ISIS has resorted to shocking suicide tactics in a bid to demoralize opponents.
A prominent Islamic State commander, known as Abu Qahtan, has been killed along with his deputy in fighting with Kurdish Peshmerga near the Mosul Dam, a Peshmerga official told Rudaw on Thursday.
The official said Qahtan, an “emir” - a senior local political and military leader within the ISIS structure - was responsible for a number of beheadings and atrocities in Mosul.
He died on Wednesday as ISIS continued operations near the strategic dam that was wrested from ISIS control in August.
His death came amid reports that ISIS is suffering higher casualties than ever in northwest Iraq as it scrambles to prevent an encirclement of its largest city, Mosul.
“Recently they have sent suicide bombers and are accepting very heavy losses,” said Qadir Qadir, a senior Peshmerga officer on the Gwer front east of Mosul. “We believe they are launching these attacks to boost their morale.”
The militants made astounding territorial gains in early June when only 1,500 fighters toppled Mosul—a city of 1.8 million inhabitants defended by five divisions of the US-trained and equipped Iraqi army.
After a de facto ceasefire with the Kurdistan Region along most of a 1,050 km strip running from the Syrian to Iranian border, ISIS routed Peshmerga forces in Nineveh province in early August, massacring thousands of civilians and driving back the Kurds from strategic areas including Rabia, Zumar, and Shingal.
But Peshmerga have regained much of this territory and are slowly cutting off ISIS resupply routes connecting northern Syria to battlefronts near Mosul, Kirkuk, and Baghdad.
After losing Rabia—a crucial border transit point between their northern Syrian heartland and Iraqi territory—to Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), at the end of September, ISIS is throwing all its might into a round of fresh attacks.
This has come at a high cost to the militants, who find they are no longer fighting a disorganized, panicked enemy that retreats in response to the militants’ shocking battle tactics and psychological warfare.
Adeeb Trwanishi, a colonel in the Kurdish military, told Rudaw that in recent days Peshmerga successfully repulsed a series of attacks in villages near Zumar, a key thoroughfare for ISIS fighters and supplies north of Mosul and west of Mosul Dam.
With the help of six coalition airstrikes in the area, the Peshmerga pushed forward into the village of Thahab, where they killed an estimated 26 fighters. Thirteen ISIS were killed and 20 injured in Sanlij village near the dam.
Over the last week ISIS has thrown all their might into the renewed siege of Shingal Mountain, where they have trapped newly formed Yezidi brigades, Peshmerga, YPG, Turkish-Kurdish People’s Worker’s Party (PKK) fighters, and as many as 7,000 civilians on five fronts.
Using heavy arms, suicide car bombs and sheer numbers—and exploiting the fact that Peshmerga forces withdrew many soldiers from the mountain to fight in Rabia—ISIS has made gains and killed dozens of Yezidi fighters, including commander Murad Sheikh Khidir, local Kurdish intelligence official Qasim Simo told Rudaw.
But he also said that ISIS has sustained considerable losses in their offensive, including a Chechen officer.
In the past ISIS used spectacular suicide attacks to demoralize opponents and shock them into retreat.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (IQI)—which later became ISIS—shifted to the same strategy in late 2006 in response to the Sahwat, or ‘Awakening Movement’ when the coalition forces enlisted Sunni tribes to rise up against them.
The attacks were meant to keep security forces confined to their bases. But they were also seen as a sign of desperation and a lack of better options.
“I don’t think ISIS has made a switch to deciding to accept high casualties - it’s just they have no choice,” says Michael Knights, a expert in Iraqi security issues at the Washington Institute.
“They’re having to throw really big punches out there because they’re not going to win on points. They need a knock out,” Knights says.