On June 29 2014 – nearly three years ago to the day – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the pulpit at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul in northern Iraq. He announced the creation of a new Islamic State that stretched across the borders of Iraq and Syria. Declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of all Muslims, he implored the faithful from across the world to make the pilgrimage to come and serve.
Yesterday, in the midst of what are likely to be the final stages in the Battle for Mosul, the Islamic State appears to have destroyed the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri and its iconic leaning minaret.
As the Iraqi poet Ahmed Zaidan has said, the Great Mosque was not only a significant cultural heritage site for Muslims in general, but it was also regarded as an essential part of the Mosul skyline – a symbol of the city’s long past and diverse communities. The building itself was erected in 1172 by the great Nur Al-Din ibn Zengi (1118-1174), widely regarded as the man who launched the first successful holy war against Western crusaders.
It would be cynical and unwise to dismiss the destruction of the Great Mosque as a last desperate effort by the IS, a fit of rage in the face of imminent defeat. From their inception, the IS have been engaged as much in a symbolic war as they have a military one. And as their capacity to hold and defend territory shrinks, this war becomes key to expressing their power and ideology and imploring their adherents to continue the fight.
An attack on heritage, an attack on Mosul
The IS has been involved in the deliberate destruction of sites that are held most dear by local populations. A key reason for this is to discourage the millions of refugees and displaced from returning and re-building their fragile and cosmopolitan communities.
As our ongoing research, which includes interviews with displaced Iraqis from Mosul, is starting to reveal, many Yezidi and Christians have claimed that they will not go back to their traditional homelands. This is in no small part because their sacred sites – their spiritual connection to the place and their heritage – have been so systematically ruptured by the IS’s destruction.
The Great Mosque of Mosul is no different. The people of Mosul – and more broadly of Iraq – were extremely proud of the mosque and its leaning minaret, which appears on the 10,000 Iraqi dinar banknote. They will lament the destruction of the mosque in much the same way that they continue to mourn the countless archaeological sites and churches that the IS has destroyed.
Another key reason to destroy the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri is that it has already yielded them news attention from across the world. By destroying the mosque, the IS are drawing attention to the fact that many in the West might care more about the destruction of a mosque than the horrific human tragedies unfolding every day in Iraq. Such an attack is therefore also an attack on the “Western” ideology that values the preservation of heritage such as the mosque.
Finally, when Mosul is eventually re-taken from the IS it will be the product of a long and complex battle by a combination of Shia, Kurds and what the IS sees as crusaders (Westerners). It would be a disastrous symbol of defeat for the IS if such forces were to take the pulpit in the Grand Mosque and declare victory over the Caliphate. To destroy the mosque is to deprive their enemies of this opportunity.
The destruction of heritage is always deplorable, and forces us to ask how we value the past and what we can learn from it. However, heritage is also about the future – it is a fundamental part of the recovery of societies which have been affected by war and conflict; it is the glue that holds together such fragile and diverse communities.
The destruction of the Great Mosque is not only an attack on the social fabric of Mosul, it is also a deeper attack on the Iraqi people; a symbol of the many challenges that lie ahead as they try to re-build a peaceful and positive future after the horrors of the Islamic State.
A tragedy is unfolding in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that Islamic State (IS) has brutally occupied since June 2014.
Airstrikes conducted by the international coalition have killed more than 300 civilians in the course of a few weeks. And an investigation is under way to determine who is to blame for more than 200 deaths in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighbourhood on March 17. This is the most deadly event in the battle for Mosul so far.
Given the carnage this one attack caused, it is perhaps unsurprising that local sources put the kill count much higher. Bassma Bassim, head of the Mosul District Council, claimed airstrikes killed “more than 500” civilians in one week in March alone.
All too familiar
The spike in civilian deaths during February and March has been so dramatic it has prompted speculation that the US military has changed its rules of engagement. It has also sparked debate about whether deaths caused by the West are held to a different standard than those caused by countries like Russia.
Long-time Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn argues the West vehemently denounced Russia and Syria for alleged war crimes for indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas during the siege of Aleppo, while hypocritically engaging in similar activities in Mosul at the same time.
The result has been the same. Scores of civilians have been killed in their homes or crushed beneath the rubble of supposed bomb shelters. This has led Amnesty to suggest the coalition is violating international humanitarian law in its campaign in Mosul.
It is not the first time Western airstrikes have killed Iraqis at the same time as Western politicians have claimed to be saving Iraq. But the deaths in Mosul on March 17 – a day after the anniversary of the 1988 Halabja chemical weapons massacre – will add another tragic anniversary to Iraq’s already overloaded memorial calendar.
Mosul’s residents are caught between the brutal violence of IS, which hides among civilians and uses them as human shields, and the amassed firepower of the Iraqi armed forces and their international backers. As one Mosul resident put it:
We are like the wheat between the millstones. They are killing us.
Similarly, the destruction caused by airstrikes have left some Mosul residents wondering whether the putative cure is any better than the disease. One local expressed his view that:
After watching what happened here, I really believe now that the US and Daesh [IS] are a team, working together to destroy our country.
Such sentiments do not bode well for national reconciliation and the reintegration of those who have lived under IS rule.
Wider social and humanitarian crisis
Since it began in October 2016, the fight to liberate Mosul from IS has created a humanitarian crisis which is further straining Iraqi and international resources. It has caused mass displacement, destruction and trauma.
For the 190,000 Iraqis who have been displaced by the Mosul campaign, the most immediate needs are shelter, protection and food security. The UN is concerned that up to 450,000 displaced people will soon need shelter in camps established near Mosul. It expects 3 to 4 million will remain homeless if and when the fighting finally ends.
Longer term, there will be a need for individual and community healing. Mosul residents have described an IS regime of brutality, propaganda and intimidation. Minority groups have been massacred. Women have been forced into sex slavery. Children have been exposed to brutal violence.
These experiences will leave deep scars and social divisions. Reconciliation will be complex and painful. National political leaders have already found themselves at loggerheads about the shape reconciliation might take.
Years of corruption, which undermines effective service delivery, has eroded the government’s capacity to deal with a new generation of traumatised Iraqis. International support will be vital. But the present UN High Commissioner for Refugees has received only 4% of the funding requested.
The impacts of Mosul’s brutal occupation and painful liberation are compounding Iraq’s seemingly endless list of social and economic problems.
Displaced people face difficulties when they try to return home. Returning Mosul residents have to contend with shortages of water, electricity and employment opportunities.
Large amounts of money are needed for reconstruction and to breathe life back into services. The Iraqi government, faced with a looming financial crisis, will rely on international loans for this.
Mosul will remain insecure and dangerous for some time. Problems will persist after liberation including traps, infiltrators and sleepers, and the confusion and fear these tactics create. As in other post-IS cities, various non-state armed groups may play a role in providing security. This creates the potential for new conflicts.
At the same time, IS tactics will continue to evolve – shifting emphasis from territorial control to guerrilla warfare and terrorist bombings – so it can keep killing Iraqis, target vulnerable communities to stoke religious and ethnic tensions, and try to undermine the Iraqi government’s legitimacy.
For the past few weeks, Iraqis have used the social media hashtag #مأساة_الموصل, masat al-Mosul – “the tragedy of Mosul” – to share news reports and images from Mosul and surrounding areas.
It has also been used to request donations to various relief efforts for displaced people, often accompanying photos of volunteers and their supplies.
There is no equivalent hashtag in English. This is a small but telling reflection of Western indifference to Iraqi civilian deaths and international news media priorities.
The tragedy of Mosul is that while IS’s territorial project in Iraq is coming to an end, it is creating new problems – destruction, displacement, trauma – that exacerbate the country’s existing challenges.
The West must acknowledge its role in stoking this crisis, just as Russia and Iran have been responsible for suffering in Syria. Mosul, it seems, is the West’s Aleppo.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? In the final article of our series examining this question, Greg Barton shows the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group’s inexorable rise.
Despite precious little certainty in the “what ifs” of history, it’s clear the rise of Islamic State (IS) wouldn’t have been possible without the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without these Western interventions, al-Qaeda would never have gained the foothold it did, and IS would not have emerged to take charge of northern Iraq.
Whether or not the Arab Spring, and the consequent civil war in Syria, would still have occurred is much less clear.
But even if war hadn’t broken out in Syria, it’s unlikely an al-Qaeda spin-off such as IS would have become such a decisive actor without launching an insurgency in Iraq. For an opportunistic infection to take hold so comprehensively, as IS clearly has, requires a severely weakened body politic and a profoundly compromised immune system.
Such were the conditions in Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria from 2010 to 2015 and in conflict-riven Somalia after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. And it was so in Afghanistan for the four decades after conflict broke out in 1978 and in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977.
Sadly, but even more clearly, such are the circumstances in Iraq and Syria today. And that’s the reason around 80% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in recent years have occurred in five of the six countries discussed here, where such conditions still prevail.
An unique opportunity
The myth of modern international terrorist movements, and particularly of al-Qaeda and its outgrowths such as IS (which really is a third-generation al-Qaeda movement), is that they’re inherently potent and have a natural power of attraction.
The reality is that while modern terrorist groups can and do operate all around the globe to the point where no country can consider itself completely safe, they can only build a base when local issues attract on-the-ground support.
Consider al-Qaeda, which is in the business of global struggle. It wants to unite a transnational ummah to take on far-off enemies. But it has only ever really enjoyed substantial success when it has happened across conducive local circumstances.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provided an opportunity uniquely suited to the rise of al-Qaeda and associated movements. It provided plausible justification for a defensive jihad – a just war – that garnered broad international support and allowed the group to coalesce in 1989 out of the Arab fighters who had rallied to support the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets.
Further opportunities emerged in the Northern Caucasus, where local ethno-national grievances were eventually transformed into the basis for a more global struggle.
The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996, when tens of thousands were killed. After a short, uneasy peace, a decade-long second civil war started in 1999 following the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by the International Islamic Brigade.
The second civil war began with an intense campaign to seize control of the Chechen capital, Grozny. But it became dominated by years of fighting jihadi and other insurgents in the Caucus mountains and dealing with related terrorist attacks in Russia.
In Nigeria and Somalia, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab now share many of the key attributes of al-Qaeda, with whom they have forged nascent links. But they too emerged primarily because of the failure of governance and the persistence of deep-seated local grievances.
Even in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda struggled to transform itself into a convincing champion of local interests in the 1990s. After becoming increasingly isolated following the September 11 attacks on the US, it failed to gain support from the Afghan Taliban for its global struggle.
But something new happened in Iraq beginning in 2003. The Jordanian street thug Musab al-Zarqawi correctly intuited that the impending Western invasion and occupation of Iraq would provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of insurgencies.
Al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion and deftly rode a wave of anger and despair to initiate and grow an insurgency that in time came to dominate the broken nation.
Initially, al-Zarqawi was only one of many insurgent leaders intent on destabilising Iraq. But, in October 2004, after years of uneasy relations with the al-Qaeda leader during two tours in Afghanistan, he finally yielded to Osama bin Laden’s request that he swear on oath of loyalty (bayat) to him. And so al-Zarqawi’s notorious network of insurgents became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
From the ashes
Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process of May 2003 to June 2004, during which senior technocrats and military officers linked to the Ba’ath party (the vehicle of the Saddam Hussein regime) were removed from office, set the stage for many to join counter-occupation insurgent groups – including AQI.
Without the sacking of a large portion of Iraq’s military and security leaders, its technocrats and productive middle-class professionals, it’s not clear whether this group would have come to dominate so comprehensively. These alienated Sunni professionals gave AQI, as well as IS, much of its core military and strategic competency.
But even with the windfall opportunity presented to al-Zarqawi by the wilful frustration of Sunni interests by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government from 2006 to 2014, which deprived them of any immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities, AQI was almost totally destroyed after the Sunni awakening began in 2006.
The Sunni awakening forces, or “Sons of Iraq”, began with tribal leaders in Anbar province forming an alliance with the US military. For almost three years, tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were paid directly to fight AQI, but the Maliki government refused to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi Security Force. And, after October 2008 – when management of these forces was handed over by the US military – he refused to support them.
The death of al-Zarqawi in June 2006 contributed to the profound weakening of the strongest of all post-invasion insurgent groups. AQI’s force strength was reduced to several hundred fighters and it lost the capacity to dominate the insurgency.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, circumstances combined to blow oxygen onto the smouldering coals.
In 2010, the greatly underestimated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a local Iraqi cleric with serious religious scholarly credentials, took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.
Elements of the strategy went by the name “breaking the walls”. In the 12 months to July 2013, this entailed the movement literally breaking down the prison walls in compounds around Baghdad that held hundreds of hardcore al-Qaeda fighters.
Islamic State, as the group now called itself, also benefited from the inflow of former Iraqi intelligence officers and senior military leaders. This had begun with de-Ba’athification in 2003 and continued after the collapse of the Sunni awakening and the increasingly overt sectarianism of the Maliki government.
Together, they developed tactics based on vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and the strategic use of suicide bombers. These were deployed not in the passionate but often undirected fashion of al-Qaeda but much more like smart bombs in the hands of a modern army.
And the US military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, well telegraphed ahead of time, provided an excellent opportunity for the struggling insurgency to rebuild. As did the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
A helping hand
Al-Baghdadi initially dispatched his trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to form a separate organisation in Syria: the al-Nusra front.
Jabhat al-Nusra quickly established itself in northern Syria. But when al-Julani refused to fold his organisation in under his command, al-Baghdadi rebranded AQI (or Islamic State in Iraq) Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
Then, a series of events turned IS from an insurgency employing terrorist methods to becoming a nascent rogue state. These included the occupation of Raqqa on the Syrian Euphrates in December 2013; the taking of Ramadi a month later; consolidation of IS control throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province; and, finally, a sudden surge down the river Tigris in June 2014 that took Mosul and most of the towns and cities along the river north of Baghdad within less than a week.
IS’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, was a watershed moment that is only now being properly understood.
In its ground operations, including the governing of aggrieved Sunni communities, IS moved well beyond being simply a terrorist movement. It came to function as a nascent rogue state ruling over around 5 million people in the northern cities of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and defending its territory through conventional military means.
At the same time, it skilfully exploited the internet and social media in ways the old al-Qaeda could not do – and that its second-generation offshoot, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had only partially achieved.
This allowed IS to draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Most came from the Middle East and Northern Africa, but as many as 5000 came from Europe, with thousands more from the Caucusus and from Asia.
Unlike the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s, these foreign fighters have played a key role in providing sufficient strength to take and hold territory while also building a global network of support.
But without the perfect-storm conditions of post-invasion insurgency, this most potent expression of al-Qaedaism yet would never have risen to dominate both the region and the world in the way that it does.
Even in its wildest dreams, al-Qaeda could never have imagined that Western miscalculations post-9/11 could have led to such foolhardy engagements – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.
Were it not for these miscalculations, 9/11 might well have precipitated the decline of al-Qaeda. Instead, with our help, it spawned a global jihadi movement with a territorial base far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever had.