Beneath the destroyed minaret of Mosul, known as the "hunchback," rests the rubble of what used to be the great mosque of the city. The historical Grand al-Nuri Mosque was built eight centuries ago by Noureddine Zanki, a medieval Muslim leader who paved the way for Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, to confront the crusaders and take over Jerusalem after the decisive battle of Hattin in 1187 — by making Sunni Muslim orthodoxy prevail over Shiism.
Back then, the Muslims’ lands were annihilated by the crusaders, while their leadership was weak and divided between the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad and the Fatimid rule in Cairo, alongside other small Islamic princedoms scattered from Persia to Mosul to Aleppo. The Shiite-Sunni rift during that period reached its peak, and Zanki played an important role in restoring Sunni power by defeating the Shiite Hamdanid dynasty that ruled from Mosul to Aleppo in today’s Iraq and Syria.
Mosul itself is a place with geopolitical importance throughout history: The Mongols, the Timurids, the Ottomans and the Persians all either occupied or tried to occupy the city over the past centuries. “Mosul” means "connector" in Arabic, which may be the reason why famous 12th-century Arab geographer and biographer Yaqut al-Hamawi described Mosul as “the gate to Iraq, the key to Khorasan and the road to Azerbaijan.”
In his book “The Dictionary of Countries,” Hamawi wrote, “I’ve always heard that the world has three great cities: Damascus is the gate of the West, Nashipur is the gate of the East and Mosul the high road from East to West.”
All these historical elements are prerequisites to understand the Islamic State’s (IS) choice of the city back in 2014 and the importance of the city’s liberation today. In addition, the location held great meaning to IS leaders in their effort to revive the nostalgic connection with history, which played a huge role in mobilizing people and attracting them.
Based on its leaders’ positions, IS aimed at reviving the glory of Islam, building hope for desperate and hopeless layers within society and providing a promised land to followers who had difficulties integrating in their societies. In short, a dream state for those who believed in its dream state objectives and goals and a nightmare for all of its enemies.
This was enough to convince thousands around the world to move from the luxury, stability and familiarity of their homes to the uncertainty of “Dar al-Islam” — the land where the caliphate is located — to fight and practice jihad, accompanied by their women and children, and to assume it as their new home.
To the IS society in Mosul and its surroundings, the Iraqi forces’ retaking of the city might be seen as the fall of “home,” but not the end of a “dream”; the collapse of a state, not the uprooting of a belief; the destruction of the base, yet the revival of a different approach. Whatever the name of the defeat is going to be, to them it is not the end of IS. The day after the “state” could be much more dangerous to world security than the day it functioned, for today it is once again an idea, and ideas are borderless, they enjoy less liabilities and are capable of flying from one place to another. Many questions should be asked in this regard: Where are the people of the caliphate heading, could they find their way back into the societies they left and are they going to be the world’s next time bombs?
People who follow what’s known to be “jihadi” paths have proven over the years to be persistent and willing to take chances more than once in order to see their causes fulfilled. It’s significant that the senior leaders of IS were imprisoned together at Camp Bucca near Basra, while others came from Abu Ghraib prison to the west of Baghdad. Some were even jailed at Guantanamo Bay. And when released, they decided to immigrate to fight and get killed in Syria. This is not because IS pays good money and provides recruits with lucrative packages, rather it is the spirit that can’t be defined or understood — the yearning to feel capable of forcing a change, the type of belief that prompts a human to give up his humanity to kill people just because they think differently.
Because of such people, IS will not be uprooted. Even if the group’s name were changed, they would always look for a similar path, just like what many former al-Qaeda members in Iraq did when they found IS.
In December 2014, I was in Iraq covering the latest military developments and preparing a long piece and documentary on IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. During this period, I had the opportunity to meet with IS members detained by the Iraqi intelligence and the Interior Ministry. The only condition was not to film them.
Among those whom I met were Abu Hajar al-Assafi, a senior IS commander who is thought to be part of the higher leadership, Hosam Naji Shenin, the group’s mufti in Iraq, and Samim Abdul-Rahman, a personal assistant to slain IS Minister of War Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi, who was killed in June 2014. The three men were in different prisons in Baghdad. Yet the common denominator between all of them was that they were all former al-Qaeda members and previously detained, and none of them thought twice when offered to take up a position within IS. Abu Hajar was imprisoned in Syria and Iraq on several occasions, found himself at the notorious Palestine Branch prison in Syria and went to Camp Bucca, the US detention facility near Basra. Yet this did not deter him from doing whatever appropriate to be part of the “jihad” to achieve his goals of laying the foundations for IS.
Sheikh Hosam was an inmate at Camp Bucca in 2004-2007, together with Baghdadi who was held captive in 2005-2009. When Hosam was released, he was approached by his former comrades and did not think twice about “taking his responsibility” under the banner of IS. To him, it wasn’t a matter of choice, but a divine duty. He dropped his master's degree studies in Sharia and assumed responsibilities despite his conviction that if he continued his studies he might have a better future.
Hosam told me in 2014 that defeating IS or any other trend embracing the same thoughts can’t be achieved by weapons only. He explained that people following this line of thought are dreamers, and the only way to put an end to their recklessness and adventurism “will not be without answering their pains and needs, by uprooting reasons of their waywardness, by ending occupation and re-establishing pride among Muslims.”
For months, Abdul-Rahman was Bilawi’s personal assistant, driver and postman. According to Abdul-Rahman, he was jailed several times, fought battles as a member of al-Qaeda and finally when the war started affecting the group, he stood aside and worked as a contractor with his brothers — yet not for long.
Abdul-Rahman recalled how a group of men arranged a meeting between him and Bilawi, without him knowing that Bilawi was in fact IS’ trusted war minister. Abdul-Rahmam told me, “He asked me to work for him, get him a house with two floors … and help him marry a new wife. I didn’t know who he was, and the wife whom he married did not know his real identity.”
Abdul-Rahman knew he was working for an IS commander, yet he only discovered who the guy was when Saudi-financed Al-Arabiya channel aired Bilawi’s picture revealing his name and position. It did not take long for the Iraqi forces to storm the building on June 4, 2014, where both men and their families lived. Bilawi was killed and Abdul-Rahman and the others were detained.
Abdul-Rahman, Hosam and Abu Hajar were imprisoned in heavily secured prisons in Iraq. At that time, they were waiting for their execution, as they only saw in death their hope to end the misery of detention. Yet what if they had the opportunity to flee, or for a certain reason were granted amnesty, would these men join IS again and risk being detained once more? Are they capable of resisting the lure of being part of the struggle to rebuild the destroyed caliphate? A common misconception about IS and its affiliates is that these people are fighters who die for virgins in the sky. The fact is that they are killing themselves to fulfill a dream on earth.