On 29 June, Iraqi troops recaptured the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in western Mosul – a small victory in military terms, but one of great symbolism in the fight against Islamic State (IS). It was in this mosque that, three years ago, the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, staged what was perhaps the most significant moment in the history of political Islam since the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the early 1920s.
In July 2014, shortly before the first Friday prayer in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, senior IS members descended on the mosque. The regular imam was informed that an important guest would deliver the sermon instead. Then he arrived. In his only public appearance to date, Baghdadi declared the establishment of the caliphate of Islamic State. “Your brothers, the mujahedin, were blessed with victory by Allah,” he announced, speaking in a classical Arabic dialect known as fusha. “After long years of jihad, patience and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal.”
Today, the mosque, like the so-called caliphate, is all but destroyed. As the jihadists retreated from their last redoubts in Mosul, they blew it up – destroying, in the process, its well-known leaning minaret. The destruction of the mosque has become emblematic of the collapse of IS, which has lost more than 60 per cent of the territory that it held straddling the Iraqi- Syrian border.
Yet the battleground defeats by the Iraqi army and the US-led Western coalition (which includes the UK, Germany and France), as well as Kurdish forces, have done little to dent the triumphalism of the jihadists. If you examine the terror group’s pronouncements and online messages, you will find that the optimism of its “glory days” in 2014 remains intact.
One of the ways that IS maintains morale is by stressing the Islamic concept of divine will. Muslims believe that God’s first creations were the tablet and the pen, and that the entire history of mankind is listed on the tablet (known as al-lawh al-mahfooz). The implications of this are profound when used to rally fighters who have otherwise been beaten, because it pares down their understanding of duties and obligations.
IS tells its members that they are divinely obligated to fight for its cause, but that the results come from God. They will be judged not on the outcome but on what they are willing to do for their cause – which, by extension, shapes their perception of what constitutes success.
This became apparent in a speech delivered last year by the official IS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, shortly before he was killed in a US drone strike in Syria. “Do you, O, America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land?” he asked. “Would we be defeated and [would] you be victorious if you were to take Mosul, or Sirte, or Raqqa, or even take all these cities, and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!”
For IS, success is defined through the exertion of effort alone. A temporal victory, when it comes, represents just that. For individual fighters, the aspiration is to keep exerting such effort until they receive a “martyr’s death”, the ultimate honour for jihadists. This also explains why the terror group’s fighters are unfazed by the several thousand casualties that they have sustained. Those who have died are not looked on with pity but are envied as martyrs who have secured redemption.
Even so, as IS has retreated and sustained heavy loses, many fighters have defected or absconded. “When Raqqa had everything to offer of the dunya [world], brothers from all over Sham [Syria] were coming to visit,” wrote Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, a Briton raised in Buckinghamshire whose real name is Omar Hussain. He decried the way in which Raqqa had become a magnet for radicalised Syrians and foreign fighters. “Now that it needs real men, no one is coming. Munafiqeen [hypocrites],” continued Hussain, who joined IS in 2013.
His messages have appeared on Telegram, a semi-encrypted service that is popular with jihadists. Hussain was reprimanded by the terror group for his use of the platform and was absent from it for more than a year. In recent weeks, however, he has returned, offering bitter insights from Raqqa on the plummeting morale inside IS.
Hussain has revealed that some fighters are abandoning their posts, or have asked to be transferred from Raqqa to “easier” fronts, such as Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. For Hussain, this is a welcome development: he has suggested that IS’s difficulties are separating its most zealous members from recruits who were attracted by its early success.
“Those who come during the tough times are better than those who come during the easy times,” he has written. “Back then, Dawlah [the state] was on its high peak. It was on the offensive and winning all battles. As for now, those who come know it’s small and has less 2 offer than before.”
This, he believes, has allowed the group to “self-purify”, ensuring that only the most hardened fighters remain within its ranks. Those who have chosen to do so are now offering Baghdadi pledges of death, vowing to fight street by street in Mosul until the last of them is killed.
The military defeat of IS in Mosul and its encirclement in Raqqa are welcome developments. More than four million civilians have been liberated from its oppressive rule in Iraq and Syria, according to the Global Coalition Against Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for IS). Yet it is important not to become complacent about the crumbling of the caliphate, because terror groups such as IS are not rational. Motivated by a sense of destiny, they are indifferent to suffering or death. Hussain offered an insight into this world-view in one of his Telegram posts: “The primary purpose of jihad is to implement the sharia [Islamic law]. So even if one million Syrian men, women and children die in the process, we have succeeded.”
This rationale is what makes IS so resilient – and we have seen its kind before. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda waged a gruesome campaign against the Western coalition, as well as Iraqi Shias in the south. After the so-called Anbar awakening, in which Sunni tribes and US troops worked together to fight al-Qaeda, it seemed as though the terror group had been defeated in Iraq by 2009.
However, while the militants had been pushed back from the cities and into the desert regions, they were not defeated. First, in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq spawned Islamic State of Iraq. Then its operatives waited for their opportunity, with the kind of patience and abstract certainty that could only drive a millenarian movement – because, as the late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani argued, his soldiers believe: “Allah does not go back on his promise.”
Something would eventually happen. When the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, started in 2011, the terror group seized its opportunity, moving at devastating speed across the border from its camps in Iraq into Syria and capturing territory. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Isis – was born.
Something similar is happening today. As IS fragments and retreats from Iraq, it is preparing for another spell in the wilderness. Even as it plans for the final defence of Raqqa, IS is establishing safe havens in the deserts of Deir ez-Zor. This will, in time, present new challenges as IS retreats from urban centres back into more remote terrain, where insurgencies are more difficult to manage and contain.
The group’s senior leadership, including Baghdadi, are already in hiding. It is impossible to know exactly where they are, but the jihadists’ experience in Iraq after 2009 shows how adept they are at shielding key figures. Further afield, IS affiliates in Libya, Egypt and the Philippines – where they have made strong gains in recent weeks – are trying to assert themselves with increasing aggression. Yet the core of IS’s mission and prestige is invested in the Levant.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are far from resolved. Beyond the fighting, these are deeply wounded societies, riddled with sectarian, ethnic and political divisions. All of this gives IS and its supporters hope. They know that they are far from beaten.
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions