The Islamic State group may be suffering serious losses as the U.S.-backed Mosul offensive advances into its second week, but there was no terror group more daunting and ubiquitous when we began filming the five-part series TERROR last year. Not only had IS seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, it was also spreading its message and terror tactics across the world, casting a dark shadow over Europe in particular.
As this was happening, VICE’s Suroosh Alvi met with a senior leader of a Shia militia who was engaged in the front-line battle against the terror group in Iraq. The two men discussed IS’s rapid rise in the region and its seemingly unique ability to recruit from all over the world, and specifically Europe.
Watch TERROR: The Islamic State in Iraq.
“They come thousands of miles, from Germany, Britain, France, Australia, Sweden,” Hamid al-Yasiri, part of the Sistani Brigades, told Alvi, of IS fighters his men encountered. “We expect terrorists to flourish in underdeveloped countries. But to receive terrorists from Europe? It’s very weird.”
Today, IS is on its back foot. The Sistani Brigades, part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of mostly Shia militias better known in Iraq as Al Hashd al-Shaabi, are in the fight alongside the U.S.-backed coalition of Iraqi army units and Kurdish peshmerga militias to retake Mosul, a strategically important city in northern Iraq that’s been under IS control since 2014. Beyond its important geographic location, the city holds added significance for IS, because it’s the location where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, announced the formation of a new caliphate in 2014.
The latest offensive in Mosul is a chief priority of the outgoing Obama administration, which desperately needs a foreign policy win in the Middle East before leaving office, and of the Iraqi government, which suffered huge reputational damage during IS’s rapid rise.
Though the campaign will likely solve one problem, it is equally likely to create any number of other issues for Baghdad and its many international backers. Not least of which will include new sectarian tensions, and young terror groups looking to replace IS.
“I expect the campaign, and it will be a long one, will eventually be a success,” says Niamh McBurney, Middle East and North Africa Intelligence Analyst at AKE International, a risk management firm. But, she says, the campaign will likely last at least six months, and will cause widespread destruction in Mosul while displacing much of the city’s civilian population. “I anticipate the length and ferocity of the campaign — with IS’s slash-and-burn tactics — will mean the military success will lead to a possible social and political crisis.”
Attacks by Shia militias often backed by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government were one of the driving forces behind local Iraqis joining IS or deciding not to resist the group in the first place, says Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher. Wille has documented extrajudicial killings and arrests of Sunni men in areas liberated from IS control this year, by the same Popular Mobilization Force militias VICE News met with in 2015. In Fallujah, liberated from IS in June 2016, 600 local Sunni men were disappeared during the campaign. They haven’t been seen since, Wille says.
Though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has made clear commitments to coalition members that the PMF forces will not enter Mosul itself, Wille remains concerned about their potential placement on the city’s outskirts. “If [the PMFs] are on the perimeter of the city with displaced people fleeing, we are concerned about informal checkpoints and the roundup of Sunni Arab men, as we saw in Fallujah.” If the local population is poorly treated, Wille says, they will feel marginalized and may later seek refuge with IS or whatever group comes after it.
Another problem not to be ignored, as VICE’s Alvi learned in Iraq, is that the terror group increasingly defies simple categorization. Instead, it is a diffuse community, comprising Iraqis, Syrians, and foreigners from around the world, each with a different interpretation of its mission and agenda. There is an IS made up of Iraqis and Syrians, but there are also thousands of IS fighters from around the world, along with a legion of supporters on social media, who search the web for new recruits and egg each other on to either travel to Iraq or Syria, or to launch attacks in the West.
During his time in Iraq, Alvi was shown the grave of a foreign fighter, marked by a shell fragment with the word “JEEMS” scribbled across it. The person buried there had come from Europe to fight in Iraq. “Why is this guy, this foreign fighter, coming over here,” Alvi asked. “What does he have invested in this country?”
Of the young men who join IS abroad or serve as propaganda fanboys on message boards on the internet, Ali Soufan, a veteran of the FBI, told Alvi that the issue Western leaders have yet to work out is how to counter the pervasive messaging of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and later groups like IS.
“After 9/11, we had a series of tactics to counter terrorism,” Soufan said. “So we disrupted plots, we arrested operatives, we killed bin Laden himself. We successfully managed to prevent another 9/11 from happening. But we confused strategy with tactics. We never had a strategy to counter the narrative of al Qaeda, the popularity of organizations like al Qaeda. We never had a strategy to deal with the incubating factors of extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. We didn’t touch on that issue. And, unfortunately, that is what creates entities like ISIS and entities like al Qaeda today, and that’s why that narrative of Osama bin Laden is spreading like wildfire from the western shores of Africa to Southeast Asia.”
The battle for Mosul will likely be won on the ground, but the defeat of IS and its ilk will require an entirely different approach — one Western-led forces have yet to fully define.