LONDON - The operation to free the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State militant forces took nine months, involved hundreds of coalition airstrikes and a brutal Iraqi-led ground offensive. Victory was finally declared last July as the militants were forced from the city.
A report published by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute suggests the offensive's ultimate success was underpinned by a campaign of information warfare conducted by resistance forces, which punctured Islamic State’s image of invincibility - and went head-to-head with Islamic State, or DAESH, propagandists.
“Really, the DAESH occupation was primarily a psychological occupation. That’s what held people and paralyzed people,” says report author Mike Stevens, a former British army officer. DAESH is an Arabic acronym for IS.
He says key to penetrating that paralyzing fear was a radio station set up by two refugees, who had fled to the city of Irbil, some 80 kilometers east of Mosul. Using a single transmitter, they began beaming Radio al-Ghad back into their home city. Offering a counterpoint to Islamic State’s suffocating presence, Radio al-Ghad mixed phone-ins and debate with music and talent contests, forbidden under DAESH.
“The radio show is a challenge in itself. What makes it different is that it showcases talent, which comes out of pain,” according to radio host Mourad Khan, speaking in 2017 at the height of the battle for the city.
Radio al-Ghad also offered ground intelligence to coalition forces, and even debated with IS commanders on air.
“What they did was give people space to speak. And give people space to debate, like a community radio station giving people a shield against that permanent, suffocating encroachment of DAESH's psychological control.
From there, they got into a kind of battle for the airwaves with DAESH and DAESH’s own broadcast and radio station. And that culminated in them actually being in a dominant position,” says report author Stevens.
Disparate resistance groups united under a meme or symbol: the Arabic letter "M" for "Muqawama" or "resistance," which began to appear on streets across the city.
“People on their own initiative moved from that personal civil disobedience of listening to a forbidden radio station to actually conducting a graffiti campaign if you like on the walls of their city, to show their presence and to give the impression of a greater presence than potentially they did [have]. So, it’s psychological warfare,” says Stevens.
“DAESH ran out of fighters in a city of several hundred thousand people. They did that because their recruitment efforts failed. And that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. That is because people had that psychological support and that psychological hope.”
The battle on the airwaves for the hearts and minds of Mosul’s population offers lessons for other conflict arenas.
“We’re at risk of becoming not very good at doing this at all. Because we’re losing a connection with local people through the conduct of remote warfare,” says Stevens.
The report concludes that replicating the success of Mosul’s non-violent resistance would only be possible with long-term deployment on the ground and the freedom to interact directly with local actors.