Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Exploding car bombs and ill-advised U.S. airstrikes have demolished the streets of what was once the proud city of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. What remains is a war zone and one that ISIS cannot claim ownership over for much longer. As the American-backed coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces inch ever closer to its goal of recapturing the city, the Islamic State’s worldwide ambitions appear headed toward an impasse. The integrity of its Northern Iraqi caliphate is waning as it lies besieged amid the narrow alleyways and IED-strewn choke points of western Mosul. Its forces have employed increasingly destructive defense tactics that threaten both the anti-ISIS coalition and the city’s own residents through its clawing and foot-dragging “scorch-the-earth” exit. Losing Mosul spells strategic and symbolic doom for the caliphate’s goal of uniting the world under extremist Muslim rule. Fitttingly, ISIS’s metaphorical sun dims exactly where the group rose to prominence two years ago: in the shadow of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
Previously known for its historical significance and as a center of learning, Mosul became the heart of the Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East when the extremist group defeated Iraqi Army ground forces in 2014 and took possession of the city. At the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the center of Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS to be a global caliphate and installed himself as caliph. This has been subsequently followed by over two years of rule under ISIS’s extremist interpretation of sharia law. It was at this point that ISIS became a credible threat and one that fellow terrorist organizations like Boko Haram began allying themselves with. The city has served as a base for their operations, in conjunction with the caliphate’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, from which ISIS controls its territories in the two countries. The looting of a central bank for $425 million dollars and profit from Mosul’s lucrative oil fields have helped to fund the Islamic State’s weapons purchases and recruitment of new members. When the Iraqi army began coordinating with Kurdish forces in 2016 to converge on Mosul, it took over 3 months for the coalition to recapture the eastern side of the city. The Western Mosuli campaign finally appears to be in its final stages after seven months of heavy combat, with coalition forces now pushing into the last occupied districts. Iraqi Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanim recently predicted that the coalition could completely overtake the city in a matter of days.

U.S. forces provide artillery support in the coalition’s fight against ISIS

Despite the recent positive developments, ISIS saw its destructive agenda completed and found a surprising ally through the questionable actions of the U.S. military. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike allegedly decimated buildings in hopes of helping coalition forces oust ISIS from its cover within the city. Over 150 civilians were killed in a single strike, making it one of the most fatal in U.S. history in terms of civilian casualties. Such casualties caused by U.S. intervention in the Middle East have shown time and time again to breed further extremism, feeding directly into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and call to arms. There were never official designations over what caused the building containing these civilians to collapse, but U.S. military forensic units have strong conflicts of interests in investigating their own actions. Some within the U.S. defense sphere blame ISIS for blowing up the building and herding civilians inside in order to frame American forces. Indeed, ISIS has trapped civilians inside buildings to deter or incriminate American air support since then, but the anti-ISIS coalition is now wise to the ploy. Beyond the threat of U.S. bombings, the lives of common citizens are further endangered by ISIS’s guerilla tactics like the use of humans shields and the holding of civilian hostages. Aid to the city can scarcely get in without the threat of appropriation by ISIS. Additionally, the acceptance of Mosuli refugees runs the risk of harboring fleeing militants in disguise.

The offensive has been a tactical nightmare for the allied coalition. ISIS snipers, sarin gas, incessant car bombs and an intensified media spotlight have contributed to slowing the allie’s advance in Mosul to a hesitant crawl. When anti-ISIS forces reclaimed parts of the city that had been previously under the Islamic State’s control, they discovered holes created between houses and tunnels beneath the streets that allowed personnel and supplies to move without aerial detection. The allied forces also discovered a garage which specialized in outfitting vehicles for suicide bombings, altering them to be bulletproof and avoid surveillance. These factors lead to difficult decisions regarding how much time and how many soldiers’ lives the coalition is willing to give up in order to capture Mosul. The respective cost in delaying progress, however, is larger still. ISIS has become more indiscriminate with its use of force as its defenses have failed. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin reports that civilian collateral casualties per week are, “in the hundreds with evidence showing that’s increasing.”

Without Mosul, ISIS would be without its biggest source of prestige, economic support and coordination center. Control of Mosul is central to the group’s legitimacy as Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s jumping off point. The caliphate’s official title as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” would lose both its accuracy and its sense of attraction among certain circles due to the group’s inability to control any significant portion of Iraq. This would be a major hit to ISIS’s recruitment abilities, despite being counterbalanced by potential anti-American sentiment following the mass civilian airstrike. Without a means of bringing new recruits into the organization, the group’s influence would likely dwindle and dissipate. The group already lost control of the city’s oil fields earlier in the campaign. ISIS fighters have reportedly stopped receiving payment as the organization has run out of money. The extortion of civilians within Mosul, not uncommon in similar situations, is difficult when there are battles to fight and the city is essentially starved.

Mosul’s strategic position in Northern Iraq once made it invaluable in controlling the group’s territories in Northeastern Iraq and Northwestern Syria. The city’s close proximity to the Syrian border was useful in working in tandem with ISIS’s remaining major city and new de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. But what was once an advantage is now a liability, as the city’s position between the northern Kurds and southern Iraqis encouraged the formation of an opposing coalition that was otherwise unlikely. The loss of Mosul will shake the group’s very identity and serve as a huge blow to ISIS’s chances of establishing the globe-encompassing Islamic state that it seeks.

As the tides continue to tip in favor of the Iraqi coalition, the focus of these forces will soon turn towards Raqqa, where another offensive is already underway. There is much speculation over when ISIS may be defeated and what the terrorist group will look like in the aftermath of this defeat, but these estimates carry wild degrees of uncertainty. Halting ISIS’s caliphate goals isn’t likely to end the threat of terrorism that occasionally penetrates the West. If anything, ISIS grows harder to deal with as its extremist foreign fighters disappear back into their native populations and sow fundamentalism back home. The relative clarity of a defined battleground will soon be lost; a reality that the coalition is already preparing for.
The next challenge after Mosul falls will be in identifying the enemy fleeing among the Mosuli refugees. Islamic State members have already begun abandoning Mosul in what appears to be an acknowledgement of defeat. They may resurface elsewhere in attempts to establish control in other parts of the Levant, land the group claims as its religious right. Increased terrorist activity may become a top priority due to a lack of having a solidified sphere of influence or they may simply refocus on resource acquisition as they regroup. What seems to be most certain, however, is that the loss of Mosul will spell the beginning of the end for ISIS’s sovereign state and will bring about the liberation of innocent civilians that have been starving and dying under ISIS’s oppressive rule.

Of the many reasons to liberate Mosul, the well-being of its people is perhaps the most compelling

Images courtesy of:
Staff Sgt. Adam Kern and the 621st Contingency Response Wing of the United States Air Force
Expert Infantry
DFID – UK Development for International Development


14116279234_e237e671a4_oBy Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Earlier this month, after two and a half years of grief and uncertainty, 21 Nigerian families were reunited with their long-lost daughters.  An agreement was reached with the militant Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram on October 16 which placed the girls into the hands of the Nigerian government for a brief evaluation before they were finally allowed to reconnect with their loved ones.  Despite the encouraging appearance of this development on the surface, there are still 197 other families who are waiting in anguish to discover the fate of their kidnapped daughters.

The ordeal started in April 2014 when 276 teenage girls were staying at a government boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in preparation for their final science exam of the academic year. During the middle of the night, members of Boko Haram razed the town, abducted its female students and loaded them onto trucks. Some were able to escape in transit by jumping off the vehicles but the majority of the girls still remain missing over two years later. Heart-wrenching stories told by parents who desperately trailed their kidnapped daughters in hopes of recovery suggest that they were taken to Boko Haram’s unknown base secluded deep somewhere within the 120 square kilometers that make up the Sambisa Forest. The fate of the remaining Chibok girls remains uncertain due to inner turmoil within the ranks of Boko Haram as well as the various challenges presented by the natural geography of the Sambisa Forest.

The terrorist organization was originally founded in 2003 by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious movement in response to the divergence between Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north. The group first came into conflict with the Nigerian government in 2009 when the movement transformed into a violent uprising. Boko Haram continued to become more radical and anti-government as Yusuf’s followers grew.  Eventually, a police operation led to the arrest of prominent members of the organization for possession of bomb-making equipment and other weapons. Yusuf was imprisoned and died in jail which aggravated the group’s anti-government philosophies beyond their breaking point. Boko Haram’s actions have only escalated since then, resulting in suicide bombings on government installations, kidnappings of both locals and foreigners, and allying themselves with the extremist group ISIS.

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to end the country’s religious division by creating a purely Islamic state. Their name translates from the Nigerian dialect of Hausa to mean “western education is forbidden,” but applies generally to include hatred for western culture and religion as a whole. The group rejects the notion of allowing women any form of education and made a conscious decision to abduct and transport the female students instead of simply killing them. In a message to the media, Yuusuf’s successor Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok attack and encouraged girls to leave school to marry while additionally informing the public that the captured girls would be sold as slave brides. Captives who managed to escape have reported that many girls were in fact married off to the group’s soldiers and were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of physical and psychological abuse.

Despite conflicting sources regarding the agreement, the release of the 21 girls was confirmed to be facilitated by both the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports outlined payments ranging from cash sums to the release of Boko Haram commanders, the latter of which the Nigerian government vehemently denies. This negotiation seems to have opened up the possibility of future talks with Boko Haram, or at least with the faction responsible for the deal. The terrorist group underwent a complicated split in August, with a portion siding with original leader Abubakar Shekau while the other fraction opted to follow ISIS-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the first son of Muhammed Yusuf. The dissonance is suspected to be over Shekau’s willingness to murder Muslims in pursuit of his end goals.

The release was negotiated with the ISIS-aligned faction, which has been much more willing to enter into talks regarding the release of prisoners since the two groups split. Since then, there have been efforts to expedite a proposed swap of 83 more girls.  However, doubts remain about whether the group is in control of the additional 100 missing girls as it is likely that the captives were split between the two factions. A further uncertainty in the situation persists over whether the remaining prisoners might be reluctant to return home in shame of their assumed forced marriages and potential pregnancies.

These diplomatic challenges are met by geographic ones too, as the Sambisa Forest serves as the last logistical obstacle to the rescue of the remaining girls. Boko Haram’s forces operate under the cover of brush so dense that it cannot be detected by aerial surveillance. Regular patrols by militants coupled with a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices make penetrating the forest on foot a logistical nightmare. The Chibok abduction occurred near the height of Boko Haram’s power in 2014 and since then the Nigerian army has been reclaiming territory in the surrounding state of Borno city-by-city in a tiresome campaign that is only further prolonged by the sect’s propensity for guerilla tactics. The army has started pushing their forces into the forest in an attempt to oust Boko Haram from their final major Nigerian stronghold. Yet, progress is slow and has been further impaired as the group’s camps are often found already abandoned. On October 2, the Nigerian military launched “Operation Forest Storm” which was an airstrike offensive meant to cripple key bases within the forest. While this increased the possibility of collateral damage, the ground assault has simply taken too long and been ineffective. Nigeria’s government and citizens at large have grown increasingly eager to end Boko Haram’s harmful influence on the country and move past the years of armed conflict.

But questions still remain.  Where are the remaining Chibok girls located within the vast Sambisa forest? Are they with the Shekau-aligned portion of Boko Haram or the ISIS faction? Are they still alive? Have they been radicalized? Have they stealthily been whisked to another hidden location? Will a second deal for the additional 83 girls come to fruition, and if so, in what terms?

While the return of the initial 21 girls may have ended this tragic saga for a few, many more families are left to wait without answers. The only way to discover the true fate of the Chibok girls is to penetrate into Sambisa and retrieve Boko Haram’s secrets from within the darkness of Nigeria’s forbidden forest and cast them into the light.

Image by Michael Fleshman



By Angela Luh
Staff Writer

A series of grisly, high-profile executions of international hostages by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have pushed counterterrorism efforts to the forefront of many foreign policy agendas. The atrocities committed by ISIS – the massacre of thousands of Muslim civilians in Syria and Iraq, minority groups like Christians and Yazidis, and Western journalists and aid workers – have been amplified with the exploitation of mass media to publicize its crimes. The graphic nature of the videos and images has made ISIS a more imminent security threat on both sides of the Pacific. Of significance are the reactions from the Asia Pacific, a region that has traditionally held noninterventionist policies toward extraterritorial problems.

The international scope of ISIS’s crimes have shaken two major East Asian actors, Japan and China, both of whom have long avoided confrontations with terrorist groups in the Middle East. Japan’s long-standing pacifist foreign policy, colored by its WWII legacy, is evident in its limited defense capabilities and constitutional limits on the use of military defense. China, too, has been opposed to interfering in intraregional conflicts and was an open critic of the US’s responsibility-to-protect (R2P) mission in Libya and the Iraq war.

Japan’s rude awakening came in ISIS’s execution of two Japanese nationals, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa and 47-year-old Kenji Goto, in late January, forcing the peaceful nation to rethink its approach to national security. In one of the most high-profile hostage situations since ISIS began its macabre practice of videotaping executions of its captives, ISIS demanded a $200 million ransom from the Japanese government and set a 72-hour deadline for the government to respond. The situation coincided with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s six-day visit to the Middle East and speech in Cairo in which he pledged $200 million in non-military aid to countries confronting ISIS. After 11 days of uncertainty, ending in the execution of both men, ISIS implicated Abe in the death of the hostages, citing Japan’s cooperation with the US as the reason for targeting the country.

ISIS’s horrific acts have elicited strong responses worldwide, with many committing to elevated counterterrorism efforts. President Obama last Tuesday took a hardline position, asking for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to combat ISIS threats. The AUMF doesn’t call for the deployment of ground troops in Iraq or Syria but gives the military latitude to address “unforeseen circumstances.” The White House on Feb. 1 also issued a new National Security Strategy, the first in five years, listing “targeted counterterrorism operations” among its top priorities.

Of equal importance is the response from Japan, a country that, unlike the United States, has steered clear of Middle East conflicts and that, until now, has greatly restricted the use of its armed forces. Reacting to ISIS’s execution of Yukawa and Goto, Abe said, “I feel strong indignation at this inhumane and contemptible act of terrorism. I will never forgive these terrorists. Japan will work with the international community to bring those responsible for crimes to justice.” Abe, a neoconservative of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has used his presidency to advocate strengthening the country’s self-defense forces to bolster security ties with the United States. The high visibility of the ISIS ransom situation, which essentially saw Japan with its hands tied, gave Abe the opportunity to call for the strengthening of the country’s defense forces. With his statement and a promise of continued humanitarian aid for ISIS opponents, he effectively looped in Japan as a stakeholder in the U.S.’s new counterterrorism efforts, signaling a new level of involvement that breaches its Pacifist model. On a larger scale, the Japanese hostage crisis has framed the ISIS threat as a shared security interest for the region, calling into question the role of Asia-Pacific countries in counterterrorism efforts.

Japan’s Response

The death of the two Japanese hostages incited public outrage domestically, with a diplomat calling it the “9/11 for Japan.” There are broadly two reactions from Japan. The dominant Japanese public supports Abe’s more aggressive involvement on the international stage; in fact, since the hostage crisis, Abe’s approval ratings have risen from 53 to 58 percent. On the other hand, there is a strong sentiment from the Japanese left that Abe is capitalizing on the situation to extend his neoconservative agenda of remilitarizing Japan.

In the wake of the crisis, Abe asserted that he wants to make major changes to Japan’s constitution, which was crafted to prohibit Japan’s engagement in conflicts overseas. The hostage situation revealed a glaring gap in Japan’s ability to carry out rescue missions in other countries. Currently, Japan’s constitution prohibits the use of armed force in resolving international disputes and bars Japan from possessing the means of war. Abe will likely submit legislation to Japan’s parliament this spring that would allow the country’s military to fight alongside the United States and other forces. Japan’s reliance on the CIA and Turkish and Jordanian intelligence during the hostage crisis shed light on its need for mechanisms like hardware, training, and more effective organization. Abe has expressed an interest in creating an independent intelligence-gathering agency to protect nationals abroad. Already, the Japanese Diet has convened to examine how Japan could better respond to attacks on its national security.

Structural constraints in Japan’s legal system may limit the Abe administration from moving forward with major policy changes. The bill for increasing Self Defense Forces requires the approval of 2/3 of the Diet. Abe’s Collective Self Defense Legislation, a proposal he put forward last year, has not yet been approved. It’s likely, however, that increased support for Abe’s policies in light of recent events will allow the proposal to gain traction.

The reaction to Abe’s proposals hasn’t been entirely positive. The administration faced backlash from many Japanese who felt that Abe’s proactive engagement in the Middle East had incited the hostage crisis. Political opponents and Japanese liberals have faulted Abe for taking sides in the conflict in Syria and Iraq and putting a target on Japan’s back. There is also a preexisting “disengagement mentality” in Japan from the postwar era that was further reinforced by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

But the days of Japan’s aversion to international conflicts may have come to an end, whether by choice or compulsion. Japan’s gradually changing defense strategy marks a paradigm shift for the pacifist nation. Though it will not get involved militarily, Japan is a critical partner in the Asia-Pacific for the United States in its mission to counter terrorism on all fronts.

The View from China

For the Chinese, the Japanese hostage situation put into perspective the likelihood of other Asia-Pacific nations becoming targets of ISIS threats. While the Xi administration has remained quiet on Japan’s crisis, it has developed its own counterterrorism efforts to contain violence both within and outside of its borders.

China, which has experienced recent attacks by violent extremists domestically, has been exponentially growing its military capacity and ensuring the stability of its political environment. The events have primarily been staged by ethnic minorities, including a 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square and a 2014 attack at the Kunming railway. China is particularly wary of addressing extremist activities on its western side. Xinjiang province in western China is populated by Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic-speaking minority group that has long been economically and politically isolated. The displacement bred discontent, and it’s estimated now that around 100 Chinese citizens, mostly Uighur separatists, may be fighting for ISIS. For the first time, China has recognized that its internal problems are tied to activities in outside terror organizations.

The attacks have made the issue of external terrorism a more immediate threat to China, which has stressed counterterrorism as a measure of cooperation in many of its bilateral talks, including those with India and the United States. President Xi Jinping in the 2014 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting promised to make a concerted effort to crack down on “three evil forces”: terrorism, extremism and separatism. China has also reacted to by improving relations in the past year with Afghanistan and Pakistan, expressing a willingness to increase humanitarian aid and to increase economic engagement in the region.

China’s actions and its draft law on counterterrorism issued in November last year are indicative of the country’s stakes in the Middle East conflict. A number of factors stand in the way of U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism, including different definitions of terrorism, reluctant intelligence sharing, and China’s opposition to the United States’ overseas missions. But as China continues to grapple with the challenge of extremist violence both within and outside of its territory, it will likely become a more cooperative international player. 

Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific

Multilateral cooperation is essential in the containment of terrorist threats in the Middle East. While counterterrorism rhetoric has been a fixture in foreign policy for decades, the recent attention to ISIS’s international crimes have spurred countries in the Asia-Pacific to react with bolder defense strategies. The renewed commitment from China and Japan, two of the largest actors on the Pacific Rim, to address the ISIS threat is a significant development in the progress toward improving international security.

Photo by Global Panorama