January 17, 2021

The Islamic State Billboards and Murals of Tel Afar and Mosul


One of the hallmarks of the Islamic State’s (IS) methods of establishing its presence in a locality is through the use of billboards and murals to advertise its propaganda. This was first made apparent in IS’ prior incarnation as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in which ISIS first appeared in Raqqa in the spring of 2013 and increased its clout through the use of billboards even as it was not the only faction present. Indeed, ISIS only became sole ruler of Raqqa after the outbreak of intense infighting with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in the city in January 2014: for some later billboards see this post of mine.

In Mosul and Tel Afar, ISIS was in a much stronger position and very quickly asserted itself over other insurgent groups. It’s all well and good for the Ba’athist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) to have a front group on paper for Tel Afar in the form of a “Military Council for the Revolutionaries of the Tribes,” but nothing suggests it exercises any real influence even if it has some actual members on the ground. The same is true for JRTN in Mosul: as one of my relatives who still lives in Mosul put it to me: “They are present but have no influence. Some of them were arrested, some of them gave allegiance to the Dawla [IS], some of them fled.”

Below is a selection of various IS billboards and murals that have primarily emerged in Mosul and Tel Afar as part of IS’ declared “Wilayat Ninawa” (“Ninawa Province”). This material is useful for learning more about IS’ ideals and which figures it regards as inspiration for its ideological program.

Purportedly on the “University Bridge” in Mosul: on right: “The Islamic State: Caliphate on the Program of the Prophets/Prophethood.” On left: “The Messenger of God [Muhammad] said: ‘Whoever dies and has not launched a raid/operation or resolved to launch an operation, he has died among the division of hypocrisy.”

“The Islamic State (Ninawa Province; Locality of Tel Afar) Welcomes You.”

“Together we cultivate the tree of the Caliphate”- IS billboard in Ninawa province. This slogan has also appeared on an IS billboard in Syria.

Reportedly from Mosul: “We only want the rule of God’s law over us.” Followed by Qur’an 42:10: “And whatever you disagree on, its ruling is to be referred to God.” Then a saying of Muhammad: “I have left for you two orders: you will not deviate from the two things you have adhered to: the book of God [Qur'an] and the Sunnah of His Prophet.”

Also reportedly from Mosul: “Under my foot: The Laws of The Moment” [i.e. Man-Made Laws]: to be contrasted with the supposedly God-given Shari’a (Islamic law) that is valid for all times and places.

Apparently inscribed on a wall of one of the schools of Tel Afar: a quotation from al-Qa’ida founding ideologue Abdullah Azzam (“The martyred mujahid”): “If you want to liberate a land, place in your gun ten bullets: nine for the traitors and one for the enemy.” While it may seem superficially strange that an IS mural should cite Azzam, it is not so when one considers Azzam’s relationship with Osama Bin Laden (OBL) and the fact that IS claims itself as the true inheritor of OBL’s legacy, naming a street after him in Raqqa. For IS, the al-Qa’ida of Aymenn al-Zawahiri is a perversion of the al-Qa’ida of OBL.

Another Tel Afar mural, featuring a quotation from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who established the original Jamaat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad from which IS ultimately descends, and was leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, another incarnation in the line down to IS: “And this is the spark that has been struck in Iraq, and its blaze will grow by God’s permission until the Crusaders’ armies are burnt in Dabiq.” Zarqawi serves as an important figure of reverence for IS, with a mosque project undertaken in his name inRaqqa province. Dabiq is a locality in Aleppo province near the town of Sawran, forming a frontline against the rebel group Northern Storm. Dabiq is thus currently controlled by IS and has an IS magazine named after it. For more on Dabiq and IS eschatology, see this article by Will McCants.

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Another mural, this time quoting Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual godfather of modern jihadism: “Whoever does not pay the price of jihad, will pay the price of abstention.” For an earlier example of an IS billboard quoting Sayyid Qutb, see this from Syria.

“Oh God- allow for your Shari’a to rule in the land.”

“The Islamic State: a book guides and a sword gives victory”- familiar slogan widely used by jihadis and Islamists.

Photo reportedly from the centre of Tel Afar, featuring a broader view of IS wall murals. The one nearest in view is the familiar IS slogan: “Remaining and expanding,” while the next two remaining discernible ones are the previous murals discussed.

IS murals outside Tel Afar electricity administration, with quotations from prior Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi: “Remaining [baqiya: a word now so familiar] because it has been built from the corpses of martyrs and cultivated [from the blood of martyrs: not visible in the photo], and thus has the market of paradise been convened.”

From the same series as the previous image. On the right: “Remaining because it is the dawn of the Ummah that has done away with the oppression of the hateful ones and illuminated the paths of the believers.”

On right: “Remaining, because it is the call of the oppressed, the mourning of the bereaved, the scream of the imprisoned, the hope of the orphaned.” On left: “Remaining because we are certain He will not break the hearts of the monotheists.”

More quoting Abu Omar al-Baghdadi: “Remaining because the disbelievers in all their paths and creeds have gathered against us, together with the traitor and coward of arbitrary opinion and innovation who has begun slandering and attacking it, but we have been convinced of the truth of the aim and the soundness of the path.”

IS Tel Afar mural quoting Ibn al-Qayyim (classical Islamic theologian) on the destruction of sites deemed ‘idolatrous’ (NB: in cleansing Tel Afar of any trace of its Shi’a population, Shi’a religious sites were destroyed on these very grounds): “And it is not allowed to preserve for one day a site of polytheism and idols after the decision to destroy and do away with them for they are the religious rites of disbelief and polytheism…” etc.

Some more IS Tel Afar murals: on far-right, mural on obligation of prayer, and to its left a saying of Muhammad: “Whoever blasphemes against God- Almighty and Exalted is He- God will turn it on his head in the fire of Hell.”

A familiar site to anyone who has observed the Raqqa billboards. IS poster in unspecified location in Ninawa province: “Muslim sister: Please embrace the niqab in obedience to God.”