The Rise of EXALT
Intelligence analysts initially believed that the massive Boko Haram uprising that coincided with the chryssalid outbreak in Ogbomosho was an unfortunate coincidence which diverted much of Nigeria's armed force assets away from the crisis. Weeks after the incident, several facts began to emerge which contradicted this initial conclusion. African coalition forces continued to give ground to the Boko Haram counter-offensive around Lake Chad, and much of the insurgents' success could be attributed to the actions of the splinter jihadist group known as the Sabbaha. At first it was believed that the Sabbaha was just a highly effective cell of the Boko Haram network, but when members of the faction began appearing in Syria and fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters it became apparent that they were a separate organization with a global reach equalling and even surpassing that of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sabbaha was the Arabic word for "exalt", and it was by this name that the faction became known as, thanks largely to the viral videos released by the organization. One infamous video showed a Sabbaha spokesman quoting a mishmash of religious texts after a successful attack against a Nigerian outpost south of Lake Chad. "Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds," the spokesman intoned. "His messengers have returned. Exalt them in all their glory, and accept them into your hearts. Be not proud, but abase thyself, and exalt those that have to come to lift us up. For it is said, whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
The spokeman's speech was sprinkled with a confused jumble of psalms and aphorisms from both the Bible, the Koran and a number of more obscure religious texts. The lack of doctrinal consistency was not lost to some - analysts wondered out loud as to whether EXALT actually possessed a cohesive internal ideology, or whether the allusions to religious texts were a smokescreen for a more sinister agenda. Analysts also posited that EXALT's confused religious stance could possibly lead to conflict with the more fundamentalist elements of the jihadists, which took religious orthodoxy to extremes. Nonetheless there were advantages in EXALT's more moderate approach, especially in Africa, where Christianity, Islam and the Bahá'í Faith were the most widespread religions. In a continent filled with a myriad of cultures, dialects and religious practices a moderate stance ensured a larger pool of followers and more potential recruits for the EXALT cause. Regardless of whether they were true believers, apostates or cynical opportunists, no one could deny the effectiveness of the EXALT forces, whose hit and run raids took a disruptive toll on government operations in both Nigeria and Syria. What made these raids more worrisome was the presence of UFOs in the skies during critical operations involving EXALT forces. On numerous occasions air support could not be provided to ground troops fighting in Nigeria and Syria due to alien fighter craft hovering in the vicinity. It was a troubling coincidence, and one which did not slip past the eyes of careful observers.
At the end of April 2016 a large battle took place near Diffa on the Niger and Nigerian border between African coalition forces and Boko Haram. Diffa had been a harbour for thousands of Nigerian refugees fleeing the fighting in Borno, but on 27 April the refugee town was attacked by a large force of Boko Haram. The battle was a costly one, and it ended in a marginal victory for the African coalition. During the battle several EXALT soldiers were killed along with hundreds of Boko Haram insurgents. The bodies were to be summarily buried, but a keen eyed medic noted some unusual aspects about the cadavers and made arrangements for an autopsy. While the bodies were superficially similar to a normal human cadavers, deeper inspection revealed several modifications not of terrestrial origin. While the Nigerian doctors were unable to understand how these implants functioned, they seemed to correlate to observations made by Nigerian soldiers about this new splinter group, which attributed EXALT with superhuman feats of strength, speed and skill. Alarmed by this turn of events Nigerian forces were instructed to send any fallen EXALT soldiers back for autopsy, and subsequent corpses revealed that all of them had also been subject to genetic modification. Not all corpses had the same modifications, however, which seemed to indicate that these implants and grafts were done to enhance the existing specializations of the enemy combatants. One corpse had a secondary heart - another had skin which looked like human epidermis, but had the stopping power of Kevlar - one cadaver, identified as a sniper, had eyes which were clearly modified to give the recipient improved ocular vision and the ability to see in different spectrums of light. Many discredited Nigerian soldier eyewitness accounts were re-examined in the light of these findings. Furious Nigerian commanders had refused to believe these tales told by their soldiers, dismissing them out of hand as excuses for military setbacks, but the mounting evidence told otherwise. Amazing stories of EXALT soldiers jumping onto rooftops in a single bound, or vanishing in plain sight suddenly became much more believable.
In the meantime the appearance of EXALT forces in the Syrian civil war turned around the flagging fortunes of the jihadists, whose forces were under constant attack by a coalition of nations led by the US and France. Syria was a flash point waiting to combust, as Russian assisted government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad pushed back US backed rebels from key cities in the strife-torn state. Syria was a complex three cornered conflict, with the Russians and Assad's government in one corner, the Kurd rebels backed by the US in another, and the jihadists in the third, who sought to exploit the chaos and confusion to carve out a fundamentalist Islamic state in the greater region of Syria and Iraq. To add to the confusion Turkey, the US's nominal NATO ally in the conflict, seemed quite content to antagonize both superpowers. While Turkey was staunchly anti-Assad and anti-government, President Recep Erdogan took Washington to task over the Western refusal to see the militarism of secular Kurdish groups in the same light as the terrorism of the Islamic State. Turkey also shot down a Russian Su-24 which they claimed had strayed too close to the Turkish border, precipitating a diplomatic crisis between the two nations.
While the superpowers and their allies played their complex game of regime-building in Syria, the real human cost of the civil war went largely unnoticed. The estimated number of casualties ranged from 150,000 to over 470,000, with the UN estimating the number at roughly 400,000. These casualties included women, children and non-combatants, and precipitated a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the war zones. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were over 4.8 million displaced Syrians, making it the biggest displacement of people since the Second World War. Many European nations, wary of sleeper terrorist cells entering their countries, closed their borders, and the issue of immigration became an incendiary topic in politics once more. In the meantime, intelligence reports from the region pointed to an alarming development - thousands of displaced Syrians and Iraqis, shunned by the world at large, appeared to be turning towards the jihadists in unprecedented numbers. A report by UK intelligence officer Amelie Edwards revealed that it was not to fundamentalism that people were turning to, but to rather to more secular concerns:
The movement towards EXALT appears non-ideologically driven. What the EXALT forces are offering is something neither the US or Russia, or any of the other powers currently intervening in Syria have - safety, protection, and an end to the conflict. While thousands of Syrians die everyday in clashes between pro-government and rebel forces, Syrians who manage to flee to the EXALT zones are given food, medicine and shelter. We don't know from where exactly these supplies are coming from, or how they are getting there, but we strongly suspect that the visitors are responsible. Furthermore the EXALT zones are safe from bombing or shelling - the UFOs in the area shoot down any fighters or missiles straying over these zones. This is the first time we've seen the aliens establish what is essentially a no-fly zone - we've never seen them stake out a piece of Earth's territory and hold it before. Ground incursions by government or rebel forces are decisively punished by EXALT forces - in some cases with air support from the UFOs - and the EXALT forces allow people to move in and out of the safe zones to pass on the message of hope to friends and relatives in conflict ridden areas. Even the world's media is allowed to enter these zones, and the images and footage coming out of these safe zones show injured people being treated and fed and taken care of.
Edwards also confirmed that EXALT's comparatively moderate stance on religious orthodoxy was both a boon and a curse for the fledgling organization:
EXALT's moderate stance allows people from all denominations - Christians, Muslims, Sunni, Shia, Kurds - to enter their safe zones, which makes their appeal even more widespread. They also police the zones very stringently to ensure no fundamentalist related conflicts arise. We believe that ideological struggles have taken place between EXALT and the more extreme elements of ISIS and al-Qaeda, but in each case the EXALT forces seem to prevail, either through negotiations or in some cases, the use of force. EXALT is providing the jihadists with equipment, manpower, and air support, which gives them a lot of leverage. Hardliners have either changed their tune, perhaps accepted it as the cost of doing business, or in some cases, just disappeared. Somehow EXALT has managed to penetrate networks which have taken us years to unravel, and the most worrying thing about it is that we don't know how they are doing it. They seem to be changing these networks from the inside out, moderating them and toning down the rhetoric, thereby increasing their supporter base.
The visitor's humanitarian intervention in Syria prompted some to suggest that the aliens were not wholly malevolent, a hypothesis which Bradford quickly rejected. "No one who was in Africa will tell you that the aliens are here to help us," he said. "I have to admit, thought, that in the battle for hearts and minds in Syria the aliens are trouncing us. But to what end, who knows." Nonetheless this was the first act of benevolence attributed to the aliens, which opened the door to the possibility of negotiations in the future. While some people lauded EXALT's actions in Syria, Edwards warned that there were still plenty of disaffected and displaced people who were ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations. EXALT offered empowerment, purpose, and a sense of belonging against the impersonal juggernauts of the superpowers. Angry young men and women who lost friends and family could not help but be impressed and influenced by the EXALT soldiers. They were genetically enhanced to be stronger, faster and more skilled than normal humans, but beyond these superficial changes they were also making a difference and influencing the world around them. They were not just helpless victims in the game of nations. More people joined EXALT after seeing their loved ones being given life-saving medical treatment than the Boko Haram ever recruited by compelling people at gun point, and these recruits were true believers in the righteousness of their cause.