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Last Updated: 01/25/2012The life and death of Mollah Nadhom
“SAF with SW attack on former AQI leader” -- UN security briefing note
When I first met Mollah Nadhom, he was already a wanted man. He had driven more than one hundred miles from Doloyia, North of Baghdad, to meet me. I had arranged our interview to take place in a furnished house, in the Ainkawah district of Erbil. Our encounter was to be translated by a common friend, who came from the same town and knew him personally. Over the next 48 hours, the three of us were to share the same house, in order for me to prepare to write his biography. I was to be his ghost writer. Two days was a very short time to get to know one another personally. Yet I was certain that I wanted to help document his life. Here is what I had already written about him before we first met:
Mollah Nadhom is a 30-year-old imam from Doloyia, north of Baghdad.[i] Born into a very influential religious family, he has managed over the years to earn the respect of his peers through his personal charisma as well as his sharp tongue against injustices of all kinds. A devout religious figure, he is also a gregarious and amusing character. He holds a passion for history, politics and philosophy, which has transformed him into an eloquent and electrifying orator whose listeners would follow to the gates of hell. When the U.S.-led Coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, Mollah Nadhom claims that he did not imagine himself as a potential insurgent. However, as he was observing the U.S. in the early days of the invasion, he couldn’t help but wonder why the troops were making so many mistakes on the ground, such as standing idly by during the looting of Baghdad, or precipitating the collapse of all Iraqi state agencies through the de-Baathification process.
On June 9, 2003, his status switched from that of a bystander to that of an active player in the Iraqi insurgency. On that day, his town was swept by U.S. troops in, according to him, a most brutal and humiliating manner and which “reminded” him “of the Crusades.” Approximately 400 men, including many elderly men and well-respected village leaders, were arrested. Two men were killed, including his “dearest” uncle Jassim Rmayiid Mohammed, who was 60 years old. He recalls, “they kept kicking him until he died while the women [of my family] were imprisoned in the house… They punished the town because they were looking for individuals they considered enemies. They killed many innocents in cold blood. They did not care about the families of their victims by saying ‘we are sorry’, as if these victims were animals.”
As a result of this humiliating murder, Mollah Nadhom first joined the Islamic State of Iraq. “As an imam of the biggest mosque in Doloyia, I began motivating people to fight the insurgency, and I began registering them. Within five months, there were about 900 fighters in Doloyia alone and twice as many supporters.” According to him, the reason for this large support was: a) the humiliation felt by many as a direct consequence of the behavior of U.S. troops in town, and b) the reckoning that since the Shiite community was being favored by the United States, this insurgency would hopefully give the Sunnis of Iraq the necessary political leverage to be a key stakeholder in the formation of a future Iraqi government.
About his Friday sermons, Mollah Nadhom states, “My declarations were based on what we had heard about U.S. democracy. We believed that a human was free to say what he thinks and free in what he believes in, otherwise, the 2003 liberation was no different than Saddam’s regime.” Freedom of speech was not to prevail in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, where vociferous public criticism against the U.S.-led Coalition was equated to inciting terrorist violence against the United States. As a result, Mollah Nadhom soon became a wanted man. After many unsuccessful attempts on the part of U.S. troops, he was finally arrested on February 27, 2005. Following a very rough first two weeks in which he was subjected to harsh treatment bordering on torture; he was taken to Abu Ghraib.[ii] There, he was reunited with one of his closest friends, Muharib al-Jibouri, who happened to be al-Qaeda’s spokesperson in Iraq. This meeting changed Mollah Nadhom’s outlook on his political struggle. He explains: “There was a foreigner with him, and he explained to me the ideology of al-Qaeda. He said that they were here to defend the country against the Crusades and the Iranian domination of Iraq, a domination represented by the Shiite militias. That would end with the establishment of an Islamic state, which would rule according to the Koran. Their project was heroically acceptable to me.” This meeting coincided with the aftermath of the January 2005 elections, which saw a majority of Shiites with ties to Iran being elected to the Iraqi government. As soon as he was released from Abu Ghraib, Mollah Nadhom joined al-Qaeda in Iraq and became their Chief Information Officer. During the following two and a half years, he produced videos aimed at recruiting foreign fighters and securing ransom payments for hostage releases. In the fall of 2007, upon realizing that al-Qaeda in Iraq was terrorizing the population of Doloyia, he decided to join the al-Sahwa movement.
Mollah Nadhom’s reasons for joining Sahwa are the direct result of al-Qaeda’s actions in his town, and the subsequent loss of population support they provoked: “I joined al-Sahwa because after the crimes of al-Qaeda, many people asked me to find a solution to their unbearable daily lives.” In addition, he deplores the way in which al-Qaeda functioned internally: “their principles were implemented from the top-down only, and their repressive actions would never have created a platform from which people would feel empowered.” He also claims that when he traveled outside Iraq to Syria in 2006, he discovered some links between al-Qaeda and both Syria and Iran, strange bedfellows in his eye. While one, Syria, had always had notorious links with al-Qaeda, the other, Iran, was ideologically and religiously remote, especially in light of al-Qaeda’s anti-Shiite bombings in Iraq aimed at stirring civil tensions. To his dismay, Mollah Nadhom believes that Iran was also allegedly providing tactical and financial support to al-Qaeda in Iraq. This was too much to bear for Mollah Nadhom, who realized that the fate of his country was being played at the expense of his own people, Sunni and Shiites alike. Upon his return from this 2006 trip, the final blow to his alliance with al-Qaeda came when he realized that “foreign fighters were overwhelmingly in charge of every detail of daily operations, while Iraqi members were marginalized.” On a more intellectual level, and with hindsight, Mollah Nadhom came to realize that the Sunni community of Iraq had made a tactical mistake. It had, on one hand, given its allegiance to a group led by foreigners whose interests were not necessarily those of the Iraqi people, and, on the other hand, it had chosen a violent path that did not bring it the legitimacy and leverage that it expected, this mostly due to al-Qaeda’s dishonesty and many mistakes over time. He explains: “the battle through the poll centers is more effective than the battles to which we persuaded our people to join.” After all, he continues: “the politicians plan the wars while the brave men fight, and the cowards cultivate the outcome.” He concludes: “the most important battle which the Sunnis have lost was the battle that took place in polling stations in January 2005.” For Mollah Nadhom, the al-Sahwa initiative represents an opportunity for redemption for the Sunni community of Iraq in terms of obtaining recognition as well as political equality. He advocates for all the Sahwa men to be absorbed by the Iraqi security forces, both army and police, and for its leadership to become key political players in the future of Iraq. His question is: “Are the security institutions able to provide jobs for about 100,000 recruits, most of them without any acute professional training? Then there is another problem: “What is the real goal of the government? It is obvious that the government is against such a project simply because the Iranians are against it.” After the 2005 self-imposed marginalization of the Iraqi Sunni community, now is the time for the Sunni community to become an integral part of the Iraqi political system. Is the United States ready to take on this challenge with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki?”[iii]
On that saturday morning, none of my preconceptions could have prepared me to meet Mollah Nadhom in person. I instantly felt at home with him, as if we had known one another forever. We realised we were the same age, and that we shared a lot of common beliefs. Had we been born in the same country, and with the same gender, we might have ended up as great friends. As we took our first dinner, our translator and I were a little unseasy about opening a beer in front of him, since after all, he was a salafist Mollah. Yet he put us at ease, this was to be an informal week-end, free of pretenses and limitations. This was to be confirmed a moment later, when our philippino host, who had no idea of who we were, arrived to greet us with one big hug each. While he was extremely surprised and probably uncomfortable, he did not let it show and carried on as normal. Our space was to be an oasis. In between meals, we spent our entire time talking in a small office, chain smoking and drinking oversugared coffee.
As I had interviewed him for my book remotely, I decided to go over his entire story, to fill the gaps in his earlier narrative. My first intention was to ask him if any particular event had made him decide to leave al-Qaeda. There was one indeed:
One day, I was invited to give a sermon in the Adamiyah disctict of Baghdad, in a neighbourhood that used to be mixed between Shi’ite and Sunni Iraqis. That particular street had been ethnically cleansed of Shi’ites, and on my way to the mosque, people’s eyes were avoiding me. They seemed to be fearful of someone or something, and then I realised that they were scared of me. After my sermon, local political leaders offered me to stay as a regular preacher in this mosque. They even offered me a house nearby. As we went to visit it, I realised that it once had belonged to a family. I was offered someone else’s property. Something was not right, so much fear, spoliation, unspoken truths. I realised that we had become as bad as our occupiers.
Following this epiphany, Mollah Nadhom chose to leave al-Qaeda. This was easier said than done. He first returned to Doloyia and publicly renounced his ties with the organization over a sermon, encouraging the local population to do the same. Over the next months, many attempts were to be made at his life. Hitmen were sent to liquidate him, then a roadside bomb was placed and detonated near his car, followed by a sticky bomb that was placed under his car, etc. Every time, these attempts hardened his resolve to fight al-Qaeda, as their failures invariably brought scores of colleateral deaths. He remembered a particular time when a mother and her child, whose vehicle was hit instead of his, were burned alive, trapped in their blazing car. He told me he could still hear their cries of terror and pain.
Still, Mollah Nadhom’s aversion for al-Qaeda did not mean that he would collaborate with the U.S. After all, he had been gravely humiliated as a detainee in the infamous in Abu Ghraib prison. He recalled how one day, pictures of him naked were taken by a female soldier next to seven beer cans. He was told that if he did not give out names of insurgents that he knew, these pictures would be shared with his congregation. The fact that he was naked was bad enough, but as a Mollah, the greater shame was that these pictures implied that he had consumed alcohol. He felt humiliated, demeaned, gravely hurt, and decided that he would kill as many soldiers as beer cans, seven. He certainly did. Over the next few years, his bodyguards and him killed seven american soldiers, whose greatest crime was to have stepped off US soil to “democratize” Iraq. Given his history, how could he turn towards the US and become their ally?
As he was telling me of all al-Qaeda’s failures to liquidate him, I joked that his experience was an Iraqi version of the cartoon Tom and Jerry, as no matter how much ingenuousity his foes would deploy to eliminate him, he always pulled through. “Well”, he replied,
there was this one time when they almost got me. I was finishing a sermon in my mosque, on a Friday morning, and as I reached out to sit in my chair, a bomb was detonated. I was gravely hurt, but what saved me was that I was not fully seated. As the news spread that I was injured, US soldiers came to pick me up and med-evaced me to a top of the art hospital. I was to spend the next four months there, cared for around the clock. While I was distrustful of any american soldier at first, I was also quite grateful to my nurses and doctors. I knew that there was nothing as a free lunch, and that they would end up asking me to work for them when I was cured, and I was determined not to be swayed. Then, as I was recovering, I started playing soccer with some of the soldiers. Well, that did it, right there and then, I saw human beings, individuals, who had the same preoccupations that I had. I did not need convincing anymore, I was going to work with the Sahwa initiative.
While many around Mollah Nadhom mentioned separately that he had gotten a huge monetary pay off to participate in al Sahwa, this was not different from any other local leader who also became part of the initiative.
As he proudly showed me his Sahwa ID, naming him a “son of Iraq”, I knew that neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi government would uphold their promises to him and his people. This would just be a sad repetition of history. I told him about the Hmong people of Laos, who have been left to rot since the 1960s and are condemned to starvation and death as a result of their work with the CIA during the Vietnam war. He did not seem to care, he was sure that this time things would be different. As the promises of Sahwa were not delivered by either the U.S. or the Iranian-backed Iraqi government, men like Mollah Nadhom who had locally vouched for this program subsequently lost their socio-political support. Neither political equality for Sunnis nor the absorbtion of Sahwa men into the Iraqi security apparatus took place. Mollah Nadhom, once a promising young preacher, was left an outcast in his own town. His wife and little girl, whom he said he named Victoria after me, were also outcast.
As we left one another after this first encounter, I sensed that I would never see him again. Our meeting had been so dense that I spent the next day crying in my hotel room, unable to go out or talk to anyone. Mollah Nadhom’s story was not going to end well.
After being made an outcast, Mollah Nadhom felt he had no other choice but to work as a political advisor to the British and U.S. intelligence services. He had been trapped by unmet promises, and felt he could not go back. We eventually lost touch. He probably felt ashamed at his righteous veneer wearing off, humiliated once again by the people who had promised him so much, yet unable to break away from them. After all, what kind of a biography would this have made, that of an Iraqi Benedict Arnold? I often heard of him from his former friends, cursing what they called his “betrayal” and “naivete”. He was incarcerated in Tikrit, after trying to break his ties with his “benefactors”, then resurfaced in Amman as the political advisor to the British embassy, then handed off to the Maliki government after the U.S. left Iraq.
Mollah Nadhom died on January 25th 2012. As he was traveling in a soft-skin vehicle between the Gazaliyah and al Adel districts of Baghdad, he was shot by a silencer gun. The joke we once shared is over, Tom finally got Jerry. The word on the grapevine is that he had kept denouncing his former al Qaeda colleagues to the Mailki government, and that he was seriously hampering the preparation of al-Qaeda’s next round of suicide operations. Despite his falling out with the organization, he was still very well connected with some of its members. Mollah Nadhom was 35 years old. After years of faituful services to “peace” and “nation-building” in Iraq, his death was “soberly” reported in a United Nations security briefing note as: “SAF with SW attack on the former AQI leader west of Baghdad. 1 AOG killed.”[iv] His death was not even mentioned in the U.S. embassy briefing note of January 25th. No rememberance service is planned to honor the memory of this human intelligence resource. As Mollah Nadhom is just another casualty of counter-insurgency, liberal peace, and nation-building, the moral of his story remains: never trust an occupier who claims to be working for “peace,” for this peace is never what it claims to be, and a collaborator will always be left to die as an outcast.
[i] The first interview of Mollah Nadhom was done remotely, via e-mail and telephone, between June 4 and June 14, 2008. I am grateful to Nadhom M. for his translation and transcription of these valuable interviews carried out in Doloyia, Iraq. I then met him personally for two days in November 2008 in Erbil, Northern Iraq. Our face-to-face meeting was also translated by Nadhom M.
[ii] He was first taken to Camp McKenzie, located outside Samara. First, he was stripped naked, before being interrogated by Camp Commander Colonel Srigman. Then, he was thrown into a hole in the ground filled with cold water (February is one of the coldest months in Iraq). The hole was protected by a fence equipped with barbwire. The next day, he was placed in a grain silo, alongside 50 other prisoners. This silo was supposed to be the special area for difficult cases. In total, Mollah Nadhom spent 12 days there, in the worst of sanitary conditions. He was then taken to Saddam’s former school in Tikrit, transformed into a detention center. There, he claims to have been insulted and humiliated and forced to clean soldiers’ latrines.
[iii] Fontan, V. (2008). Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency and New Forms of Tyranny. Westport, CT, Praeger Security International., pp: 158-160.
[iv] This reads: “Small Arms Fire with Special Weapon attack on the former Al-Qaeda in Iraq west of Baghdad. 1 Armed Opposition Group killed.” To be found in “United Nations Security Information Report; 25 January 2012”, UNAMI Safety and Security Unit. Baghdad, p. 4.
Victoria Fontan is Head of Department and Associate Professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace.