The Islamic State group media centre was hidden in plain sight in an upscale part of a west Mosul neighbourhood now recaptured by Iraqi forces.
Inside a two-storey villa, complete with a garden and a shed, IS produced placards and broadcast its Al-Bayan radio station, according to Iraqi forces and residents.
“The neighbours told us that they (IS) produced their adverts here,” said Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi, of the interior ministry’s elite Rapid Response Division.
“And after we came in and examined it completely, we discovered that it was a media centre that broadcast the Al-Bayan radio station.”
The building was set alight by IS fighters as they fled the neighbourhood, Mohammedawi said, and little was left behind.
Inside, the walls were caked with black soot all the way up the roof, where a toy car was untouched.
The kitchen was virtually unrecognisable, and reams of documents were reduced to ash by the fire.
A handful of calculators, some melted but others intact, sat by the kitchen entrance, and the shells of computer hard drive towers were still visible.
“Everything is totally burnt… we found a few computers, adverts, some CDs, which will be taken to the intelligence unit,” said Mohammedawi.
He said radio broadcasting equipment had also been found, and Rapid Response members were seen moving a sound mixing board.
“This place used to belong to Daesh, no one entered it because it was forbidden,” said neighbour Obaida Radwan, 22, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“They used it as a media point, to print their adverts, the ones you see on the street,” he said
“It was also used… for the Al-Bayan radio station.”
IS has developed a sophisticated media output that experts say is a key plank of its operations.
It has used Al-Bayan, along with its other media channels, to claim attacks overseas, including the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 50 people in June.
– ‘Propaganda is everything’ –
It also regularly distributes material intended to lionise its fighters and romanticise life under its rule in the hope of attracting recruits.
“Propaganda is everything for the Islamic State,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College.
“Not just in terms of its ability to brand itself around the world but also to sustain some level of acquiescence in its heartland in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
IS’s own media, as well as discoveries made in territory recaptured from the group, show it often erects large placards with its religious rules, including instructing women on the all-covering clothes they must wear in its domain.
Winter said it was unsurprising the group had set fire to its Jawsaq centre to protect its secrets.
“They are perhaps more secretive about the media than they are about almost any other aspect of the organisation,” he said.
“That’s because it’s so important to them, it’s a way for them to weather losses, to embed themselves in people’s mind even if their territorial hold is tenuous.”
Among the ashes of the villa’s contents was one untouched box outside by a window. It contained hundreds of square covers for use with CDs distributed by IS.
Winter said the remaining contents of the house suggested it could have been used to produce materials to be distributed at “media kiosks,” which IS set up in areas under its control to disseminate propaganda touting its achievements.
But he suggested the villa, in a residential neighbourhood where everyone knew the building was a media hub, would not have been a major part of IS’s propaganda output.
“I’d be very surprised if they made any of the videos, did any of the post-production or kept any of the narrators in a place as public as that,” he said.
“I think that would be somewhere very, very secret.”
Iraqi forces began an operation to capture west Mosul on February 19, after pushing IS out of the city’s east bank.
The operation is progressing slowly but steadily, with the urban setting making fighting more difficult and dangerous for troops.