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  • Writer's pictureNish Nalbandian

That one time ISIS tried to kill me

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

For my first blog post I wanted to open with something attention-grabbing. So I figured I'd tell the story about the time I was working in Mosul and narrowly avoided being killed by an ISIS Vehicle Bourne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED), otherwise known as a Suicide Car bomb. So here's the story:

That time I almost got killed by an ISIS VBIED.

Mosul was a mess

I had been covering the Battle of Mosul since the start of the campaign. I'd spent months with 1st Battalion, 2nd Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) Brigade, Selahudeen Battalion (S.D.). These guys were one of the Assault Battalions deployed on the front line by ISOF as they worked to liberate the city of Mosul from it's ISIS occupiers. It was a bloody and dangerous job, and many of the guys I knew and spent time with got killed, and many more wounded.

Selahudeen welcomed me in, and allowed me access to pretty much anything. I chose NOT to go out on assault patrols with the guys as they pushed forward into ISIS-held districts. I'd stay at the front line and observe what I could from the fighting positions they held. Sometimes the battles in the few blocks forward of the line would rage for days, intensifying overnight.

In early March 2017 S.D. was tasked with pushing forward in the Mosul Jedidah district alongside it's sister Battalions Diyala, Najjaf, and Mousel. They generally would take turns on assault duty. As one unit would push forward, they would take and hold an area, then another unit would push forward on their flanks, or through their position.

On March 9 and 10 an especially large battle raged overnight as S.D. assaulted ISIS positions. I could hear AC-130 gunships supporting the guys as they moved forward, with the 25mm and 40mm cannon walking down the streets chasing ISIS soldiers as they fell back to reinforced positions. They guys at the Battalion Command Post would tell me as they were calling in airstrikes, and I could go up on the roof and watch them come in, hitting ISIS positions a few blocks away. I'll post up some pics of that.

One of the company commanders, 1st Lt. Mohammed, came back to check in about 3:30 in the morning. As he snatched a bite to eat and made his report I told him I thought all that noise I could hear as the fighting intensified was because of him. He just laughed and joked: "Who me? I never hurt anyone!". He was a badass.

The morning of the 11th Diyala Battalion pushed through the next neighborhood and took it from ISIS. They cleared the area, about a mile forward of the CP where I was staying. One of Diyala's company commanders, Captain Nabil, asked if I wanted to walk up to their new CP with him. Since the area was already secured, I decided to take him up on his offer.

We patrolled forward from what was now the rear. We had a bodyguard, and an armored Humvee which we walked alongside, and used for cover as we jogged across areas where distant snipers could potentially see us. As we patrolled forward, a steady stream of civilians was flowing past us, hurrying to use this break in the fighting to flee the battlefield, and to flee their two years of ISIS occupation. Dead bodies littered the streets.

As we came within a few hundred meters of Diyala's new CP, I noticed a group of civilian men standing outside a house watching us pass by. One guy was wearing mirrored sunglasses on an overcast day. For some reason their gaze unnerved me. I have been trained to pay attention to these feelings, but since the others I was with (very experienced special operations soldiers) didn't give them a second glance, I decided that the hair that stood up on the back of my neck was just an unfounded fear. I was wrong.

A minute or so later as we stood at an intersection up a slight hill, blocked by six or 8 humvees, someone yelled out: "Muffakhakha!". It means Car Bomb in Arabic. I knew, and I knew what to do. I just started sprinting, trying to get to the nearest alley or doorway to get behind cover. I didn't think, I just ran. I can remember very clearly seeing Nabil sprinting ahead of me with his bowlegged gait. I saw him head toward a doorway, and I thought I'd make it.

I didn't.

I heard the blast first. It was the loudest noise I've ever hear, and I have been around a lot of artillery. In a split second I thought: "My hearing is never gonna recover from this." and also: "There's no way I'm surviving this." An instant later the heat wave and shock waves hit me. I could feel the heat on the back of my neck, and the blast threw me into the wall before I could make it to the door.

Surprisingly to me, I was able to get up, and they guys who had made it inside were trying to pull me in. I could see a doorway to my right bashed down, on fire, and the engine block of the car bomb lying there burning and dripping oil. As I was pulled inside I could see transmission parts all around me, and I remember thinking it was amazing that none of these gears and jagged chunks of metal had hit me.

Nabil made eye contact with me, and then went to work responding to the crisis. I couldn't hear a thing, and the tinnitus already was making my head ring. One of my lenses was smashed, I think when the blast pushed me into the wall the camera got in the way. The guys started treating the wounded, and after I snapped a few shaky pictures, I started to help, bandaging a scalp wound on a guy while they dealt with the more serious injuries. The blast knocked out six humvees, two of which started to burn. The guys raced to unload ammo from the burning vehicles, but had to retreat. Unspent Small Arms ammo, RPG rounds, and Satchells of Plastic Explosives started to cook off and explode, so we had to stay behind cover. As we headed inside, ISIS mortars started to rain down on us. Not the little 60mm ones either, but the big 180mm ones, making the ground shake and flinging dust and debris over our position. I could hear gunfire as the guys in other positions fired on suicide vest bombers who were converging on our position.

I'd guess I was in the building with about 12 Diyala guys for no more than 45 min to and hour. But as I waited with the wounded and their attendants, I saw fear in some of their eyes, and I'd never seen any of these guys afraid of anything. I realized then that I was still an atheist. I just didn't want to die, I kept thinking of my nephews. As the firefight faded and the vehicles burned themselves out they were able to evacuate the wounded and dead in a less damaged humvee. Nabil was off leading his men. I knew I'd have to find my own way back to S.D. base, a mile through dangerous territory. So I followed another officer who started to walk back with his driver. We walked in silence and with no armored vehicle for protection the whole mile back to base.

The S.D. guys were worried about me, they'd heard the blast and the radio traffic, and were glad to see me walk back up.

I took off my gear, told my friend Carmen that I wasn't gonna do that again, and laid down on the sidewalk to take a nap. Three Diyala guys were wounded in this attack, and one was killed. I am simply lucky that I am not dead too. I decided then that my days as a front line photographer were over.

A few weeks later I found the ISIS drone video of the attack. They used drones to record and coordinate their attacks, and then post those in propaganda videos. I could even see the guy who tried to blow me up talking about it before hand. I hate to say it, but I'm glad he's dead. There were little burned parts of him laying all around the area after the attack, and along with the guys, I was glad to see that was all that was left of him.

I won't post the full isis video, because I won't spread their propaganda for them. But I will include the section of drone video that shows the attack, along with the pictures I took that day.

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