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The war through Raqqa's eyes

A series of letters has imagined the outlook of a young ISIS operative on the long war. How accurate is his view?

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Paul Rogers
15 December 2016
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Raqqa, Syria. [AP/Press Association Images] All rights reserved. This series of openDemocracy articles started very soon after 9/11. Its many hundreds of contributions since then have focused mainly on international security, with an emphasis on the 'war on terror', the Middle East and the numerous efforts by western states to maintain control. There have also been attempts to see the world from radically different perspectives.

The longest-lasting of these is the twenty-five or so reports from a fictitious consultancy, the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH), based in Wana in northwest Pakistan. The SWISH reports have mainly been for the “al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell”, but SWISH has also reported to the United States and United Kingdom governments – making money from both sides being quite common in matters of war.

More recently, and much more specifically (and sometimes controversially) have been the ten “letters from Raqqa” which purport to be from an intelligent, well-educated and utterly committed analyst working for the ISIS leadership. The letters are to an old friend in Baghdad who is far from sympathetic to ISIS but who shares a history with the author that has so far survived the bitter divisions in Syria and Iraq.

The first letter, sent just over two years ago, was written at a time when the author was hugely positive about the prospects for the movement, even though an intensive air assault by the US-led coalition was underway and beginning to intensify (see "A war going according to plan - but which plan?", 9 October 2014).

Over the following two years his attitude remained positive, not least because he was working on European and American politics and could see the impact that Islamophobia was starting to have: a welcome development from his perspective as it indicated that many societies were under increasing stress – precisely what the ISIS leadership wanted.

A long cause

In the most recent column, though, he admits that ISIS is suffering reversals yet remains optimistic because of what he sees as its many achievements. He summarises these, also quoting from an earlier letter when the possibility of a Trump victory was but a dream.

“[Let] me just remind you of some of our spectacular achievements of recent years and indeed months.

"For a start, right across the world they have been forced to spend trillions of dollars since 9/11 on their failed wars as well as vast sums of money on their own domestic security.  Look at the security precautions at every airport, every legislature and every government office and look at the huge expansion of security forces and intelligence agencies and the across-the-board increases in surveillance. All of this to try and defeat a far, far smaller number of determined opponents who have little more than light arms and improvised weapons to fight against the best trained and best equipped military in the world.

"Then look even more at the extraordinary political changes. In Britain we have Brexit, won partly by scare tactics. Remember the 'breaking point' poster of thousands of desperate refugees actually presenting an existential threat to the UK. From our perspective we could hardly have asked for more!

"Look at the rise in Islamophobia across Europe, at Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, the far-right government in Hungary, the almost-success for the far-right candidate in Austria. All of this has been largely down to us and people like us. Don’t you see why we are so sure that we will eventually win?"

I mentioned Libya earlier but look at Afghanistan where even the Americans are hugely worried about the insecurity.  They say openly that the government controls just sixty percent of the country, and I can assure you that we are increasingly active there.

Remember what I said to you in an earlier letter when I was working on the analysis of the US election:

“As far as the contenders are concerned, what we would like most would obviously be a Trump victory – even better than having Farage sharing power with Cameron in London! Our nightmare, of course, would be a Sanders victory but in spite of the Iowa result we do not currently expect him to get the Democrat ticket. 

"So put it all together – America goes more hardline, the wars intensify, the refugee flows increase, Europe turns its back as anti-Muslim feelings increase, community disorder and violence become the order of the day... What is the end result? Thousands more recruits to our cause. 

"Perhaps you can understand why someone like me is quietly optimistic. Never forget, we are fighting a cause that may take a century or more to achieve. Our opponents, the 'far enemy' really do not have a clue, and long may that last!”

Two trends

Now, how much of that is propaganda and how much of it is quite accurate reporting?

His first paragraph is far from exaggerated. The wars have indeed cost $3 trillion and counting, and the expansion of security precautions may be largely taken for granted. But standing back even a little, the 'author' makes valid points. He could actually have gone much further, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of people killed, including more than 6,000 western troops, more than 10 million people displaced, and the creation of at least three failed or failing states.

Owen Bennett-Jones puts it well when he writes:

“After 15 years of conflict, there are now many places on earth where Westerners dare not tread and Western politicians are reduced to defining victory as an absence of attacks at home. For the caliph and his sympathisers those are remarkable achievements” (see “Islamic State v. al-Qaida", London Review of Books, 3 November 2016).

The author then goes on to talk about the effect on western societies – Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders, Austria, Hungary and, of course, Trump. Here too, there is an uncomfortable ring of truth, even if there are other factors involved in all of the cases. Even here, though, he could have gone much further, pointing to the impact of two recent trends and their impact on opinion across the Middle East.

The first, which is pretty obvious, is that the reception accorded to refugees trying desperately to get into Europe through the Balkans has often been glaring in its inhumanity. People being met with razor-wire, baton-rounds, water-cannon and riot-police gave rise to anger across the Middle East, especially when contrasted with the way in which countries such as Lebanon and Jordan have had to cope with far higher numbers of refugees.

The second is less obvious – the impact of the tens of thousands of deaths in the western coalition’s air-war against ISIS. The Pentagon estimates these at around 50,000, but says little about the inevitable civilian casualties. Many of those killed may have been avid and even extreme supporters of ISIS, but they will also have close and extended families and wider circles of friends. If the average is as little as twenty for every person killed that would take us close to a million people knowing someone killed by the coalition.

To put it bluntly, the west has killed 50,000 Muslims and intends to kill many more. However brutal the Russian assault on Aleppo has been, western condemnations cut little ice with many across the Middle East. And that does not even take into account the antagonism felt at the western supply of arms to Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in an air-war in Yemen that bears striking similarities with the Russian atrocities in Aleppo.

On the horizon

All of this means that the young author in Raqqa may be exaggerating some of his language and he may retain a belief that is brutal in its execution, yet there is far too much evidence to support his claims for it to be simply dismissed, however uncomfortable that might be for a western audience.

In the closing sentences of his most recent letter, he accepts that the caliphate may not survive but sees its existence, even for four or five years, as hugely symbolic – a quite small group of far less than 100,000 people will have faced down the world’s most powerful military forces.

He even points out that the war itself may be far from over, and he has a point. A couple of days ago Palmyra was reoccupied by ISIS in a move that surprised analysts across Europe and North America, and it is now becoming clear that the war against ISIS in Mosul is proving to be far more difficult than expected.

In the first two weeks, rapid progress was widely reported in the western media but in the past six weeks things have gone surprisingly quiet. This is because of the reality on the ground – two months into the war and the Iraqi government forces control barely a sixth of the city, with scarcely any change in the past month. This was a battle which was expected to be over by Christmas, with Raqqa likely to fall in the new year. Mosul will certainly be taken back by Christmas but the question now is – which Christmas? That young author in Raqqa may have many more occasions to write to his old friend in Baghdad.

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