June 10, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Lessons, 10 years after ISIS took over Mosul

The defeat of ISIS took years. However, Iraq was able to mobilize against the extremists.
June 10, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Lessons, 10 years after ISIS took over Mosul

The defeat of ISIS took years. However, Iraq was able to mobilize against the extremists.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the extremist group ISIS taking over Mosul.

ISIS swept into Mosul and took over the large Iraqi city on June 10, 2014. The conquest of Mosul followed the dramatic rise of ISIS in the spring of 2014. The group had its roots in extremists in Iraq and Syria who had grown out of the Sunni Arab insurgent groups that were fighting the US, and had been boosted by the chaos of the Syrian civil war.

ISIS was able to build upon the framework that existed in Iraq and Syria to construct itself as a war machine. It wasn’t just a terrorist group or a bunch of terrorist cells like Al Qaeda. It wasn’t an insurgency, either. ISIS thrived because of the breakdown of the state in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the Syrian civil war had been growing since 2011. Syria truly began to break apart in 2012 and 2013, such that many local groups assumed control of certain areas. The Syrian regime likely had an interest in fueling the disintegration and factionalism within the Syrian rebel groups by encouraging extremists to grow.

It’s important to understand that the Syrian regime had long tolerated extremists, such as jihadist types, flowing into Iraq via the Euphrates river valley during the period of the US conquest of Iraq after 2003. When the US left Iraq in 2011 these groups were able to consolidate their influence in marginal desert regions. The era of the Sunni “awakening” in Iraq had been pushed aside by the authoritarian Shi’ite prime minister Nour al-Malaki. This created a toxic vacuum in Syria and Iraq in 2013-2014 because both the Syrian regime and the Iraqi regime were letting groups seep into the periphery.

ISIS burst onto the scene due to its brutality and zealous cohesion. It promised a new Islamic era, free from the infighting of Syrian rebel groups in Syria and free from what many Sunni Arabs in Iraq saw as oppression by the Iranian-backed Malaki regime. ISIS also benefited from the fact that Kurdish groups were creating a form of autonomy in eastern Syria, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq had no love for Malaki either.

ISIS entered a vacuum

ISIS moved into the vacuum in June 2014. Mosul was a logical objective. A city of two million, it sits on two banks of the Tigris river. The western half of the city is anchored in the historic old city of Mosul. The eastern half is more modern and has larger boulevards built in Saddam’s era. Mosul was a city that deeply supported Saddam’s regime, and Moslawis were known to flock to Saddam’s army during the 1980s and the war against Iran. Thus, it was no surprise that the city might fall to ISIS, it had a large number of veterans who looked fondly on the old era and had military training. ISIS promised them a new era, but one under the black Islamic flag.

ISIS may have promised something to locals in Syria and Iraq, but its policies were genocidal against minorities. It was foremost a group that wanted to ethnically cleanse and massacre Shi’ites, Christians, and other minorities such as Yazidis.

ISIS set its plans in motion much like the Nazi regime in the 1930s, legislating the expulsion and mass murder of first one group and then another. It expelled Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh plains. It rounded up Shi’ite cadets at Camp Speicher and murdered more than 1,000 of them on June 12, 2014. It’s worth recalling that this mass murder of Shi’ites is similar in number to what Hamas did on October 7, 2023.

However, ISIS wasn’t done with its horrific crimes. When it saw that it faced almost no opposition in Iraq, it decided to massacre and enslave Yazidis, a minority group that lives in northern Iraq. In August 2014, it put its plan in motion, overrunning numerous Yazidi villages, forcing a half million people to flee, and capturing thousands of Yazidis. It then divided the men and women, murdering many of the older people and selling the women and children, and some of the men, into slavery.

Thousands of women were sold in markets in Mosul and northern Iraq and the ISIS capital in Syria. They were sold to be raped. ISIS used the same term for women it was selling, as Hamas did when it also captured women on October 7. They use the term “sabaya,” which means female slave. Western progressives and pro-Hamas voices deny this, but the facts are clear. ISIS was a movement devoted to mass rape and genocide. Hamas has similarities to ISIS in its methods and mentality.

The city of Mosul was devastated by ISIS occupation. More than half the residents of the 2 million-strong city had to flee the extremists. It occupied Mosul from June 2014 to June 2017, when the Iraqi army, backed by the US-led Coalition against ISIS, defeated ISIS in Mosul. The campaign to defeat ISIS began in October 2016.

I witnessed many of the crimes of ISIS. I saw the mass graves of Yazidis in northern Iraq after the graves were uncovered in the fall of 2015. These killing fields were similar to what the Nazis had done in Eastern Europe under the Einsatzgruppen. ISIS lined up the Yazidis, shot them, and pushed the bodies into mass graves. Dozens of these graves were found. The same fate awaited Beduin tribes who didn’t accept ISIS rule, Christians, Shi’ites, and any other group or local dissidents.

The defeat of ISIS took years. However, Iraq was able to mobilize against the extremists. Kurdish Peshmerga pushed ISIS back from Mosul and Sinjar. Other Kurdish groups linked to the YPG in Syria helped liberate parts of Mosul and save hundreds of thousands of Yazidis. In central Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani put out a fatwa that called to arms young men, who flocked to the banners of various militias to fight ISIS. By 2016, the Iraqi army, supported by the seventy countries that backed the US-led coalition, was able to help Iraq prepare to retake Mosul.

Mosul has now recovered over the last seven years since it was liberated. Churches have been revived, but the scars will not all heal.  The Christian community barely exists today in Mosul. Yazidis have not received support to rebuild Sinjar. The Kurdish community sought more freedom and independence in 2017, only to be attacked by the Iraqi federal government, backed by Shi’ite militias. Iran has decided to use the militias to attack US forces and also threaten Israel. As such, Iraq has not had peace since the defeat of ISIS.

The ISIS conquest of Mosul shook the region from its slumber. ISIS crimes were so shocking that many countries decided to confront this extremism. This had a profound effect in the Gulf and in Jordan. It also hardened the Syrian regime and led some Lebanese to believe Hezbollah was necessary to defend Lebanon from groups like ISIS.

ISIS crimes and its methods also likely inspired Hamas. ISIS used tunnels and drones, which adapted to the environment. It also learned how to operate against the sophisticated US technology that empowers drones and other assets in the region. As such, Hamas was likely inspired by ISIS crimes to believe it could one day do the same. Tragically for Israel, Hamas was able to do what ISIS did, and Jews on the border on October 7 found themselves as vulnerable as Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’ites in Iraq. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Gulf States Islamic State Jihadism Military and Political Power Syria