Mosul holds historical importance for dozens of religious sects and cultures across the globe. On this land, the city of Nineveh — to which Jonah came to prophesy before famously being swallowed by a whale — once stood.
Mosul was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Over the centuries, the city has been controlled by Persians, Arabs, and Ottomans, leaving the city rich multi-cultural heritage.
The IS "city document" addressed the issue of shrines, statues, and graves in its 13th stipulation, citing the example of Mohammed, who destroyed the shrines of Mecca, forbidding his followers to "take graves as mosques."
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Packing explosives into these much-loved icons of the city, IS may have earned much anger and condemnation. But the group has continued to expand its territory recently, gaining another chunk of previously Kurdish-controlled land along the Syrian border, committing new atrocities against the area's largely Yazidi population.
IS continues to win over recruits from within its territory and beyond. With their accumulation of vast wealth from seized properties, racketeering, and private funding, residents of Syria and Iraq say that IS salaries are higher than those of government soldiers. And with the job comes weapons, vehicles and power. Even Aiala said many of her now unemployed relatives and neighbors had joined as a means to support and protect their families. She said in particular, teenagers from poorer neighborhoods were signing up en masse, seeing their chance to climb the social ladder.
Sunni militant Sadoon Obeidi said in an interview last month that of those he had encountered among the IS ranks, the majority were young and somewhat uneducated, particularly in Islamic beliefs — something he felt is unfitting of an "Islamic State."
This time last year, as IS burst into the Syrian conflict, the group rapidly took vast amounts of territory with little resistance from local people or fellow rebel Sunni groups. But within six months even Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels mobilized against them, pushing them back east of Aleppo.
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But Sunni militants in Iraq lack the international funding of secular Syrian rebels. Keen to defeat the government first, they are not prepared to fight on two fronts.
"Yes, we are afraid of a repeat of Syria here," said Sadoon Obeidi, a Sunni militant now fighting alongside IS forces. "But for tactical reasons we are holding this alliance with IS."
First in Syria, and now in Iraq, IS seems intent on a show of power and ruthlessness rather than compromise. It is a gamble, but one that seems to have paid off, so far.
—By Tracey Shelton, Global Post