Islamic State may exult in online portrayals of jihadis sweeping victoriously across Iraqi battlefields, but a camera recovered from the helmet of a dead fighter offers a contrasting picture of chaos and panic in a battle with Kurdish peshmerga.
A fighter named Abu Hajer is shown in footage seized by peshmerga firing from one of three Islamic State armored cars advancing across a barren plain toward a Kurdish position. His rifle slips and he fires off a shot inside the vehicle.
"Abu Hajer! Stop firing!" shouts Abu Radhwan, the camera in his helmet recording anguished faces as it swings erratically from views of rifles and munitions on the armored car’s floor to the brown fields and blue sky ahead.
A second fighter, Abu Abdullah, yells above the sound of shooting: "Abu Hajer! I told you to aim higher! What's wrong with you? You're firing the bullet casings straight at us!"
Abu Radhwan then turns his attention to Abdullah. "Abu Abdullah, aim higher and be careful! Abu Abdullah, you're going to kill us!"
The operation’s hurried nature was clear from the start as Islamic State fighters in desert fatigues and helmets ushered a suicide bomber into one of the vehicles. "Do not be sad for me," he says.
"Come on, hurry up, brothers!" urges another fighter, beckoning him aboard. "There are [war] planes around, please."
All speak in Arabic.
IS propaganda tools
Chaos and disarray are no strangers to soldiers in the thick of conflict, though the discipline of established professional armies might restrict battlefield anger and recrimination. Many fighting for Islamic state are new recruits, some from Europe, with limited combat training.
But Islamic state has fostered online images of a disciplined, invincible force surging almost unchecked through enemy lines, video often overlaid with heroic music. Two years ago, the militants appeared unstoppable as they seized large swathes of Iraq including the major city of Mosul, but in recent months they have been pushed back from some areas.
The footage taken last December graphically shows setbacks "through the eyes," as it were, of the fighter Abu Radhwan in the moments leading up to his own death.
"Get out, get out, but don't go too far!" shouts a fighter as Radhwan and his colleagues abandon the armored car, an obvious target for Kurdish fighters, seen by the United States as among the strongest IS opponents in Iraq and Syria.
"Where’s my weapon?" Radhwan asks.
‘I’ve been wounded’
Clear of the armored car, Radhwan picks up a grenade launcher and runs. The camera swings around. He is turning back toward the vehicle as a shot appears to strike home.
"I've been wounded!" he shouts. As he rolls over and over, the camera alternates views of a cloudless blue sky with those of desert dust.
An explosion rings out. Radhwan turns his head – and, with it, the camera – back toward their armored car. The last, fixed camera shot shows the burning vehicle on the dusty plain, a plume of smoke rising into the sky.
Peshmerga Lieutenant-Colonel Yasir Abdulla told Reuters the battle had begun in late afternoon last December and continued until the early hours of the morning.
"When we finished [fighting] Daesh with the help [of] airstrikes, we went next day, checking the bodies,” Abdulla said, using an Arabic name for the group. "They have helmets on and they have video, you know. ... They want to film it all over to show it to their world."