As ISIS reels in Mosul siege, Baghdadi urges ‘grand jihad’

Sunday 13/11/2016
Yazidi woman fighting with Kurdish peshmerga forces

BEIRUT - As Islamic State (ISIS) is under siege in Mosul, its last urban strong­hold in Iraq, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is trying to rally his fighters to fight a “grand jihad” to the death.

“This… total war and the great jihad that the Islamic State is fight­ing today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our con­viction that all this is a prelude to victory,” the self-proclaimed ISIS caliph said in an audio recording released on November 3rd, his first such address since December 26th, 2015.

But it was not clear from the 31-minute recording whether Baghdadi was in Mosul alongside his estimated 6,000 jihadist fight­ers as he ordered them, outnum­bered at least 10-1, to fight to the last man.

A Western intelligence source said on November 3rd that Bagh­dadi was no longer thought to be in Mosul. The US military said Baghdadi and his close aides had fled to Syria. If those reports are accurate, jihadist morale may be dwindling.

The jihadists have had two years to prepare for the biggest military operation since they overran a third of the country in the summer of 2014 and proclaimed a new Is­lamic caliphate.

ISIS fighters, including foreign volunteers, are putting up stiff re­sistance against a 60,000-strong force, an eclectic mix of two US-supported Iraqi Army divisions, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias, with the United States providing air cover.

It is difficult to gauge the morale of the ISIS fighters entrenched in the city, the symbolic capital of the ISIS caliphate. Front line re­ports indicate they are fighting hard, making the attacking force pay heavily for its steady advance.

The jihadists have built elabo­rate defences: A maze of concrete barricades in the narrow streets, a network of tunnels and booby traps. All of Mosul’s five bridges across the Tigris river have been wired with explosives.

ISIS suicide attacks and flank assaults are taking a heavy toll. The estimated 1 million civilians remaining in the battered city are used as human shields to pre­vent air strikes. Mass graves have been discovered by the advancing troops.

UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said on No­vember 8th that ISIS fighters have moved 1,500 families and 300 cap­tured Iraqi soldiers to around Mo­sul airport. “They’re either intend­ed to be used as human shields or, depending on their perceived affiliations, killed,” she warned.

The importance of Mosul is re­flected in the stand ISIS seems to be making there, something it did not do in other Iraqi cities which have been liberated, such as Fal­luja and Ramadi.

Before the Mosul battle began, civilians there reported the jihad­ists were getting jumpy — making sweeps to uncover mobile phones and other communications equip­ment that could be used to pass on intelligence.

There were reports in mid-Oc­tober from residents and Iraqi se­curity officials that ISIS had foiled at least two plots by fighters who planned to defect. The first, appar­ently discovered around October 4th, was reportedly led by a jihad­ist commander, identified as an aide to Baghdadi. Fifty-eight peo­ple were reportedly executed by drowning.

The US military could not con­firm the attempted defections but the accounts jibed with reports of growing desertions from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including the northern city of Raqqa, the cali­phate’s capital.

Possibly most dismaying for ISIS was the capture on October 16th of the small, militarily insignificant town of Dabiq on the fertile plains of northern Syria by Turkish-backed rebels. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war, said ISIS abandoned the town even though it had recently de­ployed 1,200 fighters there. They apparently fled to Raqqa.

Dabiq, held by ISIS since August 2014, has immense symbolic value for the jihadists. It lies at the core of the group’s doctrine, as the Proph­et Mohammad is believed to have said the town would be the site of a religious Armageddon in which an Islamic army would triumph over one from “Rome”, the heartland of Christianity in the eighth century when Islam emerged.

This would signal the arrival of the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah. The jihadists boasted their control of the dusty town of 3,000 inhab­itants was a sign of divine provi­dence.

After Dabiq fell, opponents on social media taunted the jihad­ists with a fake media release an­nouncing that “due to unforeseen circumstances, the apocalypse at Dabiq will be postponed until fur­ther notice”.

The loss of Dabiq strips ISIS of an important tool in its propa­ganda campaign to legitimise its cause among Muslims and attract recruits.

“ISIS is collapsing,” observed Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashemi, a specialist on the group. “Dabiq is so important to morale and to their religious outlook.”