Islamic State may exult in online portrayals of jihadis sweeping victoriously across Iraqi battlefields, but a camera recovered from the helmet of a dead fighter offers a contrasting picture of chaos and panic in a battle with Kurdish peshmerga.
A fighter named Abu Hajer is shown in footage seized by Peshmerga firing from one of three Islamic State armoured cars advancing across a barren plain towards a Kurdish position. His rifle slips and he fires off a shot inside the vehicle.
“Abu Hajer! Stop firing!” shouts Abu Radhwan, the camera in his helmet picking up anguished faces as it swings erratically from views of rifles and munitions on the floor of the armoured car to the brown fields and blue sky ahead.
A second fighter, Abu Abdullah, shouts out above the sound of shooting: “Abu Hajer! I told you to aim higher! What’s wrong with you? You’re firing the bullet casings straight at us!”
Abu Radhwan then turns his attention to Abdullah “Abu Abdullah, aim higher and be careful! Abu Abdullah you’re going to kill us!”
The hurried nature of the operation was clear from the start as Islamic State fighters in desert fatigues and helmets ushered a suicide bomber into one of the vehicles. “Do not be sad for me,” he says.
“Come on, hurry up brothers!” says another fighter, beckoning him aboard. “There are (war) planes around, please.”
All spoke in Arabic.
Chaos and disarray are no strangers to soldiers in the thick of conflict, though the discipline of established professional armies might restrict battlefield anger and recrimination. Many fighting for Islamic state are new recruits, some from Europe, with limited combat training.
“I’ve been wounded!”
But Islamic state has fostered online images of a disciplined, invincible force surging almost unchecked through
enemy lines, video often overlaid with heroic music. Two years ago the militants appeared unstoppable as they seized large swathes of Iraq including the major city of Mosul, but in recent months they have been pushed back from some areas.
The footage taken last December showed in graphic detail one of the setbacks “through the eyes”, as it were, of the fighter Abu Radhwan in the moments leading up to his own death.
“Get out, get out, but don’t go too far!” shouts one of the fighters as Radhwan and his fellow fighters abandon the armoured car. Abu Radhwan: “Where’s my weapon?”
Clear of the armoured car, an obvious target now for Kurdish fighters seen by the United States as one of the strongest opponents of Islamic Sate in both Iraq and Syria, Radhwan picks up a grenade launcher and runs.
The camera swings around. He is turning back towards the vehicle as a shot appears to strike home.
“I’ve been wounded!” he shouts.
The camera view reels as he rolls over and over, shots of a cloudless blue sky alternating with desert dust. An explosion rings out. Radhwan turns his head, and with it the camera, back towards their armoured car. The last, fixed, camera shot shows the burning vehicle on the dusty plain, a plume of smoke rising into the sky.
Peshmerga lieutenant-colonel Yasir Abdulla said the battle had begun in late afternoon last December and continued
until the early hours of the morning.
“When we finished (fighting) Daesh with the help (of) air strikes, we went next day, checking the bodies.
“They have helmets on and they have video you know ... They want to film it all over, to show it to their world.”