Recent reports might have you believing that ISIS had been eliminated as a force to be reckoned with. Their apparent defeat in Mosul and Raqqa led to claims that thousands of their fighters had been killed, and most of their leaders too. Less well-publicised reports hinted that many had been ‘allowed’ to leave to avoid further conflict, and that opposition forces, including US-backed Syrian militias and Iraqi army units, had stood by and watched, as many ISIS fighters left unhindered, with all their equipment and weapons.
Whatever you believe about the situation in those places, one fact remains. ISIS have not gone away. In fact, events over the past few days show that they have even decided to change tactics. The attack on an Egyptian mosque, resulting in the deaths of over 300 people, many of them children, signals something of a different path. This group have usually reserved their attacks for those westerners they despise, Christians they hate, and members of other sects that they do not consider to be sufficiently ‘Muslim’ for their liking. This recent attack was against a Sunni congregation, in a Mosque attended only by Muslims. ISIS are supposedly also Sunni Muslims, so this recent atrocity almost defies explanation.
It is interesting to note that they do not claim responsibility for it, despite the perpetrators carrying ISIS banners, and the attack bearing all the hallmarks of previous extremist outrages. Perhaps condemnation in the Muslim world has held them back on this occasion. So why did they do it? I can only speculate that this and other attacks in Egypt are concentrated on making that country unappealing to foreign tourists. These horrors do not have to happen in a Cairo museum, or in front of the Pyramids, to make outsiders fear to travel to the country. Egypt’s economy relies so heavily on tourism, that even a partial disruption to that industry can disrupt the economy, followed by the government, and leave the situation open for extremist groups to exploit the vacuum.
It also makes the rest of us realise that this evil organisation will go to any lengths to maintain the momentum of their perceived cause. We should take that recent example on board, no doubt as they hope we will. If they are prepared to do this to innocent people who follow exactly the same religion, then they are obviously prepared to do the same, or worse, to those they regard as infidels. Nobody should believe that ISIS is ‘finished’, whatever some world leaders would have us believe.
When you look at news reports of the fighting in Mosul, it is easy to overlook some of the basic facts about this huge city. Until recently, it had a population of almost 1.9 million people, and is the second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad. This makes it almost twice the size of Birmingham, England’s second largest city, and more than three times larger than Boston, in the USA.
Just imagine if those well-known cities were under occupation by a well-organised army of religious fundamentalists, and being attacked by forces from their own country helped by the US or a foreign power, as well as being bombed by British and American aircraft. Think how difficult it would be to deal with the potential for causing civilian casualties, or choosing which of the people you encounter is friend or foe. The maze of streets, the apartment blocks, rooftops, factories, industrial areas, and large airports. A major river, numerous bridges, shopping areas, markets, schools, hospitals, religious buildings, and administrative offices. Every wall or fence a potential hiding place. Every rooftop or balcony a spot for a sniper, and the ability for the enemy to hide in plain sight among crowds of distressed non-combatants.
For almost three years, this city has been a battleground between warring factions; international interventionists, and government troops. If you live in a city, or have ever lived in one, then you can only try to imagine what this must be like, as I do. Even allowing for the large numbers who have fled Mosul, it is estimated that more than 750,000 civilians remain there, possibly 1 million. That is still much larger than the population of Boston, and countless other western cities. By comparison, the largest city close to where I live is Norwich. This is the biggest city in the whole county, and covers a substantial area, including many suburbs, and an international airport. I cannot imagine fighting on the same scale happening there, yet the population is only 133,000.
Another fact overlooked, is that many of the residents remaining in Mosul actually welcomed the forces of Islamic State as liberators. They had previously suffered religious persecution from Iraqi government troops and sectarian militias, and were happy to have the intervention by the fundamentalists. Many joined them willingly, and some still fight alongside them to this day. Of course for many others, living under IS was unacceptable, as they were cruelly treated for many reasons, including religious ones. But as parts of the city are recaptured by the Iraqi army, their foreign allies, the police units, and the ‘Golden Brigade’, many civilians have been arrested, detained without trial as suspected members of IS. Many others now live in fear of reprisals by the army and militia units, as the old enmities between Sunni and Shia Muslims resurface in the ‘liberated’ areas of the city.
Naturally, I am no supporter of Islamic State. This horrible organisation has no place in the modern world. But we need to look behind the news reports, the five-minutes of combat footage, and the talking heads interviews, and to be aware that replacing one form of terror with another might well be what we are helping to achieve. Not only in Iraq, but in Syria too.