The Westerners who fight against ISIS

Patrick Keddie

The media has reported broadly on Europeans and Americans joining the Islamic State, but what about those joining the fight against the most feared terrorist organization in the world?

Foreign YPG fighter. (AFP/Uygar Onder Simsek)

Richard Jansen was watching the streets, waiting for Islamic State (ISIS) fighters to appear, when a heavy firefight broke out one day in January. “There was shooting like crazy, then it went quiet for a bit,” he recalls. It is not clear what exactly happened next, but Jansen was told that a mortar came out of the silence that followed the firefight, striking a wall a few feet from his head. “All I remember is that I woke up in hospital.”


Jansen, a 40-year-old Dutchman who lives in Germany, is one of scores of Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight against ISIS, mostly alongside Kurdish forces. Even after leaving the perils of the battlefield behind, many of these fighters face dangers and uncertainty when they return to their home countries.


Jansen is an armed forces veteran and worked as a bodyguard for the past decade. He had a nice car, a well-paying job and a house, but he gave it all up in November 2014 to join up with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an armed Kurdish group in Syria, to fight against ISIS, which he views as a threat not only to the Middle East but to European countries, as well.


ISIS has become notorious for its brutality—imposing a severe interpretation of Sharia law in areas under its control, enslaving women and children, attempting to exterminate minority groups, and decapitating hostages. People claiming allegiance to ISIS have plotted and carried out terrorist attacks in Europe.


“The reason we go to Kurdistan is that we can do something about it [there]. We can fight against them” says Jansen. “I can’t fight against ISIS in Germany, or England, or France because I’ll go to jail.”


He also says that he was frustrated with his life and was upset about being separated from his wife and children, who live in the United States: “I felt trapped in Germany, I was unhappy. And when I had my ticket [to leave] I just felt free.”


While thousands of Westerners are thought to have joined the ranks of ISIS, the numbers volunteering to fight against them are much lower. The British-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights estimates that there are around 100 foreigners volunteering with the YPG. A smaller number are thought to be volunteering with factions of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq—often providing training rather than fighting directly. Others are training Christian defense militias.


When Jansen joined the YPG there were many other Westerners there. Most had been recruited online, and many were armed forces veterans. However, there were also people with no military training whatsoever. “A lot of [Western] people come without [military] experience. They just think it’s a video game,” says Jansen. “Some of them are good guys, but some of them are idiots.”


When Jansen was with the YPG, volunteers were put through a weeklong training camp. He says recruits are taught to shoot and then sent into the field, although those who can’t function on the battlefield are sent back for more training or are told to leave.


Campbell MacDiarmid, an Erbil-based freelance journalist who has reported extensively on these groups, says that there is a spectrum of roles that foreigners play, which includes fighting on the frontlines or providing training, while some are kept away from battles and are used for propaganda purposes by the YPG—posing for foreign journalists and touring local areas to boost both the international profile of the group and local morale by showing that the Kurds have international support.


MacDiarmid says that few appear to be attracted by the leftist ideology of the YPG. “They mostly seem to be guys that, for whatever reason, were dissatisfied with their lives at home, and from the outside this looked like a pretty kind of black and white cause that they could get behind. They feel like this is a rare opportunity to take part in a conflict that appears to them to be good versus evil.”


Some grow frustrated with being kept away from the fighting. Jansen spent six weeks as a driver and trained recruits to shoot but he was itching to fight, and by January he was on the frontline.


The battle is brutal and relentless, and ISIS are apparently well armed, well trained, and many in number. Those joining the fight against ISIS are unpaid volunteers and, although some are using online appeals to finance their trips, their funds are often limited. The Syrian Kurdish forces lack resources and support as well—not only do volunteers fighting with the YPG have to manage without the sophisticated communications, air support, and medical facilities provided by regular national militaries, the YPG also lack basic battlefield equipment. Jansen didn’t have night-vision goggles, body armor, or a helmet. “If we’d had proper protection I wouldn’t be here,” Jansen said via Skype from a hospital bed in Germany.


Multiple threats


The Kurdish forces have sustained huge losses fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. At least three foreigners have died in recent weeks fighting alongside the Kurds in Syria.


Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, a former Royal Marine, was killed in March. Ivana Hoffman, a 19-year-old German volunteer, was killed the following week. A former Australian soldier, Ashley Johnston, died in February. He was reportedly concerned that he would be prosecuted if he returned to Australia under a law that says Australians may only fight for a foreign government’s ‘legitimate’ armed forces.


While Westerners suspected of traveling to fight with ISIS or other groups designated as terrorists face prosecution on their return—the fear being that they could launch attacks in their own countries—little action has been taken against those fighting against such groups, although laws regarding fighting abroad vary by country and are often unclear. Johan Cosar, a Swiss citizen, was arrested on his return to Switzerland from fighting with an Assyrian Christian militia against ISIS, and is facing prosecution for failing to gain government permission to fight for a foreign military.


In many countries—including the US and the UK—fighting in a foreign armed group is not necessarily illegal, as long as people are not fighting with a designated terrorist group. The US authorities are actively supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq by providing equipment, training, and airstrikes against ISIS, and the US also provided air support to Syrian Kurds in their battle to force ISIS out of Kobani.


Yet, while neither the YPG and the YPJ (its female counterpart) are considered terrorist organizations by the US or Europe, the PKK—to which they are linked—is regarded as a terrorist group by some countries. Shilan Ozcelik, an 18-year-old British woman of Kurdish descent, is facing charges thought to be related to the PKK, after her arrest in March for allegedly trying to join the YPJ in their fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.


Jansen says the police have questioned him a few times since he returned to Germany, and he has to inform them if he leaves the hospital, but he doesn’t believe they will prosecute him. In his first few weeks there, police were stationed at his ward, ostensibly to protect him.


Some fear that those fighting against ISIS could become targets for jihadists in their home countries. Alan Duncan, a British ex-soldier currently volunteering in Iraq against ISIS, says he has had “credible threats” made against him by ISIS supporters. “[I’ve] had threats to kill me, [they’ve sent] pictures of my house to me, my partner feels threatened by [them] asking after her, they’re setting up fake [Facebook] accounts in my name to try to discredit [me] and also collect info for ISIS, they are posting wanted posters,” he said via Facebook. “The security services and police are dealing with it in the UK.”


These dangers, though, aren’t deterring some Westerners from joining the fight. Sean Rowe, who spent eight years in the US military, set up Veterans Against ISIS, a recruitment website, and has recruited a team of former soldiers who plan to fight on the frontline alongside the Peshmerga in Iraq, as well as provide training and medical supplies. “It’s something we feel needs to be done” Rowe said. “It was like I didn’t really have a choice. It’s hard to explain, except to say that maybe my spirit pulled me or that I was compelled by passion when I read about veterans going over there to help.”


Rowe says that most of his team have served in Iraq and feel a sense of frustration about the lack of progress there, as well as a sense of urgency about the threat that ISIS may pose: “Every day we allow ISIS to exist they are making millions [of dollars] and the possibility of a potential attack on our soil increases exponentially.”


Rowe says he has adopted a strict criteria relating to skills and experience to form his team, and claims to have rejected several hundred applicants. His biggest concern is getting the equipment they need to be effective once they are in Iraq, and the group is hoping to raise money once they’re overseas as many of his team members have very limited funds.


He says they are willing to risk injury, potentially costly medical bills, and death to fight. “This is a situation where if we’re all scared to help people because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out for us, nothing is going to get done,” Rowe said.


A battle to recover


Westerners are typically much better positioned than local Kurds, who are often unable to leave the region or access the same level of healthcare and support when injured. After spending five days in a coma following the attack and waking up in a hospital near the Syria-Iraq border, Jansen was later flown back to Germany.


Jansen says he has pieces of shrapnel in his body and his head, which have damaged the part of his brain that controls movement in the left side of his body. He has some mobility in his leg, but it often spasms uncontrollably. His doctors say that he might only reach a limited recovery and that his maximum level of recovery could take several months. It’s too dangerous to remove the shrapnel from his head, but the metal creates pressure in his head and he has constant headaches. He is depressed and frustrated, and says that stress causes his muscles to give out.


But Jansen says that he doesn’t regret going to Syria and that he would most likely still be there fighting if he hadn’t been injured. He respects anyone who fights ISIS but is wary of recommending it to others, pointing out that people can help in other ways. “I don’t think it will help anybody [now] if you go there and grab a gun and start shooting.”


He calls on foreign governments not to arrest or prosecute those fighting ISIS: “We’re not terrorists. Anybody who has gone there and joined the fight and has left for any reason, they shouldn’t be prosecuted or put in jail—because they didn’t do anything wrong, they just fight for freedom.”


Jansen says that he loves Kurdistan and that if he recovers sufficiently he may return; not to fight, but possibly to train fighters or to do media work.


In the meantime he faces a lengthy battle to recover, physically and mentally, while hoping to avoid prosecution or vengeance attacks. “I’m not scared of dying, I’m scared of this,” he says, referring to his injuries as he lies in bed. “That I can’t do anything anymore—that’s what scares me. ISIS doesn’t scare me.”


Patrick Keddie is a British freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Delayed Gratification, The Guardian, and the LA Review of Books, among other publications. He tweets @PatrickKeddie

A fighter from the US who joined the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units smokes a cigaratte in Tel Tamr. (AFP/Uygar Onder Simsek)

We’re not terrorists. Anybody who has gone there and joined the fight and has left for any reason, they shouldn’t be prosecuted or put in jail—because they didn’t do anything wrong, they just fight for freedom.