The recapture of Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque: Is this really the end of the caliphate?
Photo by AP Images

The recapture of Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque: Is this really the end of the caliphate?

June 29, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Iraqi forces recapture Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque from IS

On Thursday, Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque from Islamic State (IS) fighters. IS had held the mosque since June 2014. Iraq’s military released footage of explosives being detonated in the building, saying IS carried out the destruction. Amaq, an IS-affiliated news agency, said the mosque had been hit by a coalition airstrike.

The campaign to retake Mosul began in October of last year. Iraq’s military estimated around 350 IS fighters remained in the city as of last week and were located within one square mile of Mosul’s old city. Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, commander of the Counter Terrorism Service elite units in Mosul, said they had yet to enter the remains of the mosque, as they believed it could be rigged with explosives.

The al-Nuri mosque was built in 1172. It is named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a nobleman who fought early crusaders. The mosque’s leaning minaret, known as al-Hadba (meaning “the hunchback”) was a well-known landmark, featured on Iraqi 10,000 Dinar notes.

The self-proclaimed leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only known public speech from the mosque on July 4, 2014. In the speech, he declared an Islamic State “caliphate,” meaning land ruled by a caliph under Islamic law, with the caliph in this case being al-Baghdadi.

Sources used in this analysis: Aljazeera, BBC, Reuters, The Washington Post

Note from the Editors: This analysis was created during beta testing, which may account for minor imprecisions. Past rating standards may have also applied.

Distortion Highlights

  • The outlets we analyzed state or suggest Iraq’s recapture of the IS-held Grand al-Nuri mosque is a sign of IS’ imminent defeat.
  • It is limiting to presume the outcome of an event by cherry-picking data that support a particular perspective.
  • Only BBC includes balancing perspectives. See them below.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Huge symbolic victory

    The seizure of the 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque is a huge symbolic victory for the Iraqi forces fighting to recapture Mosul, which had served as Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq. (Reuters)

    But the destruction had been widely anticipated, with commanders saying ISIL would not have allowed Iraqi forces to score a hugely symbolic victory by recapturing the site. (Al Jazeera)

  • Desperate resistance

    The fighters blew up the mosque and minaret on June 21 as they put up increasingly desperate resistance to the advance of Iraqi forces. (Al Jazeera)

  • Global threat

    It was three years ago that a lightning advance by about 800 jihadist fighters in northern Iraq morphed into a global threat. (BBC)

  • Significant blow

    Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Erbil, said the recapture of the mosque compound was a significant blow to ISIL. (Al Jazeera)

  • Bottled Up

    Iraqi authorities expect the long battle for Mosul to end in the coming days as the remaining Islamic State fighters are now bottled up in just a handful of neighborhoods of the Old City. (Reuters)

    Iraqi authorities expect the battle to end in the coming days as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group has been bottled up in a handful of neighbourhoods of the Old City. (Al Jazeera)

  • Tightens noose

    IS ‘caliphate’ crumbles as Iraq tightens noose on Mosul. (BBC)

  • Scramble

    After the liberation of Mosul – a predominantly Sunni city – the scramble for power here could involve Turkey and Iran, and threaten the future of Iraq. (BBC)

  • Fierce

    ISIL has been offering fierce resistance in the Old City, with barrages of mortar fire and a huge number of booby traps slowing the Iraqi advance. (Al Jazeera)

The four sources we analyzed suggest the recapture of the mosque by the Iraqi military is both a physical and symbolic defeat for IS. More specifically, the prevalent perspective in the articles — call it the “slant” or “bias” — is that, with this most recent victory, Iraq and its allies are winning the fight against IS and it may soon come to an end.

BBC (compared to The Washington Post, Reuters and Al Jazeera) provides readers more balancing perspectives — that is, ideas that challenge the prevalent point of view. This offers readers other ways of evaluating the situation and interpreting what this latest advance against IS could mean.

Let’s examine the potential pitfalls of the slant. The four articles include content and quotes that support the idea that IS may soon come to an end. Simply compare these three headlines:

1. Iraq army seizes ruins of Mosul mosque from ISIL (Al Jazeera)

2. IS ‘caliphate’ crumbles as Iraq tightens noose on Mosul (BBC)

3. Iraq declares end of caliphate after capture of historic Mosul mosque (Reuters)

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 38% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 53% Spun

  • 61% Spun

Al Jazeera’s headline is unspun and unbiased (note: its article is not), giving readers only the facts in a nutshell. This, ideally, is what all headlines could be like, because when distorted, headlines can taint how readers interpret the rest of the information. Compare Al Jazeera’s headline to BBC’s. What is the difference?

BBC’s portrays the parties involved in distinct ways: one is crumbling, while the other is tightening a noose. The language used (spin) can evoke not only images, but also emotion that indicates the militant group is on the verge of defeat. Finally, compare BBC’s headline to Reuters’. What do you see?

Reuters’ headline takes the BBC’s a step further. While the latter alludes to a shift in power, the former assumes it’s a done deal. And yes, Reuters does cite an Iraqi military spokesman saying “[IS’] fictitious state has fallen,” but why might it be problematic to only present this one perspective in a headline?

It is limiting to presume the outcome of an event by cherry-picking data that support a particular perspective. Although BBC’s headline carries some slant (as seen above), its overall coverage is the most balanced. Below are the balancing perspectives it includes.

  • A new battle for Mosul: Once Mosul is liberated, a struggle for power over the city involving Turkey and Iran might ensue. Mosul is predominantly Sunni, and Iran as well as Iraq’s government in Baghdad is predominantly Shiite (together, they represent the two main sects of Islam). Kurds have been fighting against IS in Iraq and announced plans for a referendum on independence later this year. (Since 1978, Kurdish insurgent groups have demanded separation from Turkey to create an independent Kurdistan.) The conflicting ideologies and interests might create more conflict in Mosul once there’s a vacancy in governance.
  • Conflict between IS supporters and dissenters: The outlet notes that some people in Mosul joined IS after the city was invaded, and cites a civilian who was imprisoned by IS, and witnessed the torture and killing of other prisoners. The BBC writes that if those who joined IS were to return to Mosul, “[the witness] would do to them what IS did to his fellow prisoners.” So it’s possible that conflict between the two parties may arise once Mosul is repopulated.
  • IS could come back: BBC writes that Mosul’s “minority community complains of discrimination by the Shia-led government in Baghdad” and that, unless this changes, IS could have a comeback or rebirth, like its predecessor, the al-Qaeda group led by Osama Bin Laden. Both groups have been known to recruit the disenfranchised or those with societal grievances.

It’s possible most people want no more violence from IS, so news indicating the group is being defeated might be comforting. However, as the BBC points out, even if IS were to be completely defeated, this may not prevent future conflict or violence, or similar groups from emerging. It’s even possible, as noted in previous Knife analyses on the subject, that the exact opposite might occur. There’s a reason the saying “you can’t fight fire with fire” holds true to this day. The same can be said of violence.

In this sense, the media can provide news that’s fact-based and balanced. Like the BBC did here, the media can offer readers perspectives that expand awareness, understanding and critical thinking



BBC News

“It was three years ago that a lightning advance by about 800 jihadist fighters in northern Iraq morphed into a global threat.”

Islamic State fighters took control of Mosul in June 2014.


“Officials from Iraq and the US-led anti-ISIL coalition said the destruction of the site was a sign of the group’s imminent loss of Mosul, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calling it an ‘official declaration of defeat’.”

The al-Nuri mosque was destroyed by an explosion last week.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts included in all sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in only 1 source

The Kurds have announced plans for a referendum on independence in September. (BBC)

On its own, this statement may not be problematic, but when it precedes information such as: “like al-Qaeda before it, [The Islamic State] found support among marginalised Sunnis in Iraq,” “the minority community [speaks of] discrimination by the Shia-led government in Baghdad,” and “After the liberation of Mosul … the scramble for power here could involve Turkey and Iran, and threaten the future of Iraq,” people may view the Kurdish vote for independence as a sign of a minority group that may join the Islamic State, continue fighting in Iraq or potentially direct its forces against Turkey to seek an independent Kurdistan. The lack of statements from Iraqi or Kurdish representatives about this vote may further such assumptions.

Although we cannot know the future, representatives from both sides have commented in ways that do not include hostility or declarations of war. According to NBC, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, although he doesn’t think the timing is right, he “respects the Kurdish right to vote on independence.” The article also states that Iraq’s Kurdish region, with a population of about 5 million, already has “a high degree of autonomy, including its own parliament and armed forces.” In April, Hoshiyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign and finance minister and now a senior adviser to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani, told Reuters a “yes” vote for independence would “strengthen the Kurds’ hand in talks with Baghdad” rather than lead “automatically” to a break from Iraq. He also said an independent Kurdistan wouldn’t “annex the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and three other disputed regions in Kurdish-controlled territory.”


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Dramatizes: IS’ current status and the actions of the Iraqi military.

Could imply: This is the beginning of the end of IS.

The Iraqi military portrays the recapture of al-Nuri and large parts of Mosul as a victory/tightening of the noose, but does it necessarily follow that this also spells the end of the “caliphate”? Maybe Mosul will be fully recaptured, but it doesn’t mean IS won’t regroup, fight back and possibly set up other caliphates elsewhere. Readers may easily infer the violent interactions in the area will be resolved, when there is data to counter this.

Emphasizes: the destruction of the Mosque over the recapture

This headline could suggest the recapture is only symbolic and less significant, as IS left only rubble behind when vacating the Mosque.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Reclaiming Mosul is an indication that IS has or will soon be defeated, and the Iraqi forces and allies are winning.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Reclaiming Mosul may be a step towards winning the fight against IS, but not necessarily an indicator that the group is or will soon be defeated, other than in the city itself. For example, only Reuters mentions there’s still an ongoing battle in the IS “caliphate” in Raqqa, Syria, and that IS still controls territory west and south of Mosul. It’s possible recapturing the mosque may change little for IS globally. Moreover, it’s possible that the defeat in Mosul may invigorate IS’ ideology and activities in Iraq and other parts of the world. None of the articles we analyzed address these points directly, nor the perspective that violence cannot be eliminated with violence — it only begets more violence in the long term.
2 Free articles Left

Support the real news. Get the Knife

Stories read in the last 30 days

-June 20th 2018, The media suggests French labor reform is unpopular, but doesn’t explain what it is. Read the story>
-June 20th 2018, The Charlottesville resolution and the role of media in violence Read the story>
-June 20th 2018, The recapture of Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque: Is this really the end of the caliphate? Read the story>