Intelligence of attack plots across Europe is being uncovered as Islamic State’s caliphate is beaten back, the top British officer in the military coalition fighting the extremists has disclosed.
Maj Gen Rupert Jones warned there were “no quick answers” in the fight to liberate Iraq’s second city, which has now entered its second month.
He also appeared to challenge Donald Trump’s campaign trail suggestions that the coalition was not aggressive enough against the extremist movement also known as Daesh.
Maj Gen Jones, who is second in command of the US-led coalition, spoke as the Telegraph visited more than 250 British troops recently sent to Al Asad Air Base in Western Iraq where they are training Iraqi troops to fight the militants.
The volume of intelligence being found is so large the coalition has set up a lab in the Gulf to plunder militants’ laptops, phones and drives for their secrets and then pass them to intelligence agencies.
© Getty Iraqi soldiers pose with an Islamic State (IS) group flag
The capture of the Syrian town of Manbij, which acted as a gateway for jihadists travelling into Turkey and on to Europe, was an intelligence breakthrough, he said. But he warned the militants would still be able to direct plots while they remained in their capital, Raqqa.
Maj Gen Jones said: “Manbij was hugely important for external operations. A huge amount of intelligence gathered in Manbij related to threats in Europe and elsewhere. What we are now in the process of doing is starting the isolation of Raqqa.
“For as long as Raqqa is sitting there, they can orchestrate external operations. So the sooner it’s liberated or the sooner Daesh are liberated from there, the better.”
He went on: “The reason we are all here is because Daesh has demonstrated it poses a threat to our way of life. It’s demonstrated very effectively what it can do in Europe and elsewhere.”
Heavy fighting continues in Mosul where Iraqi security forces began an assault to drive out Isil nearly six weeks ago.
Maj Gen Jones said: “I am absolutely certain that an extraordinary amount of intelligence will come out of Mosul. We have ramped up as a coalition our ability to gather and process all that intelligence, because it will be a labyrinth of intelligence and we need to get that into the hands of intelligence agencies.”
“You don’t liberate a heavily defended city the size of Mosul quickly, you just don’t. If an enemy wants to hold a city the size of Mosul, it will take time to clear it,” he said.Iraqi forces, many of them trained by British troops, are fighting street by street and he said the slow progress was partly due to trying to cut the number of civilian casualties.
Iraqis soldiers were advancing “in face of an enemy who is being a barbaric as he’s ever been,” said Maj Gen Jones.
He said: “He is being relentlessly evil in the streets of Mosul. Beheadings, throwing people in oil pits, it’s just repugnant to any civilised society.”
Maj Gen Jones said patience was needed to liberate Mosul, but said he hoped the fighting would be finished sometime in the spring.
The upcoming struggle for Raqqa will be worse, he predicted. Syrian rebels poised to start encircling the centre of the caliphate lack much of the equipment the Iraqi Army has.
Donald Trump has appeared to criticise coalition commanders for not doing enough against Isil and has promised to “bomb the hell” out of the militants.
But Maj Gen Jones said Isil has lost between 50 and 60 per cent of its territory in Iraq and were being hit “very, very hard”.
He said: “By the time the Iraqi forces stepped off into Mosul, we had been shaping a degrading that enemy day in, day out for months. Go and ask your Daesh commander whether he’s been hit hard enough.”
The British soldiers are passing on skills in first aid and basic soldiering that will quickly be used on the front lines against Isil.The Telegraph last week visited troops from 4th Bn The Rifles now training the local army at Camp Al Asad in the desert of Western Iraq.
When L/Cpl Ishab Ahmed watches a British soldier demonstrate how to strap a tourniquet around the stump of a severed limb, he knows only too well how useful the lesson may prove one day as he faces Islamic State.
Just before the 26-year-old Iraqi soldier started being trained by British troops he and his comrades had been on patrol near Haditha when a suicide car bomb tore through his unit.
L/Cpl Ahmed arrived in the aftermath of the blast to a scene of horror.
He said: “I felt the explosion then I went to help my colleagues. There were severed arms and legs everywhere.
“This course is very useful, especially when you have seen people lose limbs.”
The base in Iraq’s Anbar province was nearly surrounded when Isil, also known as Daesh, streamed across the border in 2014 to grab a swathe of the country for their caliphate.
But Al Asad now houses around 2,000 coalition troops training an Iraqi army that the coalition says has recovered from the reverses of 2014.
British soldiers are confined to inside the base and are training rather than fighting. Many are clearly frustrated with not being able to fight directly.
One sniper, who has 47 kills from previous tours of Iraq and Afghanistan said he would relish the chance to go to Mosul. His skills are this tour being used to secure the camp, rather than kill militants.
The sniper, who cannot be identified, said: “If they said we want you to go to Mosul, I would be well happy with that.”
“These guys are soldiers at the end of the day, if you give them a chance, they want to be out there.”