Three years ago, on July 4, Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, ascended a pulpit in Mosul’s historic Al Nuri Grand Mosque and proclaimed himself ruler of its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
“I do not promise you, as the kings and rulers promise their followers and congregations, luxury, security and relaxation,” he declared. What he promised his starry-eyed acolytes was something of a different order — territorial conquests in the Middle East. “This is a duty on Muslims that has been lost for centuries,” he noted.
By any measure, 2014 was a triumphant moment for Baghdadi and a high-water mark for his Sunni jihadist organization.
Islamic State had just captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Given its previous military triumphs in Iraq and neighboring Syria, Islamic State seemed unstoppable. But in the next year and a half to follow, Islamic State was routed from most of the towns, villages and cities it had conquered.
On June 28, Islamic State was dealt yet another stunning blow when Iraqi government forces, supported by U.S. airpower, thrust into Mosul’s Old City, its last remaining stronghold. After eight months of vicious urban warfare, during which half its population of some two million had fled in terror, Mosul was finally on the verge of being liberated from Islamic State tyranny.
As these developments in Iraq unfolded, Islamic State was the defensive in Syria, with Syrian Kurdish and Arab troops having advanced into Raqqa, its de facto capital. The offensive against Islamic State occurred against the backdrop of rumors that Baghdadi had been killed by a Russian airstrike in May.
The news that Islamic State has been almost driven out of Mosul was tempered by the jolting disclosure last week that it had demolished the venerable Al Nuri Grand Mosque, which had dominated the city’s skyline for centuries and illustrates Iraq’s 10,000 dinar bank note.
Islamic State toppled the iconic Al Habda minaret before blowing up the entire mosque in a nihilistic frenzy of destruction. Al Habda, completed in 1172 by an Arab sheikh who had fought the Crusaders, was in the process of being renovated by the United Nations agency UNESCO when it was destroyed by latter-day barbarians.
Hoping to rally Muslim opinion against the Americans, Islamic State brazenly claimed that U.S. aircraft had bombed the mosque. It was a flimsy lie, of course. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi properly described Islamic State’s levelling of the mosque as its final act of depravity in Mosul.
Since its emergence from obscurity in 2014, Islamic State has violated every civilized norm.
It has imposed its perverted version of Islam upon millions of Arabs. It has persecuted minorities, particularly Christians and Yazidis. And it has treated priceless archaeological sites, shrines and monuments in Syria and Iraq with withering disdain and contempt. In keeping with its twisted values, Islamic State has ransacked the ruins of Nimrud and Palmyra, desecrated the Mosul Museum, smashed the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah and burned books and manuscripts in Mosul’s library.
Such outrageous crimes been not been committed since the Holocaust, when the Nazis embarked on an antisemitic rampage in Eastern Europe and demolished synagogues and torched Jewish religious texts in a succession of pogroms.
This is the ugly and revolting legacy that Islamic State leaves behind as its forces in Mosul and Raqqa are decimated in battles that may well influence events in Iraq and Syria for years to come.