Abstract: The military campaign to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State is underway but faces an uphill struggle. During a six-week visit to northern Iraq in October and November, the author followed the determined and disciplined resistance shown by the militants amid the most intensive urban warfare since Beirut in the 1980s. The Iraqi Security Forces, rebuilt as a conventional force, are struggling with the combat conditions after early successes in Mosul’s hinterland. And the longer the campaign continues, the more likely that a humanitarian catastrophe will disrupt or even overwhelm the offensive and that the fragile coalition put together with considerable mediation from the United States will begin to fray. The campaign for Mosul and how its aftermath is managed is an acid test for the future of Iraq as a state. It will also be a profound influence on the future of the Islamic State, which explains the extraordinary lengths to which the group is going to prolong the battle and exploit divisions among its adversaries.

On November 14, the Islamic State released a long compilation video showing its operations in and around Mosul. One or two scenes had appeared in previous releases. Many others appeared current; geographical features confirmed they had been filmed in the east of the city.1 The video illustrated in graphic detail just how tough the fight for Mosul has become. The defensive frailties of Iraqi units were all too evident. There seemed little coherence to their positions, and they were too easily surprised.

The sequences confirmed that the Islamic State in Mosul still has an impressive array of weapons at its disposal, remains exceptionally mobile, and—despite the mounting pressure on its crown jewel—has not lost its flair for publicity.a Several suicide vehicle (VBIED) attacks were filmed with professional clarity by the organization’s own drones. The bird’s-eye view showed vehicles converted into armored suicide bombs accelerating out of side-streets and alleys at high speed, targeting Iraqi tanks, Humvees, and static checkpoints.

Even before Iraqi military and peshmerga units reached the outskirts of Mosul, the Islamic State gave notice of the ferocity with which it would defend the city, sending waves of VBIEDs against its adversaries. That it intends to put up a determined defense was reiterated in a rare audio message from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released in early November.2

This article examines the tactics deployed by the Islamic State to defend Mosul and the challenges faced by Iraqi forces in taking back the city, based on the six weeks the author spent in northern Iraq between the end of September and mid-November, including time at the frontlines east of Mosul. It also examines the future challenges in stabilizing Mosul and defeating the Islamic State in Iraq.

Visits to Kurdish peshmerga frontlines and to a forward base of the Iraqi 9th Armored Division, as well as interviews with commanders and Kurdish officials, showed a heartening level of collaboration between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. But, at the same time, Kurdish commanders and officials made it clear they had no intention of joining the battle in the city itself, and some openly questioned the capacity of Iraqi forces for evicting the Islamic State from Mosul. They also said the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were insufficiently thorough in clearing villages, making them vulnerable to attack from behind.3

None of those commanders, and very few others with whom the author spoke, expected the offensive to be concluded by the end of the year, the deadline set by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. And almost all expressed concern about inadequate planning for pacifying and rehabilitating Mosul after the Islamic State is expelled.

The shaping operations to tighten the noose on Mosul began on October 17 and involved both peshmerga and Iraqi units advancing westward to the city. Even here, the resistance in small villages and abandoned towns was furious, with dozens of VBIEDs inflicting casualties on the advancing forces. Fully two weeks after isolating the town of Bashiqa, peshmerga forces were stunned by the resistance of a handful of Islamic State fighters who had remained hidden in the ruins.4 But by the end of October, forward units were poised on the eastern and northern outskirts of the city.

Two of the author’s colleagues—CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Brice Laine—had first-hand experience with the ISF’s tactical shortcomings as it tried to breach Mosul’s eastern neighborhoods.5 They were with the Salahudin Regiment of the Counter Terrorism Force (CTF) when it entered the city on November 4. Islamic State fighters waited until the regiment was inside the densely populated Aden district. They first ambushed a support group in the adjacent neighborhood of Kirkukli from several sides, forcing it to retreat with heavy loss of life. One Iraqi soldier described the resistance as “crazy.” Islamic State fighters, he said, had emerged from alleys just a few meters away and dropped grenades from rooftops. Commanders were unable to respond to mortar fire as it came from areas where civilians were present.

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Northern Iraq (Rowan Technology)

The Salahudin Regiment’s column—comprising vulnerable Humvees with just a couple of MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) among its 30-odd vehicles—was isolated. It came under sustained attack in narrow streets for more than 24 hours, losing all but three of its vehicles. Islamic State fighters targeted the front and rear of the trapped convoy, firing RPGs from rooftops and sending suicide bombers on motorbikes and in cars. In an effort to counter the threat of VBIEDs, military bulldozers hastily erected barricades of cars and other obstacles.

The Islamic State fighters were an agile attacking force with intimate knowledge of the local environment, and they made up for numerical inferiority with complex attacks focused on areas where conventional forces struggled to react. That night, as remnants of the CTF unit took shelter in nearby houses, Islamic State fighters plundered their wrecked vehicles for weapons and recorded themselves doing so.b

Many of the regiment’s soldiers seemed to have little sense of Mosul’s geography. Most were Shi`a from other parts of Iraq; some were clearly apprehensive about entering this predominantly Sunni city. One back-up convoy entered the Aden neighborhood only to find itself unable to ford a creek.

The experience was a cautionary one for the CTF. After relatively smooth progress on the approaches to the city, entering Mosul suddenly posed new challenges. Using airpower became more difficult in densely populated areas. In several neighborhoods, residents said Islamic State fighters had forced people out of their homes so they could booby-trap the properties.c Vehicle bombs were detonated by remote control; there seemed an inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers. And snipers operated from the rooftops.

The intense combat involved in breaching even the outermost eastern neighborhoods appears to have shocked some Iraqi commanders. Damon and Laine encountered an onslaught of VBIEDs as the unit they were accompanying entered Kirkukli and then Aden. The same situation unfolded elsewhere. One Iraqi officer complained that “fighting without being able to use tanks and with soldiers unused to urban warfare is putting troops in a tough situation.”6

Through much of November, even districts declared ‘liberated’ saw a resurgence of attacks by militants. The Islamic State has assembled a vast arsenal of improvised mortar and artillery weapons in Mosul, typically with a range of four or five kilometers (2.5 miles.) Many of the launchers were mobilized on pickup trucks or hidden among thousands of abandoned buildings. Mortars were fired at random into liberated areas, killing civilians and detracting from the sense of security that the Iraqi military was trying to instill in ‘liberated’ areas.d On several occasions, the Iraqi Joint Military Command issued premature statements about liberating an area only for fighting to erupt again.e

The defenders made use of the network of tunnels they had built. A source with contacts inside Mosul showed the author where some of the tunnels ran. Besides deeper excavations used to protect the leadership, the Islamic State had built a series of essentially covered trenches running west to east, from the heart of the city to the outskirts. These were big enough for motorcycles (which the Islamic State has used in sizeable numbers in Mosul) and were often connected inside houses, allowing for materiel to be stocked and distributed under cover.7

By late November, after nearly a month of combat, Iraqi forces had made stuttering progress in the eastern half of the city. Among the positives, there was further progress in degrading the Islamic State’s leadership. One of the leaders killed was Mahmoud Shukri al-Nuaimi, a senior commander also known as Sheikh Faris.f There was also a higher rate of success in targeting VBIEDs.8

But Iraqi military casualties—if undisclosed—were high, as visits by the author’s colleagues to field hospitals and frontlines made clear. Weeks after entering the Aden and Tahrir neighborhoods, CTF units were still taking casualties from VBIED attacks in both places. Several senior officers, who declined to be named, acknowledged there were heavy casualties daily.9 A major in the CTF in Aden said on November 19 that the Islamic State had carried out five VBIED attacks on that day in areas that were still being cleared. One attack had killed seven soldiers.10 But the Iraqi Military Command said no casualty figures would be disclosed until the offensive was finished.

Many of the ISF units doing the heavy lifting around Mosul—the Golden Division, the 9th Armored Division, and CTF—have been battling the Islamic State for two years, in Fallujah, Ramadi, Baiji, and elsewhere. They have suffered attrition and frequently deploy patched-up equipment. There are also resupply issues. In one instance during the battle for the town of Bartella east of Mosul an Abrams M1 tank used its last shell to destroy an onrushing VBIED.11 The Iraqi military group accompanied by the author’s colleagues inside Mosul nearly ran out of ammunition.

The offensive has run into other problems. For much of November, the Islamic State faced little pressure from the south or west and was able to focus its resistance in the east, a sprawl of industrial and residential areas. Nor was there any measurable resistance inside Mosul. Witnesses spoke of a short-lived revolt at the end of October in the crowded Wadi Hajar neighborhood in the southwest of the city, where an overnight gun battle left several Islamic State fighters dead.12 But the group was able to penetrate the area the following day and, according to witnesses, later executed 75 men alleged to have been involved.g No similar account has since emerged.

Some residents have provided information to the ISF on Islamic State deployments, despite immense risk.13 The Islamic State crucified alleged ‘spies’ in public places as a warning to others. Witnesses said the group had left “dozens of bodies” at intersections, in both eastern and western districts of Mosul, with notes attached: ‘Used cell phones to leak information to the ISF.’ Being in possession of a SIM card is punishable by death.14

As the Institute for the Study of War noted, the Islamic State used “the execution campaign to demonstrate control over its population, deter the ISF from advancing lest [the Islamic State] retaliates with executions, and tamp down on possible internal resistance.”15

For their part, ISF commanders must also contend with Islamic State sympathizers in liberated areas providing targeting information for mortar fire and suicide bombers. It is not enough for the ISF to focus on the frontlines; in the absence of holding forces, they need to focus on what is behind them.

The Civilian Issue
The number of civilians still in Mosul when the offensive began was estimated at somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million, making the battle much more difficult for a coalition intent on minimizing civilian casualties, avoiding destruction of infrastructure and homes, and encouraging residents to stay rather than flee.h

These aims might seem contradictory: the simplest way to minimize civilian casualties would be to open escape corridors for them. But a massive exodus would stretch the capacity of the United Nations and aid agencies beyond their breaking point.16 There are already 3.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq, two-thirds of them in northern Iraq in areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).17

An uncontrolled flood of civilians out of the city would be vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic State fighters, seeking both to escape and to carry out suicide bomb attacks at screening points. One persistent fear voiced by Kurdish peshmerga commanders was of young teenage boys trained by Islamic State to carry out suicide attacks while hidden among the civilian outflow.18

At the beginning of November, residents of one neighborhood of Mosul (al Karama) confirmed the emergence of about 100 teenagers, often on motorbikes and wearing suicide belts, as ‘shock troops.’ These appear to be just a few of the ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ that the Islamic State frequently featured in its media output, although the total number of indoctrinated and trained youth remains unknown.19

There were also multiple reports of civilians being prevented from leaving neighborhoods still under Islamic State control. Thousands more were force-marched or transported into Mosul from outlying villages, especially to the south, according to witness reports, potentially swelling the number of human shields available to the Islamic State. This makes an already difficult task even more hazardous.20

“If there were no civilians, we’d just burn it all,” Major General Sami al-Aridhi told The Washington Post on November 11.21 Al-Aridhi said he had been forced to pause operations at one point because there were too many families in the streets.

But the chances of a mass exodus, even in liberated areas of Mosul, continue to grow. In a statement on November 17, U.N. agencies and NGOs warned that “in many newly retaken areas, civilian infrastructure such as water and power plants, schools and hospitals are damaged and medical services often unavailable … many families are forced to drink untreated water from wells; their children are unvaccinated, without formal education, and many are in high need of psycho-social support.”22

As of late November, there were already more than 70,000 internally displaced from the city and surrounding areas. If the ISF begins to use more indiscriminate force, such as the use of thermobaric rocket launchers, to dislodge the Islamic State, more will vote with their feet.i

Map of Mosul (Institute for the Study of War)

Multiple sources, as well as coalition intelligence,23 believe the Islamic State will ultimately focus the bulk of its defensive efforts on the older parts of Mosul on the left bank of the Tigris. These comprise tightly packed neighborhoods where the use of heavy armor would be difficult.24 Satellite photographs analyzed by the political risk group Stratfor show the Islamic State has blockaded most of the entrance roads from the south with T-walls and other wreckage.25 Seizing western Mosul will be even harder than taking the east, especially as escape routes for the militants across the western desert have been cut off by the largely Shi`a paramilitaries of the Hashd al-Shaabi. Those remaining, especially foreign fighters, have little option but to fight to the death.

Gradually, the northward offensive along the left bank of the Tigris and toward Mosul airport began to catch up with progress in the east and north. The liberation of the town of Hammam al-Alil (some 12 miles south of Mosul) allowed Iraqi Federal Police to push north toward Mosul airport. But by late November, nearly four weeks after ISF units attacked the east of the city, no offensive action in the western half of the city proper had begun.

A War Within A War?
Further west, the Hashd al-Shaabi and other groups under its umbrella surrounded Tal Afar, a stronghold of the Islamic State with a population of some 50,000, by late November.j According to the agreed blueprint for the campaign,26 the Hashd al-Shaabi—also referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—had the task of sealing off escape routes for the Islamic State in an arc running northward across the desert.

The PMU reported capturing the air base south of Tal Afar on November 16 with the help of Iraqi (though notably not coalition) air strikes.k However, their presence in this now predominantly Sunni area remains highly contentious.

Prime Minister al-Abadi reaffirmed on November 23 that the town would be liberated by the Iraqi army and police forces along with former residents of Tal Afar, including both Sunni and Shi`a Turkmen.27 It is a highly combustible coalition; elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi have been known to ignore the central government in previous campaigns.28

There were also complaints from Sunni tribal figures of abuses and random shelling by the Shi`a forces as they moved through villages west of Mosul. Amnesty International said in November it had documented the killings of several Sunnis by Shiite paramilitaries in villages south of Mosul.29 A leader of the Sunni Sada Bakarah tribe accused the Hashd al-Shaabi of atrocities in villages seized from the Islamic State, including random shelling of civilians and summary executions.30

Some in the PMU have also left open the possibility that the Hashd will swing east to the outskirts of Mosul. Faleh al-Fayad, Iraq’s national security advisor, is quoted as saying, “the PMU’s goal is to liberate the city of Tal Afar and reach the outskirts of Mosul, without entering the city unless by an order from the commander in chief of the armed forces.”31

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear that any move on Tal Afar would be a red line for his government because of the town’s substantial Turkmen population.

“Tal Afar is a very sensitive issue for us,” Erdogan said on October 29. “We definitely do not regard it [the militia’s involvement] positively in Tal Afar and Sinjar.”32 Subsequently, Turkish armor took up positions at Salopi on the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Spokesmen for the Hashd al-Shaabi have said bluntly that their presence in Nineveh will not be temporary nor restricted. Rather, they see it as a corridor to join the battle in Syria, which is a two-hour drive east from Tal Afar, in aid of the Assad regime and against both the Islamic State and other Sunni rebel factions. “After clearing all our land from these terrorist gangs, we are fully ready to go to any place that contains a threat to Iraqi national security,” Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the PMU, told a news conference in Baghdad at the end of October.33

Some Kurdish officials worry that the PMU envisage a permanent presence on the borders of the KRG.34 They even speculate that the Shi`a paramilitaries have eyes on Mount Sinjar to the west of Tal Afar, a lozenge-shaped mass used by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War to launch SCUD missiles toward Israel.35

Sinjar is at the northern edge of the KRG’s current frontline, and more than one Kurdish general regards the PMU as a much greater long-term threat than the passing irritant of the Islamic State.36 The situation in the area is further complicated by the internal frictions between the peshmerga and Syrian Kurds who first entered the area in 2014 to help rescue thousands of Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State.37

Mosul into 2017
There is the risk that as the offensive for Mosul drags on into 2017, friction about its prosecution and the displacement of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people will grow, and the sectarian fault-lines and competing agendas within the anti-Islamic State coalition will explode into view. And that would prove an early challenge for the incoming U.S. administration.

As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump has made it plain he would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.”38 He said in September that on his first day in office he would give his top generals a simple instruction. “They will have thirty days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”39

Trump’s premise is that the U.S.-led coalition is not ruthless enough. In an interview with Fox News in September, Trump said, “we’re hitting them every once in a while, we’re hitting them in certain places, we’re being very gentle about it.”40 And at a campaign event on October 24, Trump said, “we’re bogged down in Mosul. The enemy is much tougher than they thought.”41

But short of accepting far greater destruction as well as more civilian casualties and displacement, it is hard to see how more intensive air strikes would change the military balance overnight. Their role is to tip the scales in favor of ground forces. To borrow the words of U.S. Army General Wesley Clark about NATO’s campaign to evict Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1997, “the air campaign was an effort to coerce, not to seize.”42

Whether the new administration will double down on the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Iraq and change their role from ‘advise and assist’ to full-fledged involvement in combat is an open question. So is the possibility of more intense aerial bombardment to raze areas ahead of the advance of allied ground forces.

Beyond any changes President-elect Trump and his national security team may make to the U.S. military role in the Mosul campaign, other questions loom about broader regional policy, which will impact both the pacification of Mosul and efforts to intensify pressure on the Islamic State’s last urban stronghold of Raqqa.

The first half of 2017 could see the Islamic State being pushed out of both cities and, in the eyes of many commentators, transitioning into an insurgency based in the Euphrates River valley on either side of the Syria-Iraq border but with deep networks of cells elsewhere. While the Islamic State may lose control of its significant conurbations, it will likely retain a presence in Iraq’s western desert and may still control remote towns like Ba’aj and al Qaim. Even as the Mosul offensive was underway, it launched complex attacks in Kirkuk, the Hawija area, and Tikrit as well as an ambitious assault on the town of al Rutba in the far-west of Anbar Province. It also carried out a car-bomb attack in Fallujah in November, the first since the town’s liberation in June, and then on November 18, a complex attack on Iraqi checkpoints in the town of Imam al-Gharbi, 50 miles south of Mosul, which had been liberated in August.43

The Institute for the Study of War noted that the Islamic State “has re-established or consolidated networks in the area or found residents that remain either tolerant of ISIS’s ideology or opposed to the government enough to allow ISIS to infiltrate.”44

The Islamic State may also find the right sociological conditions in areas like Diyala to survive and regroup.45 It will likely revert to the structure that helped it survive the lean years of 2007-2011. This would involve “deactivating and dispersing its military units and reinforcing its intelligence, security, administrative, and financial groups,”46 according to Patrick Ryan and Patrick B. Johnston, who argue that these ‘enabler’ elements could resurface in Mosul and elsewhere unless successfully targeted by the coalition and Iraqi forces. “Only once the Islamic State’s underground network is fully defeated will there be a real chance for enduring security and stability in Mosul,” they say.

An Iraqi Special Forces soldier engages Islamic State fighters pushing through eastern Samah area and into the Arbagiah neighborhood of Mosul on November 11, 2016.  (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

The scale of the task should not be underestimated. Mosul has been a cauldron of subversion, criminality, and militancy for much of the post-Saddam era.47 As former Moslawi resident Rasha al-Aqeedi points out, “the U.S. invasion only strengthened the Islamists’ influence as activism transformed into the ‘Islamic Party,’ and they were well prepared to hijack Sunni politics in the absence of other competitors.”48 There was an interlude of increased stability between 2007 and 2011 before a more authoritarian (and sectarian) tone in Baghdad and the withdrawal of U.S. military guidance caused a rapid deterioration. As Michael Knights has put it, there was a “chronically deficient unity of effort and unity of command among Iraqi government, Kurdish, and Ninawa factions.”49 Now, “Mosul residents will also be closely watching their liberators for signs of a return to 2014, with its punitive measures, restrictive curfews, and the widespread specter of arrest,” Knights says.50

This is an anxiety the author has heard expressed many times over the last month. Until the arrival of the Islamic State, Mosul always had intricate demographics, with Kurds and Christians as important minorities. Judging by conversations the author and his colleagues have had with former residents over the past month, few seem likely to return without guarantees for their protection and rights. About half the Christian population of Bartella, a town to the east of Mosul seized by the Islamic State in 2014, has already left Iraq, according to the town’s mayor and religious leaders.51

Multiple Kurdish officials say their greatest concern (one shared by many international observers) is about ‘the day after’ in Mosul, in terms of reconstruction, security, and governance. They say Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, beseeched Prime Minister al-Abadi and other Iraqi officials for a comprehensive agreement on governing Mosul after the Islamic State’s expulsion, to no avail.52 Nor is there any consensus on a governor to drive recovery and stabilization.

U.S. officials have said that a 15,000-strong Sunni tribal police force is being trained to handle local security.53 But Ned Parker, the former Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, has noted that after previous operations against the Islamic State, “because the special forces are limited in manpower and primarily an offensive force, there is then a power vacuum … militias have filled that void, becoming the primary force on the ground. Their political influence is a force multiplier.”54

Various plans for a post-Islamic State political structure have been floated, including the creation of six to eight self-governing areas to accommodate the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of this part of Nineveh Province.55 But none has been agreed to, and many politicians in Baghdad oppose tampering with the provincial structure for fear of setting off a nationwide clamor for devolution.56 They also suspect that the KRG would use any breakup of Nineveh to bring more areas—predominantly Christian—into its orbit.

The peshmerga were busy in October creating ‘facts on the ground,’ extending the berms and trenches that are the KRG’s de facto border to within 10 miles of Mosul. When the author asked one very senior Kurdish general whether these were intended as the KRG’s new limits, he grinned and replied, “why not?”57

The second greatest concern of KRG officials, one repeated at almost every encounter, is that once the Islamic State is expelled from Mosul, U.S. engagement will, in the words of one, “fall off a cliff.” The U.S. and coalition military contribution to the Mosul offensive has been crucial: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, the contribution of Special Operations Forces close to or on the frontlines, and persistent air strikes. But as important has been the diplomatic stamina to build and hold together a fractious coalition, which has included frequent mediation between Baghdad and the KRG.

Michael Knights is not alone in arguing for a continued U.S. presence long after the Islamic State is expunged from Mosul, saying that “U.S. forces should commit to at least three more years of extraordinary security cooperation, subject to review and extension.”58 On the evidence of this author’s experiences in Iraq this fall, international support and mediation will be essential to underwrite a post-Islamic State Nineveh.

The liberation of Mosul could offer a template for a new constitutional dispensation, but it could also presage a new era of violence if mishandled by Baghdad and other parties. U.S. engagement will be needed to try to prevent a repeat of the conditions that led to the incubation of the Islamic State in Nineveh and elsewhere and to mitigate the sectarianism that has plagued the post-Saddam years.

Iraq’s constitution provides for regional autonomy, but the history of post-Saddam Iraq has been one of centralization, especially under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both the United States and Iran, though for very different reasons, supported the creation of a strong (and inevitably Shi`a-dominated) Iraqi state.59 But in accentuating centralized control, al-Maliki ultimately created the conditions for a failing state.

In Nineveh, absent political agreement, Sunni, Kurdish, Shabak, Christian, and Turkmen groups—themselves often divided—will compete in the vacuum left by the Islamic State’s departure. Without reconstruction, even-handed policing, the return of the rule of law, and better governance, the conditions for the Islamic State’s survival and rehabilitation will persist.

But there will also need to be a sensitivity to the unique place of Mosul in Iraq. Former resident Rasha al-Aqeedi says the city has a distemper all of its own. “God help any American or other foreigner who may come to have a hand in trying to govern Mosul after its liberation if they think that there is only one kind of resident in Mosul, one kind of Muslim, or one kind of anything else,” she writes. “The place is just not that simple, and missing the details is bound to end in tears for everyone.”60

Tim Lister has been a journalist for more than 30 years with the BBC and CNN. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and was at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001. In the last two years, he has spent significant time reporting for CNN from the frontlines of the war against the Islamic State in northern Syria and in Iraq. He is co-author with Paul Cruickshank and Morten Storm of Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA. Follow @TimListerCNN 

Substantive Notes
[a] While there has been a reduction in the group’s media output in recent months, the Islamic State has nevertheless released two lengthy video compilations of combat in and around Mosul and several other accounts of individual battles as well as an audio message from its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

[b] The video of them ransacking the remnants of the convoy was published by the Islamic State’s Amaq media center on November 6, 2016.

[c] One source said that civilians detained for minor infractions such as smoking or beards of insufficient length had been given three options: lashing, prison time, or digging 10 meters of trenches. This had allowed Islamic State to build miles of tunnels in just a few months. Author’s telephone conversations with civilians in Mosul.

[d] This overall picture was formed by an analysis of extensive video evidence; comments by Iraqi military officers; and contacts with Mosul and former Mosul residents. In some instances, sources are not fully described for reasons of their security. In the case of some Iraqi officers, they were unauthorized to speak to the media.

[e] On November 4, 2016, within 24 hours of the advance into eastern Mosul, Iraq’s Joint Military Command declared that six districts (Al Malayan, Al Samah, Al Khadraa, Kirkukli, Quds, and Al Karama) had been liberated. All of them saw renewed attacks by the Islamic State over the following days and weeks, some of which forced Iraqi units to pull back.

[f] According to Iraqi military sources, Nuaimi had been a high-ranking intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein. Author interview, Iraqi military sources, fall 2016.

[g] According to former residents and activists interviewed by the author, the Islamic State used records it had seized listing former police and military personnel to identify the alleged perpetrators. Residents and witnesses communicating by telephone and text with CNN producers, October and November 2016.

[h] United Nations officials and NGOs who spoke with the author agreed the likely population of the city itself was within this range.

[i] These tanks—Russian-made TOS-1A Buratinos—have been seen in several places east of Mosul but as of mid-November do not appear to have been widely used.

[j] This estimate was provided to the author by U.N. officials and NGOs. The population in 2014 was approximately 200,000. Until the Islamic State’s arrival, there was a substantial Shi`a population in Tal Afar. The great majority fled—some as far as Najaf south of Baghdad—and some formed military units under the banner of the PMU to join the campaign to retake the town. See Zana Gulmohamad, “Unseating the Caliphate: Contrasting the Challenges of Liberating Fallujah and Mosul,” CTC Sentinel 9:10 (2016), and for analysis of the dynamics of the Tal Afar campaign, see Michael Knights and Matthew Schweitzer, “Shiite Militias Are Crashing the Mosul Offensive,” Foreign Policy, November 18, 2016.

[k] The PMU, the umbrella under which the Hashd al Shabi operate, released several videos on November 16 showing their forces inside Tal Afar airport.

[1] “The Promise of Allah,” Islamic State, November 14, 2016.

[2] Euan McKirdy, “ISIS Leader releases rare audio message as Iraqi troops enter Mosul,” CNN, November 3, 2016.

[3] Author interviews, Kurdish peshmerga officers, October and November 2016.

[4] Comments by peshmerga officers to the author’s colleagues.

[5] Arwa Damon and Brice Laine, “28 hours: Leading the Mosul attack, under fire, then trapped,” CNN, November 8, 2016.

[6] Dominic Evans and Ahmed Rasheed, “Crashing waves’ of jihadists fray soldiers’ nerves in Mosul battle,” Reuters, November 10, 2016.

[7] Author’s conversations, former residents who had witnessed the tunnel program.

[8] Author’s interviews in northern Iraq and telephone conversations with civilians in and outside Mosul.

[9] Background conversations of CNN producers and senior Iraqi officers in Mosul area, November 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Account relayed to author by witnesses, October 17, 2016.

[12] Residents and witnesses communicating by telephone and text with CNN producers, October and November 2016.

[13] Residents and witnesses communicating by phone and text with CNN producers, fall 2016.

[14] Statement from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, November 11, 2016.

[15] “Iraq Situation Report, November 9th-17th, 2016,” Institute for the Study of War.

[16] Author’s interviews, multiple aid agencies and NGOs, October and November 2016.

[17] Figures provided by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

[18] Author’s interviews, peshmerga commanders in Irbil and Bashiqa, October and November 2016.

[19] Residents of Karama neighborhood contacted by phone by CNN producers, November 2016. Their reports were subsequently supported by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a statement on November 11, 2016.

[20] Witnesses contacted by phone; U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Al Hussein also referenced this forced movement in his statement on November 11. See also Arwa Damon, “How one family escaped from ISIS,” CNN, November 2, 2016.

[21] Loveday Morris, “Iraq has never seen this kind of fighting in its battles with ISIS,” Washington Post, November 11, 2016.

[22] Statement released by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

[23] Author’s interviews, residents and witnesses in Mosul communicating by phone and text with CNN producers, fall 2016.

[24] See also Zana Gulmohamad, “Unseating the Caliphate: Contrasting the Challenges of Liberating Fallujah and Mosul,” CTC Sentinel 9:10 (2016). Residents of Mosul reported a steady movement of Islamic State fighters from the east to the west of the city and extensive explosives being set on the bridges linking the two halves.

[25] “A Look at Islamic State Defenses in Mosul,” Stratfor, November 4, 2016.

[26] Battle-plan leaked to some media and seen by the author.

[27] News conference, Baghdad, November 23, 2016.

[28] See Gulmohamad.

[29] “Investigate reports Iraqi forces tortured and killed villagers near Mosul in ‘cold blood’,” Amnesty International, November 10, 2016.

[30] Jamie Dettmer, “Arab Tribal Leader Accuses Iraqi Shi’ite Militiamen of Executions,” Voice of America News, November 17, 2016.

[31] Quoted in Iraqi media and in Randa Slim, Robert S. Ford, and David Mack “Shiite Militias to Join Mosul Battle,” Middle East Institute, October 31, 2016.

[32] “Erdogan warns of Shia militia entering Iraq’s Tal Afar,” Anadolu News Agency, October 29, 2016.

[33] “Shia militias open new front in battle for Mosul,” Al Jazeera, October 29, 2016.

[34] Author’s interviews, Irbil, October and November 2016.

[35] Seth J. Frantzman, “Red fire on the mountain: Saddam Hussein’s secrets still haunt the landscape,” Jerusalem Post, May 21, 2016.

[36] Views expressed to the author by senior peshmerga commanders, October 2016.

[37] The author was in Sinjar ahead of the peshmerga offensive to take the town in November 2015 when their animosity toward the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG) was on open display.

[38] Jenna Johnson, “Donald Trump promises to ‘bomb the hell out of ISIS’ in new radio ad,” Washington Post, November 15, 2015.

[39] Ben Schrekinger, “Trump would turn to generals for Islamic State plan,” Politico, September 6, 2016.

[40] Tim Lister, “Is bombing the s*** out of ISIS a strategy?” CNN, November 16, 2016.

[41] “Clinton slams Trump for comments on offensive against Islamic State,” Reuters, October 25, 2016.

[42] Dana Priest, “United NATO Front Was Divided Within,” Washington Post, September 21, 1999.

[43] For detailed accounts of these attacks, see Michael Georgy, “Islamic State attacks Kirkuk as Iraqi forces push on Mosul,” Reuters, October 21, 2016; Muhannad al-Ghazi, “How IS is trying to thwart progress in Mosul operation,” Al Monitor, November 10, 2016; and “ISIL claims suicide attacks in Fallujah, near Karbala,” Al Jazeera, November 15, 2016. The author was told about the attack on Imam al Gharbi by Iraqi security officials.

[44] “Iraq Situation Report, November 9th-17th, 2016.”

[45] Alex Mello and Michael Knights, “Losing Mosul, Regenerating in Diyala: How the Islamic State Could Exploit Iraq’s Sectarian Tinderbox,” CTC Sentinel 9:10 (2016).

[46] Patrick Ryan and Patrick B. Johnston, “After the Battle for Mosul, Get Ready for the Islamic State to Go Underground,” War on the Rocks, October 18, 2016.

[47] For a colorful picture of the city in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, see Phillip Robertson, “An Arab Mogadishu: A Report from the Most Violent Place in Iraq,” Salon, April 21, 2003.

[48] Rasha al Aqeedi, “The Once and Future Mosul,” The American Interest, October 2016.

[49] Michael Knights, “How to Secure Mosul: Lessons from 2008—2014,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, No. 38, October 2016.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Author interviews, October – November 2016.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Tim Lister and Hamdi Alkhshali, “Stakes for Iraq’s future couldn’t be higher as Mosul offensive looms,” CNN, October 4, 2016.

[54] Zachary Laub, “Does Iraq Have a Plan for After the Islamic State?” Interview with Ned Parker, Council for Foreign Relations, July 12, 2016.

[55] A plan put forward in September by former Mosul governor Atheel al Nujaifi, which he reconfirmed in an interview with the author, October 2016.

[56] Author interviews, October 2016.

[57] Author interview, November 2016.

[58] Michael Knights.

[59] Dylan O’Driscoll, “Autonomy Impaired: Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State,” Ethnopolitics, 2015.

[60] Rasha al Aqeedi, “The Once and Future Mosul,” The American Interest, October 2016.

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