Conditions in Mosul Ripen for Return of Islamic State

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 1


Several warning calls by prominent Iraqi political parties regarding the precarious situation in Mosul have emerged. More than a year has passed since Iraq’s second largest city was cleared of Islamic State (IS), but the area seemingly remains vulnerable (Al Arabiya, November 21, 2018).

Although there have been no major military operations since the city was retaken, circumstances similar to those that preceded the fall of Mosul in 2014 are widely reported. Corruption and the lack of effective reconstruction efforts have stalled normalization. Different Iraqi government forces and militias control the city of Mosul and the wider Ninawa province and are accused of using their power to generate revenue through controversial or illegal means. There has been no real work to address the root causes that led to IS’ rise, and Iraq’s Shia-led federal government has not prioritized Mosul. The U.S. administration’s recent decision to withdraw from Syria makes the situation in Mosul and Ninawa even more relevant for the efforts to defeat IS completely (Al-Ittihad, November 9, 2018).

Corruption, Sectarianism and Stalled Reconstruction

Corruption and sectarianism were among the major factors that led to the sudden fall of Mosul in June 2014. Soldiers were too corrupt to fight and retain the population’s support, and many locals saw IS as the lesser of two evils. In the years preceding IS’ occupation of Mosul, Shia-led security forces pursued sectarian policies against the Sunni majority local population. Suffering humiliation and insults at security checkpoints was commonplace. Meanwhile, the government of the former hardline Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and many in Iraq’s Shia community accused local Sunni leaders of inciting hatred against the security forces.

The security forces were riddled with corruption before the fall of Mosul. Many soldiers paid part of their salaries and allowances to their commanding officers and stayed at home in remote provinces. IS, under its previous name the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), imposed illegal taxes on local businesses in Mosul for years before it took over the city. Meanwhile, the security forces did nothing to prevent this as they were engaging in similar practices. Today, security forces and powerful Shia militias are also involved in profiteering of various means, from seizing ownership of abandoned real estate to coercing local businesses to pay protection money.

Iraqi security forces and Shia militias jointly control the city and the Ninawa province. Corruption within their ranks stands as one of the main challenges in the region. It makes the lives of the locals more difficult and weakens the combat capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. After the liberation of the city, many IS members were captured and released after paying bribes to the security forces, while other suspects who are likely innocent stayed in jail because they could not buy their freedom. This situation has caused confusion and uncertainty in the local community (Al-Khaleej Online, January 11).

There is currently less sectarianism in the behaviors of the security forces, but the Shia dominance is still very clear. The U.S.-backed elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) played a major role in the liberation of Mosul. Most of the CTS commanders were Shia but were career officers who served in the old Iraqi army and were even members of former president Saddam Hussein’s now-banned Ba’ath party of Iraq. They managed to win the hearts and minds of local Sunnis in Mosul. Their role ended after the liberation of Mosul, but they created and left a better atmosphere between the locals and the security forces. Also, the public appeal of the Sunni opposition movement’s struggle against Shia dominance in Iraqi politics has disappeared. The Sunni community, however, is still very weary after the whole saga of IS occupation.

The U.S.-backed Major General Najim al-Juburi—a Sunni who comes from Mosul—was appointed the head military commander of Mosul but his real power is limited. Considering the balance of power and the chain of command of the most dominant units, he is not in a particularly prominent position. His role is closer to that of a local sheriff than a military ruler. The better equipped and trained units receive their orders from central command in Baghdad. More critically, the Iran-backed Shia militias which operate under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have significant presence and power in Ninawa province and beyond. Despite earlier claims that they would pull out of major cities, especially Mosul, they are still there (Alghad Press, August 12, 2018).

The process of reconstruction has also been stalled by the central government’s apparent lack of interest. The Shia-led government did not prioritize Sunni-majority Mosul in its budget plan and very little money was allocated for reconstruction. Meanwhile, the local government is led by a governor, Nawfal Humadi al-Sultan al-Agoob, who is known for his unannounced visits to government services where he has had heated debates with junior officials regarding basic services, but apart from those showings, there has been no delivery (Erem News, February 28, 2018).

The old city and other parts of the west bank of the Tigris River, which divides the city, look as devastated as they were a year ago. The governor is accused of facilitating illegal lucrative activities for influential parties. He is a Sunni but owes his appointment and survival to the support of the Iran-backed Shia militias who have a solid presence in Mosul. He is also on good terms with the Kurds who have a certain influence in the area (Mawazin, November 27, 2018). [1]

IS is still too weak to run the same parallel system of control, but the group is likely watching and making plans. Sunni locals still consider the current situation to be better than IS rule, but continuing corruption, perceived sectarianism, and stalled reconstruction could create doubt and make many have second thoughts (Al Arabiya, December 10, 2018).

IS’ Ambitions and Sleeper Cells

Losing Mosul and other Sunni majority cities in Iraq was a major blow for IS. Recent statements and the group’s literature, in general, do not make IS look desperate but rather determined to make a comeback. Much of this is morale-boosting rhetoric, but volatility in post-2003 Iraq suggests that any bad scenario is possible.

The editorial of IS’ weekly newspaper al-Naba makes the case for a comeback. Under the title “Wait and I will be waiting with you,” the article explains how jihadists had come under immense pressure from local Iraqi partners backed by the United States before 2014 and how that changed after the U.S. withdrawal, for which IS claims credit.

“The Sahwat (Sunni, U.S.-backed, anti-IS militias) and Rafidha (the Shias) were encouraged by the power of the U.S. home they served and committed atrocities against Muslims (Jihadists and their supporters). They thought that America would protect them from Allah’s will until Allah made his slaves (IS) in the charging position and they shattered the Sahwat and massacre the Rafidha.” [2]

A large part of the editorial is dedicated to the story of the Yezidi community, especially in the city of Sinjar. Sinjar, being located between Mosul and the border with Syria, was the scene of some of IS’ most atrocious acts. The group attacked the Yezidi community there and killed most of the adult men and captured and enslaved the minors and women. The recent rift between Kurds, Yezidis, Sunni, and Shia forces which control Sinjar now proves how fragile the situation could become. IS’ exploitation of the conflicts between rival Iraqi groups was a major element of the group’s strategy to make gains.

When IS captured Mosul in 2014, almost half of the population fled the city and the whole province to safer areas, especially in the neighboring semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Many could afford to rent houses, but thousands ended up living in poor conditions in internally displaced people’s camps. Those who stayed under IS rule quickly discovered how difficult their situation had become. They suffered IS’ heavy-handed security policies, increased isolation from the outside world and eventually major military operations that resulted in IS’ defeat but left civilian casualties and devastation along the way.

Since the liberation, many returned home but others remain in the camps. Wives and minor children of IS members are also living in camps now. Abuses of camp residents, including sexual abuse and exploitation, are frequently reported. So far, the camps are under control but have the potential to become jihadist hotbeds. Indications also exist of IS having more fighters than suggested by the sparse activities the group has conducted since it lost the battle of Mosul. Iraqi sources estimated that, in Mosul alone, there are at least 300 IS fighters in sleeper cells, some likely within IDP camps, who are ready to move when the opportunity arises (Vice, December 20, 2018).


The threat of IS and the jihadist ideology will never disappear with the presence of corruption and a lack of meaningful reconciliation, accountability, and transitional justice. Meanwhile, IS is intent on making a comeback. One silver lining is the joint Iraqi-U.S. efforts to target active IS elements in the area. Those efforts, however, do not include any attempts to reform the system. When Mosul fell four and a half years ago, there was an Iraqi CTS unit located in the city, which had better discipline and a more trustworthy reputation. Yet the only difference in their response to IS’ attack was that they managed to withdraw properly without disintegrating like other larger units of the Iraqi military.

From the outside, there is no immediate threat from IS and the jihadists. The main IS force that overran Mosul in the summer of 2014 came from Syria where they had controlled territory and established a solid base. IS no longer has that in Syria, but the U.S. administration’s decision to withdraw from Syria has raised alarms in Mosul. With no intention of leaving Iraq, the U.S. forces will continue to support Iraqi security forces. The latter has yet to win major combat operations without U.S. support. Any military efforts, however, would still need to be matched by addressing the root causes that led to the rise of IS by introducing and implementing plans for reconstruction and reform.  Having several parties, including different units of security forces, on the ground who share control makes the situation complicated and unpredictable. Those groups might coexist well at times, especially when they enjoy the financial rewards of power. However, without a powerful government that imposes the rule of law and fights corruption, the situation will remain fragile and vulnerable to a possible resurgence of IS, or its successor.


[1] Author’s phone interview with an academic who lives in Mosul on December 27, 2018.

[2] Al-Naba March 29, 2018