The Islamic State group destroyed Mosul’s 12th century al-Nuri mosque and its iconic leaning minaret known as al-Hadba, when fighters detonated explosives inside the structures last night, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense said.
The mosque has dominated Mosul’s skyline for centuries and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000 dinar bank note. Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the ISIS’s act of destroying the mosque implied that this was “an official announcement that they have admitted their defeat” in the eight-month-old battle of Mosul.
This was the same mosque from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the creation of the caliphate in 2014 after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other parts of northern Iraq and Syria. The black flag of ISIS had been fluttering over the leaning minaret since June 2014.
The militants blew up the mosque and its minaret as Iraqi forces came within about 50 yards of the building, according to Iraq’s joint operations command, which published a video that appeared to back up its claim, showing a blast emanating from the complex.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency contended that the mosque was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, which the U.S.-led coalition denied.
“We can confirm that the al-Nuri mosque was destroyed,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. “It was not as a result of coalition strikes. We did not strike in that area this evening.”
Over the past eight months, Iraqi security forces have slowly squeezed Islamic State militants into Mosul’s historic city center, around a square mile of territory on the banks of the Tigris. The city’s most symbolic landmark, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, was tantalizingly near.
It was in the mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader, made his only public appearance three years ago, declaring himself “commander of the faithful” and calling on all Muslims to travel to the group’s self-declared caliphate.
A month later, some Mosul residents said that the militants rigged the 50-yard-high Hadba with explosives as part of a campaign to destroy anything that may be considered idolatrous. It was only saved by incensed residents who gathered around it to protest.
“It would have been a blow to [ISIS] propaganda if the mosque was recaptured intact,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute and co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” “It would have been the most symbolic blow within its most symbolic stronghold.”
But Hassan said it was puzzling that the group would destroy the mosque itself now, rather than hunkering down to fight inside it and forcing the Iraqis or the U.S.-led coalition to destroy it.
An IS statement posted online shortly after the Ministry of Defense reported the mosque’s destruction blamed an airstrike by the US for the loss of the mosque and minaret. The US-led coalition rejected the IS claim.