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How ISIS’ Defeat In Mosul Could Make It Stronger Worldwide

Mosul on July 3
Mosul on July 3


The recapture of Mosul by the Iraqi armed forces, with the support of the international coalition led by the United States, is a real achievement. ISIS has seen its biggest military conquest reversed, and its dream of an Islamic caliphate destroyed.

But none of this means that the biggest terror organization the world has ever seen is under threat. On the contrary. There are great chances that the group will actually end up being reinforced in the desert areas between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. As of this moment, ISIS loses the characteristics of a "proto-state" that went as far as controlling a land mass the size of Britain, and reign over nearly 10 million people. But its own defeat could also consolidate its image as the great protector of the oppressed Sunni Muslims.

This is actually how it was born and how it grew. ISIS is, first and foremost, the result of the sectarian war that engulfed Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the last analysis, it's a Sunni uprising against the abuses, vendettas and oppression from successive U.S. governments, which used to see potential supporters of Hussein in every Sunni Muslim, and Nouri al-Maliki — the Washington-backed Shia politician installed as Iraq's Prime Minister in 2006.

The status quo was a breeding ground for extremist ideas in the first place.

This rising dissatisfaction was well exploited by a figure who, until then, only had had a minor role inside al-Qaeda: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the great ideologue of what would later become ISIS, after his death in 2006. His successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wasn't haphazard in choosing the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul to proclaim the birth of the Islamic caliphate. As Iraq's biggest Sunni bastion, Mosul was the city that suffered the most during the 2009 Iraqi and American campaign to eradicate al-Qaeda. In the years that followed, Shia troops took the city and turned it into a sort of inferno for Sunnis, seen then as they are now as potential enemies.

Torture, extortion, and murder became commonplace. It was therefore not without reason that when ISIS militants took Mosul in 2014, they were welcomed as liberators.

The past nine months of battle between ISIS and the Iraqi armed forces made it clear that the poisoned relations between the civilians — most of them Sunni Muslims — and the military, mostly Shia, have barely changed. Accusations of killings, extortion, and torture continue to pile up. The U.S. airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians. Many of those who were fleeing the horrors of war now live like prisoners in refugee camps.

The military victory against ISIS in Mosul hasn't altered the status quo that served as the breeding ground for extremist ideas to flourish so easily in the first place. On the contrary, it reinforces further the sectarianism.

ISIS is more than just a military organization, more than a proto-state, more than a terrorist group of religious fanatics. It's first and foremost a powerful idea. As recent history has shown, bombs and weapons aren't enough to destroy ideas, especially those driven by messianic fervor.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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