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Raqqa: a movement's optimism

An adherent in the ISIS-held city remains hopeful, in the latest of a series of imagined letters.

On the road from Raqqa to Palmyra. Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Raqqa, 11 May 2017

Thank you for your letter and for asking after my brother once more. He remains in Egypt after leaving Libya earlier this year. There, he is part of the small central group that is coordinating the rapid growth of our movement. As one of our most experienced fighters he is in much demand, especially in Sinai, and has been instrumental in some of the recent successful attacks on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s forces. 

These operations have been having exactly the effect our strategists intended. In short, they ensure that al-Sisi becomes even more determined to suppress dissent, especially that coming from our true believers. What is so good for us is that our actions also stimulate wider repression, not least of anyone even loosely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The result is that anger against the regime is growing by the day. Indeed our strategists now think that we should put much less effort into Libya and a lot more into Egypt.

It is less than two months since I last wrote to you, which makes this reply an early one by my usual standards. It is prompted by two distinct comments in your recent reply. The first is that you are clearly surprised that I should still be so positive, especially after my more negative letter last December. I need to explain further why that is. I know that you and I have completely different views of life, and I also know that our friendship has survived those differences even at this time of great violence and uncertainty. 

The second relates to what you said about the reaction to my earlier letters, which you mentioned you had passed on to friends (and that as a result, some had even been circulated on the internet). This means that the explanation I feel I owe you may also allow me to explain things to other people who may read this, not least those crusader supporters in the countries of the far enemy.

Perhaps I could start in an indirect manner by describing my own current circumstances. As you know only too well, but others may not, I joined the movement several years ago having studied and lived in London and New York. Much of my motivation stemmed from losing so many members of my family to the crusader attacks. 

Much of my motivation stemmed from losing so many members of my family to the crusader attacks. 

I soon got badly injured and lost my arm, but survived and the leaders then told me to join the SOBRA group to work as an intelligence officer analysing political developments among the far enemy especially in English-speaking countries. Much of my recent work has been on elections in the UK and America, but with all the fighting so near home I have been desperate to join the cause. Indeed you will remember that I thought that one of my recent letters to you would be my last.

Three weeks ago, though, I was called in by my superiors and told bluntly that there were no circumstances in which I would be allowed to fight. As far as they were concerned my intelligence gathering was absolutely essential, both in the short and medium term. In other words, they do not remotely think that our movement is in serious trouble, merely transforming. They are convinced that the war is now steadily going global: witness the many and varied problems for the crusaders, both in their own countries and in those they so determinedly seek to dominate.

Let me elaborate on this, starting with our position in Mosul in particular, then in Iraq and Syria as a whole, and then in the wider world.

The war in Mosul is now seven months old, after the Haider al-Abadi regime hoped to take control in barely a third of that time. Instead it has seen its elite special forces, especially the despised “golden division”, take such heavy casualties that by the time they eventually overrun the old city they will have little left to counter the insurgency that is already evolving. Furthermore, the regime's increased reliance on Shi’a militias and Iranian revolutionary guards means that more and more aid from the Saudis and other Gulf states is accumulating. This hugely improves our plan to destabilise the Iran-backed Baghdad regime.

In Syria we will eventually disperse from Raqqa, with new locations across the region already established. Also, Trump’s arming of the Syrian Kurds is a gift to us, since it pits Ankara against Washington. Meanwhile our units in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Yemen and across many parts of Africa increase in influence and effect. Perhaps most welcome is our growing ability to strike within the states of the far enemy, with the new sea route from Libya into southern Europe already coming into its own.

Most welcome is our growing ability to strike within the states of the far enemy...

It is across the states of the far enemy that our real success is to be found. We never expected Marine Le Pen to win and were very pleasantly surprised when she took a third of the vote. That is just a start, with the continuing unease in many European countries an added bonus. Hatred of Muslims is now out in the open and simply will not go away, ensuring us of more marginalisation and many more recruits to the cause.

You know that my two areas of concentration have been Britain and America and both of them look good. Brexit, of course, is just what we wanted, and it will be especially positive if Theresa May wins the election and forces a “hard Brexit” from a position of strength. We do have a slight worry in that Jeremy Corbyn and his crowd might unexpectedly prove more popular than any of the pundits expect, but there are only four weeks to go and that is probably too short a time.

In any case, why should we worry about little old Britain when we have Mr Trump in the White House! 

I have to admit that almost everyone associated in any way with our war is constantly surprised at just how good Trump is turning out to be for us, and that is before the latest mess with the FBI. Trump has effectively handed over security policy to the military, which exactly suits us. Whether in Afghanistan against the Taliban and our own groups, or Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Libya and elsewhere, the military now has more freedom to act than for several decades.

It is at last beginning to be the generic war against Islam that we have so long desired. I have to say that I am utterly amazed that they do not understand this. They have been fighting us for more than fifteen years, they have killed hundreds of thousands of us and they have wounded far more, they have created a refugee crisis and wrecked three countries and yet they are simply adding more fuel to the fire. They are, to be blunt, stupid, and that is the greatest gift they can provide for us.

I am sorry to go on like this, but even after years of trying to make sense of them, of living among them, of studying their military postures and watching them make one mistake after another I simply can’t explain why supposedly intelligent people don’t understand the impact of what they are doing.  

That, in short, dear friend, is why I write so optimistically. Yes, I may be killed in a drone strike tomorrow and go with joy to what follows. It will perhaps be a relief and a culmination of my life, but the curious thing is that one part of me wants to carry on living just to witness the extent of their failures in the years to come. Do try to understand that, because I say it too you in all sincerity.

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


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