Note: This is part two of a series. You can read part one here. When I got back from seeing the No Surrender motorcycle club in Holland, I set about tracking down a foreign fighter or two who planned on volunteering to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. I had been asked to make a documentary for Sky Atlantic about why people were going to fight, and the producer thought that the best way to get insight into what made these people tick was by hiring someone who had lived it, seen it, and done it.
And you know what? They were right.
I soon worked out that most of these volunteers were hooking up on social media, and through one group in particular. It was a Kurdish group called the Lions of Rojava. Rojava means “west” in Kurdish, and that meant the fighters would be based in that part of the region of Kurdistan. That meant Syria and northern Iraq—the scene of some of the very fiercest fighting against the Islamic State.
A lot of the lads I managed to track down and talk to had similar stories. Take Jonathan (I’ve changed his name at his request) from the Midlands. Jon grew up doing a series of shit jobs in a shit town in Britain. Out of boredom, he joined the RAF as a mechanic, stayed a few years, then went back to doing more shit jobs in civvy street. He had reached a stage in his life when he was bored out of his skull and wanted something to live for. Fighting alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State gave him that purpose.
I liked Jon, and I could see a lot of my younger self in him. I’ve said many times before that my early life was a mess and I needed something to sort me out. For me, it was joining the Army; the day I signed up with the Royal Hampshires, everything changed. But there was a big difference between what Jon was signing up for and what I went through. I joined a regiment that had a long, distinguished tradition that trained me to the very highest level of soldiering and fitness, laying all the groundwork that got me into 22 SAS. Jon was going to get none of that.
I spent quite a lot of time asking him if he really understood what he was getting himself into. There was not much info on the type of training they would receive or what kit they would be issued. What about the language barrier? Did he understand just how ruthless ISIS could be on the battlefield? He would be up against the most dangerous enemy of all, driven by a lunatic fanaticism and not afraid to die.
Jon didn’t know a lot of answers to these very basic questions, which worried me. He also didn’t understand where he stood legally. Although David Cameron (then prime minister) had made it clear there was a world of difference between those British fighters who were volunteering to fight for the Islamic State (a depressing number) and those fighting alongside the Kurds, there were already signs that foreign nationals returning from the Middle East were facing questioning and or imprisonment in their country of origin. Crazy, I know, but there you go—that’s politicians for you.
At least I had managed to get the interview on camera, so I was pleased with that. I felt that at long last we were getting somewhere.
So the next stop was Stockholm in Sweden, which was the European HQ for the Lions of Rojava and the starting point for many of the Western fighters heading to Syria and Iraq.
It didn’t take long to get among some of the lads, and after a few (expensive!) Scandinavian beers, they soon began to open up. Many of them had a version of the stories I had already been hearing. Some were ex-military (Or claimed to be—more of that later.) and they couldn’t fit back into civilian life. Some were ordinary punters who were sick of a dead-end existence and wanted to fight for a cause. At least one from the U.S. was there because God had told him it was the right thing to do.
On the ex-military side, it pains me to say I came up against a right Walter Mitty. For those not familiar with the phrase, it’s one we’ve borrowed from the fictional film character who lives in a fantasy world. There are many Walts in the world. At one time I was a dedicated Walt hunter, prepared to launch a search-and-destroy operation against anyone who claimed to be something they were not. My own particular bugbear is those who claim to have served in the SAS (and believe me, there are hundreds at the very least). To me, it’s beneath contempt, and they deserve a good hiding.
Well, I used to think that way. Now I’ve come to realise that they’ve got psychological problems and deserve to be helped rather than hit. Honest.
Anyway, there was this lad in Stockholm (I’m not going to give his real name) who claimed to have served in an armoured unit during Operation Desert Storm. Trouble was, none of his story stacked up. For a start, there wasn’t a tank in the American Army that was big enough to accommodate him. And then there was all the vagueness about exactly where and when he had been deployed. But he sat in the bar giving it large about this, that, and the other, and how he was going over to teach his expertise to the Kurds and help wipe out ISIS. The poor lad would have had difficultly wiping his own arse, to be frank, but there you go. That’s Walts for you.
Then there was Andy. He was from one of the southern states, and he had come over to fight because he’d a word from God telling him this was the right thing to do. (He even repeated which words of the Bible had been spoken to him—from one of the Old Testament prophets, I think). Now, I’m not one to comment on anyone’s beliefs—I only care if they are any good in a scrap—but once again, it got me worried about the motivation (and more importantly, the ability) of the people who were signing up.
Would they be a help? Or would they be a hindrance?
There was only one way to find out, and that was by getting over there.
Featured image courtesy of REUTERS/Ako Rasheed