Why Is This Happening? Looking back at the Battle of Mosul with James Verini: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with war correspondent James Verini about the brutal combat that liberated Mosul and the events leading up to it.
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By Why Is This Happening?

How did Iraqi soldiers wrestle Mosul back from the grip of ISIS fighters? In the summer of 2014, at the height of their expansion, the terror group managed to take one of Iraq's largest cities in a matter of days. Two years later, it took the Iraqi army nine months to win it back. War correspondent James Verini thought his summer assignment to Iraq would be a short one. Instead, he stayed embedded with soldiers as they engaged in the brutal and bloody street by street combat that ultimately liberated Mosul.

This conversation is both a gripping look into the heart of that battle as well as a crucial guide to the events that lead to it. For an understanding of what is happening in Iraq today and how life there is permeated with the legacy of the American invasion 16 years ago, you need to know about the Battle of Mosul.

JAMES VERINI: Whenever a mortar shell would come in and I would get to the ground, which you're supposed to do, soldiers, even generals, would laugh at me because the idea is if you're here, if you're in a war, you should be prepared to die. That's what war is for and if you're not prepared to die, you shouldn't be here. And the soldiers in the counter terrorism service, the Iraqi Special Forces, I think felt particularly this way. It was strangely proximate to the attitude of the jihadis, which is they saw their role essentially as to die eventually, if not sooner than later.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening” with me, your host Chris Hayes. Well, today we've got a really good episode for you on a thing. These are the WITHpods that I love doing because I am a person who follows the news obsessively and professionally, both, like those are both facts. I follow it because I have to do it for my job, but also I'm just an obsessive news follower. And there are all of these things that are constantly happening and I'm like, whoa, that seems intense and interesting and there's things that I would like to know about that, that I don't know about, but we can't find time to cover on the show, particularly in the midst of all this impeachment insanity.

So I've been watching what's going on in Iraq where there are these incredible protests across the country against the government. What makes these protests really interesting is that Iraq has been so riven by sectarian animus and bloodshed since the 2003 invasion by the U.S., that often when there are protests there, when there are uprisings, when there's a state violence against those uprisings, they fall along sectarian lines. But what's happened in these protests is that Sunni and Shia, different parts of the country with different backgrounds, are uniting in opposition to, fundamentally, that there's corruption, there's poor services. But fundamentally it comes down to the Iranian domination of their nation, which is one of the most enraging ironies of this entire era of U.S. war in the Middle East, which is that like the big winner from the horrible war we unleashed on Iraq was Iran, who now all the hawks want to go to war with as well. Like, oh look how empowered Iran is.

So you've got these protests happening, you've got this real uprising of a kind of cross sectarian nationalism in Iraq against Iranian interference. There's an incredible set of leaks just published by the Intercept about how Iran has sort of infiltrated Iraq and is controlling Iraq. And all of this is a context for the struggles that Iraq has had, post 2003, to create a unified country across these very intense sectarian lines. There was a brutal civil war, and then of course there was the rise of ISIS, right? So the rise of ISIS is like the ultimate example of how the Iraqi state failed to produce a coherent collective Iraqi identity that spanned sectarian lines, Sunni and Shia and in the vacuum of that, amidst genuine oppression by the Shia government towards Sunni citizens of Iraq, you get this insane jihadi death cult caliphate called ISIS.

And ISIS is able to exist because of its ability to play on the genuine resentments and frustrations that largely Sunni populations have in Iraq. So to understand both what's happening in Iraq in a sort of long sense, to understand what happened in the Middle East with the fight against ISIS and to understand more broadly the middle east right now, where this Sunni/Shia fight against Iranian domination, particularly Iraq, is all happening, you need to go back and look at that moment. When the Iraqi army and nation did something really remarkable, which is that they defeated ISIS. It's worth remembering that because we've just had this news cycle about the Kurdish fighters and the SDF in Northeastern Syria who were incredibly courageous and brave in fighting ISIS and then essentially betrayed by American withdrawal to be slaughtered by Turkish militias. But there was a little bit of this sense of like, "Oh, it was the Kurds that beat ISIS," and it's true, they played an incredibly important role. But tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers died defeating ISIS. I mean, it was Iraqi soldiers on the front lines. It was the Iraqi state mobilizing to take back the territory from this truly evil entity, I think that's fair to say.

And so today's guest wrote an incredible book about that fight. It's an incredible title. It's called, “They Will Have to Die: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate.” The reporter's a guy by the name of James Verini, who you'll hear in our interview. Was a war correspondent, but not in Iraq or Afghanistan. He goes to Iraq in 2016, thinks it's a short magazine assignment. He ends up staying for months and months and months and he's just... When I say on the front lines, I mean embedded on the front lines like shoulder to shoulder with soldiers, the street by street, urban combat, over six months of taking one of the largest cities in Iraq, Mosul, back from ISIS. And it is, as he says in the interview, probably the most intense, deadly and extended urban combat anywhere in the world since World War II, the battle for Mosul.

But it's also a beautiful representation of Iraq and the people of Iraq and the voices of Iraq. Families that have both ISIS jihadis and Iraqi soldiers in them. The underlying reasons that people would join ISIS, the underlying reasons that the state mobilized to fight ISIS, what has become of the country that we invaded 16 years ago and the legacy of that invasion permeates everything about Iraqi life, every single day to this day. And it is very easy for us as Americans, particularly if you're an American who did not serve there. Of course, there are many Americans who did. There are Americans who lost their lives there. There are Americans who came back wounded, their loved ones and their family members and their circle of friends for whom the reminders that were are every day present.

But for those who are detached from that, it is very easy to just think about this place, Iraq, as a place on a map. And there was a moment in history when the war happened and maybe that was a mistake and now we're doing other stuff, but that's not the way it works in Iraq. And what's truly beautiful and gripping about James’ account in this book is the depth with which he writes about what Iraq is today. I think it's an incredible story. Explains a lot to me, it unfurled a lot in my mind about understanding where Iraq is at this moment. But there's also like a moral obligation and he's upfront about this that we have to this country, that we smashed, that we invaded, that we unleashed some of the most horrifying ultra-violence of the 21st century upon. We owe them a lot. And as just general citizens of democracy, we owe them our attention and our understanding. James Verini's account is a great place to start.

James, so before you went to Iraq you had already been a reporter who had reported in war zones. What was that sort of pre-Iraq experience like for you? How did you get into doing that line of work?

JAMES VERINI: Yeah, so I had reported on conflict mainly in Africa, some in Latin America and in Gaza. Although there wasn't officially a war going on when I was in Gaza. I think like many other young American men, I was inordinately fascinated by war, had been since I was a child. In my professional career the first big story I ever covered when I was a cub reporter at the New York Observer, which as you recall, used to be a good newspaper. The first big story I'd covered there was 9/11. War before that, at least American war, had been an abstraction and a sort of fiction to me, I'd only read about it. But 9/11 I saw it start, as it were in the U.S. and then of course continued to be a reporter as we invaded Afghanistan and then of all places Iraq. I think at the time, and certainly looking back, I wish I had gone to Afghanistan and Iraq, but I was frankly too much of a coward and not aware enough of myself or my desires to actually go and do it.

But after being a reporter for about eight years, I just found myself gravitating more and more towards stories of conflict and violence. The drug wars in Latin America and what was happening in Palestine. And then I moved to Africa in 2012 expressly in order to cover a war. When I moved to Kenya in 2012 there, at least four wars were going on that were like an hour's flight from Nairobi. So I covered the civil wars in Congo and in Central African Republic, in Somalia and Sudan and South Sudan and Nigeria. And then with the rise of ISIS, the rise and war against ISIS, I finally decided that I had to get to Iraq, that as an American journalist who covered conflict I had some form of moral obligation to go cover the war because of course the war against ISIS was a direct extension of the American war and the American occupation of Iraq.

CHRIS HAYES: I've talked to a number of war correspondence throughout the years and even on this podcast. What did it do to you? What has it done? Even before you go to Iraq, to your personality, to your soul, to the way that you think about people in human life to be embedded in violence?

JAMES VERINI: Hmm. So you're starting off with a softball questions, huh? Well, gosh, that’s — we could have an entire podcast just on that and we'd only scratch the surface. Let's begin with growing up in American culture. I think as a child growing up in American culture, certainly when I grew up in the 1980s and '90s, though we were some years away from the most recent American war in Vietnam, I still feel as though I grew up in a very militarized society in the United States, especially as a young boy. I was into “The A-Team” and obsessed with war movies and-

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, let me just say that the politics... I've gone back at some point to look at “The A-Team” and the politics of that are so shockingly reactionary.

JAMES VERINI: Oh my god.

CHRIS HAYES: It's really wild. The intro is all about basically these commandos who are stabbed in the back by their own like liberal quisling government and have to go rouge.

JAMES VERINI: Exactly. Well it was one of the many strange demented ways in which people in the '80s were dealing with Vietnam. Unlike the Iraq war, too many Americans died in Vietnam and Vietnam had been too shameful and traumatic an experience for America to deal with it out in the open in the way that we have been dealing, I think very admirably, with Iraq and speaking about it in very transparent terms. It's hard to find anyone now to defend the Iraq War, even Republicans and you have lots of people running for office and in office, who are willing to talk very transparently about the Iraq War and their opposition to it or their objections to it. That wasn't the case in the 1980s with Vietnam. You couldn't talk that way about Vietnam then, at least in my recollection, I think you and I are about the same age. You had to talk about Vietnam in these sublimated ways and in the '80s, during the Reagan era, the sublimation was revanchist as you say and really reactionary. It was “The A-Team” and Chuck Norris and "Missing in Action"-

CHRIS HAYES: And "Rambo."

JAMES VERINI: And "Rambo." But yeah, as a child of the '80s I was raised on this preposterous Cold War/Vietnam regret, propaganda popular culture. I don't think you could escape it as a child in the '80s. So I've probably, like many other young American men, I was inordinately and unhealthily obsessed with, fascinated by, warfare, from a very young age. Then 9/11 changed America in so many fundamental ways, including that finally Americans of a certain age, it hadn't happened since 1941, Americans saw what war actually looks like rather than seeing images on television of Americans fighting abroad in Iraq and Kuwait or Granada. Here it was. In the same way that you had to decide how you really felt about America after 9/11, you also had to decide how you really felt about war and whether you could still afford, mentally, to be fascinated with it or not. For a while I retreated and decided I was not fascinated by war and went to go write for the LA Times and other publications about popular culture. I guess then the fascinating, perhaps it was innate because I — I couldn't put it aside and I've felt myself gravitating back towards it.

CHRIS HAYES: When you got to Iraq and you talked about being, you use the word coward, which I think is unduly harsh towards yourself, but you had been in very rough and violent places. You had been covering conflict. What was your sort of mental preparation for what you were about to witness or cover when you got to Iraq?

JAMES VERINI: I suppose I'm lucky in that I covered conflict in a kind of incremental way so that by the time I arrived in Iraq, I don't think you can necessarily be prepared for a battle the size of the battle of Mosul, but I had slowly steeled myself covering mainly small wars and insurgencies and civil wars in Africa. By the time I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2016 I had been doing this long enough and was old enough, I was no longer as impressionable as I had once been. I had decided how I felt about war and the role of violence and conflict in human society, namely that it's intrinsic to humanity, that war is in us and always has been. And I had come to this acknowledgement or realization over the course of many years. It had been long enough since 2003 that I had really decided what I felt about the American war in Iraq. You'll remember that in 2003 we were all undergoing a kind of collective psychosis, almost. People among us who should have known much better supported the invasion of Iraq out of fear and out of confusion and out of embarrassment and out of pride or wounded pride. By 2016, it's 13 years, but it often takes that long and longer to process trauma.

By 2016, I had decided very firmly my thoughts about the American vision of Iraq as most other Americans had as well. It was also very clear, it was obvious that ISIS came directly out of the American era in Iraq. By the time I arrived in Iraq, I think I had rather stable ideas about how I felt about war. And to get back to your earlier question, I haven't found, since leaving Iraq, that it damaged my psyche in any grave way. I certainly think 9/11, which I saw up close, had much graver effects or much more profound effects on my brain, I mean, chemically, I think it must have done and also of course in every other way. But I went to Iraq out of a certain sense, of moral obligation, but even a certain sense of guilt and shame. I felt I had to start writing about Iraqis. I had to start telling the stories of people who lived in the country that my country had invaded and in many ways ruined and certainly inalterably changed. One deficit that I had seen in American and English language coverage, generally, of the war against ISIS and generally the previous 13 years in Iraq was, I didn't see the perspectives of Iraqi soldiers much. And I knew I wanted to write about that. I hope it comes across in the book.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Reading the book I felt a kind of shame on this count, which is here you know here we are covering the situation in Northern Syria and the SDF and the Kurdish fighters there and the YPG and talking about how they've lost 11,000 lives and the struggle against ISIS and there's a kind of worthy admiration towards the Kurdish fighters that has kind of sprung up in the aftermath of the Turkish forces invading that area. But no one says that about the Iraqi army. No one-

JAMES VERINI: You're right. Yeah, you're right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... no one gives a s--t about the Iraqi army, but tens of thousands of people had to die to roll back ISIS and to roll back an ISIS that was created largely by our invasion of the country. And then they had to go fight them. It was so striking to me how little I had ever considered the moral stakes of that.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah, no, that's absolutely right. The Kurds, not to take anything away from them, they tend to attract a preponderance of American attention, both in the media and in Washington. There are reasons for that. One is the Kurds are extremely amenable. It's very easy to go cover them. They're very welcoming to reporters and American reporters and really did truly love Americans, at least until a couple of weeks ago. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military or it's really sort of a paramilitary force, is much more amenable to journalists than the Iraqi military has, which is another way of saying it's less professional. The Iraqi military is not entirely amenable to reporters in part because it's a more professionalized military, but you're absolutely right. I think by the time of the beginning of the battle of Mosul, if I'm remembering correctly, already 20,000 Iraqi soldiers had died in this war against ISIS. You're absolutely right in saying that it wasn't nearly enough covered and I would say not nearly enough known. There are other reasons for why so many died and sadly some of those reasons have do with a lack of professionalization, by our standards, in the Iraqi military. They don't do force protection very well. Even in Mosul, in this massive battle, by far the biggest of the war and the biggest urban battle since World War II, according to the Pentagon, even there, they weren't setting up checkpoints or perimeters around their positions. The soldiers still weren't wearing protective gear. They weren't wearing flak jackets or helmets. A lot of the death and maiming of the Iraqi soldiers, I'm sorry to say, was really, really needless. And it's hard to understand and even convey in the book just how needless it was, just how crazy a proposition it is to go into this battle against these guys without a flak jacket or even a helmet on. I can't emphasize enough just how death-inviting that is.

Fleeing Iraqi civilians sit inside a house as they wait to be taken out of the Old City during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq on July 8, 2017.Felipe Dana / AP

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it definitely comes across. One of the things that suffuses the book, to me, is just what it means to grow up and live in a society that is, to use a journalistic cliche, war torn. I mean, this is a society that had fought, I think, one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century in the Iran-Iraq War, which was-

JAMES VERINI: Yeah, it was called the First Great War of the third world, essentially. Roughly half a million dead. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: A charnel house, I mean, absolute, just horrible scope of death and violence and maiming that dragged on for years and again, like the Great War, these kind of positions that don't move much and people being used essentially as cannon fodder-

JAMES VERINI: Yeah, just cannon fodder. Yeah, I mean a lot of the Iranians were even unarmed. They would just send these kids running into the minefields unarmed, armed only with keys dangling around their neck that were supposedly going to get them into heaven. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Then you have the first Gulf war. You then have a period of aerial bombardment in the no fly zones. You have obviously Saddam Hussein's brutality in putting down quasi insurgencies and then of course you have the second Iraq war in 2003 and then after that you have horribly bloody civil war in which Zarqawi is just obsessed with carnage, to the point that he gets missives from Al Qaeda being like, yo, cut it out, you're a mad man. At the end of that, then you get ISIS. And so it's like one of the things that comes across the book is that people are just used to war, they're used to violence, they’re used to mayhem. There is a kind of like acclimation to it that just suffuses the entire enterprise that is very hard to reckon with if you live in the very safe and comfortable environs that I do here in the U.S. of A.

JAMES VERINI: I mean the first thing is we have, as journalists, you and I both talk a great deal about the Middle East. We have to make an effort to push against this cliché of the Middle East being always mired in war. It's such an easy way to dismiss. Even the Middle East is sort of a silly geographical catchall, right? It's so easy to dismiss that entire region as a place that's just somehow preternaturally given to conflict.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

JAMES VERINI: And we shouldn't even engage because these people are just so used to and delight so much in killing one another. Of course, that's nonsense. The entire world has always been mirrored in war. Europe was mirrored in war for centuries until slightly more than half a century ago. We think this in part because we just know more about the conflicts that have taken place in the Middle East, and I'm not talking about the 20th century and 21st century. I'm talking about going back to the ancient world, going back to ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria and Babylon. This is where we get our first inklings of written records and our first great archeological finds in the region. So we know a great deal more about the wars that took place in this part of the world, because we just know a great deal about this part of the world.

As a journalist you have to always be sort of trying to point this out to the reader or the viewer, I think, or we ought to. And I tried to in the book, I'm not sure I do a good enough job of it, but at the same time, you're absolutely right. If we're just looking at very recent history in Iraq, beginning roughly ‘79, ‘80 when Saddam decides to invade Iran after decades of peace and prosperity in Iraq, it should be pointed out before that. Saddam ironically had turned Iraq into one of the most literate and in its way, progressive societies in the region, but beginning when he invades Iran, we have more or less constant war for at this point, two generations. And you're right in saying that Iraqis just had to acclimatize themselves. Some of them did this by leaving.

Millions and millions of Iraqis left over the years, but many more stayed of course, because they didn't have the choice to leave. And how do they get used to this, to this more or less constant state of war? Well, they kind of do and they don't. As you'll recall, there's one of the main subjects in the book, a fellow called, Abu Fahad is talking about this with me one day. And he talks about how in him, it hasn't made him a particularly violent man. He isn't a violent man, unlike his brother. And unlike some of the other... Or unlike his son who had turned out, joined ISIS. It's just made him so tired and so miserable. And he talks about spending all of his energy on fatigue and misery and then his 16-year-old son, Hamoudi, who it would turn out also had a liaison with ISIS, points to gray hairs and Hamoudi is 16 years old.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That's an incredible moment.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah. And so in certain ways as humans, we don't get used to it. Right? It just makes us palpably more miserable. And when I say us, I mean... I don't mean Americans.

CHRIS HAYES: No. And what I think —

JAMES VERINI: I mean, Iraqis.

CHRIS HAYES: What I think you do a really good job of portraying here is that there's sort of these two poles here. I mean one is what you were just saying. There is this kind of really racist and colonialist kind of white man's burden idea that like life is cheap in these places and they just all kill each other, and they're not human beings who grieve and mourn and feel stress and anxiety the way we do. That's just their way of life, which is bulls--t and it is very clearly not the case in your portrayal. And also it does something to a society, a new group of people to be in a state of war for 40 years, that their expectations are so palpably foreshortened.

JAMES VERINI: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: About what the future might bring, about how much safety and security they can expect. That was so striking to me.

JAMES VERINI: I think that's absolutely right. Foreshortened in very calculable ways. They just have lower life expectancies and Iraqi men smoke like chimneys in part because it's a way of just sort of passing the time and it's a bit of an upper, tobacco, and it will lift your spirits a bit. One of the awful things about living through war for multiple generations and multiple wars, you know, each new war though it might be expected is also a total surprise. ISIS, in retrospect we should have predicted the rise of ISIS, but then of course it was a total surprise to Iraqis and Americans both.

But one of the things that you have to reconcile yourself to if you're living through generations of war, and particularly like the subjects in my book, if you were having to fight in those wars or nurse the soldiers back to health or more often watch them die, is you have no sense of a future. You don't know what the future will bring. In your experience, the future will probably only bring more intensified misery. You can't count on anything. You can't build anything. You don't know what's going to become of your country. You don't know if your country is going to continue to exist, which is a mode of existence that as you say, you and I can't possibly imagine.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

JAMES VERINI: Even though I was there for a long time and I write about these people and I spend a great deal of time with them, I wouldn't flatter myself that I can empathize with them.

CHRIS HAYES: Let's talk about what you did experience and what you reported on while covering combat in the region. I want to do that right after this break. You show up near Mosul. It's the summer of 2016, the war against ISIS has been happening for two years at that point. Talk a little bit about just drawing the line between the U.S. invasion, the deficiencies of the Shia-led Iraqi government and the rise of ISIS.

JAMES VERINI: Right. So I arrived in July of 2016 on assignment for national geographic to write about life in the Islamic state, because by that point, finally the war against the Islamic state, the tide had turned, they were finally losing and they were in retreat back towards North Western Iraq and towards the border with Syria and back into Syria. And for the first time a journalist could go to Iraq to what had only weeks or months before been the Caliphate, and talk to Iraqis about what it'd been like to live under ISIS. This thing, this phenomenon that we knew of in America and the rest of the world only as a sadistic death cult, essentially, an extremist religious death cult. Arriving in Iraq, one learned a few things immediately.

The first was that ISIS had been as much, if not more, a political movement as it had been a religious movement. Arriving in Iraq in the summer of 2016, any journalist would find speaking to Iraqis in Ramadi or to create Fallujah or wherever it might've been, Diyala. That they would very, very soon in the conversation, they would admit to you that they had supported, that they had initially supported the entrance of ISIS into Iraq. If they hadn't expressly cooperated with the organization, they had abided it and they had welcomed it. Many Iraqis made no bones about this. They didn't make much of an effort to hide it or no effort at all. And the reason they felt this way, the reason that they had welcomed ISIS in so many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis Iraqis, we have to say. Is as you say, because they had become so fed up with the government of Iraq, the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister who had been essentially inserted by the United States in the 2005, 2006 election.

They were fed up because they saw Nouri al-Maliki, and the government of Iraq as essentially a Shia nationalist government that was doing the bidding of Tehran, doing the bidding of Iran as well as the United States and Israel. This sort of trifecta of foreign perfidy that they saw as running Iraq. And of course they weren't wrong, excise Israel from that and include Iran and the U.S. and of course they're mainly right. The government in Baghdad was in many ways controlled by officials in Iran or officials going back and forth. And of course on the other side of the power struggle in Iraq, you had the United States, which was still present. And so, so many Sunni Iraqis in Mosul, and not just in Mosul, but all over the country, saw the Islamic state as an alternative. And finally, the only alternative to this perfidious traitorous government that had taken over their country. And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the recently deceased leader of ISIS and his higher ups and his propagandists were a massive role at playing on this, at appealing to these sentiments. They expressively said, your government, the Iraqi government has been taken over by Persians as they often called them or Safavids as they would often call Iranians, referring to the whole Persian empire. It's being controlled by them and by the Americans and by the Jews. And we, ISIS are here to restore your power, restore your economic prominence, restore you to your rightful place of prominence in the Muslim world.

It was as much a political appeal as it was a religious appeal. And for many, many Iraqis who sided with ISIS or abided it, were not even particularly devout Sunni's. What they were was just desperate. They were at their ropes end, and they believed rightly that the government cared nothing about them or even worse, wanted them dead or gone. 2003 brought this huge shift in the Muslim world, whereby Iran and explicitly Shia interests — the Alawites in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon — begin coming to the fore, particularly Iran. And that rise of Iran and of Shia sectarian interests, now defines the political and military dynamic in the entire region, and it began with Iraq. It was the invasion of Iraq that allowed Iran to begin rising so quickly in the region. Of course, not just in Iraq, but in Lebanon and in Syria as well.

And so when ISIS came in, when it started building up in Syria and then barreled into Iraq in the beginning of 2014 and seemed invincible to many Iraqi Sunnis, and Sunni's in other parts of the Muslim world, they saw this as a restoration of their power. And they saw this as almost like a Sunni 1979, their answer to the rise of Iran and the region and the rise of Shia sectarian power in the region. So it was a combination of politics and religion, which of course is fitting because Islam is or claims to be, not just a religious system, but a total system for all of life, including politics.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's this sort of, I think with any violent movement that is able to kind of take territory the way that ISIS did, there's a bunch of different things going on. There's the hardcore at the center of it, what's motivating them. And then there's the much broader question of like, how is it possible that they can win over broader political support? And when you talk about the sort of frustrations of Sunnis, that sort of answers that second question more.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But the hardcore, I mean there's a kind of fascination from the first moment that we start seeing them popping wheelies on armored personnel carriers or whatever crazy things they're doing, with this like yeah, death cult. This just grim, extremely like aesthetically unified in a weird way, projection of just like out of a Hollywood movie of evil, you know?

JAMES VERINI: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, which they clearly are self-consciously... Like, that's their thing. They know what they're doing. The designers know what they're doing. Like this is all very much staged, but it is very effective. And I just wonder, there are people in the book who fall into these different categories, kind of the shopkeeper whose like, yeah, screw the Shia government. These people can keep that boot off my neck. And then there are young men who are like down for the cause, and talk a little bit about that.

JAMES VERINI: Well I'm going to talk a lot about that, because you mentioned a lot in there that needs to be discussed there. I think there are three main things in there. First is, is ISIS as this sort of perfect Hollywood... if you'd hired screenwriters to come up with this group, they wouldn't have done a good job. Then there's the fact of the different gradations of belief and sort of pungency of belief. Finally, you have, as you say, the unified aesthetic. It's a very good way of putting it. As in any insurgency or any organization, there were many probably infinite levels of belief within the Islamic state. I think you had the more pragmatically minded leaders who believed that they could turn the Islamic state into something like Hamas or Hezbollah, which is to say an organization that began as an insurgency. And then against all odds and evidence, became a permanent part of the regional political landscape. I'm sure there were pragmatically minded people in ISIS or allied with ISIS who thought that they could do that. You know, it wasn't just made up of hardcore Jihadi. It was made up of ex-Ba'athists and ex-Iraqi military and guys who had participated in the Sunni awakening, and then been screwed by the Maliki government that refuse to incorporate them into the military, and give them salaries and pensions as they had been promised. You had many, many different levels of allegiance. You also had people who signed up simply for the salary. ISIS offered very competitive salaries.

Mosul before the fall

June 18, 201402:02

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

JAMES VERINI: It was an extremely lucrative organization and its money was not coming, contrary to popular belief, its money was not coming from dark Saudi princes. It was mostly internally generated from a very sophisticated economic bureaucracy consisting of elicit taxation and extortion and smuggling and oil, bunkering and other things. So you will have the more pragmatically minded one. Then you have the jihadis whom we know a great deal about, who are coming from the rest of the world. We know a great deal about them because they've written a lot and published a lot on the internet. And it was on these guys that so much of the Islamic states sort of a notional existence or virtual existence, its reputation rested, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

JAMES VERINI: Because a lot of these jihadis coming from Manchester or Minnesota or wherever, they were useless as fighters. Most of them ended up as cannon fodder if they ever made it to the Islamic state, but they were invaluable as online propagandists and storytellers.

CHRIS HAYES: And I just want to say here, because the book is very good about this, about like it really hammers home the like vanguard-ist nature of that. And also like what a small numerical part of the movement, what is you know 90 percent of the coverage or 90 percent of what we're getting here, is this tiny little sliver.

JAMES VERINI: Right. They were like the primary voters of the movement, right? Extremely small in number and population, but outsize in influencing reputation and media coverage. But they developed and this was entirely intentional on Baghdadi's part, and leaders’ part. They develop this sort of fearsome reputation and they in turn then gave way to another vanguard, which was all of these people who moved to the Islamic state who did not want to fight and didn't want to do violence, but actually thought that they were going to go be able to live in this devout Islamic state. The Caliphate, which was not an idea original to Baghdadi. This had been happening in Islam for a millennium and a half. Ever since Muhammad, there had been many organizations that had decided that the Islamic world was corrupt and that they were going to create their own entirely devout, entirely righteous state and purify the religion. In the middle of all that, or in this sort of hot, ugly center of all that, you had the hardcore, the millenarians, the apocalyptic minded people.

We still don't know whether Baghdadi was really one of these people. We don't know enough about him to say definitively, but we do know that in the hardcore, there were people, some of them claim to be theologians. Some of them probably actually were theologians. Others were at least steeped in the apocalyptic literature of Islam who believed that the end times were nigh, and that it was the job of the Islamic state to prepare for the end times. That they were setting up the Caliphate precisely in order that it and the rest of the world would be burned. So the world could be purified and Mohammad and Jesus could return and all the rest of it. And there's no question that there were higher ups in ISIS and lower downs who believed this. Who believed that they were preparing the Caliphate and the world for the apocalypse. And no doubt they had outside influence in the movement, especially once it became clear that there was no way the Caliphate could survive. By the time we get to the battle of Mosul, it's clear that that position, however many people might or might not adhere to it, had become the position. They were now going to, as Goebbels once put it, slam the door on history.

CHRIS HAYES: And then there's the aesthetic.

JAMES VERINI: And then there's the aesthetic. To get to the aesthetic part, let's acknowledge first that the American role in the creation of ISIS was not just a matter of politics, the changing of the politics and society of Iraq and the invasion of Iraq. It's not just that that, in a very demonstrable, calculable way, in a very obvious historical progression, gave way to the rise of this organization. There was something more profound and frightening and fascinating going on, which was that the U.S. in our sort of, in our fear and shame invaded Iraq in the claim that it was a locus of jihadism, which of course it was not, it only became a locus of jihadism after 2003. But in so doing, and sort of buying this lie and launching this stridently irrelevant war in pursuit of this lie, we then created this organization that was a perfect fever dream of our worst manias and fear, right?

We could not have invented a more effective or more frightening or more loathsome Jihadi organization if we'd set writers to work on it. I'm convinced that Baghdadi and the others in the organization knew that perfectly well. They were arranging the aesthetic, they were choreographing their propaganda. They were filming in these snuff films and designing Dabiq magazine and all the rest of it, knowing precisely that they were preying on our worst fears of stereotypical jihadis. The black flags and the head wraps, and the obsession with beheading and all the rest of it. They knew perfectly well that these represented our worst fears about that part of the world, about the religion of Islam. And they were happy to play on those fears. So much of the Islamic state was propagandistic, virtual, notional, in a way that could only have happened in the age of the internet, of course.

CHRIS HAYES: We're now sort of set up to talk about this battle and Mosul and all of those different layers to this organization are now holding this city that has a million people. And there is a grinding and brutal urban warfare that you are there as a sort of eyewitness to as the Iraqi army, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, attempts to take this ground. And two striking things to me about this are, one, they're good fighters. And also like the ultra violence stuff isn't just propaganda.

JAMES VERINI: No.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it's almost like you walk 360 degrees around the clock where it's like, you start at like, okay, well we have this image of them. They're like super ultra violent psychopath, evil. And then it's like, well, there's all these other layers. And then at the end of reading, as you go through your book, it's like they are real ultraviolet.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah. They're just as bad as advertised.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, exactly.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, exactly. Like that's not wrong. And you see that. And then the other thing is just the combination of both genuine courage and resignation and persistence of the Iraqi army as they go about this horrible, joyless task of liberating Mosul at great cost. So resignation is a good word to touch on. We talked about the refusal of Iraqi troops, at least through the first half of the battle to wear flak jackets or helmets. Part of that had to do with their belief with Islam, with this notion that you have no hand in your fate, only God controls your fate. Part of it had to do with their desire, the desire of the Iraqi troops to show the Jihadis that they were perfectly comfortable with death, just as comfortable with death as the Jihadis were, as a way of saying, the famous Jihadi saying we love death more than you love life. I always got the sense of the Iraqi soldiers were attempting to say, "We're fine with death as well." You don't, you don't have a monopoly on that fatalism. But there was also a resignation, I think that came out of what you were saying, which was, having lived their entire lives in war, whenever a mortar shell would come in and I would get to the ground, which you're supposed to do, soldiers, even generals would laugh at me because the idea is if you're here, if you're in a war, you should be prepared to die. That's what war is for. And if you're not prepared to die, you shouldn't be here. And the soldiers in the counter-terrorism service, the Iraqi special forces, I think felt particularly this way. It was strangely proximate to the attitude of the Jihadi, is they saw their role essentially as to die eventually, if not sooner then later.

They do in striking numbers. And I think there's at one point 40 percent of the special operations.

JAMES VERINI: There was, I think now a 40 percent casualty rate in Mosul and maybe even higher across the course of the war, which is just remarkable. A lot of it, again, needless, but a lot of it, there's not much they could have done to prevent it. And the ways in which they were dying were particularly jarring to observe as well. I mean it's just as jarring seeing someone get shot as is seeing someone get blown up. But the way they were getting blown up in Mosul, the Jihadis, main weapon in Mosul was something called the VBIED, the vehicle borne improvised explosive device. This claimed, I believe more Iraqi lives, more lives of Iraqi soldiers than any other type of weapon. These are mobile car bombs, you know sedans or trucks or station wagons that are gutted out and filled with explosive and then up armored and welded shut so that the drivers, necessarily a suicide, the Jihadis had hundreds of these things stashed throughout Mosul in garages and carports, just waiting to attack Iraqi columns, Iraqi convoys and command positions. And the jihadis also had a fleet of drones with which they targeted these VBIEDs with the cameras. They would observe where the Iraqi convoys were, where their command posts were, and then they would deploy one of these VBIEDs that was usually only a matter of blocks or even meters away, to go and blow up everybody. And this happened many, many times per day. The VBIEDs were particularly psychologically jarring because they were so loud. They were as loud as airstrikes, and they sent up these very high rising columns of smoke and debris that had mushrooms on the top of them. They looked oddly like early model nuclear bomb mushroom clouds.

CHRIS HAYES: The crazy thing about this too is that there's a million people live in Mosul, and there's apartment buildings that have people living in them. They're living their life to the extent they are able to do that as ISIS snipers are popping into windows to fire down on. And the human toll of all this is enormous. This is happening inside an inhabited, a not evacuated, but inhabited city with this kind of crazy block by block, both low tech, high tech, hybrid warfare with drones and GPS on everyone's phone app so they can like mark every square territory they take and then just like the lowest tech, just mortar fire and sniper fire.

JAMES VERINI: Yeah. I think the estimate is that 1,200 Iraqi soldiers and fighters died in Mosul during the course of the battle. I don't necessarily trust those numbers. The Iraqi military doesn't like its casualties being reported on or photographed and they are notoriously stinting about casualty numbers, in fact, they don't even admit to them traditionally. But the much larger toll was on civilians. Certainly tens of thousands of civilians died during the course of the battle, which took over nine months. We'll never know how many, sadly, many of them died in coalition airstrikes and Iraqi airstrikes, not at the hands of the jihadis. But as you say, this battle took so much of a toll because Mosul was still largely populated when it was taking place. And the big battles that had proceeded this in the war against ISIS, the battle for Ramani for Fallujah, those cities had largely emptied out. The civilians were able to make it out before the fighting occurred and they were able to make it into refugee camps or if they were on the side of ISIS across the border into to Syria or flee farther north.

That didn't happen in Mosul, in Mosul, so many Moslawis stayed. It was the second or third largest city by population before the beginning of the battle, between a million and two million inhabitants. It's estimated many of them did flee, especially on the west side in the second half of the battle, but many, many more did not, in part because there was nowhere for them to go, the refugee camps were all full and more were being built, but they weren't really ready until later in the battle. But also because the Iraqi government, the Iraqi military had encouraged them to stay. They had dropped leaflets before the beginning of the battle while this sort of preparation airstrikes were still going on. In the weeks and months ahead of the battle, the Iraqi military drop leaflets asking Moslawis to stay. They did this in part because there was nowhere to take them. There were just too many of them and the refugee camps were all just too full. But also they were, the Iraqi military, the generals, and the politicians and the coalition were placing a wager. The wager was that Moslawis were by this point, so fed up with ISIS, with the jihadis, that they would be a help in recapturing the city. And this turned out to be absolutely right. Moslawis were, even those who had welcomed in ISIS, even those who had worked with them and even perhaps fought with ISIS, were completely sick of them by this point. And they did help the Iraqi soldiers immeasurably.

For the purposes of a journalist, it was... I don't want to sound insensitive, It was just a gold mine of wonderful material because I didn't have to say really anything. I got to just stand there every day with the soldiers and the civilians, watching them interact, watching as the soldiers made their way house by house, block by block through the city, fighting the jihadis, and the Moslawis mainly helping them, allowing the soldiers to stay in their houses, bringing them food, showing them where weapons caches were, where booby traps were.

There was this, from a writer's perspective, this endlessly fascinating process of interaction between the Moslawis and the soldiers as the battle went on and as the city was slowly taken back. The battle took so long in large part, at least on the East side of the city in the first half of the battle, because the Iraqi soldiers really were making a great effort to protect Moslawis, to protect the civilians. They knew perfectly well that ISIS had taken Mosul so easily a couple of years before in the course of a couple of days, because Moslawis hated the Iraqi military so much, because they felt so abused and targeted by it, which indeed they had been for years. The Iraqi soldiers knew this and they knew that they had to entirely change their comportment when they returned to Mosul in the fall of 2016 and indeed they did. They went to great efforts to protect Moslawi civilians, at least on the East side. When things moved to the West side and everyone got more desperate and more angry and more impatient for it to be over, that started to change.

A woman holds an injured girl in the Old City of Mosul on July 3, 2017.Felipe Dana / AP

Now, what was in part so remarkable about this interaction was the ongoing process of forgiveness that it required. So many Moslawis had sided with ISIS or abided it, welcomed it in, or at least hadn't objected when it had come in. The soldiers were perfectly aware of this. They were perfectly aware that the Moslawis would a couple of years before, just as soon seeing them run out of the city or had helped run them out of the city. And the Moslawis for their part were perfectly aware that these soldiers come from the same army. Some of them were even the same soldiers who a couple of years before had been in the habit of abusing them and harassing them and jailing them and summarily executing them and beating them without cause, and calling them badhists and jihad, turning them, many of them into jihadis in the process ironically. And they had this mutual bottomless distrust of one another and yet hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, they were able to get past that distrust together mutually, to put it behind them or at least put it aside for the moment and take the city back. It was always fascinating and so touching to watch. And it, was a manifestation of what I've come to believe as this sort of special innate capacity for forgiveness in Iraq. One foreign analyst of Iraq who's lived in Iraq a long time and is essentially an Iraqi, the way he put it to me is if, if you were going to kill everyone in Iraq who had done something wrong to you, there would be no Iraqis left. They can't live that way, at least not any longer. They have to be able to forgive one another very quickly. And in Iraq, it's amazing to think you can go join a jihadist organization and then just stop being a member and your neighbors will eventually forgive you for it because everyone's just got to get on with their lives.

CHRIS HAYES: Well that kind of sets up the sort of final biggest question, right? Which is that there's a battle that happens here, a military battle that the Iraqi army wins and ISIS is chased out of Mosul. That's probably the beginning of the end for them. They are ultimately the caliphate is as a fact on the ground is erased. al-Baghdadi was just killed recently in the last few weeks. And then everyone-

JAMES VERINI: Or so Trump says. I'm joking.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, the thing that people –

JAMES VERINI: I mean, I’m kind of joking.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, one of the things that comes through in the book is that people, I think rightly have all sorts of crazy paranoia and theories about what’s going on with this.

JAMES VERINI: Oh yeah, no, I guarantee you that almost no one in Iraq believes Baghdadi is actually dead.

CHRIS HAYES: But, one of the things that you've heard from the first... I've heard this line so much from the aftermath of the American invasion to the counter insurgency doctrine of Patraeus to you know, there’s gotta be a political solution, not just a military solution, political solution, not just a military solution. And now it's like, okay, well al-Baghdadi is dead and ISIS has lost the territorial claims it has, and the question is like, is this done? Are there the political and social structures in place to create a kind of stability that will be immune to something like this coming again?

JAMES VERINI: You already know the answer to that. In a word, no, no, absolutely not. As we know from the most recent protests, there is absolutely not the institutional capacity or the will to good governance that needs to exist to prevent a resurgence of this group or something like it. There is endless fertile territory in Iraq and in the entire region for the resurgence of ISIS or its equivalent or its successor. ISIS was itself a successor organization of a number of previous organizations beginning with Al Qaeda and Mesopotamia. It morphed over the course of many years. And the reason it was able to morph and expand was because governance in Iraq got worse and got more corrupt, or at least it never improved. I'm not an expert on Iraqi governance and politics nor on regional governance, but I've spent enough time there to know that, no, things have not improved enough to prevent the resurgence of a comparable organization or even the same organization under a new name. And I can guarantee you that the entrance of Syrian paramilitary and the Russians into SDF territory is not going to help matters at all. Not least because perhaps the only good result of the 2003 invasion was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. With this new general sort of attack on the entire notion of Kurdish independence and the Kurdish right to territory, this is a threat, not only to Syrian Kurds and to Turkish Kurds, it's a threat to Kurds generally, especially Iraqi Kurds, for all their good points and all their capacity to improve and to create a stable and peaceful region, which they've done. They're also perfectly willing to get into another fight. They're not necessarily spoiling for it, but they're happy to go to war. They'll tell you this in no uncertain terms, all of which is to say that what we're seeing now is merely prelude to another regional war. I would put money on it.

And what we saw alongside that, towards the end of the battle of Mosul and the end of the war on ISIS was the prelude to another sectarian war in Iraq. Sadly, I described what efforts the Iraqi soldiers in Mosul went to, to protect the civilians. It was all the more surprising or the more touching and fascinating because those soldiers were mainly Shia and the residents of Mosul were mainly Sunni Iraqis. And they were able to, for the time, put sectarian differences aside. That ended towards the end of the battle, in the end of the war. At the end of the battle, you saw soldiers, special forces, soldiers who should really be more professional, flying flags of the Khalif Ali and the Imam Hussein from their Humvees. These are very, very strident sectarian symbols. And for a year, at least before the end of the war and continuing after the war, there was an ongoing campaign of sometimes tacit, sometimes over retribution against Sunni Iraqis by Shia militia. And the Shia militia were eventually incorporated into the formal Iraqi military apparatus by the Shia dominated Iraqi parliament, which is astonishing. And the soldiers were themselves in the habit of committing summary executions against suspected jihadis in Mosul and the rest of Iraq. I saw it all the time. So what all of that was creating was an even more intense atmosphere of sectarian resentment and fear. And when I left in 2017, there were Sunni protection militias forming again to protect themselves against the Hashashabi, the Shia militia and against the military and the police. So while we have the makings of a larger regional war in what's going on right now in Syria and Turkey, I think we also have the makings of a sectarian war in Iraq. It's not yet began, thank God, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see it begin tomorrow.

CHRIS HAYES: James Verini is a contributing writer at the New York Times magazine and National Geographic. The book, which is really incredibly well done and beautifully written, “They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate.” James, thank you so much.

JAMES VERINI: Chris, it was a pleasure. Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again. My great thanks to James Verini. The book is called “They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate.” He's a contributing writer at the New York Times magazine and National Geographic magazine. We have our fall WITHpod tour coming on December 8th, and there's going to be a special nugget about that coming soon to your podcast app inbox, with some interesting things about how to get tickets. We're still accepting applications for free tickets and there's other stuff brewing in the tickets scheme so you want to stay tuned for that. If you're anywhere in the New York City area, I promise you it's going to be amazing. More info on that to come. You can go to ticketmaster.com, search for my name Chris Hayes and find tickets. We would love to see you there. We also love to hear your feedback. As always, I've gotten some great feedback, particularly on the very intense Martin Hagglund episode. Just saw someone tweeting today about accidentally putting it on a half speed and us sounding like so stoned, like the most classic stoned dorm room conversation about life and death, which cracked me up. But we'd love to hear your feedback about all our episodes and also when you suggest guests because a lot of times we will listen to that. We'll read them. You can tweet us #WITHpod email withpod@gmail.com.

“Why Is This Happening” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBC news.com/whyisthishappening.

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