Harsh Homecoming

They fought the Islamic State. Now they’re fighting to stay out of jail.

Tommy Morck stands next to a local SDF commander, Murat Amed, in Ayn Issa, Syria, on March 17, 2017.
Tommy Morck stands next to a local SDF commander, Murat Amed, in Ayn Issa, Syria, on March 17, 2017. Courtesy of Tommy Morck

COPENHAGEN—In April 2017, Tommy Morck stepped off a flight dressed in a traditional Kurdish robe and belt. The Danish 40-year-old had just spent six months in Syria battling the Islamic State alongside Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the country’s northeast. “I was psyched to cause a scene at the airport,” Morck said recently, “but no one was there.” He described his return to Denmark as a “total anticlimax.”

Like Morck, several hundred people with passports from European or North American countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq, not to join the Islamic State, but to bring it down. Since the last remnants of the caliphate fell in March after fierce fighting in the Deir Ezzor province in Syria, where the final Islamic State fighters remained, surviving foreign fighters from the SDF have been going back to their countries of origin. While at least 30 of them have been killed in combat, those who got out alive are receiving anything but a hero’s welcome.

Just days after Morck departed for Syria in November 2016, Denmark passed legislation that prohibits Danish citizens from traveling to certain areas, regardless of their purpose for being there. That includes the Danes who fought against the Islamic State alongside Kurdish militias—a group of around 25, according to estimates by Deniz Serinci, a Kurdish Danish journalist.

For some, cooperating with Kurdish militias was the best way to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State. Others saw an opportunity to lean into their ideological bearings as Marxists, Leninists, or anarchists. And on occasion, former military personnel have sought to settle outstanding debts from their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of their motivations, all have received logistical and combat support from the U.S. and European coalition that has backed Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State. Now that same coalition doesn’t want these fighters to return home.

Soon after Morck touched down in Copenhagen, Danish security officials and police came searching for him. His brother, a captain in the Danish Army, had his house swept by the authorities. They searched his mother’s house, too. After a long weekend, Morck, tired of being pursued, turned himself in to an officer in the city of Aarhus, about three hours west of the capital.

“We would like to talk,” Morck remembered the officer saying over the phone. Morck was interrogated in Aarhus for three hours. About a year later, in August 2018, he was charged with traveling to Syria illegally. He has since appealed to the country’s Supreme Court, which will hear his case in August. He and his lawyer do not believe his six-month prison sentence will be overturned.

Morck’s case has become a cause célèbre in Denmark and beyond, especially in circles of international fighters who, like Morck, risked their lives to counter the Islamic State. “There isn’t really much that I can think of that can be done,” said Joshua Molloy, 28, an Irish citizen who also fought against the Islamic State. “I think [the law] … is unjustified.”

Over the last few years, at least three volunteers have been tried or convicted under the new or similar Danish laws—and that treatment is not unique to Denmark. Other countries across Europe, including Britain, Spain, and Italy, have made similar moves. These are largely meant to block returning fighters who joined the Islamic State. But the group’s opponents are also being swept up, and they are now routinely detained, interrogated, and sometimes mistreated throughout the European Union. More than half a dozen former volunteers, upon returning home, have had their travel privileges revoked, their passports confiscated, and their movements monitored.

For its part, the Danish government justifies its laws as necessary security measures in a highly complicated situation. Soren Sondergaard, a member of the Danish parliament who sits on the judiciary committee, said that the travel law was passed quickly when the Islamic State began to gain ground in Iraq and Syria. Lawmakers feared that by traveling to Syria, even nonradical Islamists, criminals, or gang affiliates could receive training from any number of militias and return to Denmark to commit crimes.

Further complicating matters was the worry that, of the more than 150 individuals who left Denmark to join militant Islamist groups, some could return and claim they were doing volunteer humanitarian work or working with the SDF, when they had really been fighting for the Islamic State. “The government said, ‘We have to find a tool,’” Sondergaard, whose party, the far-left Red-Green Alliance, voted against the law, said, “and this tool happened to be this geographic ban. Then you couldn’t excuse yourself by saying, ‘I was just a baker.’ No, you are not allowed to be there.”

A similar passport law, which allows the government to seize the travel documents of anyone deemed “a substantial threat to public order,” has been used to imprison a Danish woman named Joanna Palani who joined forces with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) on two separate occasions. Her sentencing and trial in December 2016 galvanized support for the Kurdish movement in Denmark—she was “the tabloids’ new darling,” according to the Copenhagen Post. She appeared regularly in tabloids in Denmark and the United Kingdom, which covered her trial and sentencing and brought attention to the growing Kurdish diaspora in Denmark.

Other countries have passed similar laws. The United Kingdom’s Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which, like the Danish laws, takes aim at where someone has traveled, makes a few exceptions for travel for humanitarian or other “legitimate reasons.” However, the Home Office has made clear that “those who travel abroad to fight in terrorist conflicts pose a threat to us all and need to be stopped,” a Home Office spokesperson told me. As of yet, Syria has not been designated off limits, although fighters with the SDF have faced problems when trying to return to Britain.

When Ozkan Ozdil, a 32-year-old British citizen, volunteered as a medic within the SDF, he knew there might be consequences for joining the fight. “I think everyone knew,” he said, that “no good deed goes unpunished.” He added, “[That] is the way we kind of joke about going over there.”

After his nine months of service, Ozdil left for Britain to attend the funeral of another foreign fighter for the SDF. When he returned to London’s Luton Airport, plainclothes officers boarded his aircraft before it had even taxied to the gate. Ozdil was arrested under Schedule 7, part of the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism and border security measures, which has been used to prosecute other returning volunteers and fighters. He was released, and an official case was never brought against him. After his release, he went to Serbia, where he now lives in limbo.

While he can technically still return to the United Kingdom, he’s uncertain of what will happen if he does. Every time he flies, he is flagged for further interrogation. “They … made it impossible for me to come back,” Ozdil said.

Even those who died fighting the Islamic State haven’t had an easy return home. The Islamic State killed Lorenzo Orsetti, a 33-year-old Italian, during the SDF’s battle in March to liberate Baghouz—one of the last stretches of territory held by the caliphate. His body was returned to Rome on May 31. It was only after weeks of negotiations that the prosecutor in Rome released Orsetti’s remains, which were buried in the Porte Sante cemetery in Florence in June.

And those who returned safely from the battlefield still fear surveillance. Jacopo Bindi, another Italian who spent time in Syria, was in Turin working to arrange the transfer of Orsetti’s body back to his family for a proper burial while worrying about his own security, as he faced increasing scrutiny by government and police authorities. Bindi said that a government that hated the Islamic State was hypocritical for punishing people like himself for fighting for its dissolution. “We can see that they don’t like that people can empathize with the choice Lorenzo made to go to Syria, and to fight with other people from other countries—Arab people, Muslim people, Christian people, and so on,” he said.

Increasingly, the same governments that work through nonstate actors and loosely affiliated militias, like the SDF, to take on adversaries like the Islamic State will have to decide how to deal with their citizens who decided to leave home to fight with them.

Distinguishing between the fighters aiding the Islamic State and those supporting the SDF is an essential task. This is often as simple as reviewing their social media profiles, which many of the SDF volunteers have used to share updates and videos to growing audiences. Even those fighters who keep their lives mostly offline can be readily identified by speaking with former volunteers who can vouch for their service record. Rather than focus on the places someone has been, a more reasonable approach would be to vet for what purpose someone traveled abroad.

Intelligence services entrusted with protecting their citizens must differentiate between those fighting for the Islamic State and those who fought to defeat it. Laws aiming to punish radicals should target terrorists, not those who fight to stand in their way.

Kenneth R. Rosen is an independent journalist based in New England. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Wired. He won a 2018 Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award, issued by the regional government in northern France to war correspondents.