Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Islamic State, a view from Raqqa

A third letter from an Islamic State operative based in an area of Syria ruled by the movement.

Raqqa, 22 January 2015

I had hoped to write to you before the end of the year but, as you may have heard, my brother was badly injured in an American airstrike and I spent a lot of time making sure he got the right treatment. The attack was on the Fallujah-Abu Ghraib road and while he got immediate medical help there, he had to be brought back to our much better facilities here in Raqqa. I am really pleased to say that he is recovering well and very anxious to get back to his platoon.

You mentioned in your last message that you had passed on my letter to some friends, one of whom scanned it and put it online and, as a result, it even got picked up by one of those western websites that quaintly thinks it present a broad spectrum of opinion on our region!  Never mind, perhaps someone will read it and get the message, but since you might want to do this again, I’ll just repeat a bit of background.

My brother came to join the cause three years ago after many members of our family had been killed, and I joined him a year later.  I had come to fight but got injured early on, losing an arm.  They then had me join the group analysing western attitudes and their media, seeing us through their eyes to help our planner conduct the war most effectively.  I am part of a large group working in many languages but because of my SOAS degree and years in London, I concentrate on Britain.

When I last wrote at the end of October, the air war was already under way and we had experienced nearly 400 attacks, losing some of our soldiers very early on. Fortunately our losses were not too great and, in any case, are mostly new recruits - martyrs are serving as a marvellous inspiration to young people to come and join us. Now that the war with the far enemy has really started it is so much easier for us to present the case that the Islamic world is once again under attack from the Crusader-Zionist conspiracy, and we can point to all the other examples - Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Libya and the rest.

Already we are seeing an increase in the numbers of young men and even women coming to our cause. I saw a recent western estimate of 18,000 joining us so far, including 3,000 from outside the region. Surprisingly, they are not too far out with these figures except that they are seriously underestimating the numbers from western Europe.

You ask how we are coping with the attacks. Well I have to say that the intensity has caught us just a little by surprise. There have been about 3,500 attacks so far on nearly 2,500 targets, with around 7,000 bombs and missiles dropped. Our statistical bureau colleagues tell us that over a thousand of our fighters have been killed and about the same number injured, but that our paramilitary leaders were planning for much higher losses and are not remotely worried - we and they may mourn the deaths but celebrate the martyrdom.

There have been many civilians killed, including children, and our social media people have done a remarkable job in telling their stories and sending the news right around the world. This, alone, is a really helpful recruiting aid.

Where does it all leave us, and you rightly ask how the war is going?  As you know I am not in the propaganda business and in the analyses I organise for the leaders they insist on me telling them it as it is, so I will be straight with you, too. Firstly, our progress has been blunted by the attacks but no more than we expected. We are not even bothering to put resources into taking Kobane, as that had little strategic importance being more a matter of presentation than anything else. Secondly, we have actually made some progress in Iraq, especially consolidating our hold over large parts of Anbar province and increasing our infiltration of western Baghdad. Finally, and most important, we have made significant territorial gains in northern Syria, aided by the agreement with al-Nusra which continues to hold in most districts.

You may wonder how this can be when we are facing an air assault that is much more intensive than any meted out to the Afghans in recent years. The main reason us that our paramilitary leaders know what to expect since most of them fought the Americans and their allies for years in Iraq. One of my friends in military planning, who fought in Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan before being injured in Iraq and transferring to desk duties told me that in his considered opinion our paramilitary leadership is probably the best in the world, and certainly superior to the other side. With all their advanced weaponry and firepower, they are not remotely near understanding us or what we are about.

As I mentioned, my duties involve analyzing the western media and I am required to pay particular attention to the military literature, especially in the United States.  What I do see there, if only occasionally, is some public acknowledgment that they are facing a much more difficult task than they imagine, and that unless they can train effective Iraqi army forces this war will last for years. Even so, there is very little attention paid to such views.

Interestingly, I occasionally see reports from well-informed analysts in civil think-tanks pointing out that generational cohorts of combat-trained paramilitaries have been produced, first in Afghanistan in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, then in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, more recently in Libya and now once again in Iraq and Syria. It is hardly surprising, is it, that the current generation is an elite in every sense of the word? Fortunately, the very few analysts saying this are systematically ignored, which is just as well for us.

So what of the next few months?  Well, three elements are significant.  As I said last time, we are very keen to have enemy boots on the ground fighting us directly. We are now getting this - the recent engagement with Canadian special forces is an example. The more of this the better, and what we really want is ordinary troops involved. We can then capture some, build up a pool of prisoners and execute them one by one, no doubt ensuring a substantial escalation in the war.

That is the second point: that outcome is precisely what we want. I still cannot understand that the leaders of the far enemy do not appreciate that we want a war! Do I really have to shout it - for it seems so obvious. If our main near-term aim is to show we are defending Islam, how can we do that if we are not being attacked? It would make no sense. How can we ensure an increased supply of recruits if there is little work to recruit for? As one of their TV adverts puts it - “simples”!

That brings me to my final point, the impact of the Paris attack and what it means in the coming months. The brothers who staged that attack were not part of us, but they did a very good job of stirring up anti-Islamic antagonism. This is something we really do need if we are to get more disillusioned young people flocking to the cause. In fact if we can ensure that inter-communal relations across the west are wrecked then that is really good news.

Because of this we have developed over the past year a new department that works specifically to place dedicated young people with direct combat experience back in their own countries in order to prepare for attacks. We are obviously losing some to the security forces but plenty are surviving. We anticipate a number of incidents in the coming months and have some brilliant targets identified which will come as great surprises and have maximum effect. As well as directly inspiring more recruits to our cause, far more of our Muslim friends will be more marginalised and alienated by the fracturing of society that our attacks cause, with ever more of them coming to see that ours is the only way.

In short, we can survive the air war with ease, for months if not years. We welcome and hope earnestly for ground combat. And we look forward to more strikes at the heart of the far enemy and the sense of mission that will be engendered. In short, things are going very largely according to plan.

I will write again with news of my brother’s progress in a few weeks but I very much suspect he will be back in action long before then - after what he has suffered, and all the losses to his family, there is just no stopping him.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.