Now that Iraq and its allies have begun to retake Mosul from Islamic State (IS), it is worth pointing out that the real battle for Iraq’s second-largest city is not simply one of superior warfare or territorial control. Long before the bombs started to explode over Mosul, the militant group was imploding in its largest stronghold – mostly of its own making.
To be sure, IS has lost many of its battlefield commanders to targeted bombing by the United States inside the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate covering parts of Iraq and Syria. Its oil sales, cash finances, and telecommunications have been disrupted.
Meanwhile, Iraqi military forces are far more unified and better trained since losing Mosul in 2014, when a previous government in Baghdad fiercely opposed the country’s minority Sunnis, driving many to embrace IS.
Still, IS has proved to be its own worst enemy. Much of its appeal for young Muslims has been its radical display of savage violence and theological hatred, which, it turns out, has been directed at other Muslims, especially fellow Sunnis, who deviated from a strict code of behavior. As it has retreated from smaller cities in the face of advancing forces, IS has left behind evidence of mass killings of its own fighters and local residents.
In addition, reports from Mosul reveal that IS rulers have little organizational talent for managing the city’s economy, further disillusioning followers on their ability to run a caliphate. And those who have fled Mosul say that strict social controls imposed by IS have also created resentment and, most of all, boredom in daily life.
IS has a cultivated worldview of striking out at anyone under its command who appears to display disbelief in any aspect of fundamentalist Islam – as interpreted by IS. While such strictness, and the savagery to act on it, may appeal at first to the many Muslims disenchanted with their own societies, it has also sown the seeds of the group’s self-destruction.
Even the current leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, notes IS’s “abyss of extremism, infidel-branding and shedding forbidden blood.” He has warned the group not to take actions that offend other Muslims.
The most hardcore IS fighters in Mosul may not be a pushover for Iraqi forces. Fully retaking the city could take weeks. But the initial demise of IS’s control has been done by IS itself, thanks to the exposure of the banality and emptiness of its reliance on a doctrine of hatred and violence.