ISTANBUL—She looks stern in the photographs of her that are emblazoned on red banners decorated with the hammer and sickle. In scenes that echoed the funerals of the urban revolutionaries of the so-called German Autumn of the 1970s, more than 2,000 mourners marched the coffin of Ivana Hoffmann through the streets of the cathedral town of Duisburg to her grave.
But the Ruhr Valley teenager, who was buried last week, wasn’t a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang caught in a desperate shootout with the polizei. She was killed in northeast Syria, felled by two jihadist bullets in a skirmish over an Assyrian Christian village, becoming the first Western woman to die fighting alongside the Kurds and against the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS.
Not since the 1930s when ideologues, as well as more self-centered thrill-seekers, were drawn to the civil war in Spain have youngsters from the West been offered such bellicose opportunities to fight (and die) in foreign conflicts: Pick your side and thanks to low-cost airlines fly to the Middle East or Ukraine. Acquiring the necessary kit is easily done online from Amazon and your hosts will happily receive you, if for no other reason than for the propaganda value.
Ukraine is drawing Frenchmen, Swedes and above all Croats and Serbs—some of them bored veterans from the Balkan wars of the 1990s; others youngsters from the thuggish fascist fringes who talk loudly about fighting in a holy war but appear keen to cut their teeth in combat just to prove they measure up. Americans are headed to enlist with the Iraqi Peshmerga or the Kurds in northeast Syria, where they may well encounter Marxist-Leninists from Germany or ex-squaddies from Britain unable to settle down to civilian life after Adrenalin-pumping, mind-altering tours of Afghanistan or Iraq.
Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria run an international brigade, the “Lions of Rojava,” and say about a hundred Westerners are fighting alongside the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria. Ten of them are U.S. veterans. And the Kurds are keen to recruit more, especially former servicemen to help train inexperienced Kurds, and to attract more international support for their cause. “JOIN People's Defense Units / YPG/ in Rojava, Syria, SEND TERRORISTS TO HELL and SAVE HUMANITY,” the Facebook page declares.
The first Western woman to join the YPG was 31-year-old Canadian Gill Rosenberg, a native of Vancouver, B.C., who moved to Israel in 2006 and served in the Israel Defense Forces. In Iraq, despite U.S. officials urging Kurdish militias there not to enlist U.S. civilians, at least a half-dozen American veterans are fighting alongside the Peshmerga and were filmed this week by NBC News doing so.
The bulk of media attention has been focused on Westerners rushing off to join the Islamic State to establish a caliphate: at least 3,500, Western authorities estimate, although that number could well be on the low side. The blowback danger they represent—the fear that on their return they will launch terrorist attacks in their home countries—drives the coverage.
But there are a growing number of recruits from North America and Europe plunging into war to fight against the jihadists or to head to Ukraine’s industrial Donbass to combat or support pro-Russian separatists—sometimes with an unofficial wink-and-a-nod, or at least a turning of a blind eye, by their native authorities.
Britain’s interior ministry has indicated that while joining ISIS is likely to result in imprisonment, enlisting in other foreign forces won’t necessarily lead to prosecution. “U.K. law makes provisions to deal with different conflicts in different ways,” the ministry said in a statement last year. But last week an 18-year-old British woman, Silhan Ozcelik, was arraigned in London for trying to join a Kurdish militia battling ISIS in Syria. The prosecution is prompting a public outcry.
For Americans, too, there could technically be legal risks joining Kurdish militias affiliated to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, still designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.
In Ukraine, local media reports suggest that about 30 volunteers, mostly veterans of Croatia’s 1990s independence war, have enlisted with Ukraine’s Azov battalion, an ultra-nationalist volunteer brigade, some of whose members sport Nazi insignia.
In an interview last week with the BBC, Croatia’s foreign minister, Vesna Pusić, carefully sidestepped questions about whether she is worried about Croats fighting in Ukraine. She was emphatic that as long as they aren’t joining designated terrorist groups, there is nothing amiss.
But Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic recently acknowledged that several dozen Serbian volunteers have joined Moscow-backed separatists. Vucic says he disapproves of the flow of fighters, fearing it represents a throwback to the vicious battles of the 1990s between Zagreb and Belgrade.
Serbian and Croat recruits point to the battles of the 1990s to explain their ideological reasons for volunteering. One Croat fighter told Vecernji List, an online news site in Zagreb: “An open Russian aggression against Ukraine, similar to the one that we have experienced in 1991, is being passed over in silence…That’s why we are going there to help.” For Serbian volunteers aligning with Russia is an expression of Slav solidarity with their country’s traditional ally, a reward for Moscow’s support in the 1990s.
Western volunteers in the Levant who are not from the Balkans have much more mixed motives. They range from radical leftists to former U.S. and U.K. servicemen drawn back to the Middle East because they feel the job they were sent to do in their past official deployments to Iraq wasn’t completed. There are Christians stirred by the plight of their co-religionists. And others are just outraged by the general barbarity of ISIS and angered that Western governments aren’t doing more on the ground to combat the jihadists.
“I saw a jihadi smirking while holding up the severed head of a woman: I knew then that I had to come here,” a former American Marine fighting with the Peshmerga said in a Skype call.
That is a far cry from 19-year-old Hoffmann. She was a member of the shadowy underground Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Turkey (MLKP), which has strong ties with would-be revolutionaries in Germany. Her South African parents immigrated to Germany and she had no family links with Kurdistan. Fighting alongside the Kurds in northeast Syria, or Rojava, and especially with the women fighters of the leftist Democratic Union Party, (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was for her a demonstration of class struggle and radical feminist solidarity.
In January, the MLKP posted a video showing Hoffmann, with her face obscured by a scarf, describing her reasons for fighting: “We are here on the front—IS territory is right behind us,” she says. “We’ve been here for a week protecting our stronghold in order to defend the Rojava revolution. My reason for coming to Rojava is to fight for humanity, and for rights. It represents our internationalism. We are here to fight for freedom; Rojava is the beginning. Rojava is our hope.”
As with Westerners joining ISIS, though, the motives driving recruits to the Middle East can often stem from personal thrill-seeking or a determination to go through a rite of passage. Or can be as simple as wanting to escape dead-end, tedious jobs.
Matthew Van Dyke, sometime documentary-maker and onetime volunteer with Libyan rebels battling to oust Muammar Gaddafi, had the honesty to admit what drove him to war in North Africa in a documentary, Point and Shoot. The documentary opens with Matthew saying: “I was raised on action movies. All my adventures were virtual…I was sort of sheltered and spoilt when growing up. And here I was in my mid-twenties and my mother and grandmother did my grocery shopping. I had to do something drastic.”