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Worst Vacation Ever for Australian Anti-ISIS Vigilante

It turns out taking a Euro-trip isn't the best idea for foreign fighters in Syria.

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Early this year, Australian citizen Ashley Dyball traveled to Syria to join dozens of other foreign fighters embedded with Kurdish forces hoping to beat back the Islamic State. But when the 23-year-old left the battlefields for a break in Europe this fall, he didn’t get much of a vacation.

Instead, as he claimed in a series of Facebook posts published this week, he was arrested by German authorities who charged him with terrorism and are now threatening to deport him to Australia.

“If anyone has a good german [sic] lawyer help a brother out been charged as a terrorist,” he wrote on his Facebook wall on Thursday.

Dyball was embedded with the YPG, the main Kurdish faction in Syria that will soon be assisted by 50 U.S. special operations forces in their battle against the Islamic State. The United States has treated the YPG, and the coalition it recently formed with some U.S.-backed Arab rebels from the Free Syrian Army, as the ground force most capable of defeating the extremist group.

But even if the Kurds are battling the Islamic State, Australians who fight alongside them face up to 25 years in jail under an Australian law forbidding citizens from joining non-state actors in conflicts overseas. As Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton put it in a press statement about foreign fighters in July, “the reality is … they either die on the battlefield or come back to face jail.” In email correspondence with Foreign Policy Friday, Markus Knauf, a press officer from the German Embassy, said he was unsure of his government’s latest position on foreign fighters and “was not in a position to comment” on Dyball’s case or whether Germany considers the YPG a terrorist organization.

According to Dyball’s Facebook, German authorities consider him a “security threat” and plan to deport him this weekend. And once he’s back home in Queensland, he will likely have a hard time making the case that he didn’t break Australian law. Last month, Australian TV show 60 Minutes aired footage of his parents traveling to northern Syria to plead for him to come home.

In an interview during the segment, Dyball claimed he hadn’t joined the YPG to fight but to serve as a humanitarian worker. According to him, he only clears captured villages of booby traps and improvised explosive devices. But photos published of him with guns and ammunition belts slung over his shoulders have cast doubt on his claims that he was there in a strictly non-combat capacity.

In mid-November, Dyball also uploaded photos to Facebook of what he alleges was an Islamic State suicide truck intercepted by the YPG.

In the United States, private citizens can legally join foreign armed groups, provided those groups aren’t listed as terrorist organizations. But Australians like Dyball aren’t so lucky. Right now, he is resting his hopes on supporters who started an online campaign to petition the Australian government to grant amnesty to citizens who have fought alongside Kurds in Iraq and Syria. As of Friday afternoon, they were 80 signatures away from their goal of 2,500, at which point its authors will send the petition to the ministers of immigration and foreign affairs, and the attorney general.

The petition comes less than two months after Amnesty International released a report claiming the YPG has committed gross human rights violations.

Photo credit: Facebook

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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