An inside look at the archetypes and personalities of individuals who risk it all to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS
Why volunteer to Fight the Islamic State? Over the past year I have been following the lives of western men who leave their native countries, and travel thousands of miles to take up arms against Islamic State (IS). Looking into their backgrounds, it comes as no surprise that many have served in the armed forces with varying degrees of experience. What is surprising is the number of these men that have no previous military training. With the consequences that could be expected if captured by ISIS forces well documented, it is clear that whatever their reasons, they are prepared to risk life and limb for their ideals.
So what motivates these individuals to leave their families, jobs and the relative safety of their homelands to fight for a cause which many would argue is not theirs? When asked why, these men all provide a similar answer despite their nationality or background: “I could no longer sit back and watch IS rape and murder any more women and children.”
The collective feeling among these irregular fighters seems to be that their own countries’ governments, be it the USA, Great Britain, Canada, or Australia, are not doing enough to tackle extremism. Universally, these volunteers state they have felt it their moral responsibility to take up arms and fight. A noble reason, many would agree, considering the images and stories of be-headings, rape, and staged executions that have been reported to be carried out by IS since the groups rise to infamy over the last few years.
However, I found myself wondering, could this be the sole defining reason for these men to risk it all? The time I have spent with these modern day paladins suggests to me there is far more than a selfless desire to do the right thing driving these men, and to that end I’ve categorised them into 6 distinct “identities”.
The lonely volunteer is by and large from an armed forces background, ranging in age from 40-50. When those I interviewed on the front line describe their domestic situation, it is clear they have been living a somewhat isolated and lonely existence since leaving the forces. They have struggled integrating back into civilian life, often referred to as “Civvy Street” in the UK. They tend to live alone and have limited interaction with people outside of their work place. Family is often non existent or they no longer remain in touch.
It is clear they miss the sense of belonging they once had in the military; the banter, cohesion and brotherhood they enjoyed as soldiers. No longer part of an organisation or a system they spent their early lives within, they can feel secluded from civilian society. They crave the comradeship they knew and cannot find it within a civilian setting. It is a desire to belong again that compels The Lonely Volunteer to join these foreign units in the hope of regaining a sense of self, belonging and purpose that they once had in the armed forces.
“I missed out going to Afghanistan with my unit due to an injury. Hearing everyone’s war stories was too much to handle, I instantly became an outsider. When it was announced we were pulling out of Afghanistan, I knew I had missed my chance for getting some action.”
— Jeff, 26.
Imagine training to be a doctor, but never having the opportunity to treat a patient. To be a fire fighter yet never tackle a blaze. The ‘seen no action volunteer’ is the soldier who never went on operations, the Marine who was never in contact with the enemy. From personal experience, and to quote Tim O’Brien, “You’re never more alive, than when you’re almost dead.”
Every soldier spends his career training to fight, but not every soldier or Marine gets the chance to engage with the enemy. Not experiencing the ‘two way range’ yet being in an environment hearing of others’ tales of fighting Al Qaeda or the Taliban can leave the soldier who never had the opportunity feeling outside his peer group, not part of the club. As a result, many such men leave the military and see the war against ISIS as their opportunity to prove themselves in combat to get that much needed ‘trigger time’.
“This is the new crusade and I have been sent to fight, and destroy the evil of Islam.”
— Jake, 31
I’ve met many Christian fighters that are in Iraq and Syria fighting their own holy war. They wear a cross around their neck, a Christian patch stuck to their body armour and talk of Jesus and God. Despite them fighting shoulder to shoulder with YPG (People’s Protection Units) and Peshmerga, who are predominately Muslim, they see the fight against ISIS as a modern day battle of ideologies. One fighter told me God sent him a personal message, via a string of events, to go rage war against ISIS.
Within this bracket also fall the personal crusaders; men who have lost family members in Iraq, Afghanistan or through a terrorist attack and are on a personal mission of revenge against extremism and the racist volunteers that have a deep resentment towards Islam.
Most people go through life being a ‘normal Joe’. They go to work, come home and pay their bills; exciting things rarely happen in their lives. They go to the pub and talk with their friends, but don’t feel like they’ve achieved anything. Life is mundane, and they’re insignificant to the world. All western volunteer groups recruit their members through Facebook, and the nobody feels he can soon become a somebody through this virtual world. Seeing pictures posted online of volunteers in uniform holding automatic rifles in a war zone, they seize the opportunity to become ‘someone’ and book a one way ticket. Soon the nobody will be the person the whole town will be talking about. No longer will he be your average Joe, he will now be the man who went to fight Islamic State.
Walter Mitty is someone who lies about their military history. Every volunteer will tell you a story about someone who lied about their military credentials, or was using this as a way to scam money of generous donators through a GoFundMe account. Walter Mitty types always become exposed.
Many volunteers I met will ask not to be filmed, or for their faces to be blanked out for security reasons. However, I have seen a growing number of fame hungry men eager to get some sort of exposure. Some men have even been in touch with production companies, newspapers and news channels about their adventures before they arrive in a country to fight. They’re the men that update their Facebook statuses, constantly sporting a different weapon, in a different firing position, telling the world how hard the day to day, hand to hand fighting is.
I’m not suggesting that every volunteer you see in the media is fame hungry, this isn’t the case. I often have to persuade them to talk to me as there is a portion of the media that cannot wait for a story like “father fights ISIS”, “white van man fights terrorist”, “father and sons take on jihadis”. They know their readers love such a story, and it sells well.
Some volunteers have better home and life stories than others so they will naturally get more attention, and it’s not always wanted attention. For example, when you meet a man who tells you he is on his 12th chapter of his book, has a career in TV lined up, and is also trying to put the script to a film together on his return, you have to question his motives.
The world has undoubtedly shrunk as technology has evolved. The days of exploring uncharted lands, discovering new peoples and cultures, conquering in the name of Empire have gone. No more do we see the likes of Shackleton, Scott, Mallory; the thrill seekers and adventurers of a bygone age. For today’s modern adventurer, where better to find the excitement, the danger, the challenge they crave than on the battlefield. This is the rarest motivator for the would-be foreign fighter, but a surprising number are there for these reasons. When asked why they are fighting ISIS, their answer is simply “for the adventure”. They care little for fame, for political reasons or moral responsibility. They are there for the experience, to test themselves. Until they develop itchy feet and seek their next challenge.
None of the volunteers I have followed receive a wage. If anything they are all out of pocket paying for their own flights and equipment. Most have a GoFundMe account to raise donations to buy new weapons, night vision and, more often than not, to raise the money to buy a return ticket home.
The ultimate question is will these men be the deciding factor in the war against ISIS? The answer, in my view, is no. Whatever an individual’s reason for wanting to volunteer in Iraq & Syria, all such volunteers do is to provide the Peshmerga and YPG groups morale, some basic training, and a sense that the West hasn’t forgotten about them, as the Kurdish forces continue to lead the real fight against Islamic State.
About the Author
Emile Ghessen is a former British Royal Marine who served for 12 years. He is now currently a freelance documentary maker who has been following western volunteers who have travelled to Iraq, Syria and Iran fighting against Islamic State. Emile who is half Syrian started his mission on the frontline on his own moving around the war-zone in taxis. Emile wanted to find out the real reason these men pick up arms to fight against the worlds most dangerous terrorist group.
Cover image ‘Kurdish YPG Fighter‘ by Kurdishstruggle
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