The Day Islamic State Came Back
Iraqi forces captured the Tenek neighborhood of Mosul from Islamic State militants in mid-April.
Then the troops moved on, battling their way toward Old Mosul and the militants’ ultimate defeat in the city.
In the months that followed, the weather grew hot and security in Tenek weakened, until only local guards remained. A large portion of Tenek lay silent during that time, seemingly abandoned. It once was an industrial zone, but now it’s in tatters atop a maze of IS tunnels, caves and bombs.
On an early Sunday evening in late June, just as the Iraqi military was surrounding the last section of the last IS stronghold in Mosul, there was an unexpected parade in Tenek.
“I heard a crowd outside,” said Mohammad, a taxi driver with three children. “I thought maybe it was a local militia. But then I saw them.”
When the rest of the neighborhood saw the heavily armed militants in traditional clothes and thick beards, pandemonium erupted.
“My brother’s wife burst into tears when she saw them,” Mohammad continued. “One militant said, ‘Don’t be afraid we are the Islamic State. Now, leave your home.'”
Some homes were snatched away that night, others were voluntarily abandoned with haste, Mohammad added. Families packed their children in cars. Many people just walked away. Workers returning home said they saw what was going on and immediately drove out of Tenek, without considering what they left behind.
“Everyone was on the streets, and everyone scattered,” Mohammad said, as three of his neighbors nodded solemnly. “We had no idea this could happen. We thought we were finally safe.”
Inside Tenek, militants marched down the street berating locals for no longer obeying IS rules, such as long beards for men or fully covered faces for women.
“What is this haircut? You look like an infidel. Beat him,” one militant told a friend of Abu Khalid, who sells blocks of ice on the side of the road. Khalid did not give his real name for fear IS will come back yet again. His friend, he said, was beaten.
It was a holiday and two of Mohammad’s nieces, 10 and 11 years old, were out playing when the militants marched in. In the chaos, they got left behind.
“We found them the next day hiding in the neighbor’s bathroom,” he said. “They thought the small space would protect them from the fighting outside.”
One neighbor was so stunned when he walked onto the block and saw IS, he turned around and ran away, forgetting to go home to look for his wife and children, Mohammad added.
“My nieces were in shock,” he said. “Even now they are devastated by what happened.”
As families ran, Iraqi Special Forces moved in, followed by the Iraqi Army. And two days after it started, it was over. All the militants were dead.
Some soldiers tied at least one of the militants’ bodies to a lamppost, as a warning to other IS members in hiding.
“They wanted to make a show,” said 1st Sergeant Jillel Jabar of the Iraqi Army’s 9th division, which now guards Tenek a week after the counterattack. “They were trying to rush the city so troops would pull back from the battle to retake Old Mosul.”
“If that was their point, they failed,” he added.
No one knows exactly what was the point or where the militants came from, but Jabar said the most likely scenario is that IS fighters were hiding in tunnels under the abandoned industrial area. Some may have been hiding since their April defeat. Others may have moved back when IS was defeated and later fled disguised as refugees, returning to Tenek to retrieve hidden weapons.
The brief re-occupation of Tenek and one other area may have failed to slow the Iraqi offensive, but it succeeded in terrorizing the neighborhood, said Amar, a 31-year-old father of seven who lost his right arm in a car bombing in 2015.
He heard three people were killed the night IS came back, but he doesn’t really know. In the house next door, now occupied by the army, sticky bloodstains on the floor and bullet casings indicate two people were killed.
“Everyone ran because they were afraid to die,” Amar said.
After IS was once again defeated in Tenek, most families that had fled slowly came home.
But for the families who returned, Amar says, the brief sense of “liberation” they had felt after IS was ousted the first time was crushed. Nowhere, he said, feels safe now.
“Under IS rule we had no jobs,” he explained. “We were dead, only we were breathing.”