Holy Hell

New Player in the ISIS War: Christian Gazillionaire Foster Friess

He’s best known for bankrolling Republicans Rick Santorum and Scott Walker afloat, but Foster Friess has a new cause a long way from D.C.

03.05.15 10:25 AM ET

Republican megadonor Foster Friess is shifting his sights from political campaigns to a military campaign: to fight ISIS and save Kurdish lives.

Behind the scenes, the conservative Christian has been traveling to the Middle East to support the vulnerable Kurdish minority in Iraq, and then coming back to the U.S. to lobby for arming and training their militias, known as the Peshmerga. These forces are on the front lines of the war with ISIS.

“They are fighting our fight and we have treated them disgracefully in terms of the armaments we have provided. Not only am I embarrassed to be an American, I’m actually ashamed,” Friess told The Daily Beast. Arming the Kurds, he added, would help “defeat a ghastly evil that is running amok.”

Some pro-Kurdish advocates have interpreted Friess’s interest to mean that he wants to raise a volunteer military force to aid the Kurds, or arm them through private funds. But Friess told The Daily Beast that is not on the table, at least not for now.

One of his informal advisers, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ernie Audino, seem to be singing from a slightly different hymnal.

“There is no reason why this monopoly [for equipping] should be owned by the U.S. government. I think there’s a role for private organizations to generate private support to help the Kurds,” said Audino, who as a soldier was stationed in Kurdistan for a year. “Foster and I are certainly talking about it, in concept… No one’s pulled the trigger on it.”

Last November, Friess traveled to the front lines of the Kurdish battle with ISIS, visiting a Peshmerga military camp called “Black Tiger.”

“When I visited Camp Black Tiger I was amazed to see how many of the fighters had come out of retirement and were in their 40s and 50s,” Friess said. “I had tears in my eyes to see the Yazidis [an ethnic minority]... as I passed out 5,000 blankets to them which our family had purchased from Turkey.  To think they had to leave their homes and everything they owned and only had the clothes on their backs was indeed sad.”

Friess is primarily known for funding socially conservative causes, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Sen. Rick Santorum’s last presidential run. He spent more than a million on Koch-related causes, and six figures to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign.

He backs all that with a net worth The Wall Street Journal has estimated at just north of half a billion dollars.

But Friess is no stranger to controversy, having stirred up outrage on the left during the 2012 presidential campaign when, as a prominent backer of Rick Santorum, the 74-year-old said that women in his day put aspirin “between their knees” as contraception.

More disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that Friess’s website promotes books by well-known Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney and Robert Spencer, who helped inspire Norweigan mass murderer and terrorist Anders Breivik. (Although, it should be noted, the website also promotes moderate Islamic groups.)

In the Capitol, Friess has pressed lawmakers to expand airstrikes against ISIS, to help train and equip the Peshmerga, and expand humanitarian aid. He is also insistent on a rhetorical change: that politicians stop referring to the “war on terror.” Instead, he wants the world to take arms against the “global jihadist movement.”

The Kurdish military wish list is long, reflecting the nature of its grinding, daily fight with ISIS. They want counter-IED tools, anti-tank weapons, mine-resistant vehicles, and surveillance equipment.

“[Friess is] shooting for practical targets. What’s the most practical target right now? The easiest target right now is, let’s help the United States directly equip the Kurds,” said Brig. Gen. Audino, who serves as an informal adviser to Friess on Kurdish issues. “He has a genuinely good heart, and he wants to stay on the right side of history… He sees the awful slaughter of innocents in Iraq and Syria right now. He doesn’t see that ending at Iraqi and Syrian borders.”

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ISIS could be pushed back, Friess said, if the United States would provide the Kurds with “Apache helicopters and tanks and anti-tank weapons,” as well as a more aggressive air campaign.

Some have interpreted the multimillionaire’s support for the Kurds as openness to privately funding their cause. Last month, an email from Friess to Sen. Rand Paul was leaked to the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker. In it, Friess urges Paul to support the Kurds. In particular, he asked the White House hopeful whether he’d support raising a force to aid their fight.

“Would you support a volunteer force from our military or contractors? I received a request from 2,000 young Christian men for help in training and arming. They want to protect their vulnerable, unprotected Christian community 30 miles from ISIS,” Friess wrote.

Audino, the retired general, said that while the businessman’s primary effort was to get the American government to directly arm the Kurds, they have talked about privately doing so as well, hypothetically.

Small wonder that rumors have been spreading among anti-ISIS Westerners that Friess could soon be bankrolling their efforts. Matthew VanDyke runs a security contracting firm called Sons of Liberty International in Iraq, which provides free military training to local Christians in Kurdish and Iraqi areas. He said he had heard that Friess “pledged to help fund the Peshmerga,” and had been looking to get in touch with him ever since.

But asked directly about it, Friess said he was not considering privately raising, training and equipping a militia to defend embattled Christians and Kurds in Iraq and Syria. He wouldn’t comment on the request that he received from the thousands of Christian men that he referenced in the email to Sen. Paul.

The scale of the problem, he said, makes a solution too large to privately finance.

“Do you realize the enormity of what it takes to defeat the enemy? I’m not in the business of financing private armies,” Friess told The Daily Beast.

Friess’s interest in the Kurds can at least in part be explained by his Christian faith, or as the businessman put it, when he “invited Jesus to become the Chairman of the Board of my life.”

American Christians have been generally supportive of the Kurds due to their role in protecting Christians in post-Saddam Iraq. Evangelical figures like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson have touted the secular Kurds for their protection of Middle Eastern Christian communities. Though there has historically been animus between Kurds and Christians in the region, there has been in contemporary times a confluence of interests.

“The Kurds have been seen as protectors of the Christians, especially since the fall of Saddam in 2003, when the Christians began to be pushed out of and even murdered in Arab Iraq. By contrast the Christians have been thriving in the Kurdish region of Iraq,” said Professor Michael Gunter, who has written 11 books on the Kurdish people.

Since the proclamation of a so-called Islamic State last year, outside players have jumped into the ISIS war. From Saudi to Iranian involvement, from American military veterans looking for freelance work to Western jihadists looking for a battle to join, outsiders have flooded into the region for one cause or another.

If a high-profile Christian American businessman were to privately fund weapons in the ISIS battlespace, it would be a problematic foray into an already-nasty sectarian situation. So far Friess has stayed away from that role. While the Kurds welcome any help they can get from Christian Americans, ISIS has framed its war as one of them versus the “crusaders.”

In January, for example, ISIS urged its followers in the West to “to target the crusaders in their own lands and wherever they are found.”

The money Friess has thus far spent on the Kurdish cause has been slight, as compared to his financial commitments to political candidates. He spent some $50,000 on blankets as humanitarian aid to the Yazidis, another minority group in Iraq.

Awat Mustafa, who works at a Kurdish humanitarian aid group called the Barzani Charity Foundation, met Friess during the National Prayer Breakfast this year. Friess invited Mustafa to his office, and they’ve been tossing ideas back and forth ever since. Mustafa said he submitted a funding proposal, for humanitarian assistance to the millions of refugees in Kurdish areas, and hopes to get funding in the realm of six figures or more.

“I'm sure he’s going to be one of our big donors, no doubt about it,” Mustafa said. “In the past he has already donated some money for refugees in the Kurdistan region.”

Perhaps Friess’s most impactful effort for the Kurds has been in using his weight to press Congress to help them. Foster has wielded his influence to lobby lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support Kurdish militias, including such figures as Democratic lawmakers Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

“Foster Friess agrees with me on this issue—in order for there to be military success on the ground and defeat ISIS, the U.S. must provide the heavy weapons and arms directly to trusted fighters, such as the Kurds,” Gabbard said.

On the Republican side, Friess’s role is praised.

“He’s a good friend of the Kurds, and he’s made a real difference. He’s provided his own money, among other things… and had an effect on opinion here [in the Senate]. He’s one of their strongest advocates,” Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast.

Added Sen. Lindsey Graham: “He’s gotten to know the Kurds well. He’s very passionate.”

And there may be some coming legislative efforts: Sen. John Barrasso, Gabbard and others huddled with Friess in Graham’s conference room last month to work on a bill called the Kurdish Emergency Relief Act, the Washington Examiner reported, which would involve some $500 million in aid for the Kurdish people. The legislation has not yet been introduced.