ISIS falling: Detainee recounts a lost battle in Iraq, and what it cost him

Hunched and handcuffed in a dimly lit concrete room, the Sunni former commander of a captured ISIS cell admits to targeting civilians in the fight against Baghdad. Now, he is remorseful.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The handcuffed hands of Malik Khamis Habib, an ISIS cell commander, while in detention in Baghdad Nov. 8, 2016. He is accused of planting two car bombs and conducting a string of assassinations. Since his arrest in December 2015, Mr. Habib's entire 40-member cell operating south of Baghdad has been arrested.

The prisoner is a broken man.

A commander of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, his days of car bombings and assassinations are now over; his platoon of 40 IS operatives south of Baghdad all rolled up by Iraqi intelligence in the past year.

Hunched over in a posture of practiced submission, wearing handcuffs and a new, still-creased brown jumpsuit, Malik Khamis Habib is a study in defeat – and an emblem of how Iraqi security forces are quietly making gains against IS beyond the battlefields of Mosul.

Seated in a grimy, overused green plastic chair – and interviewed recently at a Baghdad detention facility by a journalist, with at times seven prison guards and interrogators present – Mr. Habib recounts the story he has told them repeatedly since his December 2015 capture. It tracks the rise and fall of IS morale, and the high personal toll the fight has taken.

It is not clear what drives Habib's remorse today, and how he changed after a year in prison from a true believer in the IS cause to an Iraqi remorseful and apologetic for the killing he says he's done. One clue may be the intense guilt he now feels about about the ruin he has brought upon his family, who knew nothing about his commitment to IS before his arrest.

Yet Habib’s narrative also provides a window into day-to-day IS operations in Iraq, where analysts say more than 5,000 IS members and sympathizers have been detained since the jihadists swept across the border from Syria in June 2014.

The Iraqi Army is making progress in Mosul to eject IS from its last stronghold in the country – with expectations of capturing thousands more IS detainees. But it is the decimation of operational cells like Habib’s, which spread fear across a swath of territory that the jihadists do not actually occupy, that will be key to finally crushing IS here.

“Now I think the security forces and intelligence are very capable of controlling the situation,” says Habib, a slightly built, 45-year-old educated Sunni man with a narrow face, sharp eyes, and dark complexion smeared with black stubble.

“I didn’t think they had the capacity to arrest people and stop these crimes,” says Habib. “Our future as an IS organization has been finished – it’s over – because they arrested most IS groups and most areas have been liberated."

The last member of Habib’s cell was picked up in early November, using information from arrested detainees and numbers on cellphones, among other data. Officials at this fortified facility, whose maze of concrete blast walls and metal cell doors appear little changed since US troops used it for a similar purpose, say IS killings and attacks against civilians and Iraqi soldiers alike have all but stopped in the Madain district of southeast Baghdad, where Habib ran his operation.

The fact that the Iraqi government is making gains against IS militants illustrates how its intelligence apparatus has improved against IS, says Hisham al-Hashimi, a security analyst in Baghdad who advises the government on Sunni militant groups.

“Their ability and capability became stronger and more developed” since the jihadists shocked Iraqi security and intelligence forces with their lightning offensive in June 2104, says Mr. Hashimi. “They have broken the back of these IS supporters in the north, south, and east of Baghdad.”

The capture of every member of Habib’s large cell was “a big shock for IS. It’s a big victory,” says Hashimi, noting that its 40 militants would have accounted for perhaps eight separate attacking groups. “Most of them are not from Baghdad but from liberated areas. This is the most important operation against [IS] supporters. It’s a high-quality strike against them.”

Recruited to the cause

Habib arrives in a large, poorly lit, and windowless concrete room at night. A black cloth mask that covers his eyes is whisked off before he is seated in the center of the room. There is a desk where no one sits, and the guards, uniformed officers, and plainclothes interrogators plant themselves in over-stuffed chairs or come and go, on their cellphones and radios.

Habib exhibits no obvious signs of torture or other mistreatment – acts that have been common in Iraqi prisons to extract confessions since the US invasion in 2003, and for decades before under Saddam Hussein.

Habib’s involvement in violent activities traces the evolution of Sunni extremism in Iraq from a loose alliance with Al Qaeda to an allegiance to its ideological successor, the Islamic State.

Ironically, Habib was on the government payroll for years, working for the Ministry of Industry at a vegetable oil factory. But in late 2011, members of his own Sunni tribe who had previously fought with Al Qaeda in Iraq and were battling the Shiite-first government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, persuaded him to join their sectarian, anti-regime struggle.

Their first operation, in 2012, was to plant an IED aimed at Iraqi troops – the first strike, Habib says, of what would eventually be a full-blown IS operation responsible for 15 IED attacks, two car bombs placed in crowded markets, and half a dozen targeted killings.

Habib says he was encouraged when IS stormed into Iraq in June 2014, captured Mosul, advanced south to threaten Baghdad, and declared an Islamic caliphate for the first time in centuries.

“Then I felt like a soldier for IS,” says Habib, who expected they would eventually come to the palm tree-lined farms in his area south of the capital. “I was happy. I thought I would fight with them to topple the government and for Islamic rule.”

‘We targeted civilians’

By then, Habib was drawing an IS salary on top of his government job. When he speaks of attacks he took part in, he becomes agitated, his face and eye sometimes twitching, and his cuffed hands rubbing together.

The first car bomb his cell was responsible for was detonated near a checkpoint and market in Zafaraniyeh on July 9, 2015. Media reported one person killed and five badly wounded. The next month, the first member of Habib’s IS cell was arrested.

The second car bomb exploded near a bakery in Wardiya on Nov. 25, 2015, killing two and wounding eight.

“We targeted civilians,” says Habib, adding that each cell was required to follow orders or be punished. Wringing his hands, Habib says he has no idea why he was ordered to kill civilians.

Military targets were legitimate “because they are the enemy – and mostly Shiite,” says Habib. IS commanders told them that killing infidel Shiites meant they “will go to heaven 1,000 times.”

But Habib says he also killed six or seven Sunnis for cooperating with security forces. He says he would receive a call from his IS boss specifying an individual to be killed.

“You are in charge there, you have to take care of this,” Habib says he would be told. He would reply to affirm: “We will go to say ‘hi.’” Small groups could also make their own decision about whom to kill in the name of IS, he says.

Motivation was political, not religious

The first assassination in early fall 2015 was of a Sunni shop owner who IS thought was a government informant. Habib and his group visited at night.

“We knocked on his door and shot him without a silencer,” recalls Habib. The next target was a bulldozer driver who was clearing canals of tall reeds that IS wanted to use as possible future cover for attacks.

This driver and another were both killed by bombs attached to their bulldozers, says Habib. Though a believer in God, he says he was not motivated by extremist IS-style jihad and salafi religion, but just by his interest in toppling the “enemy” of Baghdad rule.

“We thought that this government had taken our rights,” says Habib. “I felt success, that in the future I can destroy this government. The fall of Mosul gave us more motivation.”

But as the Iraqi Army and security services began to rebuild and fight back, recapturing Tikrit in spring 2015, and then beginning the long fight that summer to reclaim Ramadi, Habib’s unit halted operations for a time. “We felt like the air was let out of the balloon,” he says.

The local commander went to Mosul to fight, leaving Habib in charge. But then another member of his group was arrested. He had a lot of information about their cell, had met Habib several times in person in a crowded market, and so could describe him.

‘You destroyed us’

It wasn’t long before Iraqi intelligence agents came for Habib, who as the local IS boss had 25 numbers on his phone, even though he and most other cell members only knew each other by nicknames. He was Abu Taha. Arrests of his cell continued for almost a year.

“I regret what I did and apologize to all those others whom I caused trouble,” says Habib. He made a televised confession in which he said he was a “fighter for God’s will,” and said he believed that was a “big mistake: I destroyed many people.”

But for Habib, worse was still to come: shame in front of his wife and five young children, who had no idea he was an IS operative. He says a neighbor came to them and said: “Your husband was on TV. He’s a terrorist.”

Habib’s whole body tenses when he recalls his wife’s reaction when she came to the detention facility. His hands clasp white around the metal cuffs.

“She asked, ‘Why did you do this to yourself, to us? You destroyed us!’” he recalls her shouting. “I could not speak. I just became silent. She said, ‘We have been destroyed.’”

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