A real-life horror movie unfolds as ISIS loses control in Mosul

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KHAZER CAMP, Iraq — Ali Mohammed thought he knew ISIS — the lethal but mostly disciplined thugs who patrolled his neighborhood in eastern Mosul for the past two and half years.

But it wasn't until a few months ago, shortly before Iraq's military began its offensive to retake Iraq's second-largest city, that the militants' true character was laid bare.

"They just started to create executions. Just for anybody," said the 47-year-old iron worker, who now lives with his large family in a tent in the massive camp for displaced people in Khazer. "They were afraid of the people — that's why they were acting that way."

Related: Battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS

35 PHOTOS
The battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS
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The battle to reclaim Mosul from ISIS
A still image taken from an Islamic State (IS) video released through the group's Amaq news agency shows an unidentified militant addressing the camera. Video said to be shot in Mosul, Iraq, on October 18. 2016. REUTERS/Reuters TV via Amaq news agency TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi army members stand with thier weapons in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Iraqi security forces gesture in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A still image taken from an Islamic State (IS) video released through the group's Amaq news agency claims to show militants patrolling the streets of Mosul. Video said to be shot in Mosul, Iraq, on October 18. 2016. REUTERS/Reuters TV via Amaq news agency
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) gather on the outskirts of Bartila east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
An aviation ordnanceman inspects a bomb on an F/A-18E Super Hornet just before take-off for Mosul, Iraq to provide air-support from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN 69 carrier in Arabia Gulf, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A member of the Peshmerga forces inspects homes on the outskirts of Bartila, east of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces stand around a tunnel used by Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Bartila, east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Iraqi army personnel ride on a military vehicle in Qayyarah, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Smoke rises from a bomb taken through the window of a military vehicle in Qayyarah during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off for Mosul, Iraq to provide air-support from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN 69 carrier in Arabia Gulf, October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
A U.S army soldier stands with his weapon at a military base in the Makhmour area near Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
U.S army soldiers arrive at a military base in the Makhmour area near Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Peshmerga forces sit in the back of a vehicle in the east of Mosul during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Christian volunteers, who have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, take part in a training at a training base in the town of Alqosh, 50 km (30 miles) from Mosul, Iraq, October 11, 2016. Picture taken October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
Peshmerga forces walk in the east of Mosul during operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes at Bartila in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Peshmerga forces with western forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A member from western forces stands with his weapon in the east of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A member of Peshmerga forces stands on a military vehicle in the east of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, October 16, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces gather on the east of Mosul during preparations to attack Mosul, Iraq, early October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Smoke rises from clashes in the east of Mosul during clashes with Islamic State militants, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
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Amidst the tales of escalating war and harrowing escapes, Ali Mohammed and his fellow exiles from Mosul described a terrorist group that had rapidly morphed from a formidable pseudo-army that controlled the city into a shambolic gang of murderous thugs.

More from NBC News: Two-Front Battle Puts 'Huge Amount of Pressure on ISIS'

If ISIS' oppressive rule had been unbearable when the group was at its most powerful, it became even worse under its decline as U.S.-backed Iraqi military forces drew closer, according to former Mosul residents. The jittery militants turned harshly on the civilians they had once tried to recruit.

To be sure, life in Mosul had been as difficult as ISIS had been severe. The militants forced male residents to wear their beards long and their trousers short — an indication of piety among very conservative Muslims. Women were made to cover their faces entirely, said Mahren Jassimi Abdullah, 60, who arrived at the Khazer Camp for displaced people from eastern Mosul on Friday.

Related: ISIS releases 'worst ever video' at start of holiday

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ISIS releases 'worst ever video' at start of holiday
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ISIS releases 'worst ever video' at start of holiday
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'

ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'

ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
ISIS releases a sickening new execution video to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha -- known as the 'Sacrifice Feast.'
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Khalid Ibrahim, 37, a laborer in eastern Mosul, said he was whipped 100 times by ISIS militants and jailed for 12 days because of his somewhat lewd tattoo of a busty woman on his right bicep.

"They said I was trying to imitate Jewish life," said Ibrahim. "They prevented people from putting pictures in their homes."

But early in their rule of the city, ISIS had shown a kind of mercy. Shortly after taking over in June 2014, they told residents who had been in any way affiliated with the security forces or the local police to line up at ISIS administrative offices and "repent" by swearing loyalty to the group. Thousands of men followed suit.

Two years later as Iraqi security forces began to coalesce around Mosul, ISIS militants changed their mind in the most severe way: They rounded up former officers and soldiers and executed them by the hundreds — a crime that human rights groups and the Iraqi military confirmed with the discovery of mass graves.

"We expected that they would cancel them," said Qusay Mohammed, 30, a local police officer who escaped slaughter by hiding in abandoned homes until he could make a break for it. "They're the kind that would stab you in the back."

Qusay Mohammed and other former residents said that ISIS was suspicious that the soldiers and police would join the invading Iraqi military once they closed in on the city.

But the jihadis' mounting paranoia didn't end with ex-officers. As the Iraqi military drew closer, the group became increasingly suspicious of ordinary residents.

"They were afraid to let people get close to them," Qusay Mohammed said. "They would keep people at a distance scared that [the civilians] would kill them."

It was around then that city residents noticed an even more profound change: Suddenly, the wizened older ISIS members, many of them foreigners, disappeared from the city streets. In their wake, they left teenage locals whom they recruited into their ranks.

"The elders escaped. They took their families and their money and left," said Jebril Shehada Abdullah, 28, a former police officer, who speculated that the older fighters had left for Syria or Turkey. "They left only the young guys. They were all locals who were deceived."

That was hardly a positive development: The younger militants were little more than poorly educated, radicalized thugs intoxicated with power. They roared around east Mosul neighborhoods on motorcycles, threatening and terrorizing civilians.

"The people just stayed inside their houses. If you opened your door they would shoot you," Abdullah said.

ISIS commandos who had been impossibly pious began to curse like sailors, screaming at residents and insulting their mothers in a way that only a month before would have earned them harsh discipline from their fellow jihadis.

The youthful fighters went door-to-door, demanding that families move closer into Mosul to act as human shields against coalition airstrikes.

Mosul took on the trappings of a horror film. People suspected of treason or spying were not only beheaded as they had been before. The militants took to mounting the severed heads in public or kicking them around like soccer balls, according to reports from several survivors in Khazer Camp.

ISIS' paranoia reached its nadir when the jihadis dressed up in pilfered Iraqi military uniforms and paraded into Hammam Alil, a town south of Mosul with Iraqi military flags and arrested everyone who came out to greet them.

"People came out to welcome them," said Abdullah. "They took 150 locals in Hammam Alil and executed them."

Related: Iraq's oldest cemetery growing quickly due to ISIS war

22 PHOTOS
Iraq's oldest cemetery growing quickly due to ISIS war
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Iraq's oldest cemetery growing quickly due to ISIS war
The Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", is seen in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Tombs are seen at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Decayed dome is seen at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Mourners carry the coffin of their relative during a funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A boy digs a grave at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Men bury a body at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A woman holds containers which are used for washing the graves at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
People visit graves of their relative at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A man holds empty containers that are used for washing graves at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
An undertaker smokes shisha at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A woman prays inside the shrine of Imam Mahdi at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A municipality worker pulls a trash container at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A woman takes a selfie inside the shrine of Imam Mahdi at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
People line up to collect blessed water inside the shrine of Imam Mahdi at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A woman washes the grave of her relative at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A woman is seen at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Residents visit the graves of their relatives at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A man mourns on the grave of his relative at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A man prays inside the shrine of Imam Mahdi at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
A man reads verses from the Koran at the grave of his relative at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
Tombs are seen at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani 
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The anecdote is impossible to independently verify without access to further evidence, but several men from south of Mosul in Khazer Camp corroborated the story.

Even as their circumstances grew increasingly severe, many civilians still hoped to remain. The Iraqi military had airdropped pamphlets appealing to residents to remain in their homes, and many were afraid that life in the displaced peoples' camps would be worse.

Ali Mohammed was worried for his wife: She was nine months pregnant and in no condition to flee the city on foot.

After 10 days holed up in his family home, his family of seven found themselves wedged between coalition airstrikes and ISIS mortars and car bombs. They decided to make a run for it.

With his wife and five children in tow, Ali Mohammed fashioned a white flag out of sheets and hustled about three miles to the Iraqi military's front line. Even as they ran, ISIS sniper fire pecked the ground around them.

Ali Mohammed arrived at Khazer Camp on Nov. 9. His wife gave birth to their sixth child only a day later, he said, born safe from the horror they had just left behind.

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