WEST MOSUL AND HAMDANIYEH, IRAQ – The house overlooking the old city of Mosul is quiet now. Children’s toys, including a shattered plastic rifle, line the entranceway. A car sitting in a carport. From outside the nefarious purpose of this house goes unnoticed. Inside the floor of one room is strewn with sacks of metal filings. Another has a dozen half-made mortars clustered on the ground like fat seals sunbathing on the beach.
Mortars haven’t changed much in design since the Second World War. They are tapered at one end where a fuse is screwed on at the top. The fat, seal-like, body is full of the main charge of explosives and shrapnel and at the bottom are fins.
When ISIS invaded northern Iraq in 2014 it acquired a large quantity of military equipment the Iraqi army abandoned. However, it needed to create a local arms industry to keep its momentum going. Local engineers and former army officers who had served under Saddam Hussein took a leader in developing ISIS from an Islamist force of black-clad radicals into a conventional army.
One of its main local industries was the production of mortars, which can be fired from a tube in a yard and then hastily hidden. The bombs they fire wreak havoc on the frontline, not merely a nuisance but a deadly threat to soldiers and civilians alike. In recent days in east Mosul, which was liberated last year by the Iraqi army, many civilians are still being wounded by ISIS mortars.
The house in Mosul that was converted into a mortar factory had each room laid out for different aspects of production. Explosive charges and shrapnel were weighed. Fuses were placed in order. When assembled they were brought to a garage and then carted off to the fighters. The floor was stained with grease and flints of metal, but much was just as ISIS had left it.
Incongruously in one room there was a fancy chandelier and a large painting showing horses galloping. ISIS in its extreme Islamist ideology that views the reverence of images as a sign of infidel blasphemy, cut out the faces of the horses in the painting. This had once been a rich family’s living room, charged with some crime by the extremists, perhaps for fleeing, the house was confiscated and used as a factory of death.
In the large Assyrian Christian town of Hamdaniyeh southeast of Mosul, ISIS converted part of a church’s administrative hall into a arms factory.
In the modest building they had a variety of weapons procurement, including fuses for bombs, improvised explosive devices and a desk where some bureaucrat kept lists of what they made. It is still as they left it. Sacks of sugar and potassium nitrate were scattered on the floor. Many of the bags they imported to build their explosives were brought as recently as March 2016 according to the dates on the sacks.
This shows that even as ISIS was supposedly losing ground and the 68-member coalition was fighting against it, that it could still maintain supply lines through Syria to Turkey and elsewhere. It chose to use the church as a hiding place for building bombs and stocking .50 cal bullets because it wouldn’t be bombed, say local members of the Assyrian Nineveh Plains Protection Units. (NPU) that now guard the town after liberation.
Today ISIS is gone and the birds chirp in the trees and an eerie quiet has descended on this ghost town. The churches are empty, in a place that has been an ancient site of Christianity since the 4th century. True to form, ISIS beheaded the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. They even beheaded a status of St. George riding a horse, and beheaded the horse. Like in Mosul, their factory of death went hand-in-hand with an ideology of intolerance and hate.
Other extremist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, share qualities with ISIS in trying to not only create their own local industries to make arms but hiding them in civilian infrastructure. ISIS pioneered new types of IEDs and other weapons used to deadly affect.