A motley crew of Texans, Iraq War veterans, evangelicals, and bored young men are battling to take down the caliphate.
- By Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
When a U.S. citizen going by the name “Abu Abdullah al-Amriki” blew himself up in a suicide attack in Baiji, Iraq, this month, he was the most recent example of a troubling trend: the roughly 200 Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
Not all of the foreigners have left for the region looking to fight for the Islamic State, however. Instead, growing numbers of Americans are heading there to fight against the extremists. The American fighters — mostly military veterans, with a strangely disproportionate share of Texans — are linking up with Kurdish groups and Christian militias in the region to battle the Islamic State militants who currently control broad swaths of Iraq and Afghanistan. A new report by the investigative website Bellingcat, released Wednesday, takes the first systematic look at these “other foreign fighters.”
The report finds that at least 108 Americans — including one woman — have made the journey to Iraq and Syria to take on the Islamic State, highlighting the global nature of the conflict and the relative ease of recruitment and travel to the battlefield. It’s a dangerous undertaking, and one American has already been killed in the fighting. Massachusetts resident Keith Broomfield, 36, died while fighting with a Kurdish militia in Syria earlier this year. Broomfield, who had no military experience, traveled to the war zone after a Christian religious awakening.
Nathan Patin, the author of the Bellingcat report, combed through social media posts and news accounts to compile the database. Although Patin was able to find information on the fighters using open sources, the report withholds the identities of those fighters who haven’t gone public in prior news accounts and does not include personally identifying information or information that could lead to their location on the battlefield, out of concern for their safety and that of their families.
The relative online openness of the Americans offers insights into their backgrounds and motivations for wanting to leave behind their daily lives in the United States and participate in wars far away that seemingly have little to do with them. Based on the biographical details offered, the Americans Patin found were almost all male, tended to be in their 20s and 30s, and stayed on the battlefield mostly between one and four months. Around two-thirds describe themselves as veterans, drawn primarily from the Army and Marine Corps. Texas, even accounting for its larger population, produced a disproportionate number of volunteers relative to any other identifiable home state.
In a statement, the FBI declined to say whether it was legal to travel abroad to fight the Islamic State. Still, the agency told Foreign Policy that there “are laws beyond material support charges that may apply to the actions of U.S. citizens in a foreign country,” a reference to statutes banning Americans from providing funding or other assistance to banned militant groups. The State Department also discourages Americans from traveling to the region in general, much less fighting there.
Discerning the motivations for wanting to take up arms against the Islamic State on a freelance basis was more difficult. Humans tend to be unreliable narrators of their own psychology, and assessing motivations from fragments of social media and news accounts offer only an imperfect view.
Based on social media posts and news interviews with the subjects, outrage at the Islamic State’s atrocities was among the most frequently expressed motivation for volunteering. Other factors included solidarity for Christian victims, nostalgia for the camaraderie of prior military service, and even sheer boredom.
Patrick Maxwell, who traveled to Iraq to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga, is representative of many of the fighters in Patin’s report. A Texan and a veteran of the Marine Corps who served in Iraq, Maxwell has said his service there sparked a desire to return to Iraq and join the fight against the Islamic State.
“I may not be enlisted anymore, but I’m still a warrior,” Maxwell told the New York Times. “I figured if I could walk away from here and kill as many of the bad guys as I could, that would be a good thing.”
The Islamic State’s harsh treatment of Iraq’s ethnic minority Yazidi population — including mass executions, forced conversions, and sexual slavery — also resonated deeply with many American foreign fighters. “There are still Americans arriving in Iraq and Syria who cite the August 2014 Sinjar massacre as one of the main reasons they decided to join the fight,” the report noted, in a reference to the Islamic State’s attacks on Iraq’s small Yazidi community near the Sinjar mountains last year.
Dean Parker, a surf instructor and Florida native who linked up with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, told an interviewer the experience of watching Yazidi refugees fleeing the Islamic State inspired his decision to travel and fight. He was particularly struck by photographs of a Yazidi child stranded atop a mountain that had been encircled by the militant group.
“I started crying and stuff; I mean I’ve never been moved by anything like that in my life. Just the fear on that child’s face was just overwhelming,” Parker said in an interview posted on YouTube. “I had like a knee-jerk reaction, and I went and I bought a plane ticket right then.”
The motivations of the groups hosting Americans on the battlefield were less clear. The military backgrounds of most of the recruits offer the prospect of at least minimally capable manpower, and some report offering their knowledge of American military training to local comrades, according to Patin. But with the exception of some smaller Christian militias, the number of Americans fighting the Islamic State abroad represents only a tiny fraction of the end-strength of the groups they’ve joined.
Some would-be fighters, meanwhile, headed to the battlefield without any prior military experience.
Broomfield, for instance, had never served in the armed forces when he traveled to Syria to fight alongside the YPG. He was killed while fighting the Islamic State in the countryside surrounding the city of Kobani.
Raising public awareness of their organizational brands and buttressing their self-esteem seem likelier reasons for groups hosting Americans than raw military value, according to Patin. “I’ve seen it described as a morale boost from Westerners describing what they’re hearing from their comrades,” he told Foreign Policy.
The report found American fighters turning up only in Kurdish and Assyrian Christian groups, with no confirmed traces of U.S. citizens in the ranks of Iraq’s Shiite militias, which have formed a significant part of the country’s fight against the Islamic State, or other Arab groups.
Among those offering hospitality to foreigners, the Syria-based YPG has been by far the most welcoming, hosting 56 Americans — a majority of those who have gone abroad to fight Islamic State. The Kurdish group is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the United States has designated a foreign terrorist organization. The State Department has said it does not consider the YPG to be a terrorist group, and the Defense Department has worked closely with YPG troops in Syria, which have earned a reputation as among the most effective forces fighting against Islamic State.
The YPG’s fame as a destination for Americans looking to travel abroad to fight owes much to the early presence of Jordan Matson, an American Army veteran who arrived in Syria in September 2014 and served as a prominent media-friendly voice and recruiter, urging other Westerners to join up. “I’ve had ex-military ask from Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, you name it,” he told CNN in October 2014.
Matson’s minor celebrity image helped trigger interest in Kurdish paramilitary groups, and the number of Americans flowing into Iraq and Syria to take on jihadis increased following his media blitz.
In contrast to other groups offering hospitality on the battlefront, YPG is open to those with no military experience. And it also actively solicits foreign fighters of its own accord, running a dedicated Facebook group for its volunteers called “The Lions of Rojava.” On the group’s page, Matson has told would-be recruits, “If you have a valid passport and can afford the ticket and have saved money for a return ticket when you wish to leave, contact [YPG].”
Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces have hosted the second-largest number of American volunteers. Peshmerga units aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party have spurned the presence of outsiders in their ranks, but those aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, have proven more welcoming, albeit with caveats. PUK Peshmerga units demand that recruits be fit and willing to submit to their training and discipline. Those who meet the criteria can join a dedicated foreign fighter unit called the “Peshmerga Legion.”
Two Assyrian Christian militias in Iraq, Dwekh Nawsha and the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, have also hosted a smaller number of fighters. Although Dwekh Nawsha has hosted around a dozen Americans, the militia has reportedly seen little frontline combat experience and isn’t eager to take on vast numbers of new recruits.
But the government’s displeasure has not slowed the flow of volunteers. Rather, the number of Americans traveling abroad to fight the Islamic State is picking up, with 44 percent of all fighters identified in the report arriving between May and mid-August of 2015. Whether you think of them as brave patriots stepping up to oppose a pressing threat or meddlesome war tourists taking foolish risks, one thing seems certain: More Americans will be arriving in Iraq and Syria to take up the fight against the Islamic State in the near future.
Photoillustration by FP