Raqqa writes back

A sixth letter from Islamic State territory reveals elements of the group's thinking about current international developments.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 July 2015

This is my sixth letter to you since we started our correspondence last October and while I know that you, in the relative safety of western Baghdad, do not share my views, at least our old friendship allows us to continue to write. You ask again after my brother and I remember that when I wrote to you in May he was back in good health, training young recruits and hoping to be sent to Afghanistan as our campaign there expands.

Well, as you might expect from him, the training he was running involved a near total commitment and the result has been that his recovery has been slower than expected. As a result he has been put on lighter duties for the next two months. In one way I am very pleased because while I would have been hugely proud of him had he been sent to this important theatre, at least I now see more of him. He told me last week during Eid that his next task will most likely not be a posting to Afghanistan but to Libya, where our links are strengthening by the day.

From your most recent letter I see that you are still very keen to learn what I think of the progress of our war, and there is much to report. First, I should say that my work is still focused on being an effective part of the SOBRA analysis centre here in Raqaa, and I remain largely concerned with the UK, not least because the post-election environment needs to be followed closely in relation to its implications for our work.

Even so, the UK is not quite as important as it was, and one of my most significant duties is to contribute to a very small cell that seeks to maintain a realistic overview of our overall campaign beyond our established caliphate and, indeed, beyond the Middle East. 

Beyond the core

I’ll begin by giving you our perspective on this vast region, and say that while there are interesting developments in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the main focus is on Afghanistan, Libya and a third country which may surprise you - Russia - which is attracting much interest among our most senior leaders. Before covering Russia, though, I’ll just update you on the other two.  

Afghanistan continues to show progress, but it is variable, mainly because of our uncertain relationship with the Taliban and some other armed opposition groups. You always have to remember that the Taliban simply do not share our vision of a transnational caliphate ultimately encompassing the whole world. They are essentially Pashtun nationalists with little more than a veneer of religious purity. As such, they are all too ready to compromise with local norms in the pursuit of power, an attitude that we find utterly frustrating.

Even so, we have been able to make some strong links with some of them and have even been part of significant campaigns, often bringing our paramilitary expertise to bear in a manner that the more prescient and intelligent of them welcome. Indeed, what we have recently heard is that the crusader leadership in Afghanistan think we are such a serious threat that they may reconsider their original plan to withdraw their remaining 9,800 troops by the end of next year. As one of their generals put it, they think we have moved from a “nascent” threat to one that is “probably operationally emergent”.   

What a weird phraseology, yet it is music to our ears! If the crusaders still have thousands of troops in the country when they elect their new leader next year, then we expect that whoever gets to their “White House” will be more militaristic than Obama. This means that we will look confidently to many more years of war and thousands more recruits to our cause.

In Libya, our progress is steady and has none of the problems of the narrow nationalism of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Instead, though, it is a country that is so unstable and disjointed that any effective organisation can make rapid progress. The crusaders did us an immense favour in getting rid of Gaddafi - even now they fail to recognise how brutal and effective he was in suppressing our cause.

One effect of that was that thousands of young Libyans left the country and came to join the fighting in Iraq after 2003, and many of those that survived are moving back to Libya to aid our programme of expansion. They are a powerful force - highly experienced paramilitaries including some who fought JSOC in 2004-07 but also having intimate knowledge of Libyan society. All in all we see Libya as an environment of great promise.

Then there is the real surprise - Russia. You will know that the Chechens and others from the Caucasus have long been important to our cause but what is striking is how many of them within Russia share our aim of a caliphate in all its detail. I do not know the exact figures but I understand that we now have close to 2,000 Russians fighting for us here, with tens of thousands more pledging allegiance within their own country.

What we find hugely welcome is that their president, Putin, knows no other way but to crush dissent with persistent force. He has no idea at all of how counterproductive this will be in the long term. After all, Russia has at least 16 million Muslims, more than a tenth of the population, and his actions against some of them cause anger among far more. This in turn helps stir up bitter Islamophobia among the majority population, making even more people uneasy and having the potential to provide thousands more recruits to our cause. He really is clueless!

The British dimension

But let me move on to my own area of specialism, Britain, which occupied so much space in my last two letters. You will remember that back in March what we would really have liked from their general election was a Conservative-UKIP coalition, ideally with Farage as deputy prime minister and interior minister (they call the post “home secretary”).

Just before the election we had had sleepless nights that Miliband might get in, ending up with a government even more cautious than Obama. In the event, things have turned out rather well with a Conservative government using the chaos in the Labour Party to force through many policies. In my last letter, I predicted that “Labour will spend the next four months arguing about the leadership and systematically failing to provide opposition”. How prescient I was!

Yet there is just a bit of a worry, because the one candidate who is bitterly opposed to doing what we want - expanding the war - is currently doing rather well. Indeed Mr Corbyn might even get elected and while we think that will bring on years of infighting leaving the Conservatives to do what they want, we have this niggling worry that any discussion involving any kind of opposition to the war is not good news for us.

I personally also have a slight concern that Cameron’s speech earlier this week about tackling what he calls extremism was not as hardline as we had hoped, in spite of the deliberate provocation by our Tunisian associates. At least he only covered the domestic front and it is clear that he wants to extend the British war to Syria later in the year. For us, this is far more important.

There is much more I could write about, especially in relation to our recent progress in Syria, but I have work to do now and will have to leave that to another time. Be assured, though, that we are making considerable progress so do not believe the crusader propaganda. Remember that they were saying we would be finished by the end of last year. Instead we are stronger, with hundreds of recruits joining us every week. 

When Britain joins the war in Syria we are fully confident that it will help to get even more from Britain. We might have to do some more provoking but I am confident that our leaders are following events closely and will decide if and when to order it.

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