ISIS Is Ready For A Long, Bloody Battle To The Death
ISIS fighters holed up in Mosul have spent months planting explosives throughout the city, it will take weeks, maybe months before it is all over
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan – The fighting had died down completely before the Islamic State suicide bombers arrived, on foot, sprinting towards the newly-constructed berm that marked the new frontline. It was the first day of the offensive to wrest Mosul from Islamic State control and Kurdish Zerevani commando forces had advanced in a pincer movement to secure five miles of the Erbil-Mosul highway, halting their advance at a small town 10 miles from Mosul.
Frantic Kurdish troops shot down the suicide bombers before they reached the berms, but their final acts were to detonate explosive vests in explosions that shook the earth underneath where I was crouched behind a pickup truck some 500 yards away. “It’s like they pop up out of nowhere,” a Kurdish fighter remarked afterwards, a refrain I have heard repeatedly by soldiers amazed at the ability of ISIS fighters to maneuver on the battlefield.
Since then Iraqi counter-terrorism forces have continued fighting along the Mosul-Erbil highway, facing a similar pattern of resistance in which their biggest threat comes from suicide bombers, whether on foot or in explosives-laden vehicles. On Tuesday, they breached the outskirts of Mosul, the first time Iraqi troops have been inside Iraq’s second largest city since in was overrun by the Islamic State in June 2014. But virtually no one is predicting an easy victory.
It took two weeks for these elite soldiers to fight their way through a number of largely depopulated villages to reach the outskirts of the city. Elsewhere, Iraqi army units are still 15 miles from Mosul. According to the spokesperson of Iraq’s Interior Ministry Brigadier Saad Maan, the operation to retake Nineveh Province is proceeding ahead of schedule.
The Iraqis believe there may be 5,000 ISIS fighters defending Mosul, a city with perhaps a million remaining inhabitants. Advancing against them are some 50,000 Iraqi troops, federal police forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, alongside the overwhelming firepower of coalition airstrikes and artillery batteries.
With such an advantage, why are observers predicting that the attackers still face weeks if not months of further fighting? What I’ve seen so far of the operation to clear the villages on the road to Mosul offers a clear view of why the toughest fighting still lies ahead.
Vastly outnumbered and increasingly outgunned too, ISIS fighters have called on every technique of asymmetric warfare to try and even their odds of staving off defeat, while adding a few innovations of their own.
Their willingness to die is perhaps their greatest advantage. A few ISIS diehards remaining behind in a village to fight to the end can hold up a company or even a battalion of soldiers, sometimes for days at a time. Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers say their most effective weapon against such stubborn resistance, whether from a sandbagged machine gun nest or a concealed sniper, is coalition airstrikes. As they encounter pockets of ISIS defenders, advancing troops have tended to halt their advance, calling in the jets to eliminate the militant positions.
Airstrikes have also been one of the most effective methods of destroying suicide bombers, ISIS’ own version of a guided missile that can be extremely difficult to defend against, particularly when delivered by heavily-armored vehicles. On the open and flat Nineveh Plains, these vehicles are seen approaching from a mile or more away and an airstrike can often stop them before they reach their target.
ISIS is well aware of the threat posed by airstrikes and has dug elaborate underground tunnel systems, allowing its fighters to move between buildings without revealing themselves and to take cover from all but the biggest bombs. Shooting positions are often near buildings less likely to be targeted by airstrikes: in the Christian town of Bartella, ISIS fighters launched rockets from a church cemetery. Their other defense against the coalition’s air superiority is to torch oil wells and other flammable materials to create a smokescreen, which at its thickest can block the view of jets and drones.
When entering apparently undefended areas, Iraqi and Kurdish fighters are often surprised at the ability of ISIS fighters to pop up unexpectedly. Even in neighborhoods which have been cleared, IS fighters may reappear, moving between buildings through holes smashed into walls or through underground tunnels, launching attacks against less well-defended flanks and even rears.
And once the last militant is killed it’s still often not safe for Iraqi troops to advance. ISIS has revolutionized the production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), deploying them on an unprecedented scale to booby trap roads and buildings. In places their effect is comparable to a minefield, except that they are much more unpredictable and difficult to defuse. As the soldiers advance into a recently retaken area, they must proceed with extreme caution as every road and building represents a potential threat. The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency says 31 of its employees have been killed trying to defuse IEDs since 2014.
With Mosul largely surrounded, this week Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned ISIS fighters inside the city that there was no escape and to “surrender or die.” With prisoners liable to face the death penalty for belonging to a terrorist organization (and the Iraqi judicial system apparently geared towards swift convictions) many ISIS fighters are likely to chose Abadi’s second option over turning themselves in.
As Iraqi forces approach built up areas though, ISIS, which has had two-and-a-half years to prepare its defenses, will gain a few crucial strategic advantages. In close quarter urban environments, its fighters will be better able to appear unexpectedly, within short range of advancing Iraqi troops.
In populated areas, coalition jets will be extremely wary of killing civilians in misplaced airstrikes. ISIS is aware of this and the propaganda value of mass civilian casualties, and has begun corralling civilians into strategic locations to use as human shields. South of Mosul, villagers escaping from ISIS territory last week told me that hundreds of their neighbors had been rounded up for this purpose by retreating ISIS fighters.
The Iraqi counter-terrorism forces currently fighting their way into Mosul know what lies ahead but also have no doubt about the final outcome. In the town of Bartella last week, a special forces soldier in a black t-shirt bearing the motto “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” offered a succinct prediction of the battle ahead. “There will be heavy fighting for sure,” said 23-year-old Feras Abdel Nadir.
Then, with a bravado that matched his attire, he added: “But God willing, we will be victorious.”
Campbell MacDiarmid is a freelance journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan who has been covering ISIS for over two years.