In June 2014, at the height of his power, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in the pulpit of the iconic 12th-century al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq, and delivered a now-infamous sermon declaring the creation of a new ISIS “caliphate.” It was a hugely symbolic setting, meant to bolster Baghdadi’s claim to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and to broadcast to the world that ISIS was now a major force to be reckoned with.
On Wednesday, ISIS blew up that same mosque as Iraqi forces closed in on the ancient complex as part of their final push to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city. It was a symbolic move of a very different sort, one that signals just how far ISIS’s fortunes in Iraq have fallen in a few short years.
ISIS has destroyed countless mosques and ancient buildings before, but its demolition of the al-Nuri mosque — and its famous tilting al-Hadba minaret — was a particularly painful blow for many Iraqis. The mosque complex was one of the most recognizable buildings in Iraq, one featured on the 10,000 dinar bill. Its minaret has graced the Mosul skyline for more than 800 years. And now, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Wednesday that ISIS’s “bombing of the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque is a formal declaration of their defeat.”
ISIS most certainly has not admitted defeat — not even close — but Abadi’s sentiment is still valid: The group has lost 83 percent of the territory it held in Iraq at its peak in late 2014, according to a recent report by the RAND Corporation, and tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed.
It still holds territory in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and its sophisticated propaganda machine continues to inspire terror attacks around the world. The group, though, is gradually morphing from a seemingly unstoppable force ruling over millions of Iraqis and Syrians to a battered organization barely holding on for survival. ISIS’s motto, “enduring and expanding,” is a lot less convincing when it’s actually declining and shrinking.
And what it’s leaving in its wake is a blighted landscape of death and destruction.
A cherished cultural icon obliterated in seconds
The al-Nuri mosque’s tilting minaret, nicknamed “the hunchback” and sometimes referred to as Iraq’s Leaning Tower of Pisa, had graced Mosul’s skyline for more than eight centuries. It was both a religious site revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike and a cultural site beloved by local residents as one of the city’s treasures.
Now it’s in ruins.
ISIS has a history of destroying precious cultural sites, including ones in Mosul itself. When ISIS took over that city in 2014, for example, it demolished the Nabi Yunus shrine, revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews as the tomb of the prophet Jonah.
But when ISIS announced just days later that the al-Nuri mosque was next on the list for demolition, Mosul’s residents fought back, reportedly forming a human chain around the site.
Ultimately, ISIS seemed to have decided that destroying a site so deeply beloved by the residents of Mosul might be a step too far, one that risked igniting the wrath of the city’s estimated 2 million residents. Instead, Baghdadi chose that location as the place where he’d announce to the world the creation of his new caliphate.
Such sentiments are long gone, however. ISIS is being run out of the city, and it evidently wants to destroy everything it can on the way out. Indeed, some analysts speculate that ISIS leveled the al-Nuri mosque on Wednesday because of its significance to both the people of Mosul and ISIS itself.
“They blew it up because they did not want the place they announced the caliphate from to be the place where the Iraqi military announces its victory over them,” Hisham al-Hashimi, an author on extremist groups, told the Guardian.
Put another way, having gleeful Iraqi forces taking celebratory selfies inside the very place where you announced your glorious, enduring caliphate would have been pretty bad public relations for ISIS. So they flattened it.
And to the people of Mosul, including many who have fled but dream of one day returning to their homeland, the destruction of the al-Nuri mosque and its iconic minaret is a deeply painful loss.
"You can find it on money notes, you can find it in scrapbooks," Rasha al-Aqeedi, who grew up in Mosul and is now a research fellow at the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, told the Straits Times. "It's everywhere. I don't know how to put it into words. It's just something people always identified with because it was always there.”
Ali al-Nashmi, a prominent Iraqi historian, referring to ISIS, told the Straits Times, "These dogs, they are the worst of what God has created. I swear to God I cannot imagine Mosul without al-Hadba."
It’s also a potent reminder — as if anyone, especially Iraqis, needed more reminders — of just how cruel the group is.
"This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, one of the top US commanders in the anti-ISIS coalition.
For Martin and his Iraqi allies, the most important question going forward is how much more damage ISIS will wreak before it is eventually defeated. The al-Nuri mosque is the newest casualty. It won’t be the last one.