In November 2016, James Verini followed a special-forces team into a home in Mosul, Iraq, looking for jihadis. An American reporter for National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, Verini was embedded with elite, coalition-backed Iraqi soldiers as they struggled to free the city from the Islamic State, or ISIS, in what proved to be the militant group’s last major stand. After checking the house’s upper floor, Verini and the Iraqi soldiers returned downstairs. Then a bomb went off. The explosion jolted the house; plaster rained from the walls. “You’re not really thinking anything,” Verini recalls of the blast. “You are completely in the present.”
Verini, shaken but unharmed, and the Iraqi team fled through a yard, as ISIS bullets zipped overhead. Verini didn’t know the source of the explosion but was certain that it had been deadly close. And it had: A jihadi had rammed a vehicle packed with explosives into a special-forces Humvee, obliterating the Iraqi soldier who had been inside.
In Verini’s remarkable new book of war reportage, They Will Have to Die Now, he recounts this and other close calls from the nearly eight months he spent on the ground in Mosul, a city of 600,000 that comprises the ancient Assyrian metropolis of Nineveh. In the book, Verini watches as Iraqi soldiers fall to snipers’ bullets, narrowly avoids an RPG aimed at his truck, and, in a curiously modern moment, is hunkered down with Kurdish fighters who snap selfies as ISIS mortars crash around them.
The Pentagon later deemed the battle the most significant urban combat since World War II, with firefights breaking out in backyards and alleys and between rooftops. The close-quarters fighting owed largely to the fact that, unlike the loose insurgent groups that U.S. forces faced after the 2003 Iraq invasion, ISIS held clear territory and was highly organized. “In that sense,” Verini says, “the battle was an astonishing return to the past, to something that I thought I’d never see in my lifetime. It was what used to be called a set-piece battle, like the Battle of the Bulge or the Battle for Berlin.”
In reporting from Mosul, Verini, who now lives in Paris and has also covered Boko Haram and the M23 rebellion, hoped to tell the stories of coalition-backed fighters, along with those of everyday Iraqis. Among the locals he meets is a man named Abu Omar, whose son pledges allegiance to ISIS and tries to bludgeon his father to death. Verini unpacks the complex psychology that led such young men to join ISIS, tracing the group’s sadism back to the Assyrians, who brutally ruled much of ancient Mesopotamia, while also making clear that contemporary forces fed the movement. “There’s no way of recognizing just how much the United States’ invasion of 2003 ruined Iraq and Iraqi lives until you actually go there and meet Iraqis and speak with them at length,” Verini says. “Only then can you learn the extent of this.” ♦
This story appears in the October 2019 print issue, with the headline “City Under Siege.”