Collapse may come swiftly—but will that leave the world any safer?by Jason Burke / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Some time within the coming weeks, Iraqi forces will reach the great mosque of al-Nuri, in Mosul. It was from the pulpit in this small, 900-year-old complex that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State (IS), declared the foundation of a new caliphate with himself as caliph in 2014. The mosque was not chosen at random. Nur ad-Din Zangi, the man who ordered its construction, and after whom it was named, fought crusaders and their allies in the 11th century and carved out a short-lived territory across what is now Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi’s choice of this location encapsulated IS’s distinctive, animating ambition: the rebuilding of the lost caliphate, that transnational state that fused faith and empire and is, for many conservative Muslims, symbolic of a golden age when Islam was a superpower. Researchers have found that, when not fighting, IS members listen to al music, poetry, weep together, discuss and interpret dreams. And, for many among them, the greatest dream of all is the return of the caliph at the head of a refounded, resurgent caliphate.
The importance of the mosque’s recapture will escape few either: it will be the flag on the Reichstag moment. It will allow victory over IS to be declared by the Iraqi government, their US allies and others around the world keen to see the end of the group. That declaration will be premature, and much hard fighting in Mosul and elsewhere will follow—but it won’t be entirely unjustified. Within six months to a year, IS will have lost any foothold, not just in the city, the second largest in Iraq but also, it is likely, in Raqqa, the Syrian provincial capital 300 miles to the east which is almost surrounded. Baghdadi and his followers may hold on to a few pockets of territory in the east of Syria and in western Iraq, or simply be scattered, taking refuge in those zones of farmland and semi-desert around major cities which have provided havens before. They will maintain networks in Mosul and elsewhere but will not control streets, schools, police stations and markets.
Donald Trump will claim the credit. In January the new US president ordered his generals and security officials to draw up a plan to defeat the group. “IS is not the only threat from radical Islamic terrorism that the [US] faces, but it is among the most vicious and aggressive,” the executive order noted, not inaccurately. Whether Trump has helped in the fight against the group since taking office is less clear. The new president has not so far significantly altered Barack Obama’s military strategy of pressuring IS through local forces backed by air power and special forces. His taking office does appear to have coincided with a spike in the number of civilian casualties inflicted by planes of the US-led coalition fighting IS. Trump did promise to “bomb the shit out of IS” as a campaigning candidate and some observers say the high level of civilian casualties in recent weeks is a consequence of some restrictions on such attacks being lifted. Officials deny this.