In an October 15, 2014 article by Greg Zoroya featured in USA Today, which cites an NPR story from the same day, the author points out that a small number of Westerners – in this case, Dutch bikers – are heading over to Iraqi Kurdistan to fight the Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS, or ISIL). This would seem to fit with a long, if not always glorious, tradition of men following the sound of the guns to fight in foreign wars.
When one pictures roguish expatriate freedom fighters engaged in combat in faraway lands, one thinks of the French Foreign Legion, Americans in the Spanish Civil War, or Americans who fought in the Boer Wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, in the case of American-citizen foreign fighters, sometimes U.S. persons side with a cause embraced by their own country (like those Americans who fight alongside the Israeli Defense Forces, broadly speaking), and sometimes they side with America’s enemies, such as those fighting alongside al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State.
According to Zoroya’s article, the Dutch bikers going over to fight ISIS are lining up with the Kurds in northern Iraq. This seems a wise move, if they were looking for a solid and reliable fighting force with which to join the fray. It seems your most realistic options are: join the Iraqi Army as a volunteer; join up with a Shia militia that might be battling ISIS; sign up with the Syria-based Kurdish fighters; or volunteer with the northern-Iraq based Kurds—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
If you are an American and you have a taste for some fighting, you feel like the Islamic State is the scourge of the Earth and needs eradication, and you find yourself considering joining the fight, then let me offer you some advice. Firstly, neither I nor this website is recommending you go over and fight (I can smell a lawsuit now…), but if you do go, I recommend you join either the KDP or PUK. Simply put, the Kurds in northern Iraq genuinely like the United States and Americans, and they appreciate what we have done for them over the last roughly two decades. You are likely to find a welcoming army in Kurdish northern Iraq, in the Peshmerga, and one that will appreciate your desire to fight alongside their warriors.
Why Iraqi Kurdistan, and not Syria? Well, simply put, you may not get as warm a welcome in Syrian Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is strong, given that the U.S. government has labeled the PKK a terrorist group. That being said, I have never been to Syrian Kurdistan, so I do not know that for sure. I do know, however, that Syria is a denied area and an active civil-war zone where anything goes, so you might want to consider that fact. The Iraqi Kurds, conversely, have a very good handle on things in their sliver of (largely peaceful) northern Iraq.
[Ed note: There have been a number of Americans fighting ISIS alongside the PKK and they have been welcomed. However, with the PKK listed as a terrorist organization, these Americans are screwed when they come back home and may very well be charged with terrorist activities by the FBI. This can carry a 15-year sentence for supporting a foreign terrorist organization. -Jack]
I also do not know for sure that you will be unwelcome in Iraqi Shia militia units, though I am more confident in guessing that will be the case. I am thinking fighting in the Mahdi Army as an American infidel might be a non-starter. Likewise, you will probably face some hurdles trying to volunteer for the Iraqi Army, not the least of which is its reportedly sub-par performance as a fighting unit.
If it were me, and I were returning to Iraq — this time to fight ISIS as a volunteer — I would fly into Sulaymania, locate the closest PUK base, and offer my services as an American volunteer Peshmerga fighter. Those guys (and ladies) can fight, and they probably need all the help they can get these days. Again, I am not telling you to go, but if you are considering it….