He was known as Mosul Eye, a blogger who for years was one of the world’s main sources of news about Islamic State atrocities in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq. But the burden of anonymity was growing too heavy for him to bear.
He mentioned wistfully in messages to reporters Lori Hinnant and Maggie Michael that he missed his own name. Hinnant suggested he might want to think about revealing his identity, but let the subject drop. He agonized over when and how he would reveal it.
The when, it turns out, was Nov. 15, 2017. The how was in an interview to The Associated Press.
For bringing the world the story of Omar Mohammed, the mysterious historian-turned-blogger who risked his life to expose the horrors of Islamic State rule in Mosul, Hinnant and Michael win this week’s Beat of the Week.
For years, Mohammed used the blog, Twitter and Facebook to chronicle public beheadings, the stoning of women accused of adultery, and floggings, among other displays of brutality. News organizations sought him out, as did intelligence services.
After more than a year of blogging, he decided to flee Iraq. He was smuggled out of the country, and eventually made it to Europe. He continued to report from afar, using his network of sources. A historian, he meticulously recorded what he had learned.
Hinnant and Michael had reached out to him for stories about the IS group, including a late summer query from Michael. She later contacted him, asking if he was open to an interview. After conversations with Hinnant and Michael, he agreed to a profile of him.
To tell the story, Hinnant and investigations editor Trish Wilson sketched out a plan that drew from a classic narrative structure that is experiencing a resurgence as various measures of engagement reveal how long readers are sticking with stories.
Hinnant took readers on a journey through his life, revealing how he survived in a world where he could trust no one and where publishing a single fact possibly planted by militants could get him killed. She waited until the end to reveal what everyone wanted to know:
On Nov. 15, 2017, Mosul Eye made his decision.
“I can’t be anonymous anymore. This is to say that I defeated ISIS. You can see me now, and you can know me now.”
He is 31 years old.
His name is Omar Mohammed.
“I am a scholar.”
Hinnant and Michael repeatedly asked if Mohammed was certain in his choice to reveal his name. He was adamant.
In November, as Michael and Hinnant went to meet him in a European city, he called Hinnant and said: “I want to use my name and face.”
As they interviewed him, Hinnant and Michael repeatedly asked if he was certain in his choice. He was adamant. At times, he choked back tears when he spoke of his mother and a brother who died after being hit by shrapnel from a mortar strike.
Among those who helped confirm his identity to AP were his thesis adviser, who had figured out who he was in the blog’s early days, and an American history professor with whom Mohammed was in touch via Skype since 2012. Mohammed also sent over screen-grabs of exchanges he had with a BBC reporter.
Newspapers and websites across Europe and the US ran the story. The Daily Mail splashed it across the top of their website and used every piece of media AP put out. On APNews, the story, which included extended audio clips of Mohammed stacked throughout, held readers’ attention for 2:20 and the post-push alert tweet was AP’s most clicked story of the day. (It was the second story from the Collapse of the Caliphate series to hold readers attention last week. Video journalist Bram Janssen, Peter Hamlin, Maya Alleruzzo and Lee Keath produced Ferah's World, an engaging animated story about a young girl’s effort to survive life under IS rule by keeping a meticulous diary.)
Meanwhile, on the Mosul Eye page, Mohammed was deluged with responses from grateful Mosulis. Overwhelmed, he called in tears to tell Hinnant that several dozen residents had gathered in a bookstore near the university where he taught in Mosul for a giant WhatsApp call to thank him. He described it as the most beautiful thing he had ever experienced.
His reaction on waking on the day the story was published was simpler: “I feel free.”
For helping the world understand the gripping story behind the blogger whose accounts of IS rule gripped the world, Hinnant and Michael win this week’s $500 Beat of the Week prize.