Toy Soldiers

Americans ‘Fighting ISIS’ Are Just Props

They went to Iraq and Syria to battle the beheaders. But when they got there, they were treated like prisoners—unless reporters were around.

03.13.15 9:25 AM ET

ERBIL, Iraq — They’ve become icons of the ISIS war: foreign fighters, clad in their fatigues, wrapped in checkered keffiyehs, clutching AK-47s, and battling both for and against the so-called Islamic State.

But fresh out of leaving Syria, one American anti-ISIS fighter is cautioning that would-be volunteers’ expectations of battling jihadis don’t sync up with his experience on the ground.

“We were never really engaged in combat. We were never really taken to an area that could be considered the frontline. We were treated very poorly. We were kept in very poor conditions, and the only time we were put in good accommodations was in preparation for interviews for media that were coming through,” said Patrick, who joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) last winter before leaving the group in February.

Now speaking safely from the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, Patrick agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition he remain anonymous, as he is concerned about retaliation by ISIS or its sympathizers. Although Patrick is the only one of his former YPG comrades who consented to a formal interview, others he served with have supported his version of events off the record.

Patrick stressed that though he can’t speak for the experiences of all foreign fighters aiding the Kurds, he feels a good number of them now feel lied to about the role they would be playing against ISIS. Many of his fellow fighters, he said, now wish to leave the YPG due to their disillusionment with how it placed its volunteers in front of cameras and not on the frontline.

“My expectation coming into the country was that I would have opportunities to fight ISIS,” Patrick said. “In cooperating with the YPG we soon found out they did not ever intend for us to be on the frontline and engage in combat against ISIS.”

“We were given food, we were given tea, and everyone shook our hands, and everyone treated us very well,” he said of first arriving in Syria. “[But] progressively we were more restricted, we were locked down. Our movement was limited, and week by week we found ourselves in something more akin to a prison.”

The unmasking of ISIS executioner Jihadi John as the Kuwaiti-born, British-raised Mohammed Emwazi in late February coincided with news of the death of Ashley Johnston, a former Australian soldier who joined the YPG to fight ISIS in northern Syria. Reports in early March also broke that 19-year-old German Ivana Hoffmann and a former British Royal Marine identified as Konstandinos Erik Scurfield had also been killed fighting with the YPG. The deaths of Hoffman, Johnston, and Scurfield are a testament to the sacrifices hundreds of foreigners may now be making to halt the advance of ISIS’s promised neo-caliphate.

Patrick’s journey to Syria started when he contacted a recruiter affiliated with the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, which specializes in recruiting foreigners for the YPG. The YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and is perhaps best known in the West for its defense of Kobani and the use of its all-female YPJ units. Though both are Kurdish and have at times fought together, the YPG and YPJ are not the Peshmerga of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. 

“I decided to join the fight against ISIS because…at a certain point in my life I made a promise to defend my nation against enemies foreign and domestic, and I decided that ISIS presents a clear threat not only to the people of Kurdistan, not only to the people of the Middle East, but eventually will threaten our national security at home,” Patrick said.

He added that some of the foreign fighters he met had previous military experience, though he wouldn’t say whether he did. He said he doesn’t have an exact count of just how many foreigners are with the YPG but that it could be as many as 100-plus—now. When he initially arrived in Syria, the YPG was seeking to form all-Western units, but Patrick said these units were later broken apart to allow the YPG command to structure message control, and some of the foreigners even had their passports and phones taken away. Patrick said the YPG told the fighters this was because they feared ISIS might gain a propaganda victory if they killed or captured a foreigner and discovered their passport. He said he believed, however, it might have had just as much to do with ensuring the fighters couldn’t leave at will or speak to anyone on the outside without a YPG minder present.

From there, Patrick said, the foreigners were trained on the YPG’s aging weapons systems and occasionally manned checkpoints and went on patrols, but they never participated in any real battles.

“The Western fighters who spend time with YPG soon realize they’re not going to fight. I did not meet one single person, one single Westerner, that didn’t catch on to the fact that they were never intended to fight and they were being used as propaganda,” he said.

Requests for comment from the YPG on Patrick’s story went unanswered. Patrick conceded he doesn’t speak Kurdish and that the language barrier might have presented a liability for the YPG. He added that he thinks the problem could have been avoided if the Kurds had chosen not to break up the all-foreign units. “It was dangerous for them to break up the foreign [English-speaking] groups,” he says. “Everyone at the squad level should speak the same language.”

Also, when pressed on whether the foreign fighters also might have been sidelined due to a lack of combat or military experience, Patrick insisted that was not the case and that in many instances the foreigners had to school the Kurds on how to fight properly and use weapons.

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“As far as the training they put us through to use these weapons, it was very rudimentary, and the YPG instructors that put us through this were not very knowledgeable,” he said. “Oftentimes we had to take the weapons from them and instruct them on the proper use of the weapons, which—you know—was not a good sign. At that moment when we had to do these things I felt very hesitant about working with the YPG, and I realized the level of professionalism in those soldiers did not match the level of professionalism in our soldiers back home or any Western military.”

Patrick said he voiced his displeasure to YPG commanders about not being allowed to fight and told them that if he wasn’t allowed to fight he wished to leave. But they stonewalled him, he said, first telling him he would be able to leave in a few days. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months before he was allowed to depart for Iraq.

However, lacking passports and financial support, many of the ex-fighters are now stranded in Iraq, hoping to hash out details of a safe return to their homelands through consulates in Erbil. Other ex-YPG volunteers who reached Iraq told similar stories but declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the same security concerns as Patrick. They all said it wasn’t fear of ISIS that forced them to leave but being locked away and never allowed to go to the battle they originally came for.

“The Western fighters are only brought out during interviews by media. They’re only sent out into the field for photo-ops, and they’re sent to areas where there is no combat,” Patrick said. “The Western fighters are very controlled. The reporters that come in to report on a story are equally controlled, and both are used to further the propaganda of YPG.”

But why use Western fighters? Patrick said the YPG knows it not only must fight ISIS on the battlefield but also on the Internet. Though horrific and brutal, ISIS’s execution videos have helped it eclipse like-minded jihadi groups in the region in prominence—i.e., al Qaeda—and in international media coverage. ISIS actively uses social media for recruitment and promotion, and that helps it not only bring in more fighters but also boosts the morale of those it already has.

The YPG brings with it no greater aspiration of world conquest, but Patrick said its use of foreigners also can help boost the morale of its own troops. Exact figures of just how many foreign fighters are with the YPG are hard to come by, but if Patrick’s 100 or so figure is correct, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 20,000 foreigners U.S. officials estimate are fighting now with ISIS.

Another bonus the YPG gets by promoting its foreign fighters involves its aim to be seen as legitimate by Western governments. The YPG is made up of avowed Marxists, and its like-minded PKK parent group is listed as a terrorist group by the United States for its use of tactics—including suicide bombings—in a decades-long conflict against the Turkish government. The CIA has even acknowledged helping the Turks target the PKK, including the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Though no laws outright ban Americans from joining the YPG, the group has not seen the levels of material support other Kurdish groups have. Many European nations have, for example, openly started arming Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga units with modern weapons and providing them with training.

Patrick said any loss of foreign fighters is devastating for the YPG’s message control, and so the foreigners are kept back, even though many have Western military experience.

“The war in Syria and Iraq is driven by social media,” Patrick said. “ISIS has mastered this concept. The YPG…are doing everything they can to match the success, to mirror what ISIS has been able to accomplish—it’s something they have to do.”

The star YPG foreign recruit thus far has been 28-year-old Jordan Matson. A former U.S. soldier, Matson joined the YPG in September, and it was reported in October that he suffered a minor injury fighting ISIS. Since then, he has given numerous interviews to major press outlets promoting the role of Western fighters. From southern Wisconsin, Matson was praised by the local Chicago ABC affiliate in an October segment as an “anti-jihadist” on a “one-man crusade” against ISIS. More recently, Matson has been promoted heavily in conservative media like Fox News in segments with Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. When Matson appears in television interviews, the red-star banner of the YPG almost always hangs conspicuously in the background.  

In comments published by the AFP in February, Matson didn’t take kindly to fighters like Patrick leaving the YPG. “Most of the Internet cowboys have come to realize this isn’t a normal deployment,” he said. “So they lose the stomach to come or stay.”

In an interview with Van Susteren, Matson also said he was on the front.

Patrick for his part said he doesn’t know Matson and can’t speak for other fighters’ experiences. He added that he would gladly take up arms against ISIS once more if the opportunity presented itself, but never again would he trust the YPG. Reports have already begun circulating that other disgruntled former Western YPG fighters are beginning to enter Iraq to link up with other militias and defense forces fighting ISIS.

“I feel deceived, I feel angry, and I feel sad,” Patrick said, choking up. “I’m very sad that I was not able to assist the Kurdish people. I’m devastated I was not able to fight—I was not given the opportunity to fight.”

In the end, Patrick said he isn’t opposed to overseas volunteers going to fight ISIS but that he believes their options in the theater are limited. He said he hopes to dissuade other would-be volunteers from joining the YPG.

“I think if you come to Iraq, if you come to Syria, if you go to Libya, you’re not gonna be able to fight,” he warned potential foreign fighters. “You’re going to create a difficult situation for yourself and for the people who care about you, and you will never get to see ISIS, you will never be able to fight against ISIS, and that’s the reality of the situation.”