ISIS Digs in as Battle for Iraq's Second City Looms

Mosul, captured by ISIS in 2014 (Photo: Omar Siddeeq Yousif / CC BY 4.0)

In Mosul, members of ISIS know full well that the city will be attacked soon. Rumor has it the fight for Mosul, the extremists’ last large stronghold in Iraq, could begin as soon as October.

As a result, they are preparing, night and day, to defend the city they have controlled for over two years now. Residents say the noise from construction equipment hasn't stopped for the past two weeks.

"Trucks... have been moving large concrete barriers to the outskirts of the city," said one local, who could not be named for security reasons.

Eyewitnesses in the city confirm that members of the extremist group have completed a three-meter-high wall at the southern end of the city. Further ahead is the town of Qayyarah, where ISIS was pushed of recently.

Other locals confirmed that there is a similar wall at the eastern end of the city near the neighborhoods of Somar, Dumez and Falastin as well as in the Kokajli and Shamali areas, where pre-fab buildings are located, in order to prevent the Iraqi Kurdish military from laying siege to that part of the city.

However, because Mosul is so large—it's known as Iraq's second city after Baghdad, and was home to over 2 million people—there is no way to construct a complete wall around the city. That’s why they’re only building walls in areas near the main entrances and in parts of the city where they expect their enemies to attack.

Locals say all this is somewhat ironic. When ISIS first entered the city in mid-2014, they boasted about the fact that they were removing all the concrete barriers the Iraqi army had placed around Mosul, because they were no longer needed. Security would prevail under their rule, they claimed.

At the same time, there has also been a major campaign to convince locals of ISIS's strength and, one imagines, to keep citizens on its side.

"War is coming, and the survival of the Caliphate will depend on the steadfastness of Mosul in confronting the infidels," a preacher in his 30s told all of those praying in the Umar ibn al-Khattab mosque in Mosul’s Nahrawan neighborhood recently.

"Did you hear about the battle fought by Muslims, led by the Prophet Mohammed, in 627AD?" he asked worshippers. "Do you know how they won that battle? The people followed their leader and they did not betray him. That is why the sons of Mosul should be patient and why they should tolerate hunger, thirst, and fear. They should support the Caliphate and prevent the infidels from entering the city!"

The battle the preacher was talking about was known as the Battle of al-Khandaq, or the Ditch (or Trench) in English. During this fight, Mohammed and his supporters dug a ditch around the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia and stayed inside while thousands of enemies laid siege outside. Members of ISIS have been using the same comparison on social media.

When ISIS first entered Mosul, they boasted about removing all the concrete barriers the Iraqi army had placed around the city. Now those barriers are back.

ISIS is also building a trench, measuring two meters in depth and width, on one side of the concrete barriers. This trench has already been completed in the eastern and northern parts of the city; extremists used municipal roadworks vehicles to dig the pits.

In the past, ISIS had tried to dig trenches around 10 kilometers away from the city's borders, but they were stopped after repeated air strikes destroyed many of their vehicles.

Just like the walls, the new trenches do not surround the whole city. The main aim appears to be to prevent the entry of military vehicles into the city.

The trenches are also supposedly connected to a network of secret tunnels the IS group is building in the city. This is being done in case the extremist organization is forced to fight a guerrilla war in the city. The high population density —there are currently an estimated 1.5 million residents still here—will also be used in the fighting.

In the end, though, it is clear to everyone—even those living in Mosul—that whoever controls the airspace controls the battle. Fences and trenches won’t be able to stop armed forces from entering the city if they have air support. The best that ISIS's plan could achieve is to extend their stay in the city by weeks, or possibly months, if they are lucky.

That’s why Mosul locals will be looking toward their southern suburbs when the time comes. ISIS members are expected to escape in that direction and head to safe houses in Syria, as they did in previous fighting in Fallujah and Tikrit.

This post was adapted from an article originally published on

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ISIS Digs in as Battle for Iraq's Second City Looms
ISIS Digs in as Battle for Iraq's Second City Looms
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