Small Wars Journal

ISIS and Mosul: Keeping Pandora’s Box Closed

Thu, 10/06/2016 - 6:23am

ISIS and Mosul: Keeping Pandora’s Box Closed

James Howcroft

Do you think…that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated to the desert without a city or a land? Will we be defeated and you win if you’ve taken Mosul, Sirte, Raqqa, or all of the cities and we returned as we were the first time around? No, defeat is when we lose the will and desire to fight…. We are now many, many times stronger than we were at the beginning of your war against us. We march forward with steady steps while you stumble with a failed strategy."

--Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS spokesman and head of external operations, May 2016.

Conventional wisdom is that any effort to defeat ISIS must include recapturing the city of Mosul which was abandoned by the Iraqi Army to its fate in June 2014.  Recapturing Mosul would repudiate the ISIS maxim of “remaining and expanding”, deny ISIS the sanctuary and resources of a city of a million inhabitants and free those inhabitants from the barbaric rule of ISIS. Indeed, the Iraqi Minister of Defense has vowed to liberate Mosul by the end of 2016.[1] International newspaper headlines mention the impending attack on Mosul nearly every day. Urban combat in a city of the size of Mosul is likely to result in large numbers of military casualties, massive civilian losses, displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the destruction of the city.  A premature battle in Mosul pitting the current array of coalition forces, with their capability shortfalls and command and control dysfunction, against the demonstrated tactics of ISIS in urban battles in Iraq and Syria, indicate that the battle for Mosul could result in an outcome that will do little to defeat ISIS, and may worsen long-term stability and security in the region.

A better option is to delay attacking Mosul. Continue to strengthen the cordon around Mosul to isolate the city, while using the time available to develop capabilities that can defeat ISIS tactically as well as prevent its return, and provide long-term security in Northern Iraq.  Capturing the buildings of Mosul are secondary to conducting the battle in a way that secures the greater key to stability - the loyalty and support of the population of Mosul. Measures and capabilities to address this population’s legitimate needs are vital to a secure and stabile Iraq. The conclusion of this essay offers ten suggestions to help ensure ISIS is defeated and conditions are set for long-term stability in Northern Iraq. It is better that these steps be taken now, while minds are focused and the U.S. and Coalition partners still have leverage over the Iraqi government. Once the battle is fought this leverage will be diminished

Background and Laydown of Mosul

The population of Mosul prior to capture by ISIS in 2014 is estimated to have been about 1.7 -2 million. The majority of the population was Sunni, with sizable Kurdish, Christian and Turkmen minorities. [2]  After the rise to power of the Shia in Baghdad following Saddam’s overthrow, Sunni grievances in the region arose due to sectarian Shia repression, discrimination and lack of state protection of their interests. Sunni extremist insurgents and militias found fertile ground amongst the population for their operations. ISIS and its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, have been present in Mosul since Saddam’s defeat. Mosul became their base of action in Iraq after being defeated in Al Anbar Province by U.S. forces and their Sunni tribal allies in the 2006-2008 time frame. The lack of legitimacy of the central government, Sunni grievances and the decade of ISIS operations in the city were among the factors which contributed to rapid ISIS success in capturing Mosul in 2014. The routed and corrupt Shia Iraqi army was seen by many inhabitants as an outside occupying force. ISIS successfully portrayed themselves as protectors from the Shia regime in Baghdad. The current population of the city, after ISIS ethnic cleansings and migration, is estimated to be between a million and a million and a half.

The Nature of Urban Combat

Fighting in an urban area is one of the most difficult types of military operations. Urban operations are a great equalizer of combat power between modern, technologically advanced soldiers and irregular forces equipped with small arms. The urban environment degrades the advantage of standoff weapons and maneuver supported by precision combined arms, the bedrock of 21st century operational art and tactics. The distances of engagement in a city are usually close, with few options for maneuver. Buildings and basements not only provide cover and concealment, they also degrade intelligence collection and prevent accurate and effective delivery of supporting arms. The key to success in urban combat is motivated and well-led small units at the platoon and company level. Urban combat is a small unit leader’s fight, building by building, block by block.

Urban operations are manpower intensive, requiring a variety of forces working and coordinating closely together. The most attention is placed on the assault force moving in parallel on a broad front down the streets and alleys of the city. Urban combat for this assault force is stressful and exhausting and takes a physical and psychological toll on soldiers in the fight. High casualties are the norm due to the nature of the combat environment. Frontline assault units in a large city must rotate assault units to continue the fight as tactical objectives are secured. Equally important is a large force to fill in behind assault units to secure the recently cleared area against infiltration and to root out stay behinds. The third force required are units to man a security cordon around the city to deny the defender the ability to reinforce the city, as well as to prevent enemy escape to fight another day in another place. In addition to guarding against reinforcement or escape, this cordon will must be manned adequately to search, assess and interrogate for intelligence the civilian population able to flee the city.  This is a complicated but vital task, one even the elite U.S. Marine Corps units I belonged to struggled to do successfully in Baghdad in 2003 and Fallujah in 2004.[3]

Experience in Urban Operations Against ISIS

There is a wealth of information available to provide a preview of what the fight for Mosul and the battle’s aftermath could look like. A number of common themes have played out in various battles to include Kobane, Tikrit, Bajii, Ramadi, Fallujah and in combat in Syria. When they chose to fight, ISlS proved to be a determined foe in an urban setting, using the time they occupied the cities to create extensive tunnel systems to mask movement and provide protection from supporting arms. Fortified strong points and bunkers coupled with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines and snipers, inflicted heavy casualties and slowed infantry advances. Ground assault operations required extensive support by aviation- delivered munitions with widespread destruction of the liberated city. Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province, which was only held by ISIS for six months, is estimated to have been 80 % destroyed in its recapture from ISIS. [4]. ISIS blew up the urban infrastructure and left behind large numbers of IEDS to complicate recovery efforts, preventing the return of the civilian populations.

Cordon Operations by the Iraqi Army have not successfully interdicted ISIS fighters fleeing these urban battles. This may have been by design, allowing ISIS fighters a way out and avoiding a cornered enemy fighting to the death. Alternatively, it could be attributed to lack of manpower and attention. Plans to use airpower to interdict fleeing fighters have been foiled by ISIS use of human shields restricting air attacks concerned with civilian casualties.[5]

Little effort has been made thus far to rebuild the recaptured cities. It will require a huge budget beyond Iraq’s capability to do so; estimates are that it would require up to $ 10 billion rebuilding Ramadi alone[6]. The International Community has demonstrated little desire to contribute to reconstruction costs. Donor fatigue and vast, systemic corruption by officials within the Iraqi government make it unlikely the international community will donate much in the future[7].

Those civilians who could naturally fled the fighting and the Iraqi government has been overwhelmed by the requirement to house, feed and protect them. In fact, rather than protect these populations, Iraqi Security Forces allowed undisciplined and poorly controlled ethnic militias to screen the internally displaced persons (IDPs), subjecting them to abuse and mistreatment, separating out male members for imprisonment and execution. Refugees have been treated as security threats and ISIS collaborators, rather than as a source of intelligence or a population to be protected.[8] Ironically, the very same Iraqi security forces who abandoned their citizens to the ravages of ISIS now blame those citizens for being under the rule of ISIS and treat them as hostile.  

Current Military and Political Situation Around Mosul

A number of military forces and militias with loyalties to, and support from, a wide range of competing state, sub-state and non-state actors are currently arrayed around Mosul. Most of these forces are not commanded or controlled by the Iraqi Government or Ministry of Defense. Each of the Shia, Kurdish, Sunni and Turkmen militias have independent command structures and differing loyalties. Ongoing operations reveal poor tactical and operational coordination and inadequate deconfliction of operations. As long as ISIS controls Mosul there is a common enemy and focus - but there is no common cause or loyalty or little evidence of an agreed upon plan for the roles of these forces in the upcoming battle or for what follows the liberation of the city. In fact, mistrust and competition is the norm between the parties. Mosul is a zero sum prize, each group wants to play enough of a role to have leverage for political and power sharing decisions in Mosul and Northern Iraq. While all of the parties are interested in a role in Mosul’s liberation, it is unclear exactly how much each group is willing to commit to the fight, each has an eye on preserving adequate combat power to have leverage after the city’s liberation.

Experience in fighting throughout Iraq gives Mosul’s Sunni population reason to fear how they will be treated by the various Shia and Kurdish militias who are anxious to avenge ISIS atrocities. These militias are unlikely to differentiate between those who willingly supported ISIS, those who were coerced to join or those merely cooperated to endure ISIS rule. Kurdish forces currently maintain a cordon roughly covering the eastern and northern half of Mosul. The western approaches remain unsecured and reports are that ISIS leadership and some fighters have fled west to Tal Afar and Syria. U.S. estimates are that there are some 4,000- 5,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Mosul.[9]

The Looming Disaster?

Based on the experience fighting ISIS elsewhere in Iraq and Syria and the limitations of the Iraqi forces and its militia “partners”, it isn’t difficult to forecast the coming battle. Within the Iraqi military, only the “Golden Division”, a Special Forces unit which spearheaded operations in Ramadi and Fallujah (and suffered heavy casualties in the process), is up to the demands of urban combat.  Munitions from Coalition and Iraqi Air Force aircraft will be employed liberally to make up for Iraqi infantry shortfalls, causing widespread destruction of the urban infrastructure and heavy civilian casualties. The Iraqi medical system will be incapable of dealing with the large numbers of military casualties, not to mention being overwhelmed with the tens of thousands of civilian casualties that ISIS’ use of human shields and coalition employment of airpower will cause. The end result will be widespread destruction and massive civilian suffering posted on social media and reported continually by the international media who will stream powerful images and video of damaged buildings and destroyed lives to homes and capitols around the world. The coalition, bringing destruction to Mosul will get the blame - not ISIS who dug tunnels and built bunkers in civilian homes and neighborhoods during their two year occupation of Mosul.[10]. Consider the destruction currently being portrayed in Aleppo. While the Syrian and Russian governments seem to be immune to international outrage and condemnation - the same would not be true for the Coalition. The U.S. First Marine Division I was supporting was ordered to stop their assault on Fallujah in April 2004 due to international pressure caused by media images of the destruction caused by our attack on terrorists in the city.

The various Iraqi military units and militias around Mosul may appear adequate in number, but their capabilities and the poor coordination of their activities are cause for concern. Successful and comprehensive urban operations in Mosul require tens of thousands of troops, coordinating and communicating on a continual basis to fulfill the assault, clearing, rear area security and cordon responsibilities. The mutual mistrust and failure to deconflict and coordinate their operations mean that significant numbers of the estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul will be able to move in and around the city, ensuring a long and costly fight. It will be difficult to establish a cordon on the currently unsecured western approaches to the city. Static checkpoints will isolate and expose friendly forces to suicide bombers and vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) mixed among the tens of thousands of inhabitants fleeing Mosul. Using airpower to patrol this area will be ineffective due to likely restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) for American and Coalition air forces concerned about civilians used as human shields to mask the ISIS withdrawal.  Iraqi forces, focused on the struggle to gain and maintain control among the various combatants in Mosul are unlikely to shift focus and resources toward a foe retreating out of Iraq into Syria. It is not unreasonable to believe that thousands of ISIS fighters, should they decide not to fight to the end, will escape Mosul and move west into Syria. Success in Mosul could in fact worsen the situation in Syria and abroad in this regard.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians will flee the fighting in the city. The UNHCR has forecast up to a million IDPs. Western pledges of aid have thus far not been met, leaving a vast capability shortfall. Iraqis have admitted they are already overwhelmed. [11] The aftermath of Ramadi and Fallujah are not cause for optimism.  It will be challenging to screen the vast number of IDPs to determine who is an innocent, who assisted ISIS due to lack of alternative means to feed their family over the years of ISIS rule, who was physically coerced to join or who joined for ideological reasons. Screening and making security assessments of females and the children who have been raised under ISIS will present an even more daunting task. Without a professional, disciplined protection force to screen and protect the Sunni IDP population, they are vulnerable to Kurdish or Shia militias anxious for revenge.  

The Future of ISIS After Mosul

Once the majority of ISIS fighters have been pushed out of Mosul, the struggle for influence between the various competing state, sub-state and non-state actors will intensify. A rapid reestablishment of state authority with a degree of legitimacy acceptable to the various ethnic and religious constituencies is unlikely. The Iraqi government will be focused on fighting its rivals for control of Mosul. They are unlikely to be interested, nor have the resources, to pursue fleeing ISIS fighters or meet the security, governance and humanitarian needs of the displaced Sunni population.  

Over the past decade ISIS has demonstrated tremendous resiliency and flexibility. After Mosul, ISIS will be splintered but not defeated; it will revert back to its roots of traditional insurgency and terrorism in Iraq. Fighters and leadership not killed or captured will flee to other locations around the world.[12] Unless the grievances of the Iraqi Sunni population are resolved and legitimate and effective state control is imposed, ISIS is likely to retain the ability to sustain a highly effective insurgency based within the Sunni population in central and northern Iraq. The traumatized and resentful civilian population in unprotected and under resourced IDP camps will be fertile breeding grounds for ISIS support and recruits. Unless adequate resources are put into place regionally to intercept fleeing ISIS fighters the nightmare scenario of hundreds more returning foreign terrorist fighters will come true in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The reconstruction costs of Mosul will be in the tens of billions of dollars. The struggling Iraqi economy will be unable to raise these funds and the international community has been unable or unwilling to meet even the more modest costs involved in meeting the population’s immediate humanitarian needs. Even in the unlikely event that foreign donors are found, the likely massive corruption by Iraqi officials will fuel resentment and detract from Baghdad’s attempt to build legitimacy among Mosul’s Sunni population. This failure to rebuild and provide for the population will be fuel for radical local Sunni narratives and for ISIS, who will be able to contrast the lack of civilian casualties and relative lack of physical damage inflicted during their 2014 capture of Mosul with Baghdad’s “uncaring and destructive” approach in 2016.

What Needs to be Done Instead?

There are a number of valid reasons to recapture Mosul from ISIS. But there are also a number of important reasons not to rush in prematurely to meet a self-imposed, arbitrary deadline without setting in place capabilities to mitigate the predictable outcome of an undefeated ISIS and unsecure Northern Iraq. A division of tasks is needed which allows each of the competing actors to have a coordinated role, operating in a manner that reinforces the primacy of the Iraqi central government that also meets the legitimate political and security needs of Mosul’s population. As a start, I offer 10 ideas regarding efforts to be taken now while the U.S.-led Coalition still has leverage over the Iraqi government and the situation.

1. Continue to encourage the Iraqi Government to openly disclose their plan for the future governance of Mosul, to include a mechanism for how the various constituencies will have their voices heard. Appoint a senior leader with sufficient power, legitimacy, resources and respect to lead the effort. Include a transparent methodology for what constitutes the right to return.

2. Empower and support a Sunni tribal security force with the authority, weapons and legitimacy to provide security and defend the Sunni population and their interests.  Embed coalition advisors and trainers for control and transparency. The successful Anbar Awakening model is appropriate.

3. Use the thousands of police who previously served in Mosul as the cadre and leadership of the force to secure the rear areas within Mosul once the initial assault has been completed.  They already know the city and the population. Provide them the authority and weapons to be seen as capable and legitimate by the local population. Embed advisors from impartial, and competent coalition police forces from the Arab World (Morocco, Jordan, Oman) if possible.  

4. Devote the resources for a criteria-driven security screening of the population of Mosul. Treat them initially, by default, as victims, rather than as enemy or collaborators.  Avoid confirming their fears and fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy by driving them into arms of Sunni extremists.  

5. Consider the formation of an amnesty, rehabilitation and reintegration program for those who the security screening assesses as having joined or supported ISIS out of desperation or coercion, allowing attention to be focused on the more dangerous members who joined ISIS out of ideological support and are thus more likely to continue the fight.

 6. Use the time to build and equip facilities for the IDPs the UNHCR is anticipating from Mosul. Make this a precondition for launching the assault. A traumatized population, left to fend for themselves, will impair efforts to reestablish the legitimacy of Baghdad and the Coalition. Whatever resources end up not being needed in the camps could later be transferred to support the returned population within Mosul itself.

7. Establish a capable force to protect IDPs within their camps from attack by militias as well as from a vengeful ISIS. A UN led mission might be possible - but would probably take too long to form and deploy. A multinational “Islamic Security Force”, legitimized by a UNSC mandate, with necessary cultural knowledge, paid for and supported with logistics and transport by Europe and the U.S, is a possibility. The other option is hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers at Europe’s borders.

8. Design and implement a method to track the flow of international relief money into Iraq to cut down on corruption. Be prepared to publicize violations, name and shame violators and cut off financial flows until thieves are punished and the money returned. While not strictly within the mandate of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) their experience addressing illicit money flows and money laundering could be valuable. Corruption reduces the effectiveness of foreign assistance, and undermines the creability and legitimacy of the Baghdad regime, fueling Sunni grievances. 

9. Use Shia and Kurdish militia to secure likely avenues of escape from Mosul to intercept any exodus of ISIS fighters. ISIS fighters are vulnerable when on the move. They must not be allowed the opportunity to regroup and fight another day. Using Kurdish and Shia in this role would limit their interaction with the Sunni population of Mosul. 

10. The nations whose citizens travelled to join ISIS must use their available intelligence to develop and disseminate detailed target packages and dossiers on their citizens. These packages have to be cleared to be shared with foreign partners and international organizations. INTERPOL is uniquely qualified to serve as the platform for this international effort. Once nations receive this information from INTERPOL, each state must then push the information down to the appropriate security officials at individual border guard and local police level. Despite the high level of threat these returning fighters represent, efforts thus far to share information on returning foreign terrorist fighters have been disappointing.  INTERPOL reportedly has information on only some 8,000 of the 30,000 -40,000 terrorist foreign fighters estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq[13]. We can do better. The time to create and disseminate this intelligence is now, not after the fighters flee Mosul.

The steps I have suggested are not simple. It will take leadership and resources to accomplish them. Iraqi ownership of the process is vital to the long-term credibility and legitimacy of the Iraqi government. There is also an important role for international partners to play; providing technical expertise, funding, guidance and oversight. These efforts will take time. In this regard we are fortunate. Time is on our side in the effort to struggle to free Mosul. ISIS gets weaker as fighters flee and resources flowing into the city are interdicted by strengthening forces around the city.  Over time, discontent within the population inside Mosul will grow as resources diminish and a weakened ISIS loses its ability to rule by coercion and fear.  Rather than rush in with a premature assault into Mosul, a better course of action is to exercise strategic patience. Continually assess the conditions inside Mosul, hone the proper method and tools to liberate the city as determined by this assessment, while using the time available to build the capacity to address the range of consequences likely in a post-ISIS Mosul.

End Notes

[1]“Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi announces operation to liberate Shirqat from ISIS”, International Business Times, 20 S ept 2016.

[2]“The Once and Future Mosul”, Rasha Al Aqeeda, The American Interest, 26 September, 2016  

[3] For a discussion of the importance and difficulty in conducting cordon operations and related intelligence challenges see “Intelligence Challenges in Urban Operations by the author in Small Wars Journal,  20 July, 2014,

[4] “Iraq Officials face Monumental task of Rebuilding Ramadi”, Matt Bradley and Ghassan Adnan, The Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2016. 

[5] “U.S Drones Record ISIS Fighters Fleeing Manbij”, 14 August 2014 New York Times, HTTP:/

[6] “Iraq Officials face Monumental task of Rebuilding Ramadi, Matt Bradley and Ghassan Adnan, The Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2016. 

[7] Iraq ranks # 161 out of 168 nations on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index.

[8] “Iraq Refugees Languish Outside Fallujah”, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Ghassan Adnan,  The Wall Street Journal, 20 June, 2016

[9] “Islamic State Struggling to Reinforce Mosul Ahead of Iraqi Offensive”, Jeff Selden, Voice of America, 29 September,

[10] “Preparing for Battle: In Mosul, ISIS Builds Walls, Tunnels, Trenches”, The Daily Beast, 26 September 2016,

[11] “Mosul Offensive to Displace a Million People”, Deutsche World,

[12] “FBI Director James Comey warns of 'terrorist diaspora' after Islamic State crushed” -, 27 September 2016; FBI


About the Author(s)

James Howcroft serves as the Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center. Professor Howcroft retired as a Colonel after 30 years as an Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in a wide range of Marine Corps tactical and operational intelligence billets, from Infantry Battalion up to the Marine Expeditionary Force level. His combat tours include duty with the 2nd Marine Division in Operation Desert Storm and tours of duty as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G2) with both the 1st Marine Division and then the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.