Even after the recent arrests and deaths of dozens of its members, the Islamic State-linked network of militant groups in Indonesia organised under the umbrella Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) clearly remains a potent force.
In the past week, five bombings have rocked the island of Java, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 50 – the deadliest series of terrorist attacks in the country since the Bali bombings in 2002. These attacks included the bombings of three churches in the city of Surabaya, carried out by a family that used its children as suicide bombers.
The latest attack came on Wednesday when four assailants wielding swords stormed a police station in Sumatra. One officer was killed and two others were injured. The alleged militants were shot dead.
Formed in 2015, JAD achieved notoriety in January 2016 with a military-style attack in the centre of Jakarta that resulted in the deaths of four people and four attackers. Dozens of other potential attacks were foiled in the two years that followed, but several smaller ones were carried out, directed largely against the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism police unit – the arch-nemesis of JAD.
Formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings, with assistance from the Australian Federal Police, Detachment 88 has emerged as one of the world’s most effective counter-terrorism units, having arrested more than 1,000 militants.
Last year, 172 suspected terrorists were apprehended and 16 shot dead, following 163 arrests in 2016 and 73 in 2015. Most of the militants recently arrested have been linked with JAD and the related Islamic State support network of Mujahidin Indonesian Timur (MIT).
Since it declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State has perversely given special attention to planning and inspiring terrorist attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began this week.
This is the first Ramadan since the group lost control of large swathes of its territory centred around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. As the Islamic State is clearly desperate to maintain its brand and prove its continuing potency around the globe, there are now concerns the recent attacks in Indonesia are a sign the group has extended its reach eastward to the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Ever since the Islamic State shot to prominence with the fall of Mosul in 2014, there have been fears about its potential to reenergise the decades-old jihadi network in Indonesia.
Since 2013, it’s estimated between 600 and 1,000 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict, most drawn to the Islamic State and its fabled caliphate. (Others were aligned with al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra.)
Indonesian police estimate 400-500 of these fighters subsequently returned home, either from Syria and Iraq, or from Turkey on their way to join the conflict. Many have been met at the airport by authorities and taken into rehabilitation programs. But others returned unannounced. With a lack of appropriate laws in Indonesia, these returning fighters cannot be prosecuted for travelling overseas to join the Islamic State.
After the recent JAD attacks in Indonesia, local police have spoken of sleeper cells of returnees from the Middle East and their associates, who lay low and give the appearance of having no inclination to violence, even while they prepare for an attack at an opportune time.
Initially, it was reported by the respected head of the Indonesian police, General Tito Karnavian, that a family of six involved in the bomb attacks on the churches in Surabaya had returned from the Middle East. Later reports suggested this was not the case. Nevertheless, they and the other two families involved in the attacks were close associates of Islamic State returning fighters.
Defeat in the Middle East
The world rejoiced when Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate, was finally liberated in October 2017, following a four-month siege. With the fall of the city, the last holdout of its tens of thousands of local and foreign fighters was also defeated.
Months earlier, Mosul, the last city held by the Islamic State in Iraq, fell after nine months of the most brutal urban warfare since the second world war. With the caliphate destroyed, it was believed the Islamic State itself had been eliminated, too.
As it turns out, the fall of Raqqa did not see the final destruction of the Islamic State army. Rather, under a secret deal brokered by the Kurdish-led, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces who led the campaign to liberate Raqqa, thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families were allowed to leave the city in convoys of busses and trucks.
Many made their way to Turkey, where it seems some remain. But thousands more drove into the desert of eastern Syria, occupying territory along the Euphrates River and linked to others across the border in rural northern Iraq.
Many Islamic State fighters, especially local Arabs, have gone to ground, blending into villages and Sunni desert communities. Even in liberated Mosul, which is largely Sunni, many locals still express support for the militant group.
The election of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the failure to rebuild Mosul and other destroyed Sunni cities, mean that in Iraq, as in Syria, all the social and communal grievances that supported the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remain in place.
Even as the Islamic State was losing territory in Iraq in recent years, its leaders spoke with the conviction of an apocalyptic cult, confidently asserting that even if they lost the caliphate, the insurgency would rebuild.
Today, the group has active affiliates and supporters across the Muslim world, including in the southern Philippines, and a “virtual insurgency” throughout the many Western countries that contributed around one-quarter of the group’s total of 40,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The insurgency is far from over, and in Indonesia it may well be that the worst is yet to come.
The links below are to articles reporting on the persecution of Christians in Iraq. The most recent articles are at the top.
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As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?
Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.
I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.
Government problems hobble South Sudan
These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.
My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.
The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.
A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.
It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.
Did aid make a difference in Iraq?
After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.
Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.
I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.
We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.
Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.
East Timor didn’t lack money – just sense
From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.
A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.
We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.
The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.
Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.
The lessons learned
Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.
Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.
The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.
It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.
Denis Dragovic’s new book No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is published by Odyssey Books.
Secession movements come not in ones but twos, it seems. In the space of a week, two regions in which national groups have chafed at central government diktat have voted overwhelmingly for independence.
In both cases, these protest votes are having ramifications far beyond the nationalist movements that have been agitating for a separation from the states in which they reside.
In each case, central government resistance risks further upheaval, even civil conflict in the case of the Iraqi Kurds, whose cause is threatened not simply by the Iraqi government in Baghdad but by surrounding states.
Meanwhile, there was confirmation overnight of overwhelming support in a referendum in the Catalan region of Spain for independence from Madrid.
Of the 2.26 million who cast ballots, more than 90% voted “yes”. However, a significant number of Catalans opposed to separation from Madrid simply did not vote.
After threatening to declare independence within four days, the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is now calling for European Union mediation, indicating that he recognises limitations on the validity of the poll. He said:
It is not a domestic matter. We don’t want a traumatic break … We want a new understanding with the Spanish state.
Under Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which ended decades of Franco-led fascist rule, the country’s Constitutional Court declared the Catalan poll had no legal status and so its results were invalid.
On the other hand, Spain’s beleaguered leadership can hardly ignore the Catalan plebiscite. Resorting to force in which scores have been injured over recent days in clashes between police and nationalists is clearly not the answer to this rupture in the country’s unity.
The best case for Spain and European amity would seem to lie in agreement on greater autonomy for Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region wedged in its north-east on the Mediterranean coast by a mountainous border with France.
A week ago, in a far more troubled corner of the world, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for separation from Baghdad. Of those who cast ballots, 93% voted “yes”.
Commentators were quick to hail the vote as an “irreversible step toward independence”, in the words of Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat and longstanding advocate for Kurdish separateness.
But that early optimism among supporters of Kurdish independence may prove to be misplaced, given forces arrayed against such an outcome.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad threatened force to prevent oil-rich Kurdistan’s separation, and other players in the neighbourhood have made their opposition clear.
Iran, with a sizeable Kurdish minority of its own living in areas contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan, closed its borders and made threatening noises if the Kurds persisted.
Turkey, which has its own Kurdish separatist problem that has cost something like 40,000 lives, has warned that it is considering closing border crossings into Kurdistan, thus strangling lifelines to the outside world.
Implied in Ankara’s response to the Kurdish vote is a threat to stop oil shipments via a pipeline across its territory from Kirkuk, stifling struggling Kurdistan’s main source of income.
A decline in oil prices has brought the local economy to its knees.
At the same time, Iraq, Turkey and Iran are planning joint military manoeuvres aimed at further isolating the beleaguered and seemingly friendless Kurds.
Baghdad has stopped flights from its territory to the two Kurdish international airports.
In civil-war scarred Damascus, Syria has also voice its opposition to Kurdish independence, in acknowledgement of its own Kurdish separatist problem.
In Washington, the administration poured cold water on Kurdish aspirations, thereby acknowledging that further destabilisation of a volatile region represents a threat to US interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:
The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday. The vote and results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.
Reactions of the putative state of Kurdistan’s neighbours is hardly surprising given the region’s brutal realpolitik. But this does little to disguise the fact that a post-first world war construct in the Middle East is under siege.
In the wash-up of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the redrawing the region’s boundaries under a secret colonial-era accord between Britain and France, the Kurds can consider themselves hard done-by not to have been given their own state.
A century later, the Iran-backed and Shiite-dominated Iraqi state is under enormous stress, having ousted Islamic State from most of its strongholds in bloody conflict backed by the US and its allies, including Australia.
A sullen and disenfranchised Sunni minority, who had lent their support to a murderous IS, is a residue of longstanding tribal conflicts and tensions across Iraq.
The Kurds have effectively gone their own way since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But they have found that attachment to a corrupt Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad has been a drag on their national aspirations.
At the heart of difficulties between the Kurds and Iran-backed rulers in Baghdad is money. The Kurds can legitimately claim they are not receiving their fair share of oil revenues.
This is not to say the Kurds are blameless in the conduct of their affairs. A Barzani political fiefdom led by Maassoud Barzani has its share of critics, not least those who question its democratic credentials.
Barzani himself remains in power two years after his term as president has expired. The Kurdish parliament is virtually defunct, and members of the Barzani family occupy many of the government’s leading posts.
In all of this, it is reasonable to speculate what might have been if a push in 2006 for a separation of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite enclaves had been countenanced.
This was a solution proposed by then Senator, later Vice President Joe Biden. Indeed, back then the Senate passed a resolution supporting the Biden proposal.
A re-emergence of Kurdish separatist demands is merely one consequence of upheavals that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was an adventure that has cost the American taxpayer upwards of a trillion dollars and contributed to the de-stabilisation of the entire region.
In their separate bids for independence – or greater autonomy – the Kurds and the Catalans are facing gale-force headwinds.
Neither case has international support – although both the Kurds and the Catalans have their sympathisers. The Scots, for example, have expressed support for Catalan aspirations.
The two also have to reckon with resistance more generally to secessionist movements.
The last nation to win independence was landlocked South Sudan in 2011, with the backing of the international community. In that case, the independence referendum grew out of an internationally brokered peace agreement that ended Sudan’s long-running civil war.
Kosovo is another example of national aspirations that enjoyed widespread international support. Its declaration of independence from Serbia had the backing of the US and its European allies, but was opposed by the Serbian and Russians government.
While Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, it has still not been admitted to the United Nations due to a Russian veto.
The Catalans and the Kurds have some way to go before they realise their aspirations. It is not clear that independence plebiscites shorn of international legitimacy will yield what some believe is their just rewards.
The links below are to articles reporting on persecution and ISIS news from Iraq and Syria (the most recent are at the top).
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The predictable recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) marks a new milestone in the tumultuous events of the Middle East. It has important ramifications for Iraq, IS and the West.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wasted no time claiming victory, entering the ruined city in staged jubilation. Wearing military uniform, al-Abadi was swift to capitalise on the victory, signalling his authority over the entire country. He hopes to keep Iraq united through strengthened political clout on his return to the politically polarised capital of Baghdad.
But the capture of Mosul may in fact accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq into smaller states. The leader of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, Masud Barzani, has made clear his intentions to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2017.
Until now, Barzani had to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to clear the IS menace from Mosul and northern Iraq. Now he will have to tread carefully to meet the growing Kurdish expectation of independence and manage al-Abadi’s anticipation of gratitude for the liberation of Mosul.
Barzani and Kurds can see a historic opportunity to create a Kurdish polity in northern Iraq. The gravity of this polity is eventually expected to pull neighbouring Kurdish regions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish dream is to combine these regions to create a larger Kurdish state.
At the same time, al-Abadi will increase pressure on Barzani to remain loyal to a unitary Iraq. While the prime minister will spend most of his time in the safety of the Baghdad green zone, Barzani will collaborate with US forces and heavily armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from its capital, Raqqa. He will also play a key role in further clearing operations in eastern Syria in the second half of 2017 and possibly into 2018.
With the fall of Mosul, the impending capture of Raqqa, and the confirmed death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s days as a caliphate are numbered. Although some argue that IS will transform into a virtual caliphate, without a sovereign state a caliphate is meaningless and Islamically invalid.
This reality has a dramatic impact on the recruiting power of IS. It was able to attract followers with its claim to have resurrected the caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
IS gained an almost miraculous aura after capturing Mosul with 800 fighters. In their eyes, this was proof that God was on their side. A few weeks after the capture of Mosul, al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the city’s historic mosque in June 2014.
For as much as Mosul had symbolic value for an IS caliphate, its loss signals an irreversible trajectory of collapse. Although IS is taking huge blows, there is no reason to believe it will disappear, much like the frustrating persistence of Taliban in Afghanistan since the collapse of its government in 2001.
Nobody should expect mass desertions from IS ranks. Its membership is likely to remain loyal and fight to the end. What remains of IS leadership holds to the theological line that the pledge of allegiance or bay’ah is binding before God, and if they abandon ranks they will die in a state of disbelief.
While this may help retain surviving militants, IS recruiting power around the world will dramatically reduce, as the greatest attraction for recruits was the promise of a utopian Islamic state.
Nevertheless IS, or whatever the group will be called in the future, will adapt and look for new missions to motivate its members and attract recruits.
One possible trajectory is a merger with al-Qaeda. This is a real possibility, as IS emerged from al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria. Without a real caliphate, the line of distinction between IS and al-Qaeda blurs to insignificance, even though their leaderships were in open hostility and competed for the soul of the violent radical movement.
The ideology and the narrative of IS and al-Qaeda are the same: Western powers and their local collaborators are responsible for the occupation of Muslim territories and the ensuing suffering of Muslim populations; violent military response is the response these enemies understand and the only solution that works.
This ideology is conveniently covered by the same veneer of religious arguments to utilise the persuasive power of Islam in gaining and rallying gullible supporters to their ranks.
The more likely trajectory for IS is to ignore the spectacular failure of its state and cling to the alluring promise of a caliphate. Persisting with its brand of radicalism, IS could exist as a violent insurgent movement positioned in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian town near the border with Iraq.
For the time being, the US administration seems determined not to leave IS any haven, Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.
As IS regroups, it is likely to unleash violence on two fronts. The first is in the West. IS will attempt to use its sleeper cells and deploy social media to motivate a new generation of gullible minds to carry out terror attacks in North America, Europe and perhaps Australia.
The second front is where IS is based – Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to IS in the first place, such as military conflict, political instability, sectarian polarisation, ethnic divisions and corruption, continue to exist in both countries. The situation will not change overnight.
Through a drawn-out insurgency and waves of violence, IS will attempt to destabilise the Iraqi and Syrian governments in the hope of resurrecting its Islamic state. Ironically, the greatest victims will be Islam, Muslims and peace in Muslim lands.
US-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria are in the process of rooting Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their strongholds in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
In the case of Mosul in Iraq, the removal of diehard IS remnants might be completed any day now. In Raqqa, the IS headquarters in eastern Syria, US-backed rebel forces are in the town’s suburbs.
How long it will take for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by US artillery and airstrikes, to rid Raqqa of IS and at what cost is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear we are entering the final battle for what has served as the so-called caliphate’s headquarters.
However, what should be understood is the Syrian conflict is far from any sort of long-term resolution. It may be on the verge of becoming more complex and thus more dangerous.
The world is now observing a potentially highly volatile stage in the post-IS fight for Syria, with interested parties manoeuvring for what might be described as the “next game” – certainly not the “endgame”. Latest developments are bringing the US and its allies in Syria into closer proximity to – and possible direct conflict with – the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime, and Iran itself.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders and Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside Assad forces to regain territory and re-establish Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country.
This is a fight to the death.
From Iran’s perspective, Syria – ruled by a heterodox Shiite sect – represents a vital piece in its Middle East designs. This is not least because it provides a corridor to its Hezbollah Shiite co-religionists in Lebanon. This is why it continues to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. A Syrian setback would be crippling for its regional ambitions.
Risks of the US and Iran rubbing up against each other in Syria and precipitating a wider conflagration are incalculable in circumstances in which America’s Middle East policy is in flux, if not in chaos. Not helping is the impression that elements of the Trump administration are spoiling for a fight with Iran without comprehending wider consequences.
And then there’s Russia. It may not have forces on the ground, but its warplanes in Assad’s service are part of a toxic brew that threatens a wider Middle East conflict. Risks grow by the day.
What is clear – as Iraqi forces retake a shattered Mosul and Syrian anti-Assad regime rebels push further into Raqqa – is that contesting forces in Syria are battling over the country’s shattered post-IS corpse. Where this will end is impossible to predict, but as a rule of thumb in the Middle East these sorts of situations do not end well.
Tensions – and risks – were underscored earlier this month when the US shot down a Syrian Russian-supplied jet in airspace to the south of Raqqa. The US has also brought down several Iranian drones in hotly costed territory around the Euphrates.
What is transpiring as an IS “caliphate” shrinks east towards the Iraq border from Raqqa is the emergence of a vacuum that various players are striving to fill, including principally the Assad regime, having regained control of the west of Syria.
Where this will go next is not clear, not least because the US has not indicated the extent to which it plans to continue to involve itself on the ground beyond rooting out IS from its Raqqa redoubt. Will it step aside when and if Raqqa falls, enabling Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia and with the participation of Lebanese and Iraqi militias, to regain control of lost territory? Or will it remain a factor?
Journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has spent years reporting on the Syrian conflict and its implications for the wider Middle East, is at a loss to interpret US policy in Syria beyond its confrontation with IS. As he writes in Foreign Policy:
The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated US policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of a potential confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.
Spyer quotes the Iranian Fars News Agency as saying ominously:
The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun. Stormy days are ahead of us.
That might be regarded as an understatement. What is clear is that the US cannot expand its presence in eastern Syria without engaging the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. As Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East observes:
The United States cannot tiptoe around Iran and the Syrian regime while capturing strategic territory and resources.
While Russia does not seek a confrontation, it appears unable (or unwilling) to restrain its allies. The United States does not seem to have decided whether fighting IS only to empower Iran and Assad would be worthwhile, or whether there is a feasible way, at an acceptable cost, to beat the Islamic State without strengthening US adversaries … It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible – and it probably never was.
From an Australian perspective, Syria presents a concerning spectacle. Canberra suspended missions by the Royal Australian Airforce over Syria (not Iraq) after the US shooting down of the Syrian warplane out of concern over a suspension of “deconfliction” arrangements with Russia. It is not clear whether those missions have resumed.
More broadly, deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict would potentially pose challenges for an Australian government – if indeed a request was made for on-the-ground assistance.
At this stage there is no sign of that occurring. But Australia should be prepared for an unravelling of circumstances in Syria and be ready for any eventualities. Needless to say, it should hasten slowly.
In all of this, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider what would be nightmare scenario in which the US and Iran found themselves at war. As Nader Hashem, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver and an expert of sectarian conflict in the region, has observed:
I suspect the biggest problem is a clash between American and Iranian forces somewhere in Syria where there will be a major loss of life, and then a slow, steady decline toward war with Iran, where Iran chooses to retaliate in the Persian Gulf with American shipping or some sort of escalation along those lines. That would have huge consequences for the nuclear agreement and the broader stabilisation of the region.
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.
Although there are conflicting reports about who destroyed the mosque – the IS blames American airstrikes – the available footage online suggests the site was bombed with explosives from the inside. Such destruction certainly fits with their pattern of the Islamic State’s aggressive destruction of religious imagery, as we have described recently.
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.