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Raqqa towards victory: a letter

Even in a city preparing for siege, an adherent of Islamic State remains confident. The latest of a series imagined by Paul Rogers. 

On the road from Raqqa to Palmyra. Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Raqqa, 17 March 2017

Thank you for your letter, and I am very glad that your family were not caught up in the bombings in Baghdad. Thank you also for asking after my brother. I am happy to share more news about him.

He has been working with our people in Libya. One of his roles is to help consolidate the affiliated groups there into a loosely coordinated organisation, but with enough of a cell structure to isolate individuals who might be captured and tortured by any of the apostate factions. Another is to organise the logistics for this summer’s Mediterranean crossings for our fighters. This has been planned for more than a year and is part of the leadership’s strategy for taking the war to the far enemy, not least by sending expertly trained nationals back to their own countries. 

For my own part, I am still based in Raqqa, analysing the western media for my superiors in SOBRA. What astonishes me is the lack of any media interest in Libya. This is, however, a boon to us as we work to expand our movement across the Maghreb while improving the sea route to Europe. 

At the same time we are developing our links in Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his suppression of the righteous is a gift to our future in that country. Indeed I have just heard that my brother has moved across the border to further our ends there. His experience in Libya, Bangladesh and elsewhere makes his transfer to Cairo a strong indication of how our leaders see the potential in Egypt.

It is kind of you to ask after me, and your great concern about the coming assault on Raqqa. But do remember that I remain utterly committed to the cause and regret greatly that you cannot share our vision. I hope that before long you may come to see the light.

It is three months since my last letter. That was after you had expressed doubts that the movement could survive the fall of Mosul. You will remember that I was much more optimistic than you expected. I pointed at some length to the many signs of decay and dissension across the countries of the far enemy – from Trump to Farage, Le Pen to Wilders. In your reply you acknowledge those factors, but you still seem to think that the likely loss of the caliphate marks the end of our movement. So let me explain further.

I'll begin by quoting once again from a previous letter, sent just over a year ago, when the idea of a Trump victory was the stuff of dreams.

"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! […]

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

That still stands, and so does much of what I have had to say about Mosul and Raqqa. In December, the assault on eastern Mosul had stalled after early success for the Iraqi/Iranian forces. As you know, that operation lasted for another month before they finally regrouped and were slowly able to wrest control of that less important part of the city. 

But the process was hugely costly for them, with many hundreds of Iraq's elite Golden Division forces killed and well over 1,000 badly wounded. Since the entire division has just 10,000 men, that single assault was terribly costly. And remember, it is the only force the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi will be able to depend on when the civil war begins in earnest. 

To be clear, such a war is inevitable once Mosul is evacuated, and we are ready for it. Don’t forget that as the Iraqi army is damaged, while the Shi’a militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps grow in strength, Iraq's internal tensions will become explosive.

Our immediate plan is to keep some of our fighters in western Mosul, taking the maximum toll of Iraqis and Iranians, as happened in the battle for the east. We have quietly withdrawn many others, as we did from Ramadi and Tikrit. Many have already embedded themselves across northern Iraq right down to Baghdad, linking up with the thousands of people now willing to join our cause. 

We are being helped by the rapidly mounting loss of life among the people of Mosul as the Iraqis, Iranians, Americans and French use their artillery and rockets even more widely. The Iraqi airstrikes, in particular, have greatly increased in intensity and the overall effect is to spread yet more anger in and beyond the region. In addition, it is becoming clearer that Trump is determined to expand the presence of United States ground troops in Iraq and Syria. This enables our information officers to show that this is a crusader assault on Islam, and that we alone stand in its way.

Yes, we will lose Mosul. But the cost to our enemies will be great and wider support for us will only grow. As I said last time, our leaders have long since seen the brave caliphate of the last three years not as a permanent entity but as an immensely important symbol of what can be done. Just a few thousand stalwart defenders of the faith have stood up to the world’s most powerful armed forces – an astonishing and truly historic achievement. The caliphate will reform, and strongly, though probably not in my lifetime since that is now certain to be short. In any case since we deal in decades and centuries, not mere years, what is so odd about that?

But as I also tried to explain, it is what is happening throughout the territories of the far enemy that is truly heartening. As you can imagine, Trump is probably the greatest asset we could ever hope for. His deep-seated anti-Islamic outlook, commitment to much greater military spending, damage to relations with so many allies, dependence on ideological Muslim-haters among his cabinet of billionaires – all this is hugely welcome, indeed almost too good to be true!

Europe is another source of confidence for us. In country after country, hard-right populists are preaching pure hatred of Islam as well as of their own elites. Farage and UKIP in Britain, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, may be facing problems but are influencing the mainstream. Marine Le Pen is a major player in France's presidential election, while chaotic Brexit is incubating the same toxins. And all this is before our summer offensives against the far enemy start to have their effect.

We will transform our military organisation into insurgencies in Iraq and quite possibly in Syria, as well as looking to Afghanistan for opportunities to expand. Egypt is hugely rich in potential. There are bright openings in Bangladesh and many parts of Africa. Never forget that short-term reversals do nothing to limit our true prospects, for ours is a unique historical movement that is preparing for eternity.

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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