Best Defense

The significance of the battle for Mosul’s Great Mosque: This is where modern Iraqi history meets the medieval

A looming battle around Mosul’s medieval Great Mosque of al-Nuri as part of the final stages to push the Islamic State out of the city is expected to deliver another important tactical and even symbolic victory against the Islamic State.



By Jill Carroll
Best Defense guest columnist

A looming battle around Mosul’s medieval Great Mosque of al-Nuri as part of the final stages to push the Islamic State out of the city is expected to deliver another important tactical and even symbolic victory against the Islamic State. The city and mosque are, after all, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly declared a caliphate in 2014.

But the Islamic State’s loss of the mosque and Mosul represents so much more. It would be the most concrete defeat of the Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s vision of a caliphate to date. If the Islamic State as an organization has a creation myth, it starts with Mosul and the medieval Muslim warrior-prince who ordered the mosque built. And it’s all about to fall to Iraqi, Kurdish, and American forces. This means this tactical victory is an opportunity for an important strategic victory against the organization.

Zarqawi came to Northern Iraq after fleeing the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan with the far-fetched goal of ousting secular authoritarians like Saddam Hussein and replacing them with religious rule in a caliphate. He imagined his caliphate stretching from Mosul to Syria and beyond in the manner of his medieval role model Nur al-Din b. Zangi, according to an account by al Qaeda military strategist and one-time interim leader Sayf al-Adl.

Baghdadi likely chose Mosul and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri to give his 2014 speech to telegraph the message that Zarqawi’s dream was finally being realized and therefore divinely sanctioned.

A defeat there now would be a particularly useful tool in undercutting the credibility of the organization among potential or tacit supporters as well as more “moderate” groups vying for support in the fractured salafi-jihadi community. Such a defeat puts the Islamic State in an awkward position defending the legitimacy of their caliphate project. They could argue that god is still on their side, but that implies god can be defeated, which would be heresy. Or they have to defend against arguments that they have fallen out of favor with god and so therefore why would anyone believe in the caliphate? They usually opt for a third choice which is to re-frame the defeat as somehow not a defeat, an increasingly hollow defense.

The power of these arguments to destabilize the group has precedent. After Sunni insurgent groups — including the Islamic State’s earliest incarnation as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad — lost the second battle of Fallujah in the fall of 2004 against U.S. Marines, many believed they lost because god no longer supported their cause. They reasoned that god abandoned them because they had allowed too many fighters into their ranks who were insufficiently pure in their practice of Islam, after waves of recruits flocked to the various Sunni insurgent groups after their “success” in the brief, first battle of Fallujah just seven months earlier.

Nur al-Din was Zarqawi’s hero because he staged a series of important Islamic victories in the name of Jihad against Crusader territories in the 12th century. His consolidation of Islamic military power ultimately resulted in the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem by his protege and rival and probably the most famous Islamic warrior, Salah al-Din, often known in the west as Saladin. Knowing the history of Nur al-Din’s victories makes the Islamic States’s rapid conquests in 2014 that shocked the world far less surprising. Knowing this history in 2012 and 2013 would have made it easier to predict the likely course of action as the remnants of Zarqawi’s group emerged and gathered strength in the Syrian civil war and in parts of Iraq during those years. Here’s why.

Nur al-Din was not himself a caliph and didn’t seek to establish a caliphate. One already existed in Baghdad that Nur al-Din recognized. Nur al-Din successfully unified Muslim armies across Syria, a key to creating a period of resurgent Islamic military strength after divisions among Muslim forces had led to losses during the first Crusade. Nur al-Din’s victories helped bring about the end of the second Crusade, including a victory in Damascus and suppressing a crusader-inspired rebellion in the county of Edessa on the upper Euphrates River. In Edessa, the campaign was so brutal that nearly all the Armenian Christian inhabitants fled or were killed, or, as the Encyclopedia of Islam puts it “The vigor of his operations induced the Armenians to evacuate the town.”

Nur al-Din’s father helped lay the ground work for his son’s victories by establishing control from Mosul to Aleppo but Nur al-Din expanded control further north and south, eventually annexing Egypt. His consolidation of power in his original stronghold of Aleppo helped suppress the local Shiite population and solidified the hold of Sunni Islam in the areas under his control, something Zarqawi and the Islamic State have always made a blood-soaked priority. Nur al-Din was primarily known for military successes until two painful defeats, after which he was also known for being especially pious and religious, an image Zarqawi sought to cultivate about himself.

In 1170, Nur al-Din started on a path of conquest deeply relevant today. That year, he conquered Raqqa, the other major city held by the Islamic State since 2013 and considered its de-facto capital. A few months later Nur al-Din laid siege to Sinjar, the scene of massacres when Islamic State took control there and targeted the Yazidi population while also perpetuating forced enslavement and mass rape of Yazidi women and girls in 2014. This was all conquered by Nur al-Din on the way to Mosul to establish his control of the city by shoring up the authority of his nephew who faced a power struggle.

This path is similar to that taken by the modern Islamic State when it shocked the world and swept from Syria and into Iraq in 2014. After establishing control of Mosul in 1171, Nur al-Din ordered his nephew to build the Great Mosque. He apparently took a special interest in its construction, visiting the site himself, according to the Islamic historian Ibn al-Athir who was also a supporter of Nur al-Din.

Modern history met medieval history when Baghdadi climbed to the top of the mosque’s minbar on the same site as Nur al-Din’s original mosque and declared a caliphate stretching from Mosul to Raqqa, making Zarqawi’s dream more than that for the first time.

Jill Carroll was a freelance reporter in the Middle East for five years including in Iraq from 2003-2006 for various newspapers including The Christian Science Monitor. After leaving journalism, she did graduate work in Middle Eastern security studies. She now works for the federal government in cyber security. This article reflects her own views and not those of the government.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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