MOSUL // Gunfire still echoes through the grounds of Mosul’s museum, and mortar rounds land perilously close to the military vehicles parked at its entrance.
ISIL’s fighters were expelled from the site on March 8, but the militants have dug in at the edge of the old city, a few hundred metres away.
The thick walls of the building muffle the sound of the bitter battle for west Mosul raging outside, and the gloomy insides of the emptied exhibition halls lie silent. One level below, in a spacious basement room, are the charred remains of what was ISIL’s media operation.
“The basement was used by Daesh as a media centre. Once they realised the Iraqi military was going to capture the museum, they torched it,” said Captain Medhi Waskan, an officer with the Iraqi federal police, one of several forces fighting alongside elite military units to eradicate ISIL in west Mosul, the last major insurgent bastion in Iraq.
The basement floor is covered in a layer of fine ash so thick that the imprints of soldiers’ boots are ankle deep. Fire has consumed copious amounts of paper here, blackening the walls and leaving only the metal frames of tables and chairs next to the charred remains of printing machines. Empty pedestals stand forlornly, ornately carved stones lie in piles on the floor.
“They took everything they could move, and burnt the rest,” said Capt Waskan.
ISIL militants stripped the museum of its antiquities after Mosul fell to the terror group in June 2014. A video released the following year showed bearded insurgents smashing stone statues with sledgehammers. Away from the cameras, others quietly carted off anything that could be sold on the black market.
While ISIL’s video propagandists delighted in eradicating Iraq’s history, colleagues from another branch of the extremist group’s media operations moved in to replace the past with a jihadist interpretation of the present.
Before Iraqi forces breached Mosul’s defences late last month, the museum was the media hub from which ISIL spread its message of hate. Protected — ironically — by coalition air strikes due to the cultural importance of the building, ISIL propagandists worked tirelessly to produce a weekly newsletter that found its way to the furthest reaches of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
Titled Al Naba, or The News, the paper relayed to its readers the week's events from an extremist perspective. Printed on sixteen crisp sheets of A3 paper, Al Naba resembles a university newspaper in appearance, though not in content.
ISIL newspapers left behind by fleeing fighters
Every week the men in combat fatigues would receive the latest edition of “Al Naba”, or The News — a crisp newspaper printed on high quality paper in A3 format. It was a welcome distraction from the boredom on a quiet front line.
In a basement room that was spared by the flames, among heaps of scrolls detailing the historic sites around Mosul, copies of Al Naba lie scattered on the ground, giving an insight into ISIL's media work.
“The Islamic State has taken the battle to the walls of Baghdad,” proclaims the front page of one edition. Accompanied by a picture of masked ISIL fighters parading down a street, the headline refers to the massacre in the Karrada district of Baghdad in 2016, when hundreds of civilians were killed by a suicide lorry that detonated in the popular shopping area during the holy month of Ramadan.
“More than three hundred have been killed by the blast,” the gloating subheading states.
Celebrating death and destruction, much like ISIL's voluminous online propaganda and its sophisticated video productions, Al Naba is set apart from the group's other media by its low tech delivery. Churned out by office printers assembled in sites such as the museum, the newspaper is printed on thick paper, unlike conventional newspapers. It is kept in black and white to reduce costs, and its design is almost amateurish.
With internet access restricted in areas under its control, Al Naba was nevertheless an important means of delivering the terror group's message, and an elaborate distribution system made sure the paper reached even the fringes of the once sizeable caliphate. Recent editions were commonly found in front line positions that fell to the military as Iraqi forces drove the extremists back.
The producers of Al Naba were not the only ones in the museum basement working to consolidate ISIL in Iraq.
In a storage room, shelves are stacked with envelopes bearing ISIL’s infamous black logo, ready to be used to collect zakat (Islamic tithe). Under ISIL, zakat became a form of income tax levied on the population under its control. Obliging taxpayers are issued a receipt, piles of which were also found on the shelves.
There are also documents, postcards and reproductions of ancient scripts in the storeroom. The insurgents did not bother getting rid of anything that was worthless to them.
But the extremist bureaucrats and propagandists in the museum were not exempt from ISIL’s rules. Hanging on the basement walls are posters detailing workplace etiquette — a guide for the model jihadi office worker.