When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took to the pulpit of Iraq’s historic al-Nouri mosque to declare his so-called “caliphate” in 2014, residents of Mosul had no idea the extent to which their city would be devastated.
“This strange man we had never seen before took the podium instead of our regular imam,” said Fahd Qishmou, 48, who attended Baghdadi’s infamous speech, proclaiming himself “caliph” over millions of people in Iraq and Syria.
“He came to our mosque, a place of peace for us, and he turned it into a place of hell,” said Qishmou, a father of eight, according to Reuters.
Once a proud symbol of Mosul, the 850-year-old mosque has lain in ruin since ISIS was routed there in 2017, piles of twisted metal and flattened stone.
Wearing black robes, with a long beard, Baghdadi, residents said, spoke eloquently and with extreme calm. Drones, controlled by Baghdadi’s personal guard, made up mostly of foreign fighters, hovered overhead and cut off communication.
“All of a sudden, he declared ISIS was born,” Qishmou said, “and asked us all to pledge allegiance.”
Baghdadi, who had led the terrorist group since 2010, died "whimpering and crying" in a raid here by US special forces in northwest Syria, US President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.
“I knew we were heading for trouble the day that man walked into my mosque,” said Abu Omran, a 60-year-old metalworker. “I told my son, that man will bring death and destruction – and I was right.”
Qishmou, who now drives a taxi after his yoghurt shops were destroyed during the war to retake Mosul, was one of several residents Reuters spoke to in the shadow of the al-Nouri mosque, where Baghdadi announced the birth of his ultra-extremist group.
It was the crowning moment in a reign of terror that stretched over three years and two countries. ISIS overran large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 only to be beaten back in 2017. Mosul was their Iraqi capital.
Too late to be happy
Few minced their words looking back on Baghdadi’s reign. Some swore, even as the call to prayer wafted overheard.
“Because of him, we starved ... We lived on flour and water for months, cowering in our basements,” said Abu Omran. “I don’t wish that life on my worst enemy.”
“You ask if I’m happy he died? I would be happy if my house hadn’t collapsed under bombs, if I hadn’t been whipped and shot by (ISIS fighters), if my son hadn’t been killed. We never even tasted victory, how can we ever be happy again?”
Abu Omran looked around the ruins of the Old City as he spoke. The neighborhood, a warren of narrow streets dating back centuries and now reduced mostly to rubble, saw the fiercest fighting as ISIS dug in for its final stand.
Its streets bear the scars of the horrors Moslawis survived – either living under ISIS’s draconian rule or during nine months of brutal fighting, as Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition fought to recapture the city.
Residents told stories of how in the first few weeks, it seemed like a new dawn for Mosul. Security forces who had long clashed with al-Qaeda fighters in their neighborhoods were now gone, they said, and the streets were clean and calm.
But then Baghdadi’s foot soldiers came out in force, foreign fighters and religious police watching their every move.
“His death doesn’t really matter – the second that man set foot in our city, he killed us all,” said one resident.