Tuesday 24 April 2018

Laois soldier in Syria reacts to Khalid Kelly death: 'Utterly insane suicide missions had no shortage of volunteers'

Josh Molloy from Laois joined the Kurdish YPG to battle Isil in Syria. He is home now - but 'Khalid' Kelly's suicide attack last week reminded him of the war zone. These are his words...

Josh Molloy
Josh Molloy

Josh Molloy

Abu Osama al Irlandi stands in front of a Mad-Max style improvised armoured vehicle holding a Kalashnikov. His clothes are dusty and untidy, his face is gaunt, and he looks a bit dishevelled.

There's no smirk of defiance or a look of divine righteousness typical of the martyrdom PR releases, that commemorate the many Isil suicide bombers. Instead he looks a bit worn out, I know the food over there isn't exactly great. I lived off the same diet for nine months. Is he weary of war perhaps? Worried? Possibly even scared.

I remember getting my photo taken in a similar situation. I had travelled, like 'Khalid' from Ireland to the Middle East. Only I went to fight against Isil. 'Khalid' however, went to fight for them. Maybe he went over to just die with them. As many of them do.

I had only crossed the border from Iraq and into Northern Syria a day or two beforehand. I was given the YPG uniform, a battered AK-47, and a set of webbing. A Kurdish photographer snapped shots of me from different angles. He ordered me to strike different poses with the weapon, in a bizarre guerilla style photoshoot.

I looked into the lens, with the full knowledge that if I were to fall in battle then these images would be given to my family, and to the media. A totally surreal, but very sobering moment.

Looking at 'Khalid' in his photograph now, I can't help but wonder if he even had time to contemplate such things. Maybe he was rushed.

Death wish: Terence 'Khalid' Kelly just before he set out on his suicide attack in Syria
Death wish: Terence 'Khalid' Kelly just before he set out on his suicide attack in Syria

The lighting in his final image isn't great. That may sound trivial to some, but anyone familiar with the propaganda releases of Isil will tell you how much effort is put into every detail.

His webbing is unstrapped, and magazine pouches simply hang loose from either side of him. It could very well have been a rushed 'Go, go, go!' moment. A quick snap with a phone before rushing to meet the advancing PMU forces closing in.

Over his left shoulder you can make out the corner of his narrow window. After embracing his fellow Mujahideen one last time, he would have opened the heavy armoured door and clambered inside. He would have test driven this vehicle previously before, and he would have adjusted his seat to meet the small window.

The radio hanging from his left-breast pocket would have went with him. A guide, in a broken mixture of Arabic and English maybe, would have given him assistance in approaching his target. The small window making it far too difficult to see where he is going by himself.

The welded frame of armour shielding the tyres, engine block and cab would have creaked and squeaked, the engine possibly struggling with the combined weight of armour and deadly explosives in the back.

The guide on the radio would, ordinarily, also have offered words of encouragement right up to the detonation of the vehicle.

However, in 'Khalid's' case, his mission would not go as planned. Fortunately the PMU forces had the opportunity to take him out with an RPG as he advanced toward them. Maybe there was no time for a final cry of "Allahu Akbar!" from 'Khalid'. The powerful blast obliterating him entirely, leaving a crater in the ground, one last action from him during his time on earth. A smouldering scar on the battlefield, a thick black plume of smoke, and a litter of raining debris and shrapnel scattering itself onto the desert floor.

This is the VBIED. (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device). The most terrifying weapon in the Islamic State's arsenal. Having faced them on the front lines of Syria, I can say without a doubt, the most dreaded words one could hear from your comrades were the panicked cries of "Aruba bomba!", meaning car bomb in Kurdish.

I can still see the shapes of the vehicles in the distance barrelling toward us - trails of dust behind them floating in the air. When I relive these moments I can feel a sinking heavy knot in the pit of my stomach, and my legs trembling with adrenaline.

These utterly insane suicide missions had no shortage of volunteers. Men would compete with one another for the opportunity to leave our earth in this method.

And the desperate attempts by Isil to slow down the oncoming forces marching to Mosul have provided plenty with a chance to sit on the seat of death, and steer themselves into paradise.

I often reflect on my own experiences as a foot soldier with the YPG. And one thing that has had a powerful effect on me is the bogeyman that was the ever- present threat of the VBIED. Whether we were static on the front, on an operation, or simply stopping for chai in a nearby town, we were always at risk.

After witnessing one such attack during the operation to take the town of Al-Shaddadi last February, an American volunteer I was with summed it up perfectly to me. "You know it's a f***ing crazy war when you're relieved we're getting shot at, but terrified at the sound of an engine."

He was right. The crack of bullets as they snapped over your head was one thing. But the sound of an engine in the desert, in the middle of the night was something else. The wind in your ears obscuring anything out there in the black abyss in front of you. Playing tricks with a paranoid and war weary mind.

I'm back home in Ireland now, but as I walk around the streets of Dublin, it all feels like it was on another planet. The bizarre thing to me however, is that these streets were very familiar to 'Khalid' too.

A Liberties native, he was a vocal man, often seen handing out leaflets in the city.

As I go about my business today, I find it very hard to connect streets of this sheltered and peaceful town with the man behind the steering wheel.

The man that could come from the darkness, around the corner, trundling over the horizon at any moment, bringing death and destruction with his final act.

Sunday Independent

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