The two men were dragged from the building blindfolded, their heads bowed, and covered in dust. A few neighborhoods away, the battle for Mosul was raging. But their fight was over.
The captured fighters belong to the Islamic State. They swept into the city two years ago in a blitzkrieg that shocked the world. Now they were leaving in a headlock.
This scene, in the Samah neighborhood of eastern Mosul, is becoming a more familiar sight as Iraqi forces advance deeper into the militant group’s last major stronghold in the country.
“We have a list of 38,000 names of wanted people [for terrorism] from around the entire country,” says Maj. Ahmad al Obeidi, of the Iraqi National Police. “We know who they are.”
But not all ISIS members carry guns. And finding the thousands of ISIS collaborators, supporters and henchmen among civilians fleeing to safety is presenting a challenge to security forces.
The battle for Mosul is now being fought in densely populated areas, neighborhood by neighborhood. Security officials say they’ve liberated about a third of eastern Mosul, but the danger does not end when one area is cleared — Iraqi forces are continually sweeping recaptured neighborhoods for lingering threats.
Just behind the front lines, intelligence officials tasked with tracking down ISIS are waiting to check every fighting-age male leaving the group’s shrinking, self-styled caliphate. The authorities are armed with laptops containing a huge database of suspects.
A person can end up on the list any number of ways. Iraq’s intelligence service says it has a network of informants living in ISIS-held areas. And residents of newly liberated parts of the city often approach security forces to give names of neighbors they suspect helped the group.
Some names have been on the list for years, wanted by authorities for links to terrorist groups before ISIS took over Mosul.
“Others are people who were in Badoush jail and then freed from jail by ISIS,” Obeidi says, referring to a prison north of Mosul that ISIS seized in 2014, releasing hundreds of prisoners. “Not all joined ISIS, but most.”
Capturing suspected ISIS members is one thing. Figuring out what to do with them is another problem entirely. Most of Iraq’s public institutions are under immense pressure, but even in the middle of a war, the courts are processing terror suspects.
However they are caught, ISIS suspects face layers of investigation. First they are interrogated; then they go up against a judge at an investigative court.
In a makeshift court in the town of Qayyarah, 35 miles south of Mosul, one such judge, Abu Iman, sits behind his desk as soldiers mill around him. He's using a pseudonym to protect his identity for fear of retribution from the militants.
Abu Iman used to preside over terrorism cases in Mosul, his home city, before fleeing when ISIS arrived. Today, he works out of a home formerly occupied by the group’s fighters.
It’s Abu Iman’s job to assess the evidence against a suspected ISIS member and decide whether they should be sent up to a higher court or released. Some 200 suspects have appeared before him in the two months this temporary court has been in operation.
The chaos of this conflict has made his job extremely hard.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to tell if they are ISIS or not. Sometimes we do not have enough information,” he says.
“In one case, we had two oil tanker drivers who were from ISIS areas. We were told they were spies. They were captured near Karbala and we launched an investigation. We held them for eight months but we didn’t have enough evidence and had to let them go.”
And with such a long list of names, sometimes the wrong people can get picked up.
“In Iraq, there are a lot of common names. If someone goes to a checkpoint and they have the same name as someone on the list, we bring them here and check other things about them — their parents’ names for example,” Abu Iman says.
“Sometimes we get the wrong people. But we release them as soon as possible.”
Police sergeant Abu Ali says the information from northern Iraq's tightknit communities is reliable.
“In this town, people know each other,” says Abu Ali, also not giving his real name because he fears retribution for his job. “They know the names of all the ISIS guys there were. Some of them are living among the civilians and they want them to go.”
Abu Iman travels 55 miles from Erbil to Qayyarah every day to hear these cases. His position allows him a broad view of just how deep the Islamic State’s reach went during its rule of this area.
Some of those who appear before him were willing volunteers. Others say they had no choice.
“One guy who was in here last Thursday got arrested by ISIS and put in prison. They told him that if he joined them he would be freed. He joined, but fled 10 days later,” says Abu Iman.
“Another guy said he joined because he couldn’t afford to live. He needed money. So he worked as a cook for them.”
The judge explained that he sent both cases for further investigation. There's a law that allows for a pardon of an ISIS member if he is found not to have harmed anyone, and if it can be proved he was forced to join the group. Abu Iman has not yet used the pardon himself.
“Sometimes I feel pity for these men, but I am a judge. This is my job.”
Human rights monitors who spoke with PRI view the process for charging suspected ISIS fighters positively: Those going through the courts have access to lawyers and a right to appeal.
But rights workers also have inferred that not all detainees might see a courtroom.
“Our concern is not so much with the judicial process, but that the number of people being picked up, whether on the battlefield or elsewhere, may be significantly higher than the number going through this process,” says Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“Based on speaking to armed forces and humanitarians and looking at the numbers that are being seen in these courts and held in formal detention facilities, there’s a chance that a larger number of people being detained are not going through any of these formal tracks.”
In October, Human Rights Watch accused Iraqi and Kurdish authorities of “ignoring basic due process guarantees under Iraqi and international law” by detaining suspects for long periods of time without charge. There have also been accusations of ISIS fighters being executed after capture.
At the Qayyarah court, the judge decides whether there's enough evidence to pass the suspects on to a higher-level court for trial and sentencing. The minimum for belonging to a terrorist group is 15 years in prison. The worst offenders are sentenced to death.
The fight to hold ISIS accountable for its campaign of rape, murder and destruction across Iraq is being carried out with possibly as much vigor as the fight to defeat them on the battlefield. It will continue long after Mosul is liberated.
“Our prisons are already full,” says Abu Iman. “I don’t know how we will manage.”
Richard Hall reported from Mosul and Qayyarah, Iraq.
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