Islamic State’s recruiting successes have caused major headaches around the world, including the United States, but a significant number of Americans have traveled to the Middle East in order to fight against the terrorist organization. Open source investigative website, Bellingcat has compiled a database entitled “The Other Foreign Fighters” to investigate the phenomenon. According to the report, at least 108 Americans have traveled to the Middle East to join various Kurdish and Christian militias. They are predominantly male, ex-military, and strangely, Texans are significantly over-represented among their numbers.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the largest number of recruits have joined the YPG, a division of the Kurdish People’s Worker’s Party (PKK). The YPG has a slick online presence, with a Facebook page and newsletter urging foreign recruits to join them in the Middle East and fight for The Lions of Rojava. The YPG is by far the most foreigner-friendly militia, boasting more than 50 American fighters, as well as recruits from Eastern Europe, Australia, and other parts of the Middle East. U.S. military officials have consistently rated the YPG as one of the most effective ground units in the fight against IS, and it is tempting to think that this might have something to do with the large number of U.S. Army and Marine veterans fighting in their ranks. Of the 108 Americans who had made the trip out to the Middle East, 73 had military experience and over a third of them came from the army or the marines.
Not all of the foreign fighters have any previous experience of either the battlefield, the military, or the Middle East. Kenneth Broomfield, from Massachusetts, recently died while fighting with the YPG in Kobani. He had never served in the military or been to the Middle East, being inspired by what he and family described as a “Christian awakening.”
The State Dept and FBI strongly discourage Americans from traveling to the Middle East to fight against Islamic State. Fighting for them is, of course, illegal, as well as morally repugnant. But the YPG, Peshmerga, and other Mid East militia hospitable to foreign fighters are not proscribed terrorist organizations and are considered close allies of the U.S. effort against ISIS. There is, however, a potential legal minefield. Laws exist to prohibit Americans from fighting against foreign governments with which the U.S. is not at war, and it must be remembered that all these Kurdish units have their genesis in conflicts with the Turkish, Iraqi, and Syrian governments. It is just possible that the U.S. might one day take the same hard line as Australia and threaten to prosecute everyone who goes to fight in the Middle East warzone, no matter which side they were on.
It’s strange that there aren’t more comparisons to the Spanish Civil War. The last time a conflict drew such interest and such numbers of foreign fighters from the West was the fight against Fascism in Spain, with high profile Americans like Ernest Hemingway and English author George Orwell joining the throngs of European and American adventurers in the trenches of Catalonia. The fight against Islamic State is similar. Here also is a battle between key ideologies, with Europeans and Americans joining rag tag idealists in the Middle East to battle against what they perceive to be the great evil of our day. Back in the ’30s it was Fascism, today it is violent Islamism.
[Image via People’s Defense Units (YPG/J)]