Isis in Iraq: The fall of Mosul to the jihadists was less of a surprise to Baghdad than many were led to believe

Special report: Key figures involved say Nouri al-Maliki's government brushed aside increasingly urgent calls for help in the run-up to the 'surprise' attack and reveal the frustration that detailed warnings were ignored

It was two years ago this month that Ahmed al-Zarkani, head of intelligence in Mosul, first warned the Iraqi government in Baghdad that the Islamist group Isis was planning something big.

But from that alert, in February 2014, to his final plea for the air force to bomb Isis fighters as they gathered on the eve of their attack, his warnings were repeatedly ignored – and so were those of other key political figures.

The published section of the official Iraqi parliamentary report into the fall of Mosul focused heavily on the many military failings that allowed Isis swiftly to overrun the city of two million people when it attacked five months later, first liberating scores of imprisoned Sunni jihadists and then on 10 June taking complete control. The terrified Iraqi army fled with hardly a fight.

But unpublished testimony from the inquiry, and accounts given the The Independent by key figures at the time, reveal another failing. The government, led by the then Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, brushed aside increasingly urgent calls for help in the run-up to the “surprise” Isis attack. The testimony also reveals the growing frustration of Mr Zarkani that his detailed warnings to Baghdad were being ignored.

It was from arrested Isis members that Mr Zarkani first discovered that an attack was being planned for June. On 25 February, according to his evidence to the commission of inquiry, he informed his bosses in Baghdad. Soon after that he discovered what he described as “something abnormal happening towards Mosul, with training camps set up,” according to the leaked testimony report.

By May, he had supplied Baghdad with a wealth of information about six Isis training camps outside the city, But although the Iraqi air force conducted surveillance missions and confirmed the camps’ locations, it did not respond to Mr Zarkani’s request to bomb them.

On 18 May, he received new information that Isis was preparing an attack on the right side of Mosul, and phoned the commander in charge of military operations in the city to alert him. A few days later he discovered that the attack would start on 6 June at 6am. Again warning Baghdad, he noted that Isis was planning to switch its efforts from Anbar province to Nineveh, whose capital is Mosul. He told them the name given by the jihadists to the coming operation: “Al-Eres”, or the wedding party. Vehicles had been obtained, weapons acquired and new locations established. “All their senior commanders will take part, as they have been planning for a long time,” he reported.

Scenes of destruction in Mosul soon after Isis seized power in June 2014 (Reuters)

More than a dozen times over the weeks and months he sent warnings, in documents and phone calls to military intelligence in Baghdad, to Mr Maliki’s office, to the Mosul provincial council and to military commanders in both his own city and in Baghdad. And yet, the Mosul commander in charge of military operations went on holiday on 3 June – three days before the predicted attack.

Mr Zarkani phoned him and begged him to return. “When I told him why, he seemed to be shocked,” he later said to the commission of inquiry, although only two days earlier he had informed him in person about the Isis plans. 

On 5 June, intelligence established that Isis planned to enter Mosul the next morning from two different directions on either bank of the River Tigris, using between 700 and 1,000 fighters – among them nine foreign suicide bombers. The attackers, made up of various nationalities, would wear military uniforms, similar to those of the Iraqi army.

The intelligence chief sent a final document to his bosses and informed Mosul’s military commander that terrorists were now gathering in the village of Sheikh Younis, six miles from the city. “I gave the co-ordinates of the village, but nobody took any action,” he told the commission. “I told them the attack will be on 6 June at 5am...  There would be four explosive cars on the right side and four on the left side [of the river], and nine suicide attacks... on the right side of the city.” 

He added: “The attack happened on the day we said and from the places we mentioned. If they took only 10 per cent seriously, we would not have had the battle.”

So why was the information given to Baghdad ignored, instead of being used to prevent an attack? As well as being Prime Minister, Mr Maliki was in charge of two key departments, the ministries of defence and of internal affairs. The latter was responsible for domestic intelligence, 

The parliamentary commission put most of the blame for the fall of Mosul on Mr Maliki. But it also apportioned part of it to Mosul’s governor at the time, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who has since been sacked.

“The committee mentioned six points against me,” Mr Nujaifi told The Independent in his office in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, where he fled when his own city fell. “Only two of them directly relate to the fall of Mosul. They said that I did not inform the Prime Minister that Mosul would fall. But at the same time, Maliki’s chief of staff said in his testimony that I was the only man who phoned him, to say that Mosul was falling and I needed more weapons. Maliki had answered this was not the job of the governor.”

Mr Nujaifi, himself a Sunni, blames sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni, the two main strands of Islam, for the near absence of communication between his office and the government in Baghdad. He says Mr Maliki even instructed his own people not to share information with him. Yet Mr Nujaifi says that he in fact already knew from his own sources what was being planned by Isis – known locally as Daesh – but that he, too, was unable to secure any help.

The reason, he says, was Mr Maliki’s apparent reluctance to give succour to Sunni politicians who might be linked to the Baath party that had ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein. “Maliki thought I had ties with the Baath party and that if he gave me his support, Baath would be a major power in the city,” he said.

He believes that Mr Maliki and his Shia followers were so afraid of the Baath party that they preferred Isis. “They knew that if there was a Sunni political power centre in Mosul, nobody would help them fight it – but with Daesh, all the world would help. To them, any Sunni power acceptable to the international community was more dangerous than Daesh.”

It was clear that some disillusioned former Baathists were active in Isis, Mr Nujaifi says, but Mr Maliki thought they were not the major power. “For him, Baath politicians were far more dangerous.”

Based on his contacts with the Iraqi military command in Mosul and plans he heard of for bombing the city if it fell into Isis hands, Mr Nujaifi thinks that Mr Maliki meant to set a trap. “He wanted the right side of Mosul to fall in the hands of Daesh, and then to surround and bomb it, and all those who stayed inside it with Daesh.

“He did not think of lives lost. Maliki wanted Mosul to fall. It would give him a chance to reorganise politics. The people would need him more after that.”

Bashar Kiki, the Kurdish head of provincial council of Mosul and member of the largest Iraqi Kurdish party, the KDP, considers it possible that Mr Maliki thought the fall of Mosul could be politically advantageous, so he could then present himself as its saviour. But Mr Kiki prefers to think ignorance was to blame

“The military commands and the political leaders in Baghdad did not realise that the threat was real,” he said. “A lot of information was not taken seriously, because they were not professional enough.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the Kurds (AFP/Getty)

A month before Mosul’s fall, Mr Kiki, too, presented information about Isis activities to military commanders, but said: “They had no attention to spare for it, because they were busy with other things” – a reference to the army’s notoriety for extorting money from civilians, receiving bribes and getting payments for ghost soldiers who never showed up. 

Finally reacting to all the reports he had been sent, Mr Maliki sent two generals, Abud Kambar and Ali Ghaidan, from Baghdad to Mosul, where Mr Kiki was eventually able to meet them. “They assured me that everything was under control, but in fact the opposite was true,” he said.

Mr Kiki points out that it was well known that extremist Muslim groups, some of them tied to al-Qaeda and later to Isis, had been active in Mosul for years, and controlled surrounding villages. Many Sunni residents of Mosul had been unhappy at changes within Iraq after Saddam’s fall in 2003, leading some to support the Sunni extremists.

Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdish President, Masoud Barzani, said that Kurdish authorities also offered Baghdad information, warnings and even help – and passed the information to US officials as well.

“My president telephoned around eight months before the fall and spoke to both Ammar al-Hakim [leader of a prominent Shia party] and to the American ambassador in Iraq,” he said.

“A month before it fell, he phoned Maliki to say the situation in Mosul was dangerous. Maliki did not take it seriously. He said to my president: ‘You can care about Kurdistan; I will look after the rest.’”

Just days before the attack, President Barzani offered to send Kurdish peshmerga troops to help defend the city, as its governor, Mr Nujaifi, had implored, according to Mr Hussein. Again Mr Maliki refused. When, on the night that Mosul fell, Mr Hussein phoned one of Mr Maliki’s most trusted colleagues to repeat the offer, his call was never returned.

“Maliki thought he had all the power and his officers and soldiers were strong enough to defend the city,” he said. “He did not want our help for fear that we would consider Mosul as Kurdish.” 

All those interviewed by The Independent regard Mr Maliki’s distrust of other groups as a major issue. He did not trust the intelligence chief of Mosul, even though he was working for Baghdad intelligence. The Iraqi Prime Minister ran “a one-man show,” said Mr Hussein, “He made all the decisions. And he trusted other reports that he received, better than he trusted ours.”

One reason may be that few believed Isis really wanted to capture Mosul. According to Mr Hussein, the impression was that the group merely wanted to liberate its comrades from the city’s Badoosh prison.

Mr Maliki has blamed the fall of Mosul on an unlikely plot by Kurds working with Isis to capture the city. “What happened in Mosul was a conspiracy, it was planned in Ankara and then the conspiracy moved to Erbil,” Mr Maliki wrote on his Facebook page. Far from it, says Iraqi MP Khasro Goran. “Maliki became very arrogant,” he said, “and he believed his generals were right, and informing him. He wanted to be the hero, that’s the only conspiracy.”

That is also the finding of the Parliamentary Commission on Security and Defence, says its head, Hakim al-Zamily. “We investigated about 100 people and we did not discover any conspiracy,” he said. “The only clear result was that there was a lack of professionalism and an absence of the right people in the right places.

“The fact that unprofessional commanders were chosen was the main reason that the forces were not doing their job. They were chosen arbitrarily, based on their loyalty.”

The report adopted in August last year by the Iraqi Parliament blames Mr Maliki as well as some 30 other officials including the former Mosul governor and Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the acting Defence Minister at the time. It concluded that Mr Maliki had an inaccurate picture of the threat to Mosul because he chose commanders who engaged in corruption and failed to hold them accountable.

Its main conclusion was that Mosul fell because the military operation had no clear leader. The army was ill prepared for the battle, and when the generals left the soldiers followed suit. But it does not focus on the missed opportunities of the litany of intelligence warnings that were ignored.

Mr Maliki’s office, contacted both by phone and email, repeatedly declined to respond to The Independent’s request for a comment on any of the allegations made against him. He has previously criticised the findings of the Iraqi MPs’ investigation. 

The report's main conclusion was that Mosul fell because the military operation had no clear leader (AFP/Getty)

“There is no value in result that came out from the parliamentary commission about the fall of Mosul – it was dominated by political differences and it was absent of objectivity,” he said.

Mr Zamily also blames the Americans for failing to act on the information they received. “Under the strategic agreement with Iraq they should have prevented the Iraqi forces from losing this way,” he said. “They should have supplied Iraqi forces with all the information they had, and protected them.”

Would Mr Maliki have agreed to the US bombing of those suspected Isis camps? “He should have. But at the very least they had to supply the information.” Fuad Hussein is certain the Americans did pass on what they knew, but says they could not act without an Iraqi government request. Once again, it was Mr Maliki to blame, he said. “Maliki should have said to them: ‘Come and help us.’ But he did not.”