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Letter from London, not Raqqa

An ISIS adherent reports from his new base, in the latest of a series imagined by Paul Rogers.

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Paul Rogers
4 November 2017
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London. Flickr/steve_w. CC-BY-2.0.Thank you for your letter and your enquiry after my brother. I have not had any further news of him since he went to coordinate our work with our associates in Marawi, but I am very confident that he will still be active there. As you will have heard, the Filipino army has finally taken control of the city with American help, after more than six months of fighting. In the process the army has destroyed much of the city and alienated even more people. 

Our successes there are a very unwelcome surprise to the Pentagon, as even some American newspapers are now reporting. Many of our religious brothers have been fighting the hated government in Manila and its American allies for years. It is clear that our true vision has embedded itself in the Philippines. I rather think that my brother will stay in the country for some months as we work to consolidate our presence in an enduring manner.

As you see, I am writing from London and not Raqqa. Do rest assured that this is part of the long-term plan of our leadership. I will explain why later in this letter. But for the moment, could I extend my comment about the Philippines to the important developments across the Sahel? 

From Somalia in the east through to Chad, Niger and Mali to Mauritania in the west, the wider movement is now firmly implanted. Some of the fighting groups are not directly allied to us, but many of them are. In any case, in our different ways we are all part of the same great cause.

The Pentagon is now involved in a major counter-insurgency war across the Sahel.

You will be well aware of the remarkable resurgence of Shabaab in Somalia, with its recent huge attacks in Mogadishu, but I suspect that far less is known about the sheer pace of developments in Niger and Mali. It is true that the recent ambush and killing of four American special-forces soldiers in Niger has attracted attention in the US, but that action is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The reality is that the Pentagon is now involved in a major counterinsurgency war across the Sahel. It is centred on Mali where the US now has at least 800 military personnel. More are due to arrive as the Americans build a large new air base, mainly for drones, at Agadez. The base is in the centre of the country, at the heart of the Sahel, and will enable them to undertake drone and other missions throughout the region, not least around Lake Chad to the east.

The Pentagon has had what it calls “training, advise and assist” forces in countries like Niger for decades, but this initiative takes its involvement to a higher level. There have been more than 25 “missions” in Niger alone in the past six months. Much of what the Americans do is in close cooperation with the French. They too have substantial forces in the region, including drones and strike aircraft.

Our leaders now see the developments in the Sahel as hugely significant. The actions of our friends in Sinai and other parts of Egypt are also pleasing. The Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime is falling right into the trap we set – the more they crush rebellion with huge violence, the more angry and resentful Egyptians flock to our cause.

Then there is the potential in the region of our caliphate, especially Iraq. Since I wrote to you in late August, the only major development is that more territory has been gained by the Iraqis and Raqqa has finally been evacuated by our fighters. Yet, just as I told you then, everything else remains much the same.

In taking Mosul the Iraqi special forces were wrecked. Since they were the only competent units in the Iraqi army, the Haider al-Abadi regime can only now keep order with the support of Iran and the numerous Shi’a militias. That alone is enough to draw more of our Sunni brethren to our cause. The huge increase in Iranian influence across the region is already leading to substantial funding coming to us from western Gulf states. Moreover, the destruction of Mosul and now of Raqqa are anathema to hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, whose hatred towards their enemies increases as even the paltry funds intended for the rebuilding of the cities fail to materialise.

Beyond our region, the Taliban in Afghanistan is making remarkable advances. The group now controls not just the production of raw opium but are increasingly refining it into far more profitable products. Even some senior American military now recognise that the Taliban cannot be defeated, no matter how much force is applied.

Perhaps most significant of all is that the huge air-assault by the crusader forces that has been hitting us for more than three years, and has killed well over 60,000 of us, is simply inspiring more young people to support our cause. This week’s attack in New York is just one example.

We created a caliphate that lasted four years against the world’s strongest military power and it is the symbolism of that extraordinary achievement that will prove to be our greatest success.

You asked a few months ago whether the loss of the caliphate meant the end of our movement. What I said then applies now. We created a caliphate that lasted four years against the world’s strongest military power and it is the symbolism of that extraordinary achievement that will prove to be our greatest success. What has been done once, against all the odds, will be done again on a much greater scale. It might take decades but it will happen.

Which brings me to why I am in London. You will remember that when I first started writing to you three years ago I had just left Iraq to go to Raqqa following the killing of many members of my family by the crusader forces. I had hoped to stay committed to the fight. But when I lost my arm, my superiors recognised the language and other skills gained when I studied in London. They put me into their own intelligence centre, SOBRA, to join the group analysing the actions and policies of the Americans and the British.

While I was dismayed at this prospect I had to admit that our aims cannot be achieved without solid knowledge of the enemy and, in time, I came to see that I could make a significant contribution. The leadership seemed to agree, which is why I stayed in Raqqa until very recently.

More generally, when our caliphate was formed four years ago, one of the priorities for our leaders was to create our own intelligence service. This grew to several hundred personnel, mostly in Raqqa but many of them dispersed across the region and, indeed, the wider world. Their task was rarely to seek out “secret” information but much more to inform our leadership of the capabilities, future potential and, most importantly, security cultures of our enemies. This they have done, feeding much of it into our communications and media teams.

What has happened is that our intelligence system has now been almost entirely dispersed across the world. It made obvious sense for the leadership to send me back to London. This was particularly easy because I had never attracted the attention of the security people when I studied here, and I even have the same British passport that has never been queried, even now!

Perhaps most usefully, I am not actually doing anything illegal in gathering information and analysing the public mood. I may well summarise and communicate it “below the radar”, but even that is done in an entirely undetectable manner, and I make a point of having no contact whatsoever with other supporters.

So how does it all look from London? Well, I have only been here a few weeks and even when I was in Raqqa I had access to the British media, so the situation here is not entirely new. Political life is dominated by the turmoil in the Conservative government, especially over Brexit, the weakness of the prime minister, and the unexpected resurgence of the Labour opposition.

Some things never change, though, and chief among them is the continuing  delusion that Britain is one of the world’s great powers.

Some things never change, though, and chief among them is the continuing delusion that Britain is one of the world’s great powers, with wide international influence. It is in its most extreme form among those avid Brexiteers who believe that it is the European Union, and the EU alone, that is preventing the country from playing a glorious role on the world stage. To even suggest that many people in Europe, and many more in the Middle East, see Britain as a rather sad case, a self-important and somewhat pompous has-been, will get a singularly angry response!

As far as our own mission is concerned, there is hardly any connection made between Britain’s role in the air war and the attacks that it experiences. When one or more of our people stage an operation, the public here seem perplexed as to the motive. What they don’t get is that there is a constant feed of news in social media from our teams reporting the loss of life and the destruction of our towns and cities. This alone is enough to encourage action and bring new recruits – you kill us by the ten thousand and we will kill you.

It is this gap in perception that is our greatest asset and why I see their war against us continuing. Moreover, the British government remains closely tied to the American coat-tails and Trump has even less understanding of what he is doing.

There are some changes, not least since many people in Britain do not now see victory in sight and are resigned to a continuing war from which they see no escape. We do have one worry, though, and that is if the government collapses and Mr Corbyn gets into Downing Street. Our fear is that he has people in his team who have a much more nuanced understanding of the war, its causes and likely consequences. Indeed, Mr Corbyn’s speech on foreign policy at Chatham House just before the last election was far too close to rational analysis than one would ever have expected from a British political leader.

This is the one concern that the leadership has communicated to me. As a consequence, much of my time in the coming months will be spent watching and analysing political developments in Westminster and Whitehall. There is much to do.

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