BY ADAM LUCENTE
Note: The interviewees names and other personal details have been changed for security reasons. The editorial board checked background documents to ensure the validity of their stories.
Much has been made of the few Americans who have joined ISIS, but there are also Americans fighting alongside ISIS’s perhaps greatest enemy: the Kurds, specifically the YPG, also known as The Lions of Rojava.
And there are more Americans waiting to join them. Spurred by sympathy for ISIS’s victims and a desire to serve humanity, meet two men who are currently preparing to travel to Syria to take the fight to ISIS’s doorstep.
Kyle is an IT specialist in the south and an Air Force veteran. Jim is a military history teacher out west who is using his income to “travel to the Middle East and fight ISIS.” Given the danger of the mission, it was difficult to find people willing to discuss their experiences. Kyle himself notes that some of his friends were critical of him speaking to the media.
Their motivations for wanting to fight alongside the Kurds are similar to those of other Americans over there. For Kyle, ISIS’s atrocities are the main pull, and they hit close to home. “The thing that hit me the most was I saw them hurting kids that were the ages of my nieces and nephews.” He then asked himself “why is nobody doing anything about this? Nobody’s helping. And I look around and I’m on my couch not doing anything myself.” Specifically, Kyle points to a video on LiveLeak showing ISIS “lining them (children) up in a ditch and executing them” as a turning point in his thinking.
Similarly, Jim says he has followed the reporting on “ISIS thugs” for several months and has had enough of “innocent people being raped and murdered.” He is sympathetic to the plight of the Kurdish people, saying “the Kurds are people just like me. They have families and businesses and livelihoods that are being threatened.” He also cites ISIS’s “murdering of American prisoners” and others as motivation.
Their decisions do not appear to be kneejerk or emotional, however. Kyle claims “my goal isn’t to go over there and go on a killing rampage or get the people that got us. I want to help the people that are over there who are defenseless,” and he believes he can given his prior military experience. Jim, as previously mentioned, followed the situation for months before deciding to prepare to go.
But why not join the U.S. military as a way to fight ISIS? After all, the U.S. has been involved in airstrikes targeting the group for some time now. Kyle has pondered this question, but believes his decision to fight alongside Kurdish forces is a better way to defeat ISIS. “Even if I reenlisted, there’s a huge chance I’m not going to have anything to do with what’s going on over there,” he said. He adds that alongside the YPG, on the contrary, he will be able to directly help in the fight against ISIS. Seeing as the U.S. is involved in numerous military operations around the world and has yet to deploy ground troops in their operations against the militant group, Kyle’s analysis holds true.
Both men intend to serve in a combat role in the conflict. “Whatever they need me to do,” says Jim. “Hopefully that means issuing me an M4 or M16 and putting me on the front.”
A great deal of preparation goes into travelling from America to Syria. Kyle is currently in contact with the YPG regarding this. He has additionally put much of his belongings into storage, and has money set aside for up to two years to keep them there. Jim has already booked his flight to the region.
Kyle received an email from the YPG which describes in great detail where to fly, how to get into the area on the ground, what to bring etc. The email, in somewhat poor English, clearly states that foreign fighters are not to be paid for their services, aside from having ground transportation and other expenses paid for.
The YPG is only looking for volunteers with military or combat experience, according to Kyle. In the aforementioned email, they gave him the following message: “Rojava is not a vacation hotspot where you can spend a couple weeks or months and then return back home. Joining the YPG does have an obligation to stay until there are no more barbaric ISIS members to stand in Rojava.” This isn’t a game, people.
As would seem natural, both men have a few reservations. Jim, for his part, is “more afraid of little things like getting lost at the airport or missing my flight.” Death is not a deterrent for him. He says “you will not see me on Al Jazeera in the orange jumpsuit. I know exactly what these guys do to prisoners, and surrendering may as well equal a death sentence. “Death before Dishonor.”
Family concerns have crossed Kyle’s mind. His father wonders if his son’s decision is something of a “death wish.” Kyle’s brother, still in the military, believes the conflict in Syria is “not our fight.” But Kyle and Jim still intend to go.
Kyle acknowledges the people he has been corresponding with may not be who they say they are, but thinks “that’s a big guess we have to take.” To better stay safe, he is travelling in a group with other prospective fighters, all of them ex-military like himself. One of Kyle’s fellow prospective volunteers has spoken to Jordan Matson, perhaps the most famous of the Americans fighting alongside the YPG, who allegedly had similar fears before making his way to Syria.
Morally and politically, the two men have no qualms about fighting alongside the YPG. Jim says that he’ll “always have allegiance to America first,” but believes what he is about to do will help his country. “If helping these guys means helping my country, so be it,” he claims.
On the Kurds, Kyle believes “(they) have always just kind of been fighting for their own survival. They’ve never tried to take over and hurt anybody,” citing their conflict with Saddam Hussein. He thus does not believe he is entering into a sectarian conflict a la Sunni vs. Shia. Again, his understanding of the situation holds water. While ISIS’s theology is not widely accepted in the Islamic world, ISIS members are Sunni, as are most Kurds. The conflict is more nationalist, political and humanitarian than sectarian in nature, as evident in the support Kurdish forces have received from people across the world.
Jim and Kyle were contacted through The Lions of Rojava Facebook page, which is a YPG social media arm of sorts. The page has over 50,000 likes as of February 2015, and posts pictures, videos and articles of YPG fighters from around the world. The site also provides information on how to contact the YPG. A Washington Post article from late last year helped bring the page to national attention. The page is full of supportive comments and people asking how they can sign up. The Lions have sent out an S.O.S. on Facebook and many are answering the call.
It should be noted, however, that making public posts of your desire to go to Syria may be dangerous, as it can provide ISIS with a name and face to look for on the ground. It is possible to message the page administrators privately on Facebook and Skype via the page, and this is highly recommended.
ISIS is strong, but more Americans are on the way; and they are eager to put up a fight.
Rockland native Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist currently residing in Amman, Jordan