Foreign Policy Essay
America’s Anti-Islamic State Volunteers
Editor’s Note: The issue of foreign fighters for the Islamic State has received tremendous attention, but numerous foreigners have also gone to Iraq and Syria to fight against the terrorist group. Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore has studied this issue extensively and finds that more Americans traveled to fight against the Islamic State than volunteered to join its ranks. He details the different motivations of anti-Islamic State fighters and how to think about this challenge more broadly.
At least 72 Americans have made the journey to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State, but an even greater number of Americans made the same journey to fight against the Islamic State. They were moved by ideological convictions or moral outrage at the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, and by personal desires for fulfillment or adventure. Though many of them have now returned quietly to their lives in the United States, their experiences may inform and guide their futures.
I’ve been tracking the issue of anti-Islamic State volunteers since 2014, and my latest study, Transnational Volunteers Against ISIS, is not the first attempt to understand the issue. The investigative website Bellingcat, London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and academics Jason Fritz and Joseph Young, among others, have also published illuminating studies of this phenomenon.
My study is based on tracking anti-Islamic State individuals on social media and cross-checking these accounts with other supporting content, including press reports, media profiles and interviews. I included individuals in the dataset only after I firmly corroborated that they had taken part in the conflict against the Islamic State. After weeding out the posers and keyboard warriors who never set foot near the conflict zone, I arrived at a figure of 500 foreign anti-Islamic State fighters, making the database possibly the largest of its type.
Americans were by far the most represented nationality in the database—169 men and one woman traveled from the United States to Iraq or Syria to fight the Islamic State. The actual number of volunteers is probably much greater and, by my estimate, may be close to twice that. Many of these individuals were determined not to leave any trace of their involvement. They came, fought and went home, avoiding social media and declining to be interviewed.
The vast majority of the Americans fought for the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), also known as the People’s Protection Units, in northern Syria. Others volunteered with the Peshmerga in Iraq or with one of the numerous small Christian militias in Iraq or northern Syria. Most started arriving in 2015, when the battle for Kobane raged. But a few, like Jordan Matson, went earlier and became well-known cheerleaders for the cause who said they were sick of seeing people dying as victims of Islamic State atrocities.
Many of my illusions and preconceptions were dispelled as I went through media reports and social media profiles, and especially as I followed individuals over time.
There were two groups I did not find in great numbers. First, I assumed that many were impelled to join the conflict by a primarily religious (and specifically Christian) motivation—for example, the idea of defending Christendom against the Islamic State. But it seems that very few—just six out of 170 Americans—were motivated by religion. Those who did mainly avoided the YPG, preferring to join groups like the Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha.
Second, it was not easy to find Islamophobes, or extreme right-wing, neo-Nazi types. The Kurdish YPG’s selection process became increasingly systematic over time and included a questionnaire and vetting, which appears to have kept most of the far-right away, but I still found an occasional Confederate flag or example of right-wing paraphernalia, though more evidence would be necessary to demonstrate links to far-right groups. The evidence is stronger when it comes to European neo-Nazis and fascists joining the fight against the Islamic State, and there is some suggestion that European far-right networks helped organize efforts to send people to fight in what they characterized as a “crusade” against the Islamic State. But there is little evidence of similar networks in the United States.
Of the American volunteers, 64 were military veterans, including Matson, who joined the Kurds early in the fight. Of these, 17 had some sort of lingering issue linked to their time in the military that affected their decision to join the fight. Some had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but for the majority of veterans, the “issues” ranged from never seeing combat, to feeling (like Matson) that the army never gave them a fair shake, to the feeling that the rise of the Islamic State meant that the sacrifices of their friends in Iraq or Afghanistan were in vain and that they had to do something themselves.
In analyzing the motivations of the overwhelming majority of American anti-Islamic State fighters, I quickly discovered that trying to disentangle “push” and “pull” factors would be a mistake. Several individuals have the “push”—home problems, criminal records (at least six individuals, with the actual number likely higher), loneliness, some form of alienation or PTSD. Some had the “pull”—the need for adventure or identification with the Kurds. But many had both.
Four of the most common, and closely interlinked, categories of motivations I found were what I would classify as “Kurdish solidarity,” “moral outrage,” “wanting to do good” and “search for meaning.” Of the 83 Americans for whom some sort of motivation could be discerned, 56 fell into one of these categories. Those in the first two groups had a particularly strong form of identification with the victim group, the Kurds. Many were motivated by horrific images of Islamic State atrocities that they had seen on television or online, including scenes from the genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq or from propaganda films that included decapitated heads of Islamic State victims. Several individuals within these categories referred to the “couch” or the “sofa,” saying that they had to get off the couch and “do something” after seeing news of the Islamic State’s barbarity.
Within each of these four categories were several individuals who had been part of a politically minded or socially aware milieu at home. These people were driven primarily by their political convictions or ideology. These “ideological” types, particularly those who inhabit some part of the left-wing political spectrum, seem in many cases to identify with the Islamic State’s victims and see them as victims of fascism. Many are at the same time attracted by the YPG’s ideals of democratic confederalism, decentralized governance and anarchism. Of the 83 Americans whose motivations could be discerned, several certainly fell into this subgroup of leftist-inspired social activism, with the actual number likely much higher, as many chose not to speak or post frankly about their innermost convictions. Michael Israel, who joined the YPG and was killed in a Turkish airstrike in November 2016, was a labor activist and organizer. Robert Grodt, who also fought in the YPG and was killed in the battle to retake Raqqa in July 2017, joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 as a volunteer medic, hitchhiking across the United States from California to join the movement in New York. After their deaths, Grodt, Israel and others like them were claimed to some degree by the anti-fascist (Antifa) or anarchist movements, but I treat these claims with some caution, as only occasionally did these individuals openly self-identify with anarchist or communist sympathies.
Fighting the Islamic State is a dangerous business. Seventeen Americans—10 percent of those known to have traveled to join the fight—died in the conflict zone. And in some cases, unresolved issues result in tragic consequences on returning home. Kane Harley, who fought with the Syriac Military Council and the YPG in Syria after serving previously in the U.S. Marine Corps and (it appears) the French Foreign Legion, took his own life in May 2019 after struggling with PTSD. At least nine of the Americans in the database described experiencing some form of PTSD, and many others described other types of inner psychological conflict or turmoil.
Of those who returned home unscathed, many have attempted to obscure themselves and their experience in Iraq or Syria. Some have had their social media accounts suspended because of platforms’ increasingly tough policies that have censored militant groups’ content even when it is not explicit. Others have presumably realized it is wiser not to put too much of their past online and scrubbed their social media accounts clean or made them private; these pages now show nothing more than pictures of their kids or normal family lives, as if nothing ever happened.
It is possible that some anti-Islamic State foreign fighters are trying to escape attention from the government. Foreign fighting is not explicitly criminalized by U.S. law, but this is a murky area. To date, no American has been prosecuted for fighting with the YPG or the Peshmerga, which are not listed as terrorist organizations by the United States, but several have been charged in court for joining or attempting to join the Islamic State.
There are choices ahead for those who have been reluctant to head home. Among the international contingent who volunteered with the YPG, some stayed behind to defend YPG-held areas against incursions by the Turkish army. Americans initially numbered among these, but it is unclear how many remain since U.S. forces withdrew from northern Syria and Turkey and Russia moved in to fill the vacuum. Others have figured that with the fall of Raqqa and Mosul, they will seek new adventures and new conflicts. Justin Schnepp, a former U.S. Army sniper, observed, “When I left the Army I was crushed. It was the best I had ever been at something. For now, I will be here as long as the battle takes, and I hear it could take a while. If I live to see unification for the Kurds, maybe I’ll head to Burma or the Ukraine and fight there too. Only time will tell.” Josh Wilmeth, a YPG fighter from Culver City, California, later joined the Georgian Foreign Legion, a Ukrainian militia operating in the east of the country that accepts foreigners in the fight against Russian-backed separatists. Another American veteran of the YPG, Damien Rodriguez, originally from the Bronx, also joined a Ukrainian militia—a decision that prompted his wife to file for divorce and custody of their children.
Many of those who made the journey to the conflict zone and fought had thought deeply and critically about their likely actions in Syria and Iraq and their consequences. Many were deeply committed to their causes, some even dying for them, and those who have survived will likely maintain that commitment. In Syria and Iraq, they were willing to use violence to support or defend causes that included Kurdish nationalism and anti-fascism. In the future, as they keep to these causes or switch to other forms of activism, they may weigh employing more militant methods again if they judge that the cause requires it.
It is also useful to look to the past when trying to gaze into what the future might hold for these individuals. Consider Delmar Berg, an American volunteer who fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of the fabled Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and died at the age of 100 in 2016. Berg retained this activist commitment and solidarity with the downtrodden and disadvantaged for the rest of his life and worked as a union organizer after his return. Many of his comrades likewise retained their beliefs and, like Berg, became the target of suspicion due to their communist links or convictions.
For many anti-Islamic State volunteers, the trajectory of their ideological action may just be beginning. Joining these groups, and the YPG in particular, gave these people an opportunity to live out their desires and their aspirations for a time. But, after reading so many of their accounts of their experiences and motivations, my sense is that we will hear about some of these people again. Notable figures from various parts of the future political spectrum may have been formed, and made important connections, in the cauldron of Syria and Iraq.