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A letter from inside Isis: the battle is far from over

In the return of a series imagined by Paul Rogers, a fictional spy sees radicalism rising across the Sahel

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 March 2021, 11.00am
An Isis mural in Mosul, Iraq
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Osie Greenway/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

I’m sorry that it has taken me nearly 18 months to respond to your last letter, but I have a valid reason... Put bluntly, I’ve been in prison! You may recall from my last letter that I had returned to London nearly two years previously under orders from leadership to report on the changing politics in the UK, as well as Western attitudes to their “war on terror” in general.

Obviously, it had to be highly confidential, but the fact that I had studied in London previously helped, as well as the fact that I did not have a record. As far as the British were concerned, I was a “clean” refugee, who already had a British university degree and could even afford to enrol on a postgraduate course, bringing in more university revenue.

I enrolled on that MA course in security and intelligence studies in London and was able to use my inside knowledge (very selectively, of course) to shine as an apparently well-informed student. I graduated with a distinction and then, funnily enough, was asked to join a private intelligence company advising energy corporations, banks and other transnationals on threat assessment, especially in the Middle East!

The night the sky fell in

Over the following year I had plenty of opportunities to travel throughout Europe and the United States, meeting many people from the private security sector and government. One of the remarkable things about the Western security set-up is that it is all about who you know.

Working for a private company and with insider knowledge, I did not even need security clearance since so much was available in the public domain. Late-night chats in hotel bars at conferences provided the best intelligence of all. My trick was to drink just enough to convince them that I was “one of them” while remaining sober enough to soak it all in once their tongues started wagging.

All was going well until October 2019 and I think I mentioned last time that I had even received a nice promotion within the company. Then, the sky fell in. Completely out of the blue, my flat was raided at 4am one Sunday by armed counter-terror police. I was charged with unspecified security offences and the flat was taken apart. Plenty of interrogations followed, which I found easy enough to handle.

To cut a long story short, I was held in custody for well over a year without them ever being able to assemble evidence against me. I had heard on the prison grapevine (remarkably well-informed!) that the flat was clean, as was I, but my main concern was that the embarrassed authorities would deport me at the very least and thereby finish my short career as a spy.

We have learnt from the mistakes of our original Caliphate and are looking decades, if not centuries, ahead to rise again

Then, almost as suddenly as my arrest, I was released and welcomed back to the company to carry on exactly where I had left off as a much-valued analyst. I could hardly believe it, especially the fact that they gave me back-pay for the time I was in prison.

It turned out that my earlier promotion had been too much for one of their senior people, a thoroughly obnoxious individual who talked with authority but knew precious little, and he had set me up with false evidence. The end result was a thoroughly embarrassed company and an even more embarrassed counter-terror unit, so my accuser quietly retired and I became flavour of the month; a true expert, no less.

Thank you for your letters, I hope you can understand that it was too dangerous for my contacts to pass them on to me in prison. I know that you have nothing to do with our cause but even the slightest suggestion that I was involved was far too big a risk to take.

Allow me to emphasise how good it is to retain our friendship, right from the start of our letters so many years ago – even though we hold such opposing views. I am still hopeful that you will come to accept ours as the true path.

Amid all the violence, I remain convinced that we are at the centre of the utterly just cause of returning our beliefs to their real origins and paving the way for the coming of the true Caliphate. I know you think it is a lost cause and cannot understand how I can still believe, especially as our original Caliphate was so short-lived and our defeat apparently so great, but we are looking decades, if not centuries, ahead and have learnt from our mistakes.

US bombs helped to radicalise

The greatest of these mistakes was failing to predict how the enemy could increase its use of intensive air power in that sustained campaign over four years, starting from very little in 2014 but accelerating at an almost unbelievable rate within months.

The enemy now claims to have hit more than 30,000 targets with more than 100,000 smart bombs and missiles, killing 70,000 of our supporters. However, they will never admit to including in their killing spree ordinary people with no connection to our movement.

The great majority of the victims’ families and friends were left bitterly angry at the actions of the Americans and their allies – so much so that many of them went on to join the cause.

Although I learnt a great deal while in prison – especially the fact that so many young people can be so easily shown the truth of the cause – I couldn’t keep up with news from other parts of the world as much. I will write to you again with more details but for now all I’ll say is that my recent insights have convinced me even more that we are on the brink of a great revival of our fortunes.

The signs are everywhere. We still have at least 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, with attacks on Iraqi security and government forces a near daily occurrence. Right across the Sahel, our associates are busily building rebellion, recruiting from the hundreds of thousands of young people marginalised by corrupt regimes.

We may have little time for the Taliban, but their remarkable success in Afghanistan will present us with many opportunities for progress. It is now obvious that they are winning their war and will take effective control of the whole country, possibly within months.

Trump’s defeat was a blow

There have been some problems, the greatest being Trump’s failure to get re-elected. He was a great gift to us, but Biden has so many internal challenges that he will certainly do little to diminish our cause.

Unlike the United States, the politics here in the UK have very much turned in our favour. You will recall that back in 2017 we were seriously worried that Corbyn might get into power. This would have been a real setback for us but his politics have been roundly crushed and Labour is now little more than a pale imitation of the Tories.

Of course, all of this has to be judged in the global context. You will remember that ten years ago the political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere demonstrated the vulnerability of the pro-Western autocrats right across the region, from Morocco to Oman. If these upheavals had succeeded, our task would have been much more difficult. Thankfully, not only did they fail but the hated autocracy is even stronger than before.

Below the surface there is seething anger and resentment, not just against the repression but also the extent of the economic marginalisation, and that is being amplified by the impact of the pandemic.

Even in Tunisia, where public demonstrations are still allowed, the millions of people close to or on the margins are becoming increasingly restless, with increasing youth unemployment stoking the fire even more.

Little of this is recognised in the West but there are some exceptions so I will quote just one. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading mainstream think tank in Washington, conducted a global assessment of support for our cause in a report published in November 2018.

It concluded that there were 230,000 potential or actual fighters for our cause in 70 countries across the world – four times as many as in 2001. So as you can see, there is much more to discuss and I promise I will not leave it so long before I write again.

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