Civilians gather on June 24 at a food distribution point in a Mosul neighborhood liberated by Iraqi security forces.
In Mosul right now, families are cheering, singing as they clutch the Iraqi flag. Drivers are blasting their horns. All because in their city, the Islamic State has been ousted.
On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “the end of the ISIS statelet” in his country. It's being celebrated as a major, national victory for embattled Iraq, one that has brought dancing revelers into the streets in Baghdad and fireworks over the southern city of Basra.
That's not the story you'd get, though, if you follow the Islamic State on social media. Since it lost Mosul, the terrorist group has been working to counter “persistent narratives of its gradual defeat by characterizing its current situation as a heroic, action movie-esque last stand,” explains Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst and co-founder of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group. Katz pointed to a July 10 communique that read in part: “The soldiers of the Caliphate continue to record epics until they achieve one of the two good ends, either victory or martyrdom.”
The Islamic State also described the loss of Mosul as a loss for all Muslims against the Shiites and the “Crusader coalition.”
“Describing things in this way is not only an attempt to save face amid a major symbolic loss, but also to capitalize on the developments in a way that energizes the group’s base,” Katz wrote in an email.
And, perhaps most crucially, the group has argued that the loss of Mosul is just one small setback in a much larger war, one that Islamic State fighters will continue to wage in the West.
Though the organization is technically stateless, it “still has the capability to attract recruits, secure weapons, raise funds through theft and extortion, and dispatch sympathisers to carry out attacks abroad,” Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, wrote in the Quint. These recruits will continue to plan and execute attacks largely on their own, adopting the methods of a “leaderless jihad.”
“Despite the amateurish nature of some recent attempts, cadres of militants who trained and fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria have returned to Europe and are now able to train and radicalise others,” Bazzi explained. That means more attacks like the recent spate of violence in London, where one or two people were able to terrorize a city using simple weapons.
Counterintuitively, the fall of Mosul might help the Islamic State sell that message on social media. As Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, wrote in the Atlantic:
The group has already gotten a good deal of what it wanted from the Mosul experiment. Seizing and administering the city for over a thousand days was more than enough for the group to make its mark as caliphate, and will be sufficient for it to boast in years to come of the jihadist utopia that once was. It alone will be enough to keep the true believers in its ranks in tow, even once it has lost everything else.
Long after the city has fallen back into the hands of the Iraqi government, it will continue to be a prop for ISIS, although an altogether different one. No longer will it be a paragon of jihadist governance. Instead, it will be a prototype for insurgency. ISIS will continue to propagandize through Mosul and, provided it can use it as a baton of instability with which to hit the Iraqi government (and the rest of the world too), the self-proclaimed caliphate is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Amanda Erickson writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Previously, she worked as an editor for Outlook and PostEverything.