(CNSNews.com) – Iraqi forces on Thursday recaptured the ruins of an ancient mosque in Mosul where Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance nearly three years ago.
The recapture of the remains of the al-Nuri mosque – which ISIS blew up on June 21 – was hailed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who said on Twitter the liberation of Mosul proves that “we are seeing the end of the fake Daesh [ISIS] state.”
In a statement on his website, al-Abadi said the return of the mosque to the “bosom of the nation” marked “the end of the mini-state of falsehood.”
While the recovery of the site of the iconic, 850-year-old mosque to Iraqi hands is a hugely symbolic victory, it did not occur three years to the day of Baghdadi’s appearance there, as claimed by numerous news outlets.
It did, however, take place three years to the day since ISIS first declared its “caliphate” caliphate (khalifah) – not during Baghdadi’s mosque appearance but in a written statement and audio file posted online.
In that June 29, 2014 statement attributed to spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS demanded that Muslims everywhere pledge allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” – Baghdadi’s real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri – who was, it said the caliph “for Muslims everywhere.”
It described Baghdadi as a holy warrior, a “scholar who practices what he preaches,” and “a descendent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah.”
“It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance [to him],” it said. Once the caliph and his fighters arrive in a particular area, ISIS said, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khalifah’s authority.”
Adnani’s statement also declared for the first time that ISIS would henceforth be known simply as “Islamic State” – a move apparently designed to widen its claim to authority beyond Iraq and Syria/the Levant .
ISIS that day said the caliphate stretched “from Aleppo to Diyala.”
Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities, finally fell to Assad regime forces – aided by Russian bombing – last December. Diyala is the Iraqi province that stretches from north-east of Baghdad to the border with Iran.
Baghdadi made his appearance in the Mosul mosque several days later, on July 4, 2014.
The caliphate call resonated with Muslim radicals around the world, and tens of thousands from dozens of countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the cause (swelling a recruitment drive that had begun when the civil war erupted three years earlier.) An unknown number have since returned, fueling concerns about terror attacks and a radicalizing influence in their home countries.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, fell to ISIS jihadists within days of Baghdadi’s mosque appearance.
Since then, with the help of the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces have been able to reclaim more than 47,000 square kilometers of territory from ISIS’ grip, and after a tough, eight-month battle, most of Mosul was, as of Thursday, back in the hands of Iraqi government forces.
Meanwhile ISIS has also lost control over large parts of the swathes of territory it held in Syria. The battle is underway for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate, led by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance comprising Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen factions, with the support of coalition airstrikes.
On Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that SDF troops have surrounded the city, cutting off the terrorists’ escape routes.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said last month President Trump had “directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight, to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”
“The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters,” he said.
Speaking in Australia early this month, Mattis defended the “annihilation” approach, saying while every effort was being made to protect civilians in the warzone, “at the same time we’re going to have to take that caliphate down, or the attacks that you’ve seen going on around the world … will continue.”