“Raqqa will never be the same”, claims Abu Adam Al-Britani in a 72 minute long tape that was issued late last month. He provides a chilling account of the scale of death and destruction in the city that was a de facto capital of the Islamic state in Syria, when the group formally declared the Islamic Caliphate in the region in 2014. Al-Britani’s message, per his own claim, is aimed at reaching out to the Muslims outside to tell “what is really happening [that] you may never hear from anyone else ever again”. He is mindful this might be the only time we hear of him and “the only message of this kind that ever comes out of Raqqa”.
“Raqqa is obliterated”, he laments. “There is nothing left in it. Everything is destroyed. It is a warzone with burned cars everywhere, smoke, piles of rubbish, stench of dead bodies, animals consuming dead bodies, and dogs and cats consuming dead human flesh”. He whines that some cats had become so fat because of eating dead human flesh. Al-Britani bemoans there are no burials possible anymore and wonders what to do with the piling up dead bodies. He recounts a recent incident where some person, who tried to bury an ISIS fighter, was killed by a missile while digging a grave. “You can’t even dig a grave to bury the dead Muslims now. This is what it is like in Raqqa at the moment”.
He claims the US-led coalition has destroyed more than a thousand apartment blocks since the beginning of this Ramadan in June, burying innumerable men, women and children under hundreds of tonnes of concrete. The rotting bodies continue to fill the air with stench as more people get killed on a daily basis, following hundreds of missile attacks, air strikes and mortar shelling. He even accuses the coalition of targeting water-filtration plants, and women and children who que to get water from these facilities which are dwindling by the day as they are destroyed in the bombing attacks. Describing the impact of continuous shelling, he reports: “You see babies with their heads ripped open. You see women with their legs ripped open, abdomens ripped open, pregnant women dead with their abdomens ripped open”.
In June, UN war crimes investigators raised alarm that the US-led coalition air strikes in Raqqa was causing a “staggering loss of life” as the push to liberate the city under a hail of bombardment including incendiary weapons like white phosphorus had gained momentum. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern over the use of white phosphorus, saying it “raises serious questions about the protection of civilians” and “poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa”.
Al-Britani is thought to be among the residual 300-400 ISIS fighters pushed into a small part of Raqqa, the last remaining territory with the Islamic State. It is 15-20 percent of the city that includes the stadium, the National Hospital and a roundabout where ISIS allegedly used to display the heads of its enemies as medieval style war trophies. The ISIS fighters and their families are surrounded from everywhere. According to Al-Britani, the US-led coalition forces, mainly the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), supported by the US Special Forces, have blocked off all the exits, entrances and the bridges, followed by random and relentless attacks with siege cannons, destroying everything to smithereens. The assault has weakened ISIS control so much that the dogs are “forming packs and getting brave”, and “their instincts are coming back”.
The emboldening of street dogs in the last held territory is pointing to a looming disaster for ISIS that once touted itself as the sole authority and arbitrator for the Muslims around the world. The thrill of living in the Islamic caliphate attracted thousands of Muslim men and women across the world, including west, to the ISIS territory. The British authorities claim that some 850 UK citizens have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including Abu Adam Al-Britani, who is making his last stand through his messages.
The US-led coalition forces are launching the final assault on the city this coming Sunday night. Although there are reports the ISIS fighters have dug in deep tunnels and booby-trapped every possible place, their fall is imminent. The reports suggest the final victory might take about a week, while an SDF official claimed they would announce the liberation “in the coming few days”.
The impending massacre of the people, particularly the unwittingly caught civilians, is unsettling and terrifying. I am holding a digital vigil for Al-Britani’s family – wife and son, Adam, who, I could hear making rambling noises in the background during his father’s over an hour long outburst. For over a week, my mind is focused on Raqqa and what is happening there after I was contacted by one of the largest British tabloids to sound me out on Al-Britani, who was revealed to be Yaser Iqbal, a Birmingham based Barrister I have known for several years. I remember our meetings and discussions about the ‘Muslim things’ such as extremism and terrorism, and racism and Islamophobia. I have known him as a very balanced and a fine person. He contributed to my book – 7/7: Muslim Perspectives, a collection of Muslim experiences in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005 that killed several people.
In his piece titled, The rage and the fear, Yaser talks about many of his bad experiences, but remains optimistic. He emphasises the fact “that Muslims are just like every other person”, something he negates in his recent message. The last line of his piece for my book says: “We must educate our children to love and respect our fellow human beings for therein lies the greatest good”. But in his last message from Raqqa, he justifies murder of non-Muslim civilians and taking their women-folk as slaves. He also declares any Muslim who lives under non-Islamic rule as a non-believer. I am baffled by this profound change!
Murtaza Shibli is a writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He is also the editor of ‘7/7: Muslim Perspectives’, a book that explores the British Muslim reaction to the London bombings. Twitter: murtaza_shibli