LONDON: Days after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated from the Islamic State (IS) militant group, fighting continued in pockets of the city.
On Jul 12, Iraqi forces encountered resistance from IS militants in Mosul’s Old City, reported Reuters. This has raised questions about whether the Iraqi government can hold on to Mosul.
According to London-based IHS Markit, the Iraqi army may be able to hold on to Mosul, but not without huge challenges
“I think the Iraqi army will hold Mosul, but they will face serious challenges in preventing and containing future Islamic State attacks,” Mr Ludovico Carlino, IHS Markit's senior analyst for Middle East and North Africa told Channel NewsAsia.
Mosul is the city where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate and pronounced himself the leader of the world’s Muslims in 2014.
Last October, a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militias launched an offensive to recapture the IS stronghold, with key air and ground support from a US-led coalition.
After nine bloody months of fighting during which thousands died, Abadi declared the city liberated on Jul 10.
According to Mr Carlino, IS has lost too many fighters to be able to launch another assault: “I believe the Islamic State does not have the ability to launch another offensive to retake the city. They lost too many fighters and the Iraqi army will reinforce its positions there.
"A lot of fighters and senior commanders have already left Mosul for Syria, especially (to) Deir al-Zour.”
He added that while many foreign fighters in Mosul are starting to return to their home countries, a significant number have been redeployed to Syria.
“As the pressure on IS increases in Syria and Iraq, the group will try to devote more resources to plan and execute external operations, especially in Europe," Mr Carlino said. "The group’s ideology and its capability to inspire attacks are still quite strong, so we can also expect an increase in attacks perpetrated by individual supporters of the group."
He also said the fall of Mosul is another step towards the end of the militant group’s governance project.
“That said, IS will simply change strategy and go underground, using the vast and ungoverned desert space between Syria and Iraq to start its insurgency against both the Syrian and Iraqi armies,” he added,
Despite its defeat in Mosul, IS remains a potent force in recruiting members from all over the world.
“Its ability to recruit people is probably not as strong as it was the past, but it remains strong," said Mr Carlino. "While in the past, people were joining IS because of the caliphate, now they want to join either to defend the caliphate or to avenge the fact that the caliphate has been almost crushed.
“This is why the group is insisting on the narrative that this is a war against Islam and not just against Islamic State."
Amidst the state of flux, Mr Carlino believes al-Qaeda is expected to try to stage a comeback after being eclipsed by IS in the past three years.
“Al-Qaeda will surely attempt to capitalise on the IS decline and try to make a comeback in Iraq. It remains to be seen if this comeback will be done at IS expense or in cooperation with the group,” he said.
As the world’s deadliest militant groups compete for supremacy, security agencies across Southeast Asia are beefing up their security and bracing for the return of foreign fighters.
“We are monitoring the situation and are on alert to face terror threats from returning fighters,” said Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of Malaysia’s Special Branch counter-terrorism division.
The Special Branch is the intelligence arm of the Malaysian police.
Analysts have also warned that with the loss in Mosul, the IS group is now at its most dangerous in Southeast Asia.
Said independent Indonesian counter-terrorism and Middle East analyst Hasibullah Satrawi: “Defeat is not in their vocabulary and they only want to carry out attack after attack as they believe it will lead them to heaven."