International Affairs War & Peace

Clandestine Radio Fights ISIS Non-Violently

An Iraqi trailblazer has found a creative solution to the communication embargo imposed by ISIS in their last Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, which the group has controlled since June 2014. Mohamad Al Mawsily, a Mosul-native, broadcasts seven days a week on his pirate radio station, Alghad FM, Arabic for tomorrow. His station serves as a forum “to communicate with the people inside Mosul” and provide a psychological escape from the ISIS-held region of Northern Iraq. His mission is to “break the siege by Daesh”—the Arabic word for ISIS—by overcoming one of their most essential means of control: suppression and propaganda in the realm of ideas.

The United Nations has called the battle for Mosul one of the “largest humanitarian disasters in history”, as civilian casualties, hunger, and psychological strife are amongst the daily plight of Mosul’s denizens. Under their rule, the millions of people trapped there are banned from cell phone use, Internet, or access to television, books, movies, and music. Countless of dispersed families have no means to communicate with loved ones abroad, nor express their anxieties, hopes, and real-time experiences living under siege.

Thanks to Al Mawsily, whose pseudonym means from Mosul, there’s now a platform for expression and communication. Alghad takes sixty calls a day from people both in and outside of Mosul, who risk their lives to report on daily life and express their resilient opposition to ISIS rule. For safety purposes, Mohamad asks that they not disclose their location or name. However, the station is far from safe. Amongst the daily calls are death threats from ISIS and affiliated groups, damning Mohamad and his fellow broadcasters for their sacrilegious and politically motivated channels. This serves as a reminder that ISIS can be broken and defeated qualitatively, by channeling the “two things they hate the most; music and truth.”

Mohamad does his best to cross check his reports with friends inside Mosul who use cell phones surreptitiously. One woman might report on airstrikes that last all night, while another might call in to announce the successful liberation of a small town. Mohamad and his team do their best to provide accurate information to their listeners, while taking time to indulge in the more personal anecdotes that have less to do with physical happenings and more with the psychological need for expression. One man spent his last dinars on the phone call to Alghad FM. He wanted to express his opposition to ISIS and his pride in being Iraqi. For him, sending that message to the world was more important than survival.

The real-time situation in Mosul is a complicated example of urban warfare. To the North, the independence-seeking Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), also known as the Peshmerga, pressure ISIS militias to retreat into their urban strongholds. Simultaneously, Baghdad deploys Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to not only drive ISIS out, but also establish a sense of Iraqi sovereignty in the region, which could otherwise become a strategic base for the Kurdish secession movement. Both are joined by Western allies and Shia militias. ISF has been largely successful in driving down ISIS numbers and securing the rest of Iraq, but sectarianism has caused crippling distrust. Baghdad has failed to unite the diverse ethnic groups of Iraq, most notably their Sunni minority and Kurdish independence-seekers. More coordination is imperative to retaking Mosul, without which ISIS will likely retreat to Raqqa, Syria, their last stronghold. Without Raqqa, ISIS will almost certainly dismantle.

So-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria brand their kalashnikovs

Mohamad’s pirate radio alludes to a larger issue that has too long been ignored in the war against ISIS. United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Russia, Omar Saif Ghobash, put it well when interviewed by Knowledge @ Wharton last year, saying, “the strategic aim should be to think about the set of ideas and the reductive interpretations of our own history” that ISIS propagandizes. His analysis is astute, pointing out the misplaced emphasis on “bombing them out of existence.” According to Ghobash and many other leaders in the region, ISIS is most influential in the realm of ideas, and therefore, it is here that they’re most vulnerable. Their “attractive” yet “reductive” view of fundamental Islam is not only dangerous, but it is a perversion of words, ideas, and references that are rooted in Islamic tradition. Their perversion of these references is what makes them powerful. As soon as that perversion is unmasked, ISIS loses their most essential tool of legitimacy: religion.

Mohamad Al Mawsily understands this, emphasizing the importance of breaking ISIS at their ideological core, and debunking their false claims of qualitative legitimacy. If ISIS ceases to control the realm of ideas, their foundation will crumble. Resisting the Islamic State in the ideological, spiritual, and psychological realm is imperative to breaking their network and restoring security to the region and dignity to its people. This is the value underlying Mohamad’s work, and this is the tool that could change the war.