In June 2014, Islamic State militant leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi stood in Mosul’s historic Grand al Nuri mosque and declared a “caliphate,” with him as its head. On Wednesday, ISIS allegedly blew up the same place of worship as Iraqi forces closed in to retake it.
The Grand al Nuri mosque, built in the 12th century and featuring an iconic leaning minaret, was reportedly destroyed amid the massive U.S.-backed offensive to push ISIS out of Mosul.
An Iraqi army statement claimed that the militant group detonated explosives in the mosque as the government’s Counter Terrorism Service units approached it. U.S. officials backed up Iraq’s account a short time later, saying that “ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures.”
ISIS issued a statement through its Amaq news agency, blaming a U.S. airstrike for the mosque’s destruction.
Capturing the mosque would have been a significant symbolic victory for the Iraqi government.
The militant group has been struggling to maintain its grip on the last areas of Mosul, as Iraqi forces fight through the streets of the Old City. The destruction of the Grand al Nuri mosque, once a venue for ISIS to proclaim its power and territory, highlights how much the group has lost in recent years.
Along with being slowly but steadily removed of its occupied territory in Iraq, ISIS is also facing an immense multi-pronged attack on its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are converging on Raqqa with the help of American air support, as forces allied with President Bashar Assad’s regime mount a separate offensive on the city.
As ISIS has lost much of the territory it seized in the early 2014, it has been forced to shift its propaganda to focus on terror attacks rather than its initial narrative of establishing a lasting and expanding “caliphate.” The group has been preparing its supporters for such losses for about a year, while vowing to continue its mission even without controlling significant terrain.
The ongoing battle for Mosul has seen deadly street fighting and heavy military casualties, as well as hundreds of civilians killed in airstrikes, in the effort to root out the remaining pockets of ISIS fighters from Iraq’s second-largest city.