Foreign Fighters, Dreaming Of Battling ISIS, Go Stir Crazy In Iraq

A ragtag band of self-styled warriors from around the world have flocked to Kurdistan to battle the Islamic State. Mostly, they wait

Ryan, an American volunteer, tries to get cell phone reception — Cengiz Yar
Jun 02, 2016 at 12:34 PM ET

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan – The Spanish fighter leaned against the checkpoint wall idly smoking a cigarette. It was mid-morning and the third summer in Iraq’s war against ISIS was fast approaching. Dust clouds obscured the sun, but even so the heat was already nearly unbearable. He rose slowly and saluted as a vehicle approached, before asking in English: “Volunteer?”

In the small town of Daquq, 75 miles south of Erbil and 125 miles north of Baghdad, the 9th Brigade Peshmerga headquarters is home to many of the foreign volunteers who came to Iraqi Kurdistan hoping to fight ISIS. In the past two years, perhaps 60 foreigners have passed through here, hoping to help in the fight against the terror group, and while most have since returned home, a determined but increasingly frustrated and fractious coterie of volunteers awaits its chance. And more – like the Frenchman the Spaniard was expecting at the checkpoint – continue to arrive.

Lounging in the shade at the rear of the base, alongside the stray dogs they had befriended, the foreign volunteers contemplated the long wait for action. “I’m pretty sure the volunteer thing’s coming to an end like right now as we speak,” said Shaun, a U.S. army veteran who gave only his first name. The heavily-tattooed 26-year-old arrived two months ago from Boston with his friend Joey, a 23-year-old former Marine, also from Boston. “We always say, we should have come last year when I feel like we could have done a little more damage to these guys” Shaun said. “Right now it’s kind of in limbo here.”

More Volunteer Anti-ISIS Fighters Join Up On Facebook

In the first panicked fighting of the summer of 2014, ISIS fighters came within 25 miles of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Coalition air support proved crucial to stopping the militants’ advance and since then Kurdish Peshmerga fighters say they have clawed back 95 percent of lands they claim as Kurdish.

Today the frontlines are largely static. The Kurds are not eager to press on into traditionally Arab-controlled Iraq, and while, at some point, the Peshmerga is expected to participate in an operation to retake Mosul, the largest ISIS controlled city in Iraq, there’s no clear date when that offensive will occur. And the ISIS-held “Hawija pocket” west of Daquq, which threatens the Kurdish-controlled oil-producing city of Kirkuk, remains. But as the temperatures rise in the summer heat, the Kurds are expected to maintain their defensive positions, meaning the heavily fortified frontline around Daquq is likely to remain one of the Peshmerga’s quietest sectors.

When the first foreign volunteers arrived in late 2014, the war against ISIS was much more active. For a group of disaffected men and a smaller number of women, volunteering to fight alongside the Kurds appeared to be a worthwhile cause and the kind of action they wished their own governments would take. Many harbored visions of heroism. For people running from their past it offered the prospect of redemption. For some veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life, it offered camaraderie. For those who had already fought in Iraq, it was a potential do-over.

Intense media coverage of the foreign fighter phenomenon prompted even more volunteers to arrive in 2015. They weren’t hard to spot around Erbil, sunburned Westerners in hotel lobbies and government visa offices wearing ‘incognito’ dress that typically involved cargo pants, short sleeved shirts, ball caps, sunglasses and combat boots.

The Ministry of Peshmerga officially said they had no need for foreign volunteers. Spokesmen repeated to the press that they needed weapons and financial support, not more manpower. Unofficially, though volunteers found welcoming units like those commanded by General Araz Abdulqadir, the English speaking commander of the 9th Brigade. These Kurds were touched that their story had reached the world. The deputy commander of 9th Brigade Lieutenant Colonel Shalaw Mahmoud explained: “We haven’t asked for them to join us but they have come as volunteers and we didn’t want to let them down after they took such a long trip.”

Their presence, however, was problematic for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as it threatened vital military support from the international coalition. Western governments had warned their citizens against travelling to fight, and behind the scenes pressured the KRG to keep foreigners away from the frontline. “We have no interest in our own nationals coming here as volunteers,” said a Western diplomat in Erbil. “The KRG authorities are well aware of our position.”

The U.S. military says it generally has no interaction with the volunteers, and that the U.S. government’s position is that they should stay away. Some volunteers say coalition special forces units have demanded Peshmerga pull the foreign fighters from the front whenever special forces are operating in an area.

Because of this, the KRG continues to warn volunteers to stay home. “The best support that foreigners can give us is to lobby for us, to encourage their parliaments, to encourage their governments to help,” the KRG’s head of foreign relations Falah Mustafa recently told Irish News Talk.

The Kurds however, felt an obligation to those already here, and to keep their guests safe. “We don’t want to send them to the frontline and get them killed,” Lieutenant Colonel Mahmoud said.

Yet fighting on the frontline was exactly what these volunteers had come to do. Many developed the attitude that “you’ve got to fight to fight,” said Tim Locks, a 39-year-old former builder and bouncer from southwest England, who came to Iraq without military experience last year. He left in February after mounting frustration at not seeing enough action.

Having come with a vision of being handed a weapon and sent to fight, the reality was a letdown for many. “It was a demented fallacy,” said Pete Reed, a 26-year-old American veteran from New Jersey who came hoping to see combat but later shifted his attention to providing medical training to Peshmerga.

“Crazy Unprofessionalism”

Faced with interminable waiting, some volunteers slowly went stir crazy, succumbing to boredom, infighting and drinking. “When a warrior can’t fight they get bored, and they start doing shit that they’re not supposed to do,” said Tony, a middle-aged Swede from Gothenburg who was seated in the shade on an old couch outside his cabin at the Daquq Peshmerga base. He gave only his first name but said he had served in Sweden’s military and later volunteered “to kill Serbs” in former Yugoslavia in the ‘90s. “Too many alpha dogs in the same place,” he said, before returning to his meal of plain rice and vegetables.

“There’s been a lot of drama with volunteers,” agreed Joey, the 23-year-old former marine from Boston, seated next to Tony at an old school desk that formed part of the incongruous base furnishings. Dressed in basketball shorts, a tank top, headband and sunglasses, his faint whisper of a mustache had earned him the nickname Günther, after a Swedish pop star.

Earlier in the month a group of five Americans with the group had grown angry at not being part of an operation to retake a village from ISIS. They put down their weapons. “They wanted to walk in the city as these conquering heroes or something,” Joey said. “They just got pissy about being in the rear echelon. And yeah, they just put their fucking guns down in the midst of all of it.”

More Kurds Celebrate Victory Over ISIS With Cartoons, Tweets

The group later got their weapons back, but the drama continued when they were asked to dig some steel beams out of the ground for the Peshmerga. After working out in the sun all day, the volunteers were told the Peshmerga planned to sell the metal for scrap. “They were like, ‘why the fuck do you have us doing that?’ They got real pissed off and started shooting their guns up in the air,” Joey said, still incredulous weeks later. “Crazy unprofessionalism!”

The Kurds, for whom hospitality towards Westerners is deeply ingrained, have grown increasingly ambivalent about foreigners turning up and expecting to fight. This ambivalence only deepened as criminal histories of a number of volunteers, which included several convicted sex offenders in their ranks, brought them negative publicity.

Lieutenant Colonel Mahmoud said volunteers are now vetted before being accepted (something a Western diplomat said their consulate plays no part in). He described numerous cultural differences between volunteers and the Kurds including the fact that they encouraged dogs onto the base—which many Muslims consider unclean—or wearing shorts or other culturally inappropriate clothing. The biggest issue for the Peshmerga though were the foreign volunteers squabbling with each other. “Sometimes we wish that we didn’t have foreign fighters here with all these problems among themselves,” he said.

Scandinavians Only

In another prefab cabin on a wrinkle of ridge line west of Kirkuk and some 30 odd miles from the 9th Brigade, one group of foreigners have distanced itself from the others. Serving with an Iranian Kurdish group called the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the volunteers guard a frontline that looks out towards Hawija and they call themselves the Scandinavian Brigade. Their leader, Jesper Söder, a 26-year-old Swede with a man-bun, said he hoped that by restricting membership to Nordic countrymen they might avoid the infighting that has characterized other volunteer units. “Ones who come to have their own crusade, we don’t want them,” said Söder, who estimated that “maybe one in 20 come for the right reasons.”

After serving in the military, Söder had been a school teacher in Trollhattan, Sweden but left in 2015 to fight with a Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in north eastern Syria. He was wounded in an explosion but stayed on for several months before returning to Sweden for personal reasons. By the time he returned to Iraq earlier this year, authorities had begun detaining volunteers crossing illegally from Syria. Söder, like other volunteers who had considered traveling to Syria, decided to remain in Iraqi Kurdistan. “I can go over but I risk ending up in jail,” he explained. “I don’t want to take that risk when I could do the same thing I was doing there here.”

He made contact with PAK, which was keen to raise its profile of their group, and received permission to put together a unit of up to 20 foreigners. So far there are half a dozen but Söder expects more to join soon. The leader of PAK, Hussein Yazdanpana, said of the foreigners: “The quantity is not a big issue for us; this is about a feeling of support.”

Some in Söder’s group joined after growing frustrated with other foreign “cowboys and war tourists.” A 25-year-old Norwegian who had given himself the Kurdish name Karwan had no military experience when he arrived last September but joined a unit of other foreign volunteers in Kirkuk. “Unfortunately most of the guys I’ve seen here came for the wrong reason,” he said. “To take pictures or have their five minutes of fame back home after being out here for a month.”

Now Karwan spends long hours on watch, looking out across low rolling hills towards distant ISIS-held villages. They’ve been told they will be allowed to participate in an eventual operation to retake Hawija. Occasionally they receive women and children fleeing across the no-man’s land from ISIS territory. Mostly they wait.

On a recent evening some 80 miles to the north-west, a lone American was also waiting with a PAK unit in a low-ceilinged bunker filled with cigarette smoke. Ryan O’Leary figures he’s the longest continuously serving Western volunteer but has mostly avoided the company of other foreigners since arriving in Iraq 14 months ago. When he came, the two-time Afghanistan veteran from Caroll, Iowa, saw that fighting against ISIS was at a low level. He looked around for somewhere to serve and ended up in the mountains on the Iran border for months with another Iranian Kurdish group. They were training to fight the government in Tehran, rather than ISIS. Later, he joined PAK when it looked likely that an operation to retake Mosul could be on the horizon. “They’re slowly getting ready for the operation,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

More Kurds Mock Men For Fleeing Conflict While Women Stay And Fight

Outside, the lights of Mosul glimmered 10 miles away to the southwest of his unit’s hilltop position. Other ISIS-occupied villages formed constellations of light on the blackness of the Nineveh plains. Somewhere in the distance, a grass fire lit by exploding mortars burned an orange line across the darkness. On a distant hill, the Peshmerga frontline was lit up by floodlights illuminating the ground in front of their positions. A scant 800 meters away, ISIS-occupied Bashiqa lay in darkness. The Kurdish fighters occasionally fired a few rounds off into the night, mostly out of boredom. The PAK fighters liked having the American around; he had experience they could learn from and he was teaching them English. “This is our usual night, fucking around,” O’Leary said of their evening in the bunker spent smoking, drinking endless tiny cups of heavily sugared black chai and joking in rudimentary Kurdish.

A fortnight earlier, ISIS had carried out a massive coordinated attack the length of the sector and the PAK fighters—all young men from Iran—were replaying a video of the incident filmed from just outside the bunker. It’s dawn in the clip, and the shaky handheld camera footage shows ISIS fighters creeping up the gulch just below the bunker before the PAK guys open up with machine gun fire. A mortar explodes among the ISIS fighters, tossing a body in the air like a rag doll. “I play basketball and I dropped that mortar right on him like I was shooting a hoop,” says one of the fighters. In the video the ISIS fighters turn and run. A couple more are picked off. The guys think the final body count was six or seven. They can’t be sure because ISIS returned the next night and retrieved the bodies. It was the biggest attack on their position in their 18 months at Bashiqa. O’Leary was in Erbil at the time on a visa run. “I was pissed off I missed it,” he said.

Sometime after midnight the men drifted off to sleep but shortly before dawn a thunderous explosion ruptured the silence. A Turkish tank stationed nearby was firing at ISIS positions. A short time later O’Leary left his sleeping bag and walked to the line where he sat and stared at the village in the grey dawn, waiting. He’s spent endless hours at this position he said, letting his mind go blank, just watching the village for signs of movement. “Most Westerners will say there’s always fighting at the front but most of the time it’s just sitting and waiting and staring at shit.”