British warplanes have smashed a huge Islamic State underground tunnel network in northern Iraq in one of the most crucial attacks against the group in months.
The 10-day onslaught meant UK Typhoon FGR4 fighter bombers had to unleash deadly Storm Shadow bunker buster bombs on the IS cave hideouts.
It is believed that dozens of IS terrorists were wiped out in the blitz, which also targeted explosives and weapons caches and destroyed a bomb-making hub.
The lengthy operation signals a stepping up in the UK and American military’s determination to try to wipe out IS’s ability to resurge in the war-battered region. Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles were dropped on the IS positions because they were hiding out in deep underground rocky formations which cannot be penetrated by smaller bombs.
The RAF operation was launched against the terror group in the Makhmur mountain region of northern Iraq, south west of the Kurdish capital city of Erbil.
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Until now the operation – which was launched in late March and concluded earlier this month – could not be revealed.
The assault followed weeks of ground offensives launched by British-trained Iraqi special forces, which drove the militant fighters into their heavily protected underground complex.
Once they had been observed by drones gathering in the complex RAF commanders, along with the American and French military, decided to launch the offensive.
The “deep strike” Storm Shadow onslaught was aimed at holding back an IS uprising in the region prompted by ex-US President Donald Trump’s threatened troop withdrawal.
It marks a turning-point in the coalition’s long-term operations against IS, signalling a fresh determination by the Biden administration to wipe out the terror threat.
A UK defence source told the Daily Mirror: “There has been a significant increase in ISIS activity in the region in recent months and this latest operation has set them back a great deal.
“Many of the ISIS middle-ranking personnel seemed to be becoming bolder and had begun to move around both in Iraq and Syria, gaining confidence in attacks.
“The continued operation shows that we are able severely to limit their ability to manoeuvre and transport weapons and explosives around the region.”
Yesterday British defence officials reaffirmed their determination to campaign against the threatened IS comeback across Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “The British armed forces, alongside our Iraqi and coalition partners, continue to root out Daesh terrorists from where they hide.
“The UK is committed to defeating Daesh. This operation will prevent the terrorist group and its toxic ideology from regaining a foothold in Iraq and reduce its capability to coordinate attacks around the world.”
Ministry of Defence sources revealed Paveway IV bombs were also launched at IS targets, dealing a further blow to the group. It is believed there are still as many as 10,000 hardline and heavily armed IS fighters across Iraq and Syria who are in close contact with thousands more “sleeper cells”.
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The IS leadership has been able to keep hold of an estimated £350million war chest to help recruit more young fighters and buy weapons to back their death-cult cause.
The bounty has been collected over seven years of bank robberies, extortion, outright theft and the illegal sales of oil stolen from Iraqi and Syrian wells.
Coalition forces backed by Western troops completed the military defeat of IS in the region in early 2019, driving them out of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
But the long-term coalition strikes, codenamed Operation Shader, and launched by UK warplanes from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, are being stepped up.
The RAF also hit targets in northern Syria, killing a group of IS fighters holed up 50 miles west of al-Hasakah, which is
in the Kurdish-controlled statelet of Rojava.
In that attack on April 4 an unmanned RAF Reaper drone fired a Hellfire missile at the group, which is believed to have been spotted by Western special forces, killing them.
Air Commodore Simon Strasdin, Air Officer Commander of 83 Expeditionary Air Group and the UK Air Component Commander in the Middle East, said: “The Royal Air Force and wider coalition have supported an operation led by a highly capable unit from the Iraqi Security Forces.
“Together, we’re working towards defeating the remnants of Daesh and ensuring its will is depleted. The commitment and dedication from the personnel deployed on operations across the Middle East is simply outstanding.
“It is even more impressive that the Royal Air Force can adapt and continue to deliver air power against the enemy during a global pandemic.”
Eurofighter Typhoon fighter bombers can fly at 1,550 mph, cost £110million each and about £70,000 an-hour to fly.
It can fire a 27mm Mauser cannon, air -to-air missiles, Paveway IV, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles. Brimstones were not used in the latest mission.
Storm Shadow is an air-launched, stealth, cruise missile costing £790,000. It flies at a subsonic 800mph and can travel 300 miles, earning its name of a “stand-off” weapon. It is one of the UK’s “bunker-busters” and is aimed at penetrating through rock or concrete, attacking airbases, radar installations and big port facilities.
Paveway IV is a laser guided weapon costing £22,000. It is a precision missile that can be re-diverted once fired, in case a civilian walks into the target area or if the target needs to be changed.
In one raid a drone fired Hellfire missiles. These cost £120,000 each and are originally anti-armour weapons, developed and used more for targeting high-value personnel. It can travel more than six miles at 995mph.
Crackdown on resurgence of threat could be crucial chapter
– Analysis by Chris Hughes, Mirror defence editor
These UK air strikes on IS in Iraq and Syria may mark a significant shift in the story of Islamic State in the region.
They show a re-energising in efforts by the coalition to hold back and seriously thwart attempts by the network to rise up again.
Ex-US President Donald Trump had emboldened the militancy by announcing troop withdrawals from Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
In July 2017 myself and Mirror photographer Rowan Griffiths stood at the “ground zero” ruins of the al-Nuri Mosque as the last dying remnants of IS were being driven from Mosul.
It was from here that in 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had announced his caliphate and here that his men blew up the mosque as they fled.
As we stood amid the ruins it was hard to imagine it being rebuilt.
But out of the ashes of the caliphate’s destroyed birthplace a £50m Unesco project is having it rebuilt brick by brick from the 5,600 tonnes of rubble that lie where it stood.
With help from the Iraqi government and the UAE it will also rebuild two Christian churches nearby.
But the latest news about IS in Iraq is even more significant as the network is suffering from a catastrophic blow to its leadership – the US has revealed its leader Muhammed al-Mawla informed on jihadists to elbow his way to the top.
Newly released papers in the US show how in 2008 during prison interviews al-Mawla gave up his so-called jihadi brothers to US troops.
A treasure trove of intelligence he coughed up, including which cafes they ate in, will have resulted in the deaths by drone of many.
But the information he leaked will put him in serious jeopardy with IS.
It could mark him as a “dead man walking”. And it could also mark the moment the coalition properly decided to turn the tables on IS.