ISIS’s Real Estate Empire: Security, Financial Investment, And Recurring Manipulation of Properties
Investigation by Nozt Shemdeen and Omran Dhahi
A task seen by so many as impossible and apologetically rejected by dozens of employees had eventually been accepted on one of the scorching August noontime of the year 2010 by a woman in her 40s named Khola Al-Saba’awe. Soon after she made her way to the building of the Real Estate Department of Mosul, holding a big bunch of keys in her hand, she entered the archives room, where thousands of the documentation registers of real estate properties are usually kept, and started her first risky working day in one of the ‘properties’ of the militant Jihadist groups.
Al-Saba’awe had an assistant called Ahmad Al Attar; a lawyer specialized in real estate documentation. Al Attar, who is now residing with his wife and daughter in Baghdad, described what the new manager had then done as a suicidal act, due to the fact that in the course of the four years prior to her employment, no one ever dared to approach the building situated in Al Faysaleya neighborhood at the left coastline of the city. That was simply because it was under the grips of the ‘Jihadists’, after the assassination of its former manager who was shot down dead, not to mention the torrent of messages threatening the employees of the deadly destiny awaiting them.
During her first visit, Al Saba’awe discovered that before her arrival the locks of the cabinets had been broken up, leaving the files and registers scattered here and there. Having seen such a messy situation, she soon decided to assign a team of investigators. “We soon found out the disappearance of 25,000 property documents and deeds of real estates belonging to the north part of Ninnoy Governorate.”, he said. “Such documents are confidential and it’s illegal to carry them out of the Real Estate Documentation Department, neither can they be opened nor their contents be examined without a judicial decision”, he added.
The investigation team formed by Al Saba’awe failed to find out who was behind stealing the missing files and the whole matter remained mysterious until now. “However, we managed to rescue the other registers and had them photocopied and as a precautionary measure, we sent copies on CDs to both the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad and to Ninnoy governorate administration.” Al Attar added.
The former employee exclaims that what he had expected for Mrs.
Al Saba’awe regretfully happened. On Thursday, the 15th of February 2011, some militants shot down the woman who had served the Real Estate Department for 17 long years, and she met her end on the spot. The masked militants were rushing to their vans while her head was profusely bleeding. Not even a single shot in the air was fired by the security checkpoint near her house at Al Wehda neighborhood, east of Mosul. Each and everything was then ruled upon the order and request of the militant groups.
With her assassination, the Real Estate Administration locked its doors again and remained so until the Islamic State Organization ‘ISIS’ occupied the city in June 2014 and dominated all the walks of life there, including a large ’empire’ of real estates with their original deed documents.
Immigration to and from Mosul
The accident of Al Saba’awe’s assassination is not more than a single chapter of the long story of manipulating with the real estate properties in Ninnoy. As for the beginning, it dates back to 2006, the year which witnessed the explosion of the two domes of the military Imams in Samara, and the flare up of the civil war.
Ahmad Al Attar says that the city witnessed then two exodus waves of opposite directions. Immigrants coming from Talafr (west of Ninnoy) to the environs of the left section of Mosul, and others to Kurdistan province or to other neighboring countries, all fleeing from the then violent acts of killing, kidnapping and explosions.
” That movement to and from Mosul and the chaotic state of insecurity accompanying it actually created the favorable atmosphere for the State Organization’s elements to take possession of hundreds of houses and turn them into abodes for a large network of ‘sleeping cells’.
Saeed Thabet, a lieutenant in the local police, carries on narrating the story saying that the process of purchasing of houses or expropriating them through forgery or manipulation was prevalent over that period, particularly after such houses were either evacuated by their inhabitants, or being offered for sale or rent at very low prices. “The organization aimed at establishing an infrastructure for their terror government. They wanted to have their dens distributed everywhere while threatening the senior figures in the neighborhoods and liquidating 33 from amongst them, the names of whom are documented with us.”, he said.
A real estate map of sleeping cells
An officer in Iraq’s army’s second division, which was stationed in the northern part of Ninnoy, before its resonant withdrawal in the summer of 2014, holds a map in his hand and points at the belt of buildings inhabited by the sleeping cells, setting the ground for the absolute military domination of the city and declaration of the so-called “The Caliphate State”.
The map drawn by the ‘State Organization’ starts with the western entrance to the city, specifically from Al Mashahda and 17 Tamooz neighborhoods, and passes southerly to the market of Al Ma’ash and New Yarmouk, accessing the east to the neighborhoods of Sumar, Domeez and Sedeeq, and then to the neighborhoods of Al Karama and Al Zahra’a in the north and finally reaching
Al Hadba’a. That is actually a tight whole control of the city stationed in overcrowded areas that had already been strangled by poverty.
The girdle described by the officer on the map was allowing ‘ISIS’ to monitor all goods entering Mosul whether from Syria through the western passageway or from Turkey through the northern passage or from Baghdad via the southern borderlines. And according to this real estate map, the organization’s elements
assembled themselves with their weaponry and equipment in the course of the first six months of 2014, while being constantly engaged almost daily with the security forces in a street war and under the cover of explosions and assassination operations.
“When it was time to attack, ISIS was in no need of an army in the presence of their sleeping cells. They were gnawing the body of Ninnoy operations leadership which collapsed on the 10th of June 2014, when all their warriors fled the city leaving an arsenal of weapons behind.” the officer continued.
“That what actually happened , contrary to what was then being transmitted by Iraq’s information media which claimed that a few hundreds of the organization’s fighters toppled Mosul and brought it down”, the officer concluded.
Minorities are the first to be harmed
Saad Behnam, an Iraqi living in the US Michigan State for about twenty years, lost his house in the luxurious neighborhood of Al Muhandseen in Mosul. Strangers took possession of his house in the summer of the year 2012 through a fake sale contract. “When my relatives came to know that the terrorists expropriated my house, they remained silent and never dared to interfere.” he said.
Behnam points out that the deactivation of the Real Estate Registration Department enabled the organization’s elements to usurp houses through fake property transfer claims submitted to the court of first instance. The procedures of this court do not necessitate the presence of the contract’s two parties and the single presence of the purchaser holding a proxy will suffice to get the contract registered.
And in the case of Behnam’s usurped house, someone submitted a counterfeit sale contract to the court and subsequently it issued evacuation forewarnings and documented the transfer of property in absentia.
Ahmad Abdullah, a civil judge working with the court of first instance, comments on what happened with Behnam saying, “That was the only option available at that time for those who resorted to his court to verify their ownerships, but it is not the exemplary way.”
Behnam, who still keeps his Mosul dialect in spite of long years of his estrangement, says that the Christians who had not lost their houses at that time, lost them later on after the declaration of the ‘Caliphate State’ in 2014. The organization painted in red the first letter of the word ‘Nassara’, i.e. Christians in Arabic on the doors of their houses. But to my cousins now, the same letter ‘N’ refers differently to the Arabic word ‘Nazeehoon’, i.e. immigrants in English.” he said.
There are no official statistics for the Christians’ properties that were confiscated by the Islamic State. But Anwar Hedaya, the Christians’ representative in Ninnoy Governorate’s Council refers that houses of roughly 120,000 Christian citizens and around 100,000 donum of agricultural lands ( a donum equals 1000 sq. m.) were usurped in Mosul, and in Al Hamdaneya Province, and in the neighborhoods of Barttalla, Karmalees, and in the boroughs of Tlsqaff, Talkeef, and Al Koosh; all of which were transferred to
‘ Beit Al Mal’, i.e. Muslims Treasury Bureau’ and all their original property documents were cancelled.
The same case was applied to Shobks and Shiite Turkmen, whose properties were all confiscated with their doors carrying the first letter of the word rejecters ‘R’, as said by one of the employees who was formerly serving with the Real Estate Registration Department, whose house at Domeez Neighborhood, east of Mosul, was confiscated by the ‘ISIS’ organization.
That same employee adds saying that the organization had also confiscated thousands of the real estates owned by army and security personnel, civil servants, politicians and immigrants. They used such buildings either for their own premises, or offered them for rent or for sale. This, in addition to either looting or confiscating any goods existing in the trade stores owned by Christians, Yazidis, and Shobks, with no glimpse of hope to restore them anytime soon.
Cases of usurping all types of real estates, particularly those owned by minorities are regarded by a 60-year old Christian citizen called Jameel Tomma, as extremely complicated. “The issue is not only concerned with proving your ownership of the house in the future after facing ISIS and kicking them out of the city, but rather to your return to your house or sell it at its real price. Nobody seems to believe that the militant groups will be vanquished and its page will be turned over, amid the conflicts the country is witnessing now.”, he said.
The likelihood of the return of those extremist groups again and their imposition of their power over the city again through their isolated cells is causing a sense of common horror among many of the Mosul population. Such groups have proved in the course of the past 13 years their ability of succession and continuation.
“Thousands of ISIS men will have their beards cut and then appear in new clothing, and at the end of the day their statuses will be politically or tribally settled, but they can be back again with their new threats. That’s why I’m not dreaming of being home again, and even if I can restore my house and decide to sell it, the price will be very low.” Tomma said.
In spite of everything, the minorities’ real estates represent quite a small portion, but the larger volume expropriated by the organization consists basically of the governmental public buildings that belong to the Municipality of Mosul, the Sunni Endowment, and to the military establishment. The investigation’s preparers tried to evaluate their volume and the amount of the fixed income that regularly goes to ‘ISIS’.
Real estate booty ready for investment
In the investigative journey to procure an accurate statistics of the real estate volume in Ninnoy, which was directly administered by the state organization and from which they collected fixed returns over the past two years, our team managed to obtain unpublished documents dating back to 2009. Such documents are the only source of information about the real estate structure in Ninnoy Governorate since the downfall of Saddam Hussein regime. We had to set a large administrative map of Ninnoy Governorate to better follow the figures available to us.
The documents we could obtain from our source, an employee in the Ninnoy Statistics Directorate, refer to the existence of 560,000 buildings in all Ninnoy, including 340,000 ones situated in the main boroughs and cities, the largest of which is Mosul. 20,000 of this large bloc are commercial estates.
An engineer from the city of Mosul named Qaaem Zuhair, confirms in the course of his comment that there are no radical changes in such figures, in view of the fact that the construction market in Ninnoy was almost stagnant during the recent years due to the deteriorating security crisis.
Zuhair who worked for very long years as a chief engineer in several governmental departments, including Mosul Municipality, before he was compelled to immigrate to the city of Zakho on the Turkish-Iraqi borders – Zohair points out that 60% of the commercial estates in the city are owned by the municipality (roughly 12,000 buildings). It actually controls the lion’s share of the total real estates in Mosul, including 65 residential districts in addition to a number of big popular markets and two industrial zones.
The municipality had endorsed annual renting contracts for 9,000 of these real estates for the benefit of citizens and private companies, and the remaining ones were occupied by its municipal branch departments or other public circles. ” When the organization actually imposed its control over the city, they put their hands to the Mosul municipality returns in Al Rafedeen Bank 112, and started to collect the due annual lease from the already rented real estates.”, Zuhair adds.
$ 100,000,000 real estates’ investment
Abu Yehia is a youth in his mid 40s originally from south Mosul. He was a former employee at the city’s municipality before being transferred to serve with the ‘ Services Bureau’ of the ‘Islamic State’. That actually happened after he had worn a long beard and dressed in the ‘official uniform’ well-known as the Afghani attire.
In the course of a meeting between Abu Yehia and one of those working on this investigation, who introduced himself through asking about the municipality’s lease contracts, Abu Yehia boasted about the ability of the ‘Islamic State’ to run and develop the city’s resources. He said that the ‘Services Bureau’ collects the annual rents from tenants and offers the renting of the other unoccupied real estates through public bidding.
The employee nicknamed as ‘Abu Yehia’ mentioned in the course of three meetings with him, that the returns achieved from Mosul’s commercial properties in 2015 amounted to $87 million, collected as rents from tenants. The organization does not publish any documents showing the finances of its bureaus. However, the aforementioned amount is close to the estimates indicated by the former chief engineer, Qaaem Zuhair, who estimated the average rent of a commercial estate at $ 800 with a rise of 25% more than the rent set under the Iraqi state’s administration in 2013.
Abu Yehia pointed out that the highest returns achieved come from the taxi stands’ lots of Bab Al Toub, Bab Al Jesr, the north garage, Bab Sinjar, and the other widespread parking lots in the city’s public areas. This, in addition to the rents collected from fruit and vegetable markets, the manufatural workshops located in the two industrial zones on both sides of the city, and from the commercial block of flats in Bab Al Toub, Al Sargakhana, Bab Al Saray, and last but not least the returns coming from the parks, restaurants and forests of Mosul.
He said that the moneys collected by Mosul’s Municipality through the on-the-spot fines amount to one and a half milliard Iraqi dinar (US $ 1,250,000). Such amounts are paid by the citizens committing offences such as throwing garbage in unspecified rubbish dumps, illegal excesses on the water or sewage networks, and any unlicensed building works. Such fines added an extra $ 15 millions to ISIS’s treasury in 2015.
Abu Yehia’s thick beard began to shake while stretching his hands high in the air saying, ‘ The renegades’ state before us was corrupt and rents were liable to stealth and bargaining and no fines were imposed on offenders. Look now at the clean streets of Mosul and see how tenants pay their rents in due time”.
$ 2,000,000 from Sunni Endowment
ISIS Organization found itself overnight the inheritor of the Sunni endowment’s properties, the most of which are residential block of flats donated by the city’s inhabitants to use its investment returns in the administration of mosques, as well as payment of Imams’, preachers’ and prayer callers’ salaries.
The statistics we managed to obtain through some former employees indicate that the department of the Sunni endowment investment possesses over 1600 residential houses, either as separate units or as annexes within the mosques’ premises. Such places were rented to the endowment’s staff in return for symbolic sums. Meanwhile, there are roughly 2000 commercial real estates, including blocks of buildings, shops, industrial workshops, all affiliated to the Sunni endowment. They are actually distributed within the city’s residential districts and in Bab Al Saray Market, Mosul’s largest popular market, as well as in Bab Al Toub, Al Dawasa, and Allepo Street.
A mosque’s preacher and a former employee from the Sunni endowment, who is still living in Mosul and occupying a rented residential house from the endowment properties and paying its rent regularly, indicated that the amount value of the monthly rent for such houses had been increased by the organization to reach as high as 75000 Iraqi dinar (some $65). That means that its annual returns from the Sunni endowments alone amounted to $ 1,250,000. As for the endowment’s commercial real estates which amount to 890 units, others say, through our communication with them, that the organization raised their rents as well to reach the roughly average limit.
Generally speaking, the Sunni endowment’s properties provided ISIS with around $ 2,000,000 in 2015, which they used in covering the salaries of the preachers and staff who were employed by them in big and small mosques, and to the teachers engaged in organizing religious courses for children within the framework of the ‘Caliphate Cadets’ project.
ISIS imposes real estate bails
In addition to over $ 1,000,000 obtained by ‘ISIS’ in 2015 from the real estates sector, they receive tens of million dollars through imposing fines on agricultural lands’ offences and from renting thousands of the private houses confiscated from Christians, Shobks, Yazidis, civil servants and military personnel.
In the course of five months starting from past April, the preparers of this investigation came to know that the state organization rented the luxurious houses which they had expropriated from the neighborhoods of Al Arabi, Al Dhobatt, Al Baath, Al Muhandesseen, Al Magmouha, Al Zeraahi, Al Thaqafa, and Al Zuhour – hired them at monthly rents reaching as high as 200,000 Iraqi Dinar (roughly $ 170). However, rents in other remaining neighborhoods are much less, reaching symbolic amounts not exceeding 5,000 Iraqi Dinar. But the overall returns are more than the rents collected from both Mosul’s real estates and the Sunni Endowment together, due to the increasing number of the confiscated houses.
There is, nevertheless, another source of income, not less significant than the aforementioned ones. Such source is represented in the so-called ‘real estates’ bails’, which is the cause behind keeping ‘Moa’yed Mansour’ together with his spouse and kids in Mosul, being prevented to join his relatives in Sulaymaniya. “In order to leave Mosul, you have to offer a real state guarrantee equivalent to one real estate bond for each two persons from the family.”, Mansour says. ” This means three real estates if the family consists of six persons”, he says.
Hours before ISIS disconnected the Internet service everywhere in Ninnoy at the beginning of past July, Mansour wrote to us through ‘Viber’ application saying, ” Both I and my brother are not employees, neither have we any relation with the state or the government. We believed that our being in the city allows us to keep our houses safe.”. ” But in return we lost our freedom.”, he exclaims.
According to Mansour and as said by the others we met in the course of our investigation, the organization demands a person guarantee to be held accountable if the leaver who most often claims to be travelling for medical treatment fails to return home. Meanwhile, it is imperative to pay a bail which had been recently reduced to $ 4000 for each person. And if the bailed person fails to return, a sequestration notice is put on the real estate bond and its ownership will later on be transferred to the Islamic State.
ISIS applies the government procedures
Only two months after the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from Ninnoy, Iraq’s Ministry of Justice decided to cease all property transfer operations and real estates’ registration in the governorates described by officials as security hot. These are Ninnoy, Al Anbar, Deyali, and Saladin. Thus, any compulsory registration will be considered null and void, ‘to secure the rights of the inhabitants and the minorities in these regions’ as per the statement made by the ministry then. Meanwhile, the ‘Islamic State’ announced a parallel statement according to which ‘real estates of all infidels and apostates are to be confiscated’.
Ahmad Amin is one the ‘renegades’ who was badly harmed from that decision. He lost a poultry project, the largest of its kind in Ninnoy. It includes an entire production cycle covering an area of 61 donum (as per Iraq’s measure a donum equals 2500 sq. m.). Additionally, the organization confiscated other properties, including three fodder mills, two poultry abattoirs, a refrigeration storehouse, four poultry farms, six residential real estates in different locations in Mosul, and a big store used for marketing his products in Al Jazza’er neighborhood.
Amin was talking from his alternative office in the city of Babylon, south of Iraq, where he chose to stay and get engaged in his same old poultry trade after emigrating from his home town. He says that all his real estates had been sold after purchasers had checked everything and paid sale dues amounting to 3% of the property value. Accordingly, ownership was transferred through a real estate document carrying the symbol of the Islamic state together with reference to the type of the property and its constructed annexes. These were almost the same procedures taken by the two real estate registration departments (right and left) in Mosul as regards the certification of sale and purchase of real estates.
As for this poultry trader, the main problem is that his properties were sold more than once. ” The organization had changed its nature, turning a commercial real estate into a residential one and vice versa. And there are buildings constructed on my own lands and I don’t exactly know how the jurisdiction will settle their statuses.”, he said. ” I’ll actually be facing a complicated problem when ISIS is kicked out of the city and I appear with the remaining purchasers before the judge and everyone claims their ownership of the real estates.”, he adds.
The same very thing happened to a large number of businessmen and owners of different productive projects, storehouses, and commercial stores in Ninnoy Valley, where Christians, Yazidis, and Shobks live. Their real estates had been either usurped or confiscated and their equipment and other assets had been sold to many purchasers.
Take for instance Bashiqa Borough, there used to be 51 poultry farms with various productive capacities there, as well as other mills for construction works, poultry and olive oil, in addition to dozens of other stores selling building materials and machinery spare parts, as well as other shops for beverages and garments. Such establishments had been completely looted and can never be restored again. The same thing occurred in Sinjar, where the properties of Kurdish Muslims who had left the city were either usurped or confiscated, Sunnis and Shiites alike.
That same thing happened to the properties of Yazidis in other villages and residential complexes, where houses had been entirely demolished, and over 400,000 people fled for their lives. No statistics have been made so far to figure out the amount of their financial losses. Not only this, but the Shiite citizens in Telafr also lost their properties that were also looted in the wake of their immigration to the south of the country.
Fears of ‘politicizing’ the file
The problem is much worse than it seems, simply because the original nature of thousands of residential and commercial properties had been changed in the official registers, where the names of the genuine owners were entirely obliterated.
To make matters more complicated, the ISIS organization sold usurped properties to make the dispute among the citizens themselves. So when the military operations to liberate Mosul began, real estate purchasers hurried to offer their properties for sale again and at a very cheap price, as low as 10% of their original value and even less. And based on the statistics collected by the investigation team, at least 40% of the total real estates in the governorate have been badly affected.
Judge Hassan Mahmoud calmly commented on such practices saying, “ISIS’s practices have actually no legal value”. This judge had been working for long years with the criminal court in Mosul, as both member and chairman of the court platform, besides his being a deputy to the ex-governor, Atheel Al Negeffy. He adds saying, ” When any claimant submits a copy of the official property deed to the court, verifying his possession of the real estate before the ISIS’s domination over Mosul, the claim ends in his favor.”
Judge Hassan made reference to the significance of the role played by the late manger of the real estates registration, Khola Al Sabaawe, who had copied the property registers and sent them to Baghdad. He went on saying, “Thanks to this courageous woman, we can now at least identify the identity of the original proprietors, in view of the fact that many of those living in the immigration areas in Kurdistan province or elsewhere keep copies verifying the ownership of their real estate properties wherever they go.”. However, he made no reference to the registers which had been already manipulated or stolen before being copied.
Another judge, who preferred not to be identified for fear of causing any harm to the other members of his family who are still locked in the city, commented on the same point saying, ” The examination of the claims made by the citizens demanding to be compensated for the harm befallen them will take very long time, particularly after thousands of property deeds were stolen after the real estate registration department closed its doors, and what is worse is that such deeds have no original copies.”
The problem, however, seems to be much more complicated in the rural areas, after the organization cancelled the agricultural contracts endorsed between the agriculture authority and the farmers. ” And since such lands are located within tribal areas, so in addition to the legal disputes, more profound tribal differences are also expected.”, the judge said.
Sheikh Ahmad Abdullah, one of Al Gabour clans’ chieftains, represents one of the examples of the possible forms of the problems that might later on arise. Now he insists on the necessity of restoring all his usurped lands, not through legal procedures, but through their own tribal arbitration, besides revenge on the new purchasers and deportation of all their tribes’ members. ” Where was the state when my land was stolen?. And do you think that we’ll be waiting for years until justice can take its course”, he said angrily.
But what the judge of the first instance court fears most after the liberation of Ninnoy is the intertwinement of the real estate file with the file of conflict among the different political powers over the rule of the governorate. “The Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni powers, who are fighting ISIS today will demand their share tomorrow”, the judge said. International reports started to speak from now about compulsory immigration operations and demolition of civilians’ houses under the pretext of their cooperation with ISIS, a sorry state of affairs that exposes the file of the real estates to politicization in the future, and accordingly puts the jurisdiction under different pressures.”, the judge said.
This investigation was accomplished with the support of ‘NIRIJ’ Network of Investigative Journalism, and under the supervision of Mr. Kammy Al Melhem
NB Hereunder are the numbers of the missing files (containing 25,000 real estates)
596, 621, 678, 743, 832, 922, 940, 950, 959, 983, 990, 1050, 1097, 1250, 1275, 1278, 1347, 1381