"ISIS is defeated", they said.
"The Caliphate is gone for good", they said

They were wrong.
And totally so.

As I climb into one of the Humvees, a soldier has some last advise. "If a car is approaching us, doesn't matter which car, try to not look into its headlights, it will ruin your night vision - that's a tactical advantage for our enemy." A good advise considering we'll roam through the pitch black night without any lights ourselves in order to remain as invisible as possible for our enemy.

It is 2021, and our enemy is still called ISIS, or Daesh. We're in Makhmour mountains, a mountain range in northern Iraq. The range is located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and is part of the Zagros mountain system, which extends from western Iran to the Turkish border. The Makhmour Mountains are made up of sedimentary rocks, including limestone and sandstone, and reach elevations of up to 2,000 meters. The mountains are home to a variety of flora and fauna, including many ISIS fighters and their families, hiding away like rats in the thousands of caves.

For the local population and economy, they are still a threat. Coming out at night, ISIS still kidnaps many civilians, ransom being their number one income. Beheadings are still part of their code of conduct. I will never understand what's so thrilling in cutting through flesh, ligaments and bone with a semi-sharp knife.

So, yeah, I struggle with two sides of anticipation, excitement and anxiety. I wanted it, I asked for it and I got it. And here I am, in the base camp of famous General Helmi's Special Forces in Makhmour Mountains.

So hey ho, let's go...


General Helmy is a tough fighter and Special Forces operator. Going on a mission with him does two things to me:
Firstly, I'm feeling kind of safe as this guy knows what he does from hundreds of raids and operations.
Secondly, I'm really scared as this guy is on a mission - he wants to hunt down ISIS, and this means that we probably will see action with the enemy.


Short after sunset it is time to gear up and mount our Humvees. We carefully check our equipment, guns for the men and cameras for the boy. We thoroughly don our body armor. Temperatures are still around 40°C, late summer is brutal in central Iraq. There is no way to enter the vehicles elegantly, all the gear on our vests and plate carriers is just too bulky. Being around 1,93 meters doesn't help - even though Humvees appear to be huge vehicles, their interior is rather small with most of the space being eaten up by radios, armor, guns and other equipment. Gladly, these Humvees are later gen models and feature a effective air conditioning although the noise is close to unbearable.


Then we roll. From the outpost to the top of one of the hills where the SF teams carefully observe the rolling hills and small villages beneath for ISIS to leave their holes.
Like always in combat theaters, we wait. Then we wait some more and, you got it, we wait even longer. Even though our night vision is improving with every moment, it is hard to see anything, let alone identifying a target or enemy. I dial up my ISO to the extreme on one of my Nikons. At more than 200.000 ISO, the display becomes a night vision device, transforming the black into a grainy mess - but in fact, I can see things.

Normal ISO

It's dark. Like really dark. You don't see shit, and you're not to use any flashlight as this would make you an easy target for any sniper lurking in the dark.

ISO on steroids

Here we go. I eventually used my camera like a NVG (Night Vision Goggle).

All of a sudden there's muffled conversations, short orders, short copies and movement all over the place. "Jo, it's showtime" one of the Pesh' tells me, I don't have to know more. Adrenaline flows in my veins, I'm fully awake, aware. My hands sweat, my fingers tremble as I clutch my camera and start turning back and forth the dial for aperture setting. An old habit when I get nervous. And scared. 

With a clear target identified, the SF teams rush down the mountains into a village nearby - ISIS fighters are being suspected in one of the empty huts. There was movement and some flashes of dim light, nothing more. A tell-tale for guys that typically don't want to be seen.

Soldiers left and right prepping for the raid. Checking their guns and their gear, again and again Short before the suspected location is about to be raided, all teams SF teams conduct a last alignment. Minutes before the raid commences, tension is rising incredibly. Talking for myself, that is.

Two SF operators ride on the hood of our Humvee, M-4 assault rifles at the ready for the raid. Opening the heavy armored doors of the Humvee would cost precious seconds that might decide on eliminating a target or not. The Peshmerga SF guys are particularly tough and battle experienced, so they go for efficiency. I choose to ride on the roof of our vehicle, securing myself with a snap hook at the turret as I know what is about to happen. With full speed and zero headlights we approach the hut, our drivers hit the breaks only at the last meter, also switching on all high beams - blinding anyone who might have the stupid idea of trying to escape through the front door of the building.

Catapulted off the hood through the massive deceleration of the Humvee, the two operators land elegantly in a full sprint towards the door of the hut. Right side, left side, ready, kick in the door, throw a flash bang, duck, cover ears, flash, bang, enter and secure the individual sectors.


It all happened in under 10 seconds. This is what training, training and more training does.
The elegance of all movements and the sheer speed of the whole process leaves me fascinated and deeply respectful. In fact, I was so astonished that I forgot to shoot in the process.
Fuck me.

The suspected location turned out to be empty.This night, no contact. I felt slight disappointment among the boys. And I admit, I curiously share this feeling. What a night nonetheless.

On the next day, our hunt continues. At the same time in Kirkuk, ISIS is engaged in a fierce firefight with Iraqi Special Forces, and everybody feels the tension. Something is in the making, but do not yet fully understand what it is. ISIS changed its tactics, now roaming through the hills in groups of 7 or 8, formerly this was rather uncommon as big groups are always an easy target for the surveillance drones that are still in the sky, operated by highly capable Americans.

And while we patrol the streets and villages around Makhmour Mountains, raid after raid, one adrenaline rush after the other, it becomes obvious that Europe is oblivious to a threat that was never really defeated. Therefore, the operators use almost every minute to train and hone there skills.

For a good reason. "ISIS is coming back. In fact, ISIS was never gone", one of the operators tells me.

And it's true.
It ain't over yet.

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