Europe must prepare for a fresh influx of Islamic State jihadists fleeing Mosul as the army moves in on their last Iraqi stronghold, the EU’s security commissioner has warned.
“The retaking of the IS’s northern Iraq territory, Mosul, may lead to the return to Europe of violent IS fighters,” Julian King said. ‘This is a very serious threat and we must be prepared to face it.”
Some 2,500 EU nationals are currently fighting alongside Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), he added, and that if even a handful return it would pose a “serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.”
The warning comes as the much-anticipated battle for Mosul entered its second day.
Iraqi forces are advancing in an offensive aimed at retaking Mosul and dealing a death blow to the Isil group’s “caliphate” in the city where it was declared two years ago.
A relatively small number of jihadists are putting up a fight against the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the villages leading up to the city, but there are reports fighters are escaping Mosul itself in growing numbers.
The US coalition yesterday targeted a number of Isil pick-up trucks seen heading out towards the Syrian border.
Residents inside Mosul told the Telegraph that scores of jihadists have escaped in recent weeks and more than 50 have fled since Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, announced the start of the offensive on Monday morning.
“They wait until night and leave by car. They are going to al-Ba’aj to the west of Mosul, then on to the Iraq-Syria border, where they continue to Syria and Turkey,” one 35-year-old resident, who gave his name as Ahmed, said.
There had been reports last week that the US, which is supporting the Iraqi army on the ground and in the air, could decide not to completely encircle the city and allow fighters out through the western side in an attempt to avoid greater civilian casualties.
Should that happen, the jihadists–with no major territory left in Iraq–could move across the border to Syria, where they will either join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces or travel on to Turkey or Europe.
There has been a growing backlash against Isil amongst Mosul’s some 1.5 million residents.
A small number of resistance fighters known as the Kataib al-Mosul group led a brief uprising in various parts of Mosul on the news the offensive had started, Iraq Oil Report told the Telegraph. At least 20 members were killed and their cars burned.
They have vowed to fight Isil in support of the army once its forces enter the city.
Steven Nabil, who has family inside Mosul, said that phone lines had been reestablished inside the city for the first time in months on Monday by the Iraqi government, and residents were sending the coalition “hundreds of messages” with Isil fighters’ locations.
Isil has an estimated 4,000-8,000 remaining fighters in Mosul, but is increasingly recruiting children and other civilians to join their ranks in preparation for what has been called the “mother of all battles”.
The Kurdish Peshmerga have cleared the towns and villages in its territory and Iraqi forces to the south of Mosul are pushing north, but were slowed by landmines.
Peter Cook, US Pentagon spokesman, said late on Monday that the campaign was “ahead of schedule” but warned it was early days and it was not yet known whether fighters would “stand and fight”.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said it was “clear that Daesh is now failing” but agreed that progress would be hard-fought.
Analysts say that even with the loss of its last-remaining stronghold in Iraq, it will not mark the end of the group and that its loss of its so-called caliphate could see devastating consequences for the West.
The group is “entering a new phase,” said Chris Phillips, managing director of counter-terrorism consultancy Ippso, adding that as the group loses its “caliphate”, “it would force them into more guerrilla or terrorist actions”.
With the retaking of Mosul, “I think we will see a growth of terrorist attacks across North Africa and the West,” he said, adding that fighters could take cover in the routes used by refugees to slip in.