Last Thursday, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi shared the good news about Mosul. “The fighting forces are currently pushing forward toward the town more quickly than we thought,” he began , “and more quickly than we had established in our plan for this campaign.” Such statements, while encouraging to his nation, are deceptive. The real fighting has yet to start. It is also vitally important to realize that if ISIS chooses to fight to the death in Mosul—like the Texans’ historic Alamo fight —it is not inconceivable that ISIS could achieve strategic victory even if it is eventually defeated in Mosul.
It is important to understand that Islamic State fighters, while frequently derided as mindless thugs, heartless terrorists and common criminals, pose a formidable tactical threat. They benefit from fifteen years of lessons learned during insurgent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Many of their leaders have significant experience battling against traditional military forces and are experts in the conduct of guerrilla operations and city fighting.
ISIS has experience of fighting in Kobani, Raqqa and now years in Aleppo. Its forces are the most experienced and expert urban fighters in the world right now. ISIS’s members have become masters of crafting elaborate defenses, digging interlocking tunnels, and sowing complex and multilayered minefields. The attacking Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) also have experience in city fighting, as they’ve ejected ISIS from Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi. But in each of those battles, ISIS has fought what is essentially a fighting withdrawal.
It has created improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines and other booby-traps, which it’s hidden in buildings, cars, roads and under sidewalks. ISIS has avoided becoming decisively engaged in its previous city fights, withdrawing when the situation got too hot and it was in danger of being cut off. Whether that was an intentional strategy or not is hard to determine, as reports following the Fallujah battle claimed that ISIS executed scores of its fighters who escaped. This time, however, early evidence indicates that Islamic State leaders have decided to make a fight-to-the-death stand in Mosul.
Some might be tempted to consider this a good thing, thinking that if ISIS makes a stand here and is destroyed, the manpower and leadership gash to the organization will hasten its ultimate demise. That is not a safe assumption; the situation is not as dire for ISIS as might appear.
Mosul is a massive city, similar in size to Philadelphia. Even at the upper end of its estimated numbers, ISIS cannot possibly defend the entire city. Its early actions indicate that in the initial stages of the battle it withdrew numbers of forward-deployed observation posts, designed to give its leadership intelligence on where the liberating force is making its main thrusts. As the attackers continue their drive, ISIS troops will probably conduct harassing fires against them, planting IEDs on the routes of advance, and utilizing snipers to slow the advance, but still not becoming decisively engaged.
They’ll likely continue falling slowly back until finally occupying the main line of defenses they’ve chosen. These are areas they have no doubt prepared over many months for the decisive battle. It will have thorough and elaborate defensive works.
In all likelihood, it will have interlocking tunnels that allow men to move from one position to another without exposing themselves to hostile fire. Snipers will likely occupy key high points in buildings, providing interlocking fires against main routes of advance. Barricades will have been placed roads at multiple points to further slow ISF attacks. Mortars, rockets and possibly some tanks will be placed at strategic locations on and behind the main line of defense.
Regular riflemen will be scattered throughout the battle area and only concentrate for specific actions, otherwise dispersing to increase survivability. They probably have small mobile units to act as local counterattack forces to harass ISF and coalition troops as they move through the city. If ISIS fights with discipline and launches brazen attacks, it is possible to use the urban terrain to exact a high toll on the liberating force and hold out for an extended period.
If the Islamic State has adopted the “Alamo” strategy, it may be willing to suffer 50, 60 or even up to 75 percent casualties, yet still tenaciously fight on. “There is no chance” that ISIS is going to retreat from the city, according an October 23 dispatch published by Mosul Eye, the most authoritative source of information from within Mosul for the past two years. “There is no safe heaven [sic] for them anywhere in Iraq either; it is just impossible for them to blend,” Mosul Eye wrote, and also pointed out that there is no known program for the reintegration of ISIS members.
Meaning that there are few places where ISIS’s Iraqi members can flee, and no motivation to surrender. The chances that Mosul represents the Alamo for ISIS are substantial. There is great risk for the coalition if this turns out to be the case.