I can’t believe that it was just over a year ago that I was on frontline against Islamic State in both Syria and northern Iraq making a documentary (Fighting IS: Big Phil’s War) that was shown on Sky Atlantic.
I’ll be telling a few more stories from that trip but this week. For now I want to share some of the Intel I picked up when I was near Mosul twelve months ago.
I spent a lot of time with the Kurdish Peshmerga – the guerrilla fighters who were defending their territory against IS.
A lot of them were just young kids who were poorly equipped and badly trained (if you watch the film you’ll see me giving a run through of the basics that you and I take for granted).
I also got to meet a lot of old pros who had done their fair share not only against IS, but against Saddam when he had been in charge.
They took me up to Mosul Dam where there had been fierce fighting which lead to the position changing hands in August 2014.
The loss of the dam to IS put the fear of God in everyone because if IS had blown the dam, a sixty foot high wall of water would have poured out and smashed towns and villages for dozens of miles.
It would also mean no electricity for a sizeable part of the country.
Thankfully the Kurds and Iraqi forces – backed by US airstrikes – recaptured it and the surrounding area.
Standing on top of the dam I was given a talk about what sort of threat the Peshmerga – and now everyone else was up against – in the Mosul area.
The most striking thing they told me was that the Islamic State are being helped by a lot of former top ranking military and intelligence personnel from Saddam’s regime.
These are Sunnis from Anbar province – traditionally the home to the core supporters of Saddam Hussein.
Now I’m the first to admit that I get a headache trying to unpick all the religious and political ins and outs of the area – but even I can work out that this lot are going to be at daggers with the Shia government in Baghdad.
So we now have a lethal combination of ISIS and highly trained operatives trained not only in traditional combat but counter insurgency and intelligence work too.
As many of the men are local to the area, so they also know the terrain – and crucially can rely on tribal networks and loyalties that go back generations.
This – combined with the fanaticism of the local IS recruits not to mention the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to northern Iraq – means that the battle for Mosul is against an enemy who are now trained by some of the top experts in the field as well as being bat-shit crazy fanatics.
Not a good.
I also learnt a bit about the sophistication of the IEDs that those fighting their way into the city will be up against.
The Peshmerga told me that when they recaptured the villages around the dam – everything was booby- trapped.
Well, we all know there’s nothing new there.
But just after I got back from Iraq, Sky News (who I was working with) got hold of about nine hours of video smuggled out of Raqqa in Syria by IS defectors.
It showed extraordinary footage of an Islamic State improvised weapons factory, as well as recordings of classes in which recruits were taught the basics of electronics with a view to building IEDs. It was some really frightening stuff.
There were radio -controlled bombs triggered by walkie- talkies – the likes of which had first been developed by the Chechens against the Russians.
It shows that IS are drawing on terrorist expertise from all over the world.
They are also Surface to Air missiles stolen from air force bases being stripped and reassembled with running commentary on how these could now be launched to the battle field.
But the weirdest thing they had was a remote controlled car which they had dressed up with mannequins with heat emitting devices that would fool heat sensors at security check points that there were dealing with an actual human driver.
By the time they figured out it was just one big automated bomb – too late.
It just goes to show the sophistication of what we’re up against in the fight against IS.
And although I’ve never bottled a fight in my life – I don’t envy those poor bastards who are set to fight their way into Mosul in the coming weeks and months.
Featured image courtesy of AP.
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