SOFREP was introduced to Jamie Read and James Hughes in Syria this November where they were volunteering to serve with the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection units that are at war against ISIS. Both men appeared to have their heads and hearts in the right place. Both were British Infantry veterans, Jamie having served in the Dukes of Lancaster Regiment and James previously served in the Mercian Regiment. While discussing the war, both men asked SOFREP to keep their names and details out of the press, which was readily agreed to.
Unfortunately, someone else could not promise them the same. Several days later I was in a refugee camp in Dohuk. While sitting in a tent watching Arabic television news, pictures of Jamie and James flashed across the television screen, the newscaster dubbing them “mercenaries.” However, the two Brits were unpaid volunteers who believed in the cause and were nothing so crass as mercenaries.
After the first stories leaked out in mid-November, a media circus has erupted in the UK about what James and Jamie did, or didn’t, do. The most egregious hit piece was done by the Daily Mail, which “exposed” their supposed lies and wrong doings.
SOFREP has been in direct contact with the British veterans and many other foreign fighters in North Syria to get the facts.
1. The Daily Mail claims that Jamie and James went to Syria to make money. Jamie told SOFREP, “As you know, anyone who goes over there to make money is kidding themselves.” James and Jamie were unpaid volunteers offering their help to the Kurds free of charge. They really went to Syria for two purposes: to fight ISIS, and to document the war via photography and video. While the Daily Mail claims that they wanted to sell the footage to UK media outlets, James and Jamie have not done this and have readily offered the photographs used in this story without asking for compensation.
2. Contrary to the Daily Mail’s story, James and Jamie have not exaggerated their combat experiences in Syria. They have made no claims of having been in heavy contacts with ISIS, although they did experience a few shots fired in anger. The two Brits, along with other foreign volunteers, did patrol through a village in enemy territory, an experience they documented with GoPro cameras and which was shown to SOFREP for verification. Although the area they were in was relatively safe, Jamie and others have talked about going out to man ambush lines in the dead of night in bad guy country. “Of course I was scared,” Jamie recounted.
3. The Daily Mail says that contrary to James and Jamie’s claims about the danger of being kidnapped in Syria, that there was little or no actual threat of being captured by ISIS. Current events and anecdotal evidence gathered by this author in Syria tell a different story. One foreign volunteer SOFREP interviewed was nearly kidnapped while trying to cross the border from Turkey into Syria. Two Kurdish journalists were kidnapped in Syria several days ago. There were repeated warnings about both IEDs and assassinations inside friendly controlled areas as the enemy has began a terrorist campaign in the YPG’s rear areas. SOFREP observed the aftermath of an ISIS suicide bomber attack on a YPG base in the same region in which James and Jamie were stationed.
4. The Sun reported that James and Jamie were fighting in Kobani. Although both men have officially refuted this account, the Daily Mail reported it again knowing it was false as a way to further discredit them. The Sun says the account of fighting in Kobani was given to them directly by the two Brits, and there is an answer to this odd inconsistency. Another foreign volunteer witnessed a Kurd of British extraction calling the UK press and pretending to be Jamie.
5. The Daily Mail continues their hit piece on Jamie and James by implying that they were never in any real danger and stayed in a four-star hotel in Irbil rather than at a safe house. SOFREP took the same smugglers route into North Syria as James and Jamie and can confirm that it gets a little hairy, even though the YPG takes good care of you along the way. Did James and Jamie stay in a nice hotel when they got back into Iraqi Kurdistan? So what? After spending time in a war zone, what is wrong with sleeping in a real bed and drinking a beer?
Additionally, it has been claimed elsewhere that the two Brits secretly recorded their experiences in Syria to sell to Channel 4 in the UK. The truth is that they received permission to film from the Kurds and were wearing GoPro cameras on their bodies, hardly keeping the fact that they were recording a secret. There is no Channel 4 documentary and they have not sold the footage from Syria.
What Is Really Going On Here?
Before leaving for Syria, James and Jamie contacted Graham Penrose, owner of TMG Corporate Services, which claims to provide everything from armed security to asset recovery to human intelligence gathering. James and Jamie felt it prudent to establish a backup plan and a liaison back in the UK prior to going to Syria in case they needed an exit strategy. Penrose agreed to help them with this endeavor. However, there was no agreement that Penrose was to liaison with the media on their behalf.
Penrose claims to have agreed with James and Jamie that he would not talk to the press until January 23rd. However, e-mails shown to SOFREP indicate that he was talking to numerous UK-based media outlets. He is also quoted extensively in the Daily Mail article published on December 27th, 2014.
While the two Brits were in North Syria, Penrose was also encouraging the families of James and Jamie not to talk to the media, while he himself continued to act as a de facto press officer by speaking to the press. In the end, Penrose was unable to deliver on any plans or arrangements for Jamie and James’ exit from Syria to Kurdistan and then back to the UK. Eventually, he conceded that he had no money and even asked the families to talk to the press, who would then pay them ten thousand pounds, in theory. Also in theory, the money would then be used to help pay the way for Jamie and James to extract themselves from Syria.
Meanwhile, Penrose masterminded a media blitz for Jamie and James when they returned to the UK. In e-mail correspondence between Penrose and the families of Jamie and James, he claimed that he could facilitate media interviews for the two, which would pay thirty thousand pounds each. He also planned a lawsuit to sue various news sites for copyright infringement because they posted pictures of Jamie and James in Syria. As these pictures were posted on Facebook, the lawsuit would more than likely be thrown out as the pictures can be deemed “fair use,” especially if no party had laid a copyright claim.
These e-mails imply that Mr. Penrose has little to no experience in dealing with the press, otherwise he would know better than to think that there was a big pay day coming for interviews with James and Jamie.
In the midst of all of these unauthorized disclosures to the press, large monetary figures being thrown around, and Penrose’s insistence that no one talks to the press but him, Jamie and James, along with their families, have opted to part ways with Mr. Penrose.
Foreign Fighter Drama
Reflecting back on his experience as a foreign volunteer in the YPG, Jamie says that he would discourage other veterans from joining the YPG. “Right now, every foreigner who shows up falls in with a different group or organization, like the YPG or PKK,” each organization with their own agenda and plan for how the war should be conducted. Even within these larger organizations, there are little cliques of people who have their own game plan for what should be done with foreign volunteers.
Mostly, the foreigners are being used as stage props in YPG propaganda, or to cover down on guard shifts in the rear areas. With so many Kurdish fighters lost in Kobani, the YPG is smart to use the foreigners to pull security in their remote outposts that still need to be manned, but are relatively safe. If one of the Westerners were to be killed in combat, it could turn into a public relations mess for the YPG.
Of course, the foreigners themselves represent a mixed bag of people – those running from something back home, old soldiers desperately trying to rekindle the flame, and Walter Mitty-types with delusions of grandeur. Thrown into the mix are some actual military veterans who are genuinely there to help but, in the end, nearly all of them become disillusioned by politics and bureaucracy of the YPG.
At the end of the day, the YPG has bigger concerns than foreign fighter drama. The battle for Kobani is still on, a battle that may very well define the war in Northern Syria, if not the Kurdish independence movement as a whole.
(Lead picture: Jamie Read in Syria. All pictures courtesy of Jamie Read and James Hughes.)