Eight and a half months into the coalition-backed campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second city looks like it is finally on the brink of freedom. After launching the last phase of the battle in mid-June, the Iraqi security forces slowly but surely penetrated the Old City, one of the final ISIS redoubts in Mosul. And, on Thursday, just after recapturing the Nuri Mosque—at which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted his role as “caliph” in June 2014, and which ISIS demolished one week ago—the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the “end of the Daesh [ISIS] state of falsehood.”
While this is indisputably good news, we must rein in our optimism. The truth is, ISIS has been planning for defeat in Mosul for months, if not years. Losing the city has long been part of its global plan. And even though the loss of its self-declared Iraqi capital will be a genuine blow to the group’s territorial pretensions, ISIS is not going to evaporate just because it has fallen.
Since October 2016, when the campaign to retake Mosul was first launched, ISIS has been putting up an immensely stiff resistance: thousands of its fighters have been killed by coalition forces, and hundreds more blown up in suicide operations. But no matter how fiercely it fought, the group was never realistically going to repel the onslaught. The few thousand fighters that ISIS had holed up in the city faced about ten times as many members of a reconstituted and determined Iraqi security forces that was backed by U.S. air power.
What, then, were the strategic objectives of ISIS’s doomed resistance these last few months? While its leaders persistently proclaimed that victory was just around the corner, and while the rank-and-file were probably fighting under the pretense that they might actually win, something more abstract seems to have been driving the battle. At its heart has been a compulsive obsession, not so much with defense as with narrative—the caliphate has been doing all it can to make sure it could be seen to be putting up a fight. In that sense, much of what has happened since late 2016 can be seen as an exercise in propaganda—expensive, wasteful propaganda, but propaganda all the same.
ISIS has almost certainly been planning for this moment since 2014