Iraqi counter terrorism soldiers relax during a lull in fighting in the offensive to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants, on October 23, 2016 near Bartella, Iraq. Photograph:( Getty )
As Iraqi regular forces approach Mosul's eastern suburbs, Islamic State's last stronghold in Iraq, they got some good news.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, declared that IS chief “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is there and, if he is killed, it will mean the collapse of the whole [IS] system”.
The self-proclaimed caliph, the de facto leader of the sunni terrorist organisation, remained hidden for almost a year, but opted to remain in Mosul while other IS senior leaders decided to leave and reach Syria. Many important figures have been killed during the last offensives to retake important cities like Fallujah and Ramadi.
The importance of Mosul for the terrorist organisation is not only a matter of military control but also a fundamental part of the narrative of being a state -- losing it will surely represent a major psychological blow for the many who decided to fight within IS ranks. It will be difficult to sustain the propaganda of a newly born and strong state if the organisation cannot manage to defend its Iraqi capital.
The battle to reconquer the city of Mosul is far from over, it has just entered a new phase which is likely to be the toughest, characterised by urban-guerrilla and unconventional warfare. Iraqi forces reached the eastern border of the city, but there are still many villages especially on the northern side, which need to be conquered and secured before stating that the Islamic State is definitely surrounded.
The Islamic State is also putting up fierce resistance against the first small advance of the Iraqi army. “Daesh (IS) is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighbourhood and [stop] our troops’ advance,” said Major General Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.
Fuad Hussein said “it is obvious that they will lose, but not how long this will take to happen”, and stated that the Peshmerga, the Kurdish regional forces, were surprised when they found an extensive network of underground tunnels which the Islamic State created in the villages and the towns surrounding Mosul.In several areas of the city, the terrorist organisation enjoys the protection of a part of the local population which will prove to be important.
Major General Najim Al-Jubouri, commander in chief of the Nineveh operations, told me in an interview: “The most important part of the Mosul offensive is the people. If we bring here the Chinese army, they will not be able to win if they do not enjoy the support of the people, and I believe that the bad relation between the security forces and the people played a central role in the rise of the Islamic State.”
The presence of al-Baghdadi in Mosul could make things harder, for many of its loyalists will surely fight until the very end to protect the city. While the eventual death of the man who is perceived by many to be the father of the Islamic State could result in several organisational problems, but it is something which should not be taken for granted.
Other terrorist organisations proved capable of substituting their leaders and continued their operations, such as al Quaeda, which did not dissolve after Bin Laden’s died. Al-Baghdadi’s decision not to leave Mosul and eventually die fighting, should he in fact be killed, could also turn out to set an example for the many terrorists still supporting the organisation. It could become a powerful instrument of propaganda on how a real Islamic State member should not fear death and martyrdom.