Opinion: Mosul and Marawi, a Tale of Two Occupations

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
170711-gunaratna-620.jpg Iraqi federal police celebrate in the Old City of Mosul after the government announced the town had been liberated from Islamic State fighters, July 10, 2017.

Updated at 9:46 a.m. ET on 2017-07-14

There are uncanny similarities between Islamic State’s siege of the Iraqi city of Mosul – which finally ended on Monday – and the southern Philippine city of Marawi, where government forces have been battling for more than six weeks to break an occupation by IS-backed fighters.

In fact IS’s East Asia Division, based in the Philippines, tried to replicate the Mosul model in the Southeast Asian nation.

Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, was freed from IS control on July 10, a little more than three years after a force of between 800 and 1,500 Islamic State fighters attacked the city.

Mosul is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s supreme leader, declared the establishment of the group’s so-called caliphate in the Middle East in July 2014. Al-Baghdadi was killed in the recent fighting in and around Mosul, according to news reports on Tuesday that could not be independently verified but that cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Marawi, the largest majority-Muslim city in the Philippines, some 600 IS fighters and supporters besieged the town on May 23, 2017.

Through IS’s Telegram channels, operatives and supporters of the extremist group in Southeast Asia and beyond have attempted to motivate IS fighters in Marawi and recruits elsewhere through constant references to Mosul. Wilayat Philippines, Wilayat East Asia, Sharq Asia and Expansion of the Caliphate in East Asia are the names of some of the Telegram groups created by IS followers to support the Marawi cause.

When IS fighters took over Marawi in late May, they drew from the Mosul experience. There was constant guidance on the battlefield, including on the use of drones. As had happened in Mosul three years earlier, the siege of Marawi occurred around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The capture and retention of Mosul created an opportunity for al-Baghdadi to announce the declaration of a caliphate on June 29, 2014. The intention of Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of IS in the Philippines, was to capture Marawi with the hope that an East Asia wilayat (province) would be declared.

A host of similarities

Although Mosul’s population was 10 times larger than Marawi’s, there are many parallels and similarities.

First, Mosul and Marawi – both symbolic cities – were besieged in the run-up to and during Ramadan. Driven by the promise of martyrdom offered during Ramadan, the militants who took part in both sieges vowed to fight to their deaths.

Second, IS fighters placed the group’s iconic black flags along the roads and on tops of buildings in both cities.

Third, IS secured the areas of conquest by blocking roads and booby-trapping them with improvised bombs, as well as by setting up ambushes and deploying snipers to cut down enemy troops.

Fourth, IS raided jails and freed prisoners in Mosul and Marawi, with some joining IS and participating in the conquest.

Fifth, IS attempted to recruit locals in Mosul and Marawi.

Sixth, IS took hostages and executed Christians and government officials, and used others as human shields.

Seventh, IS desecrated churches, non-Muslim religious institutions and other historic monuments.

Eighth, IS seized weapons and commandeered local vehicles and other equipment.

Finally, the attacking IS force was much smaller but overwhelmed by military and police personnel who were protecting the two cities.

IS’s first occupation of a Southeast Asian city

While Mosul was the first major city in Iraq captured by Islamic State, Marawi, the farthest city to be occupied by pro-IS forces outside of the group’s traditional theater of operations, remains under siege.

Marawi was besieged through a consolidation of disparate IS factions. The 355 fighters and 251 supporters were organized by the Islamic State Lanao, led by the Maute-Romato clan. The Basilan-based faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group, the IS vanguard in the Philippines led by Hapilon, provided the leadership.

Mosul has been liberated. The IS siege of Marawi will also be broken, but that will come at a staggering social and economic cost, which will have implications for national and regional security and stability. The fog of war prevents an accurate estimation of the daily rising social and economic costs of the Marawi conflict. Several  billions of dollars of homes, commercial property and utilities infrastructure have been destroyed and thousands of lives have been lost.

Like Mosul, Marawi will never be the same again.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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