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UK Special Forces Operations: Iraq

Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under. This section outlines the extent of UKSF’s operations in Iraq.

The UK’s military operations in Iraq formally in May 2011, with the bulk of troops having left by April 2009. Parliament approved airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq in September 2014, with the explicit commitment by the government to not sending out ground troops.

Yet by 2014/15, British boots were again on the ground, in the form of Special Forces troops. The target was ISIS, with Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly giving UKSF a ‘carte blanche’ to launch raids against the terrorist group’s leaders. In fact the first teams were deployed to northern Iraq weeks before the vote on airstrikes to collect intelligence.

As well as conducting terrorist man-hunts, SAS troops were also advising Iraqi forces to coordinate air strikes and supporting Kurdish forces. By January 2016, they had conducted their (publicly reported) ground attack against ISIS in Ramadi and had more than 200 personnel in the country. Strength in numbers enabled the resumption of covert parachute assaults and the creation of a kill list of 200 British jihadists.

A presence has continued, conducting manhunts for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as regional militia leaders, after British soldier Brodie Gillon and two US soldiers were killed by a rocket attack on Camp Taji. Troops would repeatedly strike in Iraq and northern Syria as part of a flurry of killings of 100 IS fighters in April – June 2020.

And in January 2021, SAS and US SOF parachutists were injured as they collided into each other in mid-air during a night raid on ISIS, near Baiji. They were severely injured but managed to radio for rescue. It was reported that UK forces are “increasing their ‘mission tempo’ against IS after a Covid-induced lull.”

2014

August: Large force deployed to northern Iraq around 21st Aug. The SAS are working in small teams, supported by signallers from 264 (SAS) Signals. The SAS teams will be collecting intelligence from captured British IS fighters, including voice recordings, iris scans, blood types and DNA samples. This intel will be beamed via radio link to the RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint that is flying signals intelligence (SIGINT) missions over Iraq. Specialists aboard the aircraft will perform an immediate analysis and also relay the intel to GCHQ Cheltenham where it will be analysed in more detail and compared to their vast library of phone intercepts and other data. (Mail)

August: SAS and SBS teams were deployed to assist US forces with the evacuation of 30,000 Yazidis from Mt Sinjar. (Mirror)

September: SAS and American special forces working with Kurdish fighters on the Iraqi front lines as discussions under way to give them dedicated base near the Kurdish city of Dohuk. (Telegraph)

October:  An Islamic State (IS) convoy was halted by a lone British Special Air Service (SAS) sniper team operating in Iraq. Two-man SAS team were in a sniper hide on a hillside when they spotted a single truck carrying IS fighters and approaching a small Iraqi village. Fearing that the IS militia were going to attack the villagers, and without air support on hand, the SAS team elected to engage the IS vehicle. (Daily Star)

2015

August: 8-man SAS squad tracked down ISIS leader, Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali in northern Iraq. The SAS men decided to ambush the vehicles and take Hayali alive, fearing an airstrike close to the town would result in too many civilian casualties. But they eventually concluded their chances of successfully escaping with him were too slim. Concerned they might lose Hayali, the team sent orders for an air strike to be carried out when the vehicle was in the open so there would be no risk to civilians. US Fighter dropped 500lb bomb when it was in open country (Daily Star)

December: The Telegraph reported that ‘several dozen’ SAS troops are advising Iraq forces around Ramadi. These include six officers led by a Royal Artillery major who act as forward air controllers, coordinating air strikes in support of Iraqi ground forces. They are said to have hit numerous targets, including an ISIS bomb-laden truck which was taken out on Boxing Day.

2016

January: The SAS soldier was part of a team advising Iraqi forces operating in the city of Ramadi. When a group of ISIS personnel were located on the top floor of a building that also housed civilians, it was decided to use a sniper rifle to engage them, rather than with an air strike or artillery barrage.”It would be the first time that British troops are known to have taken part in a direct ground attack against Isil.” – Telegraph

January: Two female SRR soldiers were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint and shot their way out. (Mail)

February: Britain reportedly had more than 200 special forces soldiers in the country, operating out of a fortified base within a Kurdish Peshmerga camp near Mosul in northern Iraq. On a joint op with German and US special forces, three SAS/SBS soldiers were injured by shrapnel. (Express)

May: SAS and SBS commandos were sent in to support Kurdish and Iraqi troops fighting Islamic State. Special Forces units now have the green light to resume covert parachute assaults against terrorists. The all-clear for the first attacks of this kind since the Iraq war came after trials using a new RAF C-17 carrier, which have just ended successfully. (Mirror)

May: Three mid-ranking ISIS warlords have been seized in lightning assaults by SAS in Mosul, ahead of a major assault. American, British and Australian special operations forces (SOF) have all carried out snatch missions, often supported by Iraqi SOF. (Mirror)

October: It was reported thatUKSF were supporting coalition air strikes against IS. The same report claimed that SAS soldiers had caught two senior Isis commanders during a raid on the city’s outskirts. (Star)

November: SAS forces given a ‘kill or capture list’ which included the names of 200 British jihadists. One senior defence source said: “A kill list has been drawn up containing the names of hundreds of very bad people. A lot of them are from the UK. The hunt is now on for British Islamists who have effectively gone off-grid. “This is a multinational special forces operation. The SAS have their own part of the plan and they will be going after British nationals. This is a kill or capture mission and it has already begun. (Times)

2017

February: It was reported that UKSF who were embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish fighters as advisers had been dragged into the battle for Mosul. (Mail)

August: A SPECIAL forces plane worth £65million had to be written off as an “operational loss” after a 100mph crash landing. SAS soldiers on a mission against IS in Syria survived as the Hercules C-130J slewed off the runway at Erbil, Iraq. The Hercules was returning after picking up UK and US troops at a desert airstrip in Syria. 47 Squadron RAF Special Forces fly the Hercules on insertion, extraction and resupply missions in support of UKSF. This may necessitate landing on unprepared landing strips, with all the risks that entails. Several Special Forces Hercules have been lost during landings, including 2 in Afghanistan and 2 in Iraq (including this most recent incident). (Sun)

2019

May: 30 SAS and SBS troops were reportedly working on a kill or capture list to find Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also reportedly involved Mi6 and GCHQ (Mirror)

2020

January: It is understood around 50 members of the Special Air Service and the Navy’s Special Boat Service along with the Special Forces Support Group will be sent to Iraq to help any possible ­evacuation of Britons in the region – as ­tensions soared after the US killed Iran’s top military man. (Mirror)

March, 11: UK and US special forces, together with a western intelligence cell in Iraq, were urgently trying to track down the militia leaders who fired the devastating volley from a single lorry on Wed­­nesday evening, that killed British soldier Brodie Gillon and two US soldiers in Camp Taji(Mirror)

April-July: SAS working alongside Kurdish forces killed 100 IS fighters in a number of a battles in Northern Syria and Iraq. Those IS killed included British nationals. DNA was used to prove the identity of the jihadists killed. The renewed assault began on April 10 when UK ground troops, accompanied by British-trained Kurdish soldiers, forced fanatics to take refuge in a building before an SAS radio operator called in two Typhoons based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, and a drone flown by controllers at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. (Mail)

2021

January: An SAS soldier has been critically wounded in a dramatic parachuting accident during a secret night-time operation against Islamic State in Iraq. The trooper crashed to the ground at high speed following a mid-air collision with a US special forces soldier on the same operation who was also severely injured. They managed to radio for help and within minutes dozens of heavily armed SAS and Delta Force troops scrambled onto CH-47 Chinook helicopters at a secret base. The incident involving the SAS soldier, from A Squadron, happened late last month near Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad. UK forces are said to be increasing their ‘mission tempo’ against IS after a Covid-induced lull (Daily Mail).