starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. This is FRESH AIR.

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