Operation Shader

Operation Shader
Part of the Military intervention against ISIL
in Iraq, and Syria and Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War

A Typhoon FGR4 flies over Iraq on 22 December 2015.
Date26 September 2014 – present
(2 years, 2 months, 1 week and 2 days)[1][2]
LocationIraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia & Lebanon[1][3][4]


  • British airstrikes on ISIL in Iraq and Syria
  • ISIL loses a quarter of its territory[1]
United Kingdom United Kingdom Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Commanders and leaders
David Cameron (Until 2016)
Theresa May (from 2016)
Michael Fallon (from 2014)
Nick Houghton (Until 2016)
Stuart Peach (from 2016)
Andrew Pulford (Until 2016)
Stephen Hillier (from 2016)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Abu Alaa Afri [5]
Abu Suleiman al-Naser 
Abu Ali al-Anbari 
Abu Omar al-Shishani 
Units involved
 Royal Air Force
 British Army
 Royal Navy
Military of ISIL
  • 300 military trainers training Iraqi forces[6]
  • 75 military trainers training Syrian moderate opposition forces.
  • 20 military trainers training Tunisian Forces.
  • 20 military training teams to train Lebanese Forces
  • 29 combat aircraft
  • 6 ISR aircraft
  • 6 transport aircraft
  • 3 ships
  • 1 submarine
  • 9,000–18,000 (U.S. intelligence estimate, January 2015)[7]
  • 20,000–31,500 (CIA estimate, September 2014)[8]
Casualties and losses

38 civilians in Tunisia[9]

2 Volunteers[10]
1000+ killed[11]

Operation Shader is the operational code name given to the British participation in the ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[1][2][12] The operation began in Iraq on 26 September 2014, following a formal request for assistance by the Iraqi government.[1] Prior to this, the Royal Air Force had been engaged in a humanitarian relief effort over Mount Sinjar, which involved multiple aid airdrops by transport aircraft and the airlifting of displaced refugees. By 21 October 2014, the intervention had extended onto Syria with the Royal Air Force only mandated to conduct surveillance flights over the country.[13] On 2 December 2015, the House of Commons approved British airstrikes against ISIL in Syria.[14] The UK is one of several countries directly involved in the ongoing Syrian conflict that started in March 2011.

By June 2016, the Ministry of Defence had announced that over 1,000 personnel were engaged in theater and that the Royal Air Force had conducted around 900 airstrikes,[15] flying over 2,200 sorties,[16] killing almost 1,000 ISIL fighters.[11]


Two Royal Air Force C-130J Hercules aircraft in Iraq, after being unloaded of vital humanitarian supplies on 9 September 2014.

On 9 August 2014, following the genocidal persecution of minorities in Northern Iraq, the British government deployed the Royal Air Force to conduct humanitarian aid airdrops. The first airdrop was conducted on 9 August, with two Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft, flying from RAF Akrotiri, airdropping bundles of aid into Mount Sinjar.[17][18] A second airdrop commenced on 12 August 2014 but had to be aborted due to a perceived risk of injury to civilians.[19] The airdrops were able to resume within 24 hours and two large consignments of aid were airdropped over Mount Sinjar.[20] During the same day, the Ministry of Defence announced the deployment of Panavia Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft to help coordinate the airdrops using their LITENING III reconnaissance pods; they were not authorized to conduct any airstrikes prior to Parliamentary approval.[21] Four Boeing Chinook transport helicopters were also deployed alongside them to participate in any required refugee rescue missions.[22] On 13 August 2014, two Hercules aircraft dropped a third round of humanitarian aid into Mount Sinjar.[23] This was followed by a fourth and final round on 14 August, bringing the total number of humanitarian aid airdrops conducted by the RAF to seven.[24] The UK suspended its humanitarian aid airdrops on 14 August 2014, citing the improved humanitarian situation in Mount Sinjar.[25]

On 16 August 2014, following the suspension of humanitarian aid airdrops, the Royal Air Force began shifting its focus from humanitarian relief to reconnaissance. The Tornado GR4s, which were previously used to help coordinate humanitarian aid airdrops, were re-tasked to gather vital intelligence for anti-ISIL forces. The Ministry of Defence also confirmed that an Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft had been deployed over the country on what was its first operational deployment since entering service.[26] The aircraft was based at RAF Al Udeid in Qatar alongside U.S. Rivet Joint and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker tanker aircraft.[27][28] In addition to Tornado and Rivet Joint, the Royal Air Force also deployed Reaper, Raytheon Sentinel, Beechcraft Shadow and Boeing Sentry AEW.1 aircraft to fly surveillance missions over Iraq and Syria.[29][30][31]

As of 26 September 2015, the United Kingdom had flown a third of all coalition surveillance flights over Iraq and Syria.[1] By 26 November 2015, the Tornado GR4s RAPTOR reconnaissance pod had gathered 60% of the coalition's entire tactical reconnaissance in Iraq.[32]

Airstrikes in Iraq

A Voyager tanker refuels two Tornado GR4s over Iraq on 4 March 2015.
A Tornado GR4 returns to RAF Akrotiri after the first airstrikes on 30 September 2014.
A Tornado GR4 destroys an ISIS armored vehicle in Al Qaim on 2 November 2014.
A Typhoon FGR4 is refueled over Iraq by the U.S. Air Force on 22 December 2015.

On 2 September 2014, ISIL released a video threatening to behead British citizen David Haines. Prime Minister David Cameron reacted by saying that ISIL would “be squeezed out of existence”.[33]

On 13 September 2014, following the release of a video purporting to show the beheading of British citizen David Haines by Jihadi John of ISIL, David Cameron reacted by saying “We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes.”[34] Parliament was recalled on 26 September 2014 to debate the authorization of British airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. David Cameron told MPs that intervention, at the request of the Iraqi government, to combat a “brutal terrorist organisation”, was “morally justified”. He went on to state that ISIL was a direct threat to the United Kingdom and that British inaction would lead to “more killing” in Iraq. Following a seven-hour debate, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of airstrikes, with 524 votes in favour and 43 against.[35][36] The 43 ‘No’ votes came from 23 Labour MPs, six Conservative MPs, five Scottish National Party MPs, three Social Democratic and Labour Party MPs, two Plaid Cymru MPs, one Liberal Democrat MP, one Green Party MP, and one Respect Party MP.[35] Following the vote, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC that the priority would be to stop the slaughter of civilians in Iraq, and that the UK and its allies would be guided by Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence in identifying targets.[35]

The Royal Air Force began conducting armed sorties over Iraq immediately after the vote, using six Tornado GR4s stationed at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.[37] The first airstrike took place on 30 September 2014, when a pair of Tornado GR4s attacked an ISIL heavy weapons position using a Paveway IV laser-guided bomb and an armed pickup truck using a Brimstone missile. On 3 October 2014, the six Tornado GR4s were bolstered by an additional two aircraft, bringing the total number of combat aircraft deployed on Operation Shader to eight.[38] During the same day, it was reported that the Royal Navy had tasked Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender to escort the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) while she launched aircraft into Iraq and Syria.[39]

On 16 October 2014, the Ministry of Defence announced the deployment of an undisclosed number of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned combat aerial vehicles to assist with surveillance.[40] However, Michael Fallon stated that the Reapers could also conduct airstrikes alongside the Tornado GR4s, if needed.[40] The first airstrike conducted by a Reaper occurred on 10 November 2014.[41] By 26 September 2015 – a full year after the operation first began – Tornado and Reaper aircraft had flown over 1,300 missions against ISIL and had conducted more than 300 airstrikes, killing more than 330 ISIL fighters.[1][42][43]

According to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the UK had conducted a "huge number of missions" over Iraq by 13 December 2014, second only to the United States and five times as many as France.[44] By 5 February 2015, the UK had contributed 6% of all coalition airstrikes in Iraq – a contribution second only to the United States[45] – which the Defence Select Committee described as "modest".[46]

Airstrikes in Syria

In August 2013 a motion to participate in military strikes against the Syrian government was defeated in parliament. This was the first time that a British government was blocked from taking a military action by parliament.[57]

On 10 September 2014, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that Britain would not be taking part in any airstrikes in Syria. This was quickly contradicted by a spokesman of the Prime Minister who said that the Prime Minister had "not ruled anything out" as far as airstrikes against ISIL were concerned.[58]

On 26 September 2014, shortly after the vote in Parliament to authorise airstrikes in Iaq, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that there was a case for airstrikes in Syria, however, he conceded that any British airstrikes in Syria would require another House of Commons vote unless it was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.[59]

On 21 October 2014, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that surveillance missions were being flown by Royal Air Force aircraft over Syria, including MQ-9 Reaper drones based in Cyprus.[13][31] On 26 November 2015, the Prime Minister claimed that the RAF's Reaper drones were responsible for 30% of the coalition's aerial surveillance in Syria.[32]

On 30 June 2015, David Cameron made repeated calls for airstrikes in Syria, following the 2015 Sousse attacks, perpetrated by ISIL, which left 30 Britons dead. These calls were echoed by the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who claimed that there was an "illogicality" of British forces observing the Iraq-Syria border whilst ISIL did not. Michael Fallon stated that the UK did not need the backing of Parliament to launch airstrikes in Syria, but the House of Commons would have the final say.[60] On 19 July 2015, during a television interview with NBC, David Cameron stated that Britain was committed to destroying the caliphate in both Iraq and Syria.[61]

On 17 July 2015, it emerged that British pilots were taking part in airstrikes in Syria whilst embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces.[62][63]

An RAF MQ-9 Reaper, similar to the one used in the strike against Rayeed Khan and Rahoul Amin in Syria.

On 7 September 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that two British-born Islamic State fighters, Rayeed Khan and Rahoul Amin, were targeted and killed in Syria by a Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone. During a statement in Parliament, the Prime Minister explained that it was a "lawful act of self defence" as the two fighters had been plotting attacks against the United Kingdom.[64]

On 26 November 2015, following the November 2015 Paris attacks and the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249, David Cameron made his first case to Parliament for the UK to conduct airstrikes in Syria. He argued that the United Kingdom would be safer by conducting airstrikes and that the UK could not outsource its security to allies. The Prime Minister went on to state that he would not hold a vote on airstrikes until he was sure he could win it.[65][66] In the days following, French President François Hollande and French Defence Secretary Jean-Yves Le Drian made calls for Britain to join airstrikes.[67] This was followed by an appeal from the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko.[68]

On 2 December 2015, David Cameron opened a ten-hour debate in Parliament that would end with a final vote. The debate ended with 397 votes in favour of airstrikes, with 223 votes against.[69][70][71] Hours after the vote, four Tornado GR4 strike aircraft left Cyprus and attacked ISIL positions in Syria for the first time, aided by a Voyager aerial refueling tanker and an MQ-9 Reaper drone. The aircraft attacked Omar oilfield in Eastern Syria, one of the largest sources of financial income for ISIL.[41][72] Defence Secretary Michael Fallon subsequently announced that the Royal Air Force would be "doubling its strike force" with six Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighters and two more Tornado GR4 strike aircraft.[73]

Airstrikes in Libya

On 27 July 2015, David Cameron warned that the UK could intervene militarily in Libya if there was an imminent threat to British lives.[77][78] In August 2015, The Times reported that "hundreds" of British troops were being prepared to deploy to Libya to halt the advance of ISIL.[79] During the same month, The Sun reported that Royal Navy submarine HMS Ambush (S120) had conducted reconnaissance missions to locate strike targets in Libya.[4]

In December 2015, it reemerged that the government was considering plans to intervene in Libya, following "extreme concern" from the Foreign Office on the rapid rise of ISIL and other extremist groups in Libya.[80] In January 2016, six Royal Air Force officers and a group of MI6 operatives reportedly arrived in Libya to gather intelligence on ISIL and draw up potential targets for air strikes.[81] In February 2016, the Royal Air Force had reportedly conducted reconnaissance flights over Libya.[3][82] During the same month, it was widely reported that UK Special Forces were operating in Libya, alongside similar teams from the United States and France.[83][84] King Abdullah II of Jordan later announced that British and Jordanian special forces were operating together in Libya.[85]

In March 2016, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that a training team of 20 British troops would be deployed to Tunisia to help guard the Libyan-Tunisian border.[86]

Training and ground support

On 18 August 2014, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon disclosed during an interview that members of the 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (2 YORKS) had been deployed on the ground in Irbil to help secure the area for a possible helicopter rescue mission. The battalion, which, at the time, was the Cyprus-based Theatre Reserve Battalion (TRB) for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, had left Irbil within 24 hours.[87]

On 12 October 2014, the British Government agreed to send 12 members of the 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (2 YORKS) into Irbil to train Kurdish Peshmerga on how to use UK-supplied heavy machine guns.[88] In November, the number of British troops involved in this training mission rose from 12 to 50.[44] On 13 December 2014, the Government announced a plan to bolster this number by an additional batch of British troops numbering in the low hundreds.[44] However, these plans were later put on hold until after the 2015 General Election.[89] It was disclosed that a small team of combat-ready troops would have been sent along with the trainers to provide protection.[44] The troops were to be based in Irbil and the capital Baghdad.[90] Kurdish forces claim they have received assistance from British Special Forces.[91]

On 1 March 2015, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the UK had trained over 1,000 Peshmerga fighters.[92] On 7 March 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron authorised the deployment of 60 troops to Iraq to train Kurdish forces.[93] The House of Commons Defence Committee has nevertheless argued that the UK's training and ground participation has been small compared to other Western coalition members.[94]

On 26 March 2015, the Ministry of Defence announced the deployment of around 75 military trainers and headquarter staff to Turkey, and other nearby countries in the anti-ISIL coalition, to assist with the U.S.-led training programme in Syria. The training programme will provide small arms, infantry tactics and medical training to Syrian moderate opposition forces for over three years.[29]

On 15 May 2015, surveillance by UK Special Forces confirmed the presence of a senior ISIL leader named Abu Sayyaf in al-Amr, Syria, after which U.S. Special Operations Forces, based in Iraq, conducted an operation to capture him. The operation resulted in his death and the capture of his wife Umm Sayyaf.[95]

On 7 June 2015, during the G7 Summit in Bavaria, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that 125 extra military trainers would be deployed to Iraq, bringing the total to 275.[96]

On 20 September 2015, it was reported that the Special Air Service had killed six ISIL fighters whilst rescuing an agent in Syria.[97]

By 26 September 2015, the UK had supplied anti-ISIL forces with 500,000 rounds of ammunition.[1]

In March 2016, an additional 30 troops were deployed to train Iraqi forces, which brought the total number of deployed British troops in Iraq to 300.[6] It was revealed in March 2016 that British forces had helped in the building up of a mechanised battalion in southern Syria, consisting of tribal fighters to combat Bashar al-Assad’s army.[98]

In June 2016, The Telegraph reported that British special forces had been operating on the frontline in Syria; in particular in May 2016, when they frequently crossed the border from Jordan, to support a New Syrian Army unit composed of former Syrian special forces defending the village of al-Tanf against ISIL attacks. The New Syrian Army captured the village in that month and faced regular ISIL attacks. British forces also helped rebuild the base following a suicide attack.[99] The New Syrian Army acknowledged that British special forces had provided training, weapons and other equipment; an independent source confirmed that UK special forces are operating against Isis in Syria, Iraq and Libya.[100]

In August 2016, International Business Times reported that British special forces had begun using the XM25 CDTE "Punisher" airburst grenade launcher against ISIL in Libya.[101] During the same month, BBC News released exclusive images showing British special forces operating in Syria.[102] The pictures, which dated from June, were taken following an attack by IS on the New Syrian Army base of Al Tanaf and appear to be showing British special forces securing the base's perimeter in Thalab long range patrol vehicles (essentially modified, militarised and upgraded Toyota 4x4s used for long distance reconnaissance and surveillance missions, which were developed jointly in the mid-2000s by a state-backed defence company in Jordan and Jankel).[100][103] British special forces in Syria are engaged in wide-ranging roles that include surveillance, advisory and combat, in relatively small numbers.[100]

Deployed forces

Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender (D36) escorts the American aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) through the Middle East during Operation Shader.
An RAF C-17 aircraft being refueled at RAF Brize Norton before delivering Iraq-bound aid to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
RAF Tornado GR4 over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission.

British Army

Royal Air Force

Withdrawn assets

Royal Navy



Prior to the vote in Parliament on 26 September 2014, Rushanara Ali, Labour Party MP and Shadow Education Minister, wrote to Labour Leader Ed Miliband to announce her resignation as Shadow Minister, in advance of her deliberate abstention in the vote. She wrote that, while acknowledging the "horrific and barbaric" actions of ISIL, she was concerned that British military action would create further bloodshed in Iraq. Rushanara, Bangladesh-born and Muslim, wrote that "there is a genuine belief in Muslim and non-Muslim communities that military action will only create further bloodshed and further pain for the people of Iraq". She added that she had no confidence that the potential impact of such military action on radicalization in the UK had been properly thought through.[128][129]

Anti-war groups, including Stop the War Coalition (StWC), planned a protest march through London on 4 October 2014 in response to Operation Shader. A spokesman of StWC said “All evidence shows that all interventions will just cause more violence”. The StWC website argued that the previous two interventions in Iraq had “helped create the current chaos”.[130] Comedian and social activist Russell Brand told StWC that “Bombing won’t work – it is going to make matters worse. It will lead to ground troops going in. That will make matters worse. These kind of operations always make things worse.”[130]

Stop the War Coalition held another protest in London on 1 December 2015, ahead of the House of Commons vote on airstrikes in Syria.[131]

On 3 December 2015, it was reported that several Labour Party MPs had received death threats and abuse for their support for airstrikes in Syria.[132]

See also


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