October 21, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Foreign Fighter Suicide Defense in Mosul

• The Islamic State claims to have conducted at least 20 suicide attacks since the beginning of the campaign to retake Mosul on October 16. 

• The Islamic State is going to lose control of Mosul; as the siege continues, the group’s many foreign fighters have few options.

• Foreign fighters will not be able to blend in with civilians in the chaotic aftermath of Mosul, making a surge in suicide attacks more likely in the coming weeks.

• While the Islamic State has tended to be pragmatic in its decisions over where it chooses to fight to the death, foreign fighters—with no local ties—will likely play an exaggerated role in the Mosul defense.


As pressure has consistently mounted against the so-called Islamic State, there has been increasing international concern over the threat of the group’s thousands of foreign fighters returning to their respective countries. The more likely possibility, however, is that a sizable percentage of foreign fighters will fight to the death in the battle for Mosul and the eventual battle for Raqqa. While the reasons fighters join the Islamic State are as complex and individual as the people who have traveled to Syria and Iraq over the last several years, a prime motivation for a number of foreign fighters is to die fighting for their cause. The pressure on the Islamic State is as high as it has ever been, and the group is likely more inclined than ever to oblige the apocalyptic intentions of their foreign members.

A core component of the Islamic State’s ‘live to fight another day’ strategy has been instructing its members to blend into the local society. Mosul is a perfect example of this. Even at the group’s low point in 2008-2010, Mosul was a stronghold for revenue collection, safe houses, and car bomb factories. The uneasy melting pot that was—and still is—Mosul made it relatively easy for local members to find places to blend in or hide. As the Islamic State’s power ebbs, locals will likely begin speaking out and reprisal killings will likely increase. Still, the situation is far more dire for the many foreign fighters that flocked to Mosul and Raqqa.

Generally speaking, the Islamic State’s foreign fighters have tended to be hyper-violent. They have demonstrated far less concern for local mores and customs, and have tended to be a disruptive element even within the group itself. It is hard to overstate the organizational difficulties in managing an important subsection of a group that wants to die in combat or suicide operations. Indeed, there have been reports of waiting lists for suicide bombings, as well as claims of favoritism. It is likely the waiting list—should it in fact exist—is shrinking, both due to a decrease in new arrivals, but also because the operational tempo of suicide bombings will only increase as the group’s military options revert back to traditional terror tactics.

In the days since the beginning of the Mosul campaign, the Islamic State-affiliated ‘Amaq’ media outlet has listed almost 20 suicide operations across the broader Mosul battlefield. Though it has not yet listed the names and nationalities of the suicide bombers, it would not be surprising if the majority were foreign fighters—whether from countries in the region or further abroad. The widespread use of short-range missile systems such as the Kornet and TOW by forces fighting against the Islamic State have largely blunted the effectiveness of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers in the open battlefield, though they remain a massive threat in urban environments. As the group collapses from proto-state back to a traditional terror group, the Islamic State will likely use the fighters it deems most expendable in a prolonged insurgency, leading to an increase in suicide attacks and last stands by foreign fighters.


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