Our mission in Iraq is personal, say RAF crews

Aircrews flying combat missions over northern Iraq feel their task is “personal” because a British aid worker who was beheaded by Islamic State militants had once served in the RAF, sources said. 

David Haines spent 12 years as an RAF engineer before he later became an aid worker helping people in war zones to rebuild their lives. The 44-year-old was murdered in a horrific propaganda video after he was taken hostage inside Syria by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). 

Alan Henning, a taxi driver from Salford who volunteered to work on an aid convoy, has also appeared in a video being threatened with execution by the same fighters. Personnel conducting combat missions over northern Iraq from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus are now hoping for “some sort of justice” after Mr Haines’s murder. 

An RAF source at Akrotiri said: “Obviously we will do all operations as professionally as possible and this will be no different. “But any human being would be horrified by what Isil is doing to British hostages and that applies as much to the RAF as to anyone. 

“Add to that, one of their victims was a former RAF serviceman, and it definitely feels a bit personal for all of us here. “It’s not about revenge but perhaps some sort of justice – and certainly the hope that we can stop more people suffering the way David and other captives have.” 

The comments came as Britain’s air campaign against Isil continued and ministers warned of a long campaign that would not be over “in a weekend”. Pairs of Tornado GR4 jets supported by Voyager refuelling tankers yesterday continued to fly armed reconnaissance missions over northern Iraq. 

Female aircrew are among those taking part in the missions by II Squadron from RAF Marham. Crews have been authorised to hit ground targets since Friday when MPs voted to allow air strikes as part of a US-led campaign trying to help the Iraqi government to repel Isil. 

Tornadoes took off and returned all weekend after round trips through Turkish air space of up to seven hours. The Ministry of Defence in London said the Tornados had not struck any targets because “no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft”. 

The Pentagon said US air strikes near the insurgent-held Fallujah in Iraq had destroyed two Isil checkpoints and a transport vehicle used by the jihadists. Military sources said Isil had few fixed positions to hit in northern Iraq and the US-led coalition was hitting “targets of opportunity” when they were spotted by surveillance drones. 

Despite not hitting targets, the RAF jets continued to gather intelligence from the area, however. The Iraq strikes are supposed to allow government troops to retake territory they were forced to leave in June. 

Baghdad said pro-government forces backed by air support had repelled an Isil attack on the town of Amriyat al-Fallujah in western Iraq. Aref al-Janabi, the local police chief, said the town was a main logistics route for the army and was the link between Anbar and Karbala. 

American warplanes also kept up their campaign of air strikes inside Syria yesterday, hitting oil production and refining sites that earn the militants millions of dollars. The US, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, hit four makeshift refineries as well as a “command and control post”, all north of Raqqa, US Central Command said. 

The group controls a swathe of territory in northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria that includes most of Syria’s main oilfields. Isil’s control of oil production in its terri­tory has made it hugely wealthy and the latest raids have continued the efforts to try to halt its funding. 

The coalition strikes hit close by the Turkish frontier, near Tal Abyad just across the border from the town of Akcakale, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It claimed that Isil had been “refining crude and selling it to Turkish buyers”. 

According to some estimates, before the US began strikes on Isil targets in Syria last week, the group was earning as much as £2 million a day. 

By Ben Farmer

European Kurds swap violins for Kalashnikovs

Hundreds of Kurds from across Western Europe are returning to Iraq’s Kurdistan region to join the peshmerga's ranks and help defend their ancestral lands from the jihadist threat. 

As the sun dips into the dusty horizon, Lukman Hassan and Hussein Mohammad emerge from their armoured personnel carrier emblazoned with the official flag of Iraq’s Kurdistan region with a fiery sun in the centre. 

It's dusk, and it’s time for the Kurdish peshmerga to return to their base in northern Iraq. Hassan and Mohammad left their families in Germany to return to their ancient homeland three months ago when the jihadist threat to Kurdistan became acute. 

A father of five, Hassan, 50, left his home in Munich to join the resistance against the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. 

“Every day, we heard that the terrorist organisation called the Islamic State was attacking our brothers and sisters, and was trying to take over our land,” said Hassan. 

“So we had to return and defend it, even if it costs us our lives. Many Kurds have returned, not just from my town, but from Cologne, for example.” 

While the number of foreign nationals fighting in the peshmerga's ranks has not come close to more than 2,000 estimated foreigners in the IS group, a growing number of Kurds from the European diaspora are returning to defend their ancestral lands. 

Mohammad is one of the fighters in the Cologne brigade. He gave up his job as a musician in a Kurdish orchestra – swapping his violin for a Kalashnikov. 

The two German Kurds are not newcomers to warfare. In the 1990s, both fought in the peshmerga ranks against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army.