By Alia Brahimi
20 March 2017
"The battle now is in the final
stages," Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi said on March 14 of the
government offensive to retake Mosul from ISIL. "They are cornered, and if
they will not surrender they will definitely get killed."
While the impending combat threatens to be
circuitous and uncertain - involving, as it will, fighting among civilians in
the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City - Abadi's confidence about the
final outcome appears to be warranted.
But what will be the broader repercussions
of Mosul's liberation for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also
known as ISIS)?
Back To Insurgency
Firstly, on the tactical level, ISIL will
continue to devolve into an insurgency - leaving civilians extraordinarily
vulnerable. Suicide bombings on soft targets are set to increase, as will
attacks on pilgrims, funeral processions and infrastructure.
Unfortunately, ISIL's leaders will feel
comfortable with this gear-change. Many of them cut their teeth as insurgents
in post-invasion Iraq, under the banner of predecessor groups such as Al-Qaeda
in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq.
In the summer, as it became clear ISIL
would inevitably lose its grip on key territories in Iraq and Syria, a
devastating car bomb in the Shia-dominated Karada district of Baghdad killed
more than 200 civilians.
The bombing, which was the deadliest
explosion to rock Baghdad since 2003, was followed closely by a triple suicide
attack at a Shia holy site in Balad.
On February 24, ISIL fighters were pushed
out of Al Bab, their last stronghold in northern Syria. The following day, two
suicide bombings claimed 53 lives.
In the wake of last month's successful
operation to evict ISIL from Sirte in Libya, authorities must surely be braced
for the infiltration of Tripoli and other major cities by ISIL sleeper cells.
Indeed, as the Mosul campaign intensifies,
it is worth recalling that the 2007 "surge" in Iraq successfully
expelled AQI from key safe havens in Baghdad and the Anbar province, yet this
tactical degradation never translated into strategic defeat.
The battle for Mosul may be in its final
stages, but so long as there is a market for extremist groups to offer
protection and livelihoods to vulnerable populations, the shape-shifting war
Then, as now, the drivers for radicalisation
and recruitment - the raison d'etre - were still there: a brutalising
combination of grinding poverty and legitimate Sunni grievances against the
A move to insurgency makes the political
track more important than ever, as ISIL seeks to blend in with "host"
populations once more. "We rely upon the people to billet us," as the
Northern Irish nationalist Gerry Adams once put it.
The onus on the Iraqi government to reach
out to these Sunni communities systematically and meaningfully could not be
In The Crosshairs in Syria
The second impact of the liberation of
Mosul will be felt in Syria, where ISIL increasingly finds itself in the
crosshairs of both Turkish-backed and Kurdish forces.
Despite its many complications, and the
preponderance of competing "cooks", the battle for Raqqa is
undoubtedly entering a new phase.
The Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces
have moved into surrounding villages and cut the supply road to Deir Az-Zor,
with the aim of isolating and besieging the ISIL "capital" from all
Furthermore, United States commitment is
clear - to serve as a buffer between various rebel factions, as much as to
provide weapons, Rangers and air and artillery support.
Finally, as ISIL's proto-state is assaulted
and its men fan out across the region, we may see an uptick of competition with
a quietly assertive al-Qaeda.
In Syria, for example, al-Qaeda has been a
dominant presence within the armed opposition, operating officially under the
banner of Jabhat al-Nusra until July 2016, and unofficially as Jabhat Fateh
al-Sham (JFS) since.
Its leaders aim at a genuine grassroots
insurgency, and have sought to gradually assimilate into Syrian society.
At the same time, however, JFS is on the
verge of open conflict with another Islamist faction, Ahrar al-Sham.
In January 2017, JFS spearheaded an
alliance with smaller Salafist groups, known as Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, making
it a formidable player in the country's northwest.
Ahrar al-Sham, with its more moderate,
nationalist orientation has itself taken in a number of smaller factions
seeking protection from JFS, and tensions have now reached fever-pitch in
Idlib, the last rebel-held province.
At the heart of these divisions is the
peace process with the regime, a stepped-up drone campaign against JFS, and a
blame game over the fall of Aleppo. The introduction into this mix of
retreating ISIL elements could prove explosive.
The African Dimension
In North and West Africa, al-Qaeda is
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has
withstood the chokehold of the Algerian security services, US drones, and the
French-led intervention in Mali, to launch a range of attacks in recent years,
whether storming a beach resort in Ivory Coast or conducting a low-level
insurgency in northern Mali.
AQIM even managed to win back to its tent
the rogue commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mastermind of the Ain Amenas operation.
From January to June 2016, al-Qaeda-linked
groups launched more than 100 attacks in West Africa. Earlier this month, four
Sahel-based affiliates announced their merger into a single movement under the
leadership of Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Thousands of North African natives have
travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL's ranks - the prospect of their return
has deeply troubled security agencies, and must surely rankle al-Qaeda.
In Algeria, AQIM's birthplace, the
ISIL-linked Jund al-Khalifa may be on its knees, but at least two other groups
have pledged allegiance to the so-called caliphate. In Tunisia and Libya, where
al-Qaeda affiliates are firmly established, ISIL encroachment will continue to
generate fierce resentment and rivalry.
ISIL has already proved unable to resist
the temptation to challenge al-Qaeda in the Sahel, with its porous borders and
lucrative smuggling routes. Hence, in November 2016, the Islamic State in
Greater Sahara was formed, led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.
In Yemen, too, ISIL has made cameo
appearances in the al-Qaeda heartland of Hadramout province, with deadly
suicide bombings in Mukalla, and, separately, Aden, last year.
Alia Brahimi is a specialist in terrorism and political trends in the
Middle East and North Africa.