Mosque’s destruction is ‘death knell for ISIS’

Keeling over: Could the destruction of the leaning minaret end ISIS for good? © Getty

An ancient mosque in Mosul where ISIS first promulgated its “caliphate” has been destroyed. Iraq’s prime minister says this is “an official declaration of defeat”. Is he correct?

Almost exactly three years ago, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq.

There, he declared himself the world leader of Muslims and called on Muslims everywhere to support him. The “caliphate” had been declared. For Islamist radicals all over the world, Mesopotamia developed a “sudden, magnetic attraction”, in the words of terrorism expert Graeme Wood.

But now the tide has turned. The al-Nuri mosque has been destroyed as Iraqi forces are attacking the Old City of Mosul in an attempt to drive ISIS out of its last stronghold in the city. There are even rumours that Al-Baghdadi himself has been killed by Russian airstrikes.

ISIS says that US aircraft had destroyed the complex, a claim denied by the Americans. The Iraqi forces, meanwhile, say that it was the Islamists themselves who blew it up in their retreat, in order to prevent the possibility of government soldiers parading around the mosque in a propaganda coup.

Whoever was responsible, the destruction of the mosque is rich in symbolism. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, says it is an “official declaration of defeat” for ISIS. Now many are counting down the days until this nightmare is over.

In October last year ISIS lost the town of Dabiq, a site of vital significance in Islamic prophesies about the apocalypse. Then, as now, many believed it was a fatal blow to the group. Since then, its territory andits supply of foreign recruits have gradually shrunk.

In destroying the city of Palmyra, ISIS proved that it understands the power of cultural vandalism. Videos of militants desecrating ancient relics prompted almost as much horror in the West as any mass killings.

The loss of the mosque may turn out to be to ISIS what the sacking of Jerusalem in AD 70 was to the Jews: a devastating blow to their story. Likewise the Germans’ inability to destroy St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz was key to sustaining British morale during the war.

Can ISIS survive its latest disaster?

End game

ISIS has shown that it can lose men without losing its fervour, but the loss of one of the most important sites in its territory is a stake through its heart. The power of al-Baghdadi’s original sermon is lost now that the mosque is destroyed. The beast is writhing on the ground, fatally wounded. Soon it will be dead.

But ISIS’s vision of the apocalypse includes the assumption that it will suffer defeats along the way. In other words, ISIS has long since factored this into its thinking. The group may be in trouble in Iraq, but its power is growing in the Philippines, in Libya and in West Africa. We should be careful about declaring victory too early.

You Decide

  1. Can ISIS survive this latest blow?
  2. How will you feel if ISIS is defeated in Mosul?


  1. As a class, construct a timeline of ISIS’s rise and fall.
  2. Research a building that was symbolically vital in a war, and give a five minute presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“You cannot kill an idea.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Iraqi troops are entering the final stage of their efforts to drive ISIS out of the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, which has been occupied since 2014. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where the “caliphate” was originally declared, has been destroyed. We know that ISIS has suffered a string of defeats recently and is close to being driven out of Iraq.
What do we not know?
Who actually blew the mosque up, with ISIS blaming American airstrikes and the Iraqi armed forces saying that it was destroyed by the militants in their retreat. Nor do we know whether this symbolic defeat will be a huge psychological blow to ISIS, or whether they will simply look for new regions and cities in which to spread their ideology.

Word Watch

Located 250 miles north of Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris river. It is the largest city held by ISIS in Iraq.
Meaning “the land between rivers”, the term refers to a historical region situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is where humans first discovered agriculture and is therefore the site of the world’s oldest settlements.
Haider al-Abadi
He has been Iraq’s prime minister since 2014 having served as a minister in the country’s first government after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
ISIS’s propaganda magazine is called Dabiq.
Islamic prophesies about the apocalypse
ISIS leaders, are steeped in Islamic scholarship, or at least ideas and traditions of early Islam. They teach that it is in Dabiq that the armies of Rome, or the West, will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and the battle of Dabiq will be the West’s final defeat. This will then lead to the apocalypse.
Sacking of Jerusalem
The destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem is still mourned annually by Jews around the world.

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