Mosul's destroyed Grand Nuri Mosque: Perfect for IS propaganda

Mosul's destroyed Grand Nuri Mosque: Perfect for IS propaganda
Comment: The symbolism of the destruction of the Grand Nuri Mosque in Mosul will act as a lightning rod for extremists to reinvigorate the simmering sectarian war, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
22 Jun, 2017
Mosul’s Grand Nuri Mosque was very much a part of the city's character [AFP]

Almost a millennium of Islamic history, symbolism and heritage was obliterated in a few seconds last night in Mosul.

The Grand Nuri Mosque, constructed in 1172 by the famed Muslim leader Sultan Nuruddin al-Zengi, was entirely razed. The great mosque's iconic "hunchback" minaret that has towered over Mosul for centuries and that gave Iraq's second city its Hadba nickname was no more.

To Muslims around the world, yet another devastating blow against their collective identity has been struck. 

Inflaming sectarian tensions

The Grand Nuri Mosque holds immense historical and symbolic significance. Zengi was the patron of legendary Muslim ruler and military commander Salahuddin al-Ayoubi, better known in the western conscience as Saladin, the man who broke a century of Crusader power in the Holy Land.

Zengi himself was no slouch, and played a defining role in restoring Muslim dignity by reconquering areas taken by European invaders, while also engineering the beginning of the end of the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty that eventually led to the reunification of vast stretches of Muslim land under Salahuddin.

The Islamic State (IS), who blame a US airstrike for the devastation, will use this crime as a potent recruitment tool

It is for this reason that Zengi is held in extraordinarily high regard, and his mosque that became very much a part of Mosul's character obtained a lofty position as a symbol for Sunni Muslims wherever they may hail from. This is also precisely why the mosque's destruction will act as a potent recruitment tool for Sunni extremists, who will use this incident to rally for a longer, deadlier insurgency against the Iraqi regime. 

Just as the 2006 bombing of the Shia Askari shrine in Samarra was used by Shia extremists to begin a sectarian bloodbath that saw tens of thousands of Sunnis killed - the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with al-Qaeda - the destruction of the Grand Nuri Mosque will play a similar role.

Read more: Video shows the moment the minaret of Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque was blown up

The Islamic State (IS), who blame a US airstrike for the devastation, will use this crime as a potent recruitment tool to show how Sunni identity is under threat, and must be defended - violently. 

While the Iraqi government and the US blame IS, claiming the extremist group used munitions to demolish the mosque, there are a number of conflicting narratives that deserve exploration and investigation.


According to the official account, Iraqi forces were closing in on the Grand Nuri Mosque and were 50 metres away when IS militants detonated charges that levelled the entire complex and shattered the minaret.

Footage was later released on Twitter that allegedly showed the charges bringing the minaret down. However, IS immediately disputed the claim, and instead released a statement via its Amaq news agency saying that a US airstrike had destroyed the mosque.

Since the incident, several images have been released showing the very foundation of the minaret relatively intact. Adjacent to the minaret are walls that show cracks, while the surrounding neighbourhood around the mosque appears to be almost entirely destroyed.

It is impossible to definitively say "whodunnit" and this incident will certainly remain a potent mystery for sometime to come.

However, only recently, I challenged an Iraqi official, Saad al-Muttalibi, over Iraqi war crimes in Mosul on Turkish state-owned TRT World. By way of attempting to refute my allegations, Muttalibi said that all actions conducted by Iraqi forces were videotaped in a drive to increase transparency and to prevent atrocities from occurring.

If what Muttalibi says is true, then one must assume that the Iraqi military would possess footage of the demolition - after all, they were only 50 metres away at the time, with other units extremely closeby.

Further, the recording of the alleged incident posted on Twitter was itself a recording of a recording, showing a vague outline of a minaret which was not clearly identifiable as the Hadba minaret in Mosul's Old City.

In addition, one must consider IS' military position. The militants are outgunned, outmanned and on their last legs in Mosul. Judging by the photographs released the morning after the event, IS would have had to use an incredible amount of high-grade explosives to achieve that kind of effect.

Not only would IS have probably preferred to use those explosives on armoured vehicles and booby-traps, but it is unknown if they would have had access to the quantities needed. 

It would also have made sense for IS to have waited until Iraqi units entered the mosque before levelling it, in order to kill as many as possible, yet that did not happen.

The only certainty is that this event will be used for propaganda purposes for a long time to come

IS vehemently denied the bombing, despite proudly filming and taking credit for the destruction of mosques and Muslims for years, even during Ramadan. 

A fine example of this savagery was when the Nabi Sheet Mosque, also in Mosul, was blown up by IS publicly in 2014, destroying another two mosques in a single week.

It is doubtful that they would suddenly develop bashfulness towards wrecking mosques, especially one that holds symbolic significance to them. After all, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself "Caliph" from the Grand Nuri Mosque, and so destroying it would be symbolic of the destruction of his own legitimacy.

Pretext for continued violence

Whatever the truth of the matter, the only certainty is that this event will be used for propaganda purposes for a long time to come. The end of IS in Mosul will not be the end of the organisation as a whole, and with the sectarian authorities in Baghdad continuing to perpetrate crimes against the Sunni Arabs, IS will have even greater recruitment potential than ever before.

The Iraqi government and its US and Iranian backers have used extensive and disproportionate force in order to take out a terrorist threat of some 6,000 militants.

Much of Mosul's infrastructure has been razed to the ground, homes destroyed and people displaced in their hundreds of thousands.

With such devastation and misery inflicted, the destruction of a Sunni icon and symbol will act as a lightning rod for years of continuing violence and bloodshed, with the Iraqi people left to pick up the butcher's bill.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.