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