Abu Bakr al Baghdadi delivering his first speech as “Caliph Ibrahim” at the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in July 2014.
The Iraqi government announced today that the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul has been destroyed. US Central Command (CENTCOM) subsequently released a statement accusing the Islamic State of demolishing the holy site.
The demolition of Al-Nuri is a milestone in the war against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate. Baghdadi delivered his first sermon as “Caliph Ibrahim” from the pulpit at Al-Nuri on July 4, 2014. Just days earlier, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani declared that the group ruled over a caliphate stretching throughout large parts of Iraq and Syria.
“As our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the Al-Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, Commanding General of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a statement. “This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated.”
“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” Martin said, “and we continue to support our Iraqi partners as they bring these terrorists to justice.” Martin warned that the “battle for the liberation of Mosul is not yet complete, and we remain focused on supporting the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] with that objective in mind.”
Via its Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State tried to blame coalition airstrikes for the mosque’s destruction. The statement, seen below, was released online earlier today.
However, there is no evidence indicating that the US-led coalition bombed the mosque, which was built centuries ago. Its iconic minaret, nicknamed “the hunchback,” famously leaned to one side.
Iraqi government sources have circulated images from the moments after the Islamic State detonated its explosives in the mosque.
Baghdadi’s speech at Al-Nuri was a seminal moment in the history of his group. He used the pulpit to call on Muslims around the world to join the new state.
“So let the world know that we are living today in a new era,” Baghdadi said. “Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state,” he argued later in the speech. “Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.”
“The State is a state for all Muslims,” Baghdadi continued. “The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims. O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah [emigration] to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory.”
The Islamic State leader made a “special” plea for assistance from scholars, judges, doctors, engineers, military personnel, as well as those with “administrative and service expertise” and “all different specializations.” He wanted all of these types of skilled individuals to emigrate to the lands of his caliphate.
During his sermon at Al-Nuri, Baghdadi also emphasized his organization’s uncompromising jihad against everyone else. He argued that the world “has been divided into two camps and two trenches…[t]he camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy.” The former is supposedly “the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere,” while the latter is “the camp of the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.”
The Islamic State’s early motto was “remaining and expanding.” It was intended to convey a sense of indefinite territorial expansion and permanence. But the group’s propagandists quietly began to de-emphasize this idea as the jihadists lost ground in Iraq and Syria.
The demolition of Al-Nuri underscores the fact that Baghdadi’s loyalists are not holding their turf. Instead, they have proven their willingness to burn to the ground even holy sites rather than let their enemies capture them intact.
The destruction of Al-Nuri prevents the Iraqi government from issuing its own statement from the mosque. Baghdadi’s foes could have broadcast his caliphate’s loss of the important site. While no such message can now be made from Al-Nuri, the Islamic State’s violation of the mosque presents the coalition with another opportunity, as it can highlight the jihadists’ lack of respect for a holy location they themselves once portrayed as being at the center of a history-changing event.
Al Qaeda and its allies have chosen not to pursue the Islamic State’s all or nothing approach to holding territory. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) avoided a fight for Mukallah in southern Yemen last year, arguing that a battle with Arab-led forces would leave the port city in shambles.
A coalition led by Al Nusrah Front, which was openly part of al Qaeda at the time, also overran the Syrian province of Idlib in early 2015. The jihadists and Islamists have held Idlib for more than two years since, often debating how to make sure they don’t lose it. They are trying to avoid the mistakes made by Baghdadi’s men, who are in the process of losing their two capitals in Iraq and Syria. While an international coalition was assembled to dislodge the Islamic State, no such force has been formed to uproot the jihadists deeply embedded in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria. The jihadists in northwestern Syria have sought to sow confusion when it comes to their own Taliban-style state.
Baghdadi chose the opposite course, calling on the whole world to recognize his Islamic State.
“O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good,” Baghdadi said during his sermon at Al-Nuri in July 2014. “Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and Khilafah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.”
Nearly three years later, Baghdadi’s followers leveled Al-Nuri to the ground after being surrounded by US-backed forces.