BAGHDAD ― I remember it clearly. The crying, the hugging, the sense of joy.
Reactions like these have become so rare here in the last three years, that I’d almost forgotten what it was like to witness such profound happiness.
This was about a month ago as I covered the reunion of a young Iraqi Christian girl and her family. Christina Ezzo Abada, who was just 3 years old when she was snatched by the so-called Islamic State in 2014 as militants overran her Christian city, was found in a poor neighborhood of Mosul in June.
The city would fall to Iraqi forces weeks later.
With the recent battle for and subsequent recapture of Mosul, it’s easy to forget stories like this ― to remember that this fight has been one that Iraqis have been fighting for years, long before most of the world, especially the Western media, started to pay attention. But for me, an Iraqi with a strong family history in Mosul whose country has been stripped of the kind of joy I recall as a child before the U.S. invasion in 2003, there is nothing to be forgotten.
Iraq has changed in the 14 years of conflict, in part from the ripple effects of America’s intervention and the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. ISIS has wreaked havoc in the power vacuum and now, as it begins to lose territory, many seem to believe we are suddenly on the brink of eliminating it and closer to restoring a long overdue sense of normalcy in this country. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
If we ever want to get back to those moments of joy and make them the norm again, we need to look beyond what the liberation of key cities means from a military standpoint and reassess how we view this influential group. Sure, we have moved ISIS largely out of Mosul, but if we truly want to defeat ISIS, there are many other steps we need to take before we can get there.
We need to think about the long term ― about how ISIS will evolve ― and not just about the battlefield. And we can’t compromise our ethics ― reports of Iraqi forces abusing civilians, ISIS affiliated or not, if real won’t help change the situation on the ground and won’t make the nightmare we’ve witnessed for nearly a decade and a half be any less horrific.
“ISIS members should be put in a formal court where the entire world can listen to the confessions of their crimes before they are handed a formal sentencing.”
Rather than torturing suspected ISIS militants, Iraq and coalition forces need to institute a strong rule of law in the country. This should be the focus of the way we combat the group’s terror here. ISIS members and collaborators should be put in a formal court where the entire world can listen to the confessions of their crimes before they are handed a formal sentencing. Local forces should be given the reins in reestablishing security in their own regions, and corrupt police officers should be held accountable to maintain the legitimacy of the legal system. And the international community must also do a better job at grasping the situation here to the best of its ability so that the perspectives about the future of ISIS and the future of Iraq are more realistic and more accurate.
Since the beginning of the battle for Mosul, the world has rushed to cover the events on the ground so intensely that I am reminded of the unified coverage that occurred during World War II. While I am glad that events in my city have grabbed global attention, I am also aware that such coverage often fails to grasp the complexity of the fight in Mosul or the fight against ISIS more broadly. Much of the analysis is farfetched and a little bit out of touch. The problem with such a simplistic media campaign is that it puts forth a narrative that focuses on detail rather than the big picture of the years of chaos that have gotten us to where we are today. One battle can’t change the fate of a group like ISIS, nor can it erase years of destruction.
To understand how we can actually get there, we need to go back a few years and remember some history. As a start, we must understand that ISIS has been operating in Iraq in some form for over a decade under different names, iterations and leadership guidance. The now infamous start of ISIS was at first not so different from any other terrorist group ― roadside bombs and gun assassinations that acted on more local levels. But ISIS grew to be more of a menace. After Saddam fell, some of his supporters helped the cause. This, combined with numerous other factors over the years far too complex to describe in detail here, mashed together perfectly to create the group that would later be known as “The Islamic State.”
The militant group has continued to grow to reach more global resonance with the addition of foreign recruits and the move ISIS is now well-known for: gruesome execution videos of foreigners, including American journalists, aimed at terrorizing Western governments and people. And in recent years, it’s inspired and claimed numerous attacks around the world, many in Western cities like Paris.
Since 2014, the group has captured territory in Iraq and Syria in an attempt to establish and declare what it calls a “caliphate.” Its decisions are strategic, including its focus on the city of Mosul. After three years of covering the war daily and talking to thousands of soldiers, civilians and even actual captured fighters, I came to the conclusion that Mosul was selected because of its geographic location ― it’s on the Tigris River, near Kurdish-controlled areas, not far from Syria and in close proximity to valuable oil fields. Furthermore, its divided population, which with a strong emphasis on tribal and religious affiliation, means controlling it is easier than controlling other areas in Iraq.
But this strategy has come with a price tag. Mosul itself has come to be known as one of the “capitals” of ISIS, and since ISIS captured it in 2014, it has been devastated to a point where it no longer resembles the city I once knew as a young child. It no longer resembles the city I remember from 2003, the last time I visited it before ISIS came about. It no longer resembles the city I used to scavenge to find one of the infamous “laham baajin,” the local version of flatbread. When I was last there about a month ago, the voices of vegetable sellers were marinated with the strong bombardment of missile fire a few miles away across the river. It was like watching “Rambo” on loud speakers in the middle of a grocery store.
I watched the most recent battle from just outside Mosul, less than 2 miles across the water from ISIS snipers. ISIS began digging trenches as early as possible. But ISIS was caught off guard. ISIS grossly underestimated the military’s capabilities, and for the first time, I saw a rare moment of strong cooperation between the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. It was a very quick and unexpected turn of events when the Humvees of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces sailed from Erbil and other locations toward occupied towns and villages. As I witnessed in towns near Erbil, ISIS militants did not have enough time to install their massive number of explosive devices. Many that I saw were left intact while the fighters were busy fending off the strong forces coming to liberate the towns.
“In Mosul, the voices of vegetable sellers were marinated with the strong bombardment of missile fire. It was like watching 'Rambo' from a grocery store.”
Moments of disorganization like this are pretty rare for ISIS. It is good at presenting an image of “everything is going fine and dandy at the caliphate!” But in many ways, Mosul just got lucky.
ISIS is too strong to let this battle ruin it entirely to the point of defeat. Its media campaign has enabled it to reach a dangerous and unprecedented scale of success in Iraq and Syria. Documents I obtained through military sources over my years of reporting, for instance, showed a group with a successful and a strong administrative background. Even with this defeat, those structures will still likely stand and will help the group gain momentum again if we aren’t careful.
For now, ISIS’ presence in Iraq could be in danger. Some of its supporters are likely questioning what went wrong ― how did the “caliphate” lose such an important city to the “infidels?” We must act now while the group is down.
ISIS is no doubt looking for a new phase following critical losses on the ground ― and it will likely go more global. Attacking the West directly (more than just claiming inspired attacks around the world like it does now) could be an especially valuable way for it to recharge its dried out foreign terror operations. It will go through social media platforms, leading to the potential for attacks more brutal than those we have seen in the past if we don’t pay attention. I’ve seen similar things happen too many times. The group will now look to connect its supporters abroad to actual members on the ground in Iraq, further amplifying the larger ideological purpose of ISIS operations.
So are we done with ISIS? The simple answer is no. Losing territory may set it back for a bit, but the ideology is alive and ideology cannot be shot down with bullets or hellfire missiles. And the political nature of the war on terror has made the fight all too complicated and unfocused. If we really want to take ISIS down, we must look at the last 14 years and work to eliminate the security and social issues on the ground that first helped to create ISIS. And we need to think about its appeal and tackle it head-on. We need to ask ourselves, what can make a young beautiful European or American girl from a decent wealthy family travel secretly to live in trenches and support such a violent group? What makes some see ISIS life as a place of solace? And what structures does the group have in place that we can combat beyond the battlefield?
Once we have an answer to these questions, we can create a comprehensive plan that will put us more on track to defeating ISIS and, inshallah, restore Iraq to the beautiful country I once knew.