Every day, Mohammed Al Mawsily takes enormous risks in what is one of the most dangerous places on earth. The CU Denver graduate is on the front lines of the battle for Mosul, his home city, which fell to the Islamic State (ISIS) over two years ago and is now being re-taken by the Iraqi military.
But Al Mawsily, who received a master’s degree in computer science, is not holding a gun. He’s a pirate broadcaster: In spring of 2015, shortly after ISIS invaded, he launched a radio station as part of the ongoing information war against the militants. From inside Mosul, ISIS militants have cut residents’ access to the internet and cell phones, all the while terrorizing them with threatening propaganda.
Meanwhile, Al Mawsily and his two radio partners, operating from a secret location in the Kurdish region outside Mosul, are broadcasting 24/7, skillfully navigating ISIS attempts to shut down their signal.
Their station is called Alghad FM or “Tomorrow” in Arabic. It’s a lifeline to people who’ve fled Mosul but still have loved ones in the city. “That’s one of the reasons we started the radio station is to be in touch with people inside Mosul. They are our friends and family,” Al Mawsily told CU Denver Today in a phone interview earlier this week. It’s not his real name and CU Denver Today and Al Mawsily took technical precautions to protect the interview from being monitored or traced.
ISIS hasn’t collected everyone’s phones, as the radio station receives calls daily from Moslawis. “Just listening to people talk from Mosul … it’s a very powerful tool, and it’s annoying the Daesh so much,” Al Mawsily said, using a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS.
With fighting intensifying in recent days as liberation forces moved in, the voices on Alghad airwaves are more heartbreaking than ever. ISIS militants are reportedly gathering thousands of Mosul residents, including women and children, and using them as human shields against the Iraqi military.
‘Changed my life completely’
“People are very afraid – we receive calls from inside Mosul every day,” Al Mawsily said. “It’s important for us to give them the opportunity to express themselves. It’s very emotional when people share some of their stories, talking about how they are trying to survive this hardship.”
Post-college life in Mosul was initially good for Al Mawsily. He lived with his parents and was putting his CU Denver degree to work by launching what is now a growing software development firm that employs programmers from several Iraq provinces.
MAP: The interactive map above shows the northern region of Iraq, including Mosul (blue pin drop), and its relation to the Kurdish region, which is outlined in red.
But one day everything changed. An ominous alarm went out: Get out of the city immediately; ISIS militants are coming. “It was one of the moments of my life I’ll never forget – it changed my life completely,” he said. “There was a curfew and me and my family had to leave Mosul in 15 minutes. My degree from CU Denver was one of the last things I took from our home. You want to take your most important things with you.”
In the ensuing days, Al Mawsily saw his home city fall, and at the heart of it all was ISIS propaganda. ISIS had been using multiple media channels, especially social media, to convey its brutal tactics. Panic overtook Iraqi troops within Mosul after watching a barrage of videos showing massacres and other atrocities, according to Al Mawsily. “There were about 60,000 Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, and they left the city without fighting because of the (ISIS) media,” he said. “That helped me realize how powerful media is. Many people were deceived and ended up being recruited to their ranks through that misunderstanding.”
Using radio to fight back
He decided to fight back through media channels, and Alghad became the first radio station to broadcast after Mosul’s collapse. The station, using both radio signals and social media channels, now reaches people with ties to Mosul all over the world. Alghad uses Facebook Live to stream content to Europe, the United States, Australia and beyond, Al Mawsily said.
The war of information is very real and it never stops. It’s essentially a strength-of-signal battle, as each side tries to reduce the radius of the other’s transmission signal by broadcasting on the same frequencies.
“We are one of the few media outlets that’s trying to cover what’s happening inside Mosul during the liberation operations,” Al Mawsily said. He added that it’s gratifying to bring about social change while “delivering the voice of Moslawis to the rest of the world.”
‘Denver is a wonderful city’
Having received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mosul, Al Mawsily already had a strong technical background when he arrived in the Mile High City. He chose CU Denver for graduate school because “many people recommended me to do my master’s in computer science there, and Denver is a wonderful city.”
He considered pursuing a doctorate in computer science at CU Denver as well, but the chaos in Mosul erupted before he’d made a decision. Al Mawsily speaks impeccable English, which he said was greatly helped by the ESL Academy at CU Denver.
“I learned a lot from my professors at CU Denver,” he said. “The Computer Science Department (in the College of Engineering and Applied Science) is a great department. I remember all of my professors there and keep tabs on them.”
Al Mawsily would like to make a return visit to Denver – “my favorite city after Mosul,” Iraq’s second-largest city – after the current crisis ends. He hopes his beloved Mosul isn’t left a “destroyed city” by the siege, which he expects could last several months.
Meanwhile, his pirate radio station has garnered worldwide attention, with CNN breaking the story about the underground operation followed by reports in Al Jazeera and other major media outlets.
‘Have to do something’
ISIS has issued a fusillade of death threats to the station, but the menacing recently tapered off. Al Mawsily suspects the militants are busy repelling the Iraqi army or have been ordered by their leaders to stop calling the station. He continues to be fascinated by how ISIS uses professional-quality videos to transmit their declarations of a caliphate. “Media is one of the main tools they use to control people – they use fear,” he said.
Out of a desire to shield his parents from fear, he kept his radio enterprise a secret until about three months ago. He has learned from residents within Mosul that his former house is now occupied by ISIS militants. His parents also fled to the Kurdish region outside Mosul.
“As parents, they are worried about me,” Al Mawsily said. “But at the same time, they know people have to stand for themselves – not sit and wait for others to do something. They have to do something.”
Matt Kaskavitch, social media manager at CU Denver, contributed to this report.