Mosul by Ben Mckelvey

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

To read Mosul is to take a journey into another world. In fact, it is several worlds that are connected by terrorism and war. At once secret, brutal, tragic, and chaotic, the worlds are populated by heroes and villains – most of whom are troubled individuals with axes to grind and stories to tell.

Mosul opens close to home – a counter terrorism operation in Sydney and Melbourne. The target is a small prayer group with an unexceptional leader who, but for some lucky timing, would not have rated a footnote in history. Their plot to explode bombs in Australian cities was foiled by the police, but one of the ringleaders went on to join an emerging terrorist group in Iraq that came to be known as Islamic State.

The counterpoint story is of Australian military operatives who see action in Afghanistan and Iraq. We follow the evolution of Australian groups as the more traditional SAS (Special Air Services) deployments were complemented by a new type of Commando force. The latter soon proved their worth: “They were one of the newest special forces deployed into the war in Afghanistan, and during the length of that conflict they went from being greenhorns who were trusted with little more than cavalry patrols, to running complex helicopter ops the equal in importance, complexity and danger to any in the world” [p37].

The rise of ISIS was a predictable result of American politicians and coalition military creating a perfect storm for terrorists to thrive, following the Iraq war which overthrew Saddam Hussein. It was into this storm that Australia deployed military operatives to support and train the Iraqi army. The tactics of Australian defence forces in the newly “democratic” Iraq were a direct result of the challenges facing a conventional army confronted with an unconventional opponent.   The soldiers of the 2 Commando unit “would earn a leash long enough to eventually reach the fight in Iraq, and engage with Islamic state” [p61].

The attack on ISIS forces occupying Mosul witnessed the deliberate targeting of American and Australian citizens by their own military, without judicial process.  Prime Minister Abbott apparently approved a drone strike in 2014, arguing that “any Australian working for ISIS was a legitimate target” [p205]. According to Ben, this major change in policy was a first for our country: “Australia crossed that threshold … without our nation even noticing” [p206].

The bitter siege of that city was exemplary of the appalling conflicts that have taken place in the last 20 years between national defence forces and Islamic terrorists. The civilians, whose towns and cities were invaded, were often forced to take sides, with tragic consequences.

Though occasionally dates and places are disordered for the purposes of the narrative, the structure and content of the book is well crafted and the mounting tension is palpable. Not so much because of the combat stories, but because of the human ones.  Ben Mckelvey has produced a complex and largely military narrative, told mainly through the lives of two soldiers and a terrorist who have very different backgrounds and trajectories. They each live on the edge, immersed in a zone of death and destruction.

While in no way sympathetic to the terrorist cause, Ben attests to the sophistication of the ISIS fighters and their military and political tactics. With many of them converts from Saddam Hussein’s formerly Sunni-dominated army, they are a formidable force and the more so with their ruthless and immoral treatment of military and civilian captives.

Ben’s descriptions of the evolving role of Australian forces skilfully cuts through the political double speak that shrouded the media’s coverage at the time. It is both informative and engaging to read, with gripping descriptions of war zone operations. One story in which an Australian commando communicates with an elite Iraqi unit which is under intense fire, demonstrates how ordinary soldiers from different continents can improvise under high pressure. Who knew that a mobile phone and a wi-fi hotspot could be so important?

Mosul is a simply written book about a complex topic. Ben has woven a series of human stories into one of the most important conflicts of our time. The result is a book full of information and explanation that manages to provide drama on every page.   There is something for everyone here and anyone who has followed the news in the last two decades will recognise many of the characters and, almost certainly, learn a great deal in the process.

Ben Mckelvey is a freelance writer and editor from Sydney …. who was embedded with the ADF in East Timor and Iraq, and has worked independently in Iran and Afghanistan”.

 Mosul: Australia’s secret war inside the ISIS caliphate

(September 2020)

By Ben Mckelvey

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733645419

333 pp; $34.99 (paperback)

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