Combatting Islamic State
Foreign fighters ″crusade″ against IS

IS may have proved adept at attracting foreign nationals to its cause, but many have also joined up to fight the pseudo caliphate. And there′s no lack of religious fervour among the ranks either – some see it as their Christian duty. By Manar Ammar

What leads foreign fighters to take up arms against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria may receive less media coverage, but it is equally important, especially with the number of willing recruits increasing all the time. According to some estimates, hundreds of foreigners are now involved in a war waged predominantly by volunteers.

A conservative estimate released in a recently published investigative report by Bellingcat put the number of American citizens who have travelled to Iraq or Syria to fight the so-called IS at around 180 individuals, including one woman. Other sources claim the number stands at over 200. The study found that the highest percentage of American fighters hailed from Texas – some 16 people – or approximately 15 percent of the total. California followed Texas with 8 fighters.

But fatalities are also a reality of war. A 36-year-old Massachusetts man, Keith Broomfield, was confirmed dead in June by the U.S. State Department. He had been fighting on the side of Kurdish troops against IS. Broomfield's mother told NBC news that her son had gone to fight because he believed it was "God's will" that he travelled to Syria to fight IS. Broomfield′s lack of prior military experience was nothing unusual either. The report found that ten (9%) of the American fighters had no previous military experience, while 73 (68%) had served in the armed forces in some capacity. The database produced no information on the military background of the remaining 25 fighters (23%).

Dozens of Americans have headed to the war zone, lured by the hope of joining and fighting against what some political leaders have described as the most dangerous terrorist organisation the world has ever seen. For Ryan Young, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran of four years from Indianapolis, it was about getting back into the "action" that spurred his initial interest. Then the reality of what he discovered set in.

A Krudish sniper surveys the devastation of Kobani (photo: picture alliance/AP)
Kobani, site of some of the fiercest clashes against IS. "A lot of the Americans I met ... believed they were doing this for God and supporting their faith. It wasn't about helping people fight an enemy, it was about defeating the Muslims"

"I really thought I was going to be doing some fighting and getting back in the action, but when I got there it was a lot to take in. The devastation that I saw was horrible and sad. I was angry and wanted to get in the action, but it just didn't feel right after the fact," admitted Young, who had a wife and family back home.

After leaving the Coast Guard in 2012, he jobbed in his home city before the idea of returning to a battlefield cemented itself in his mind. Earlier this year, Young decided to go to Turkey to join other volunteers combatting the advance of IS.

He confessed to being taken aback by the overtones of some of the Americans he met while in Turkey. Instead of wanting to fight against an enemy, Young said they saw the entire situation in purely religious terms. "A lot of the Americans I met there were really into this whole ′save the world′ idea. They believed they were doing this for God and supporting their faith. It wasn't about helping people fight an enemy, it was about defeating the Muslims. That just didn't sit right with me, but for many that is what it was," he continued.

While he said he never did any fighting, a number of foreigners have headed to the frontlines. Some are returning home in coffins. Yet Young doesn't think those fighting, even the ones who believe they are part of a crusade are mentally unstable. He believes the fighters are "just stuck in their belief this is their duty as Americans and Christians."

In response to the rise of IS over the past 12 months, politicians in Washington D.C. have stoked the fires of anti-Muslim sentiment. Some states have passed legislation barring any implementation of sharia - or Islamic - law in their courtrooms. There has been an almost exponential rise in the number of attacks against Muslims in the country. According to the FBI, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes is five times the level it was before the attacks on 11 September 2001.

"But the fact that crimes against Muslims remain high compared to their pre-9/11 levels indicates we have plenty of work to do on the religious front as well," Christopher Ingraham commented in The Washington Post about the study and the reality facing the country.

Now a handful of Americans seem to be taking it a step further: Young says the fighters he met "also believed it was the mission of America to protect the world from Muslims.″

A number of media reports cite the 1st North American Expeditionary Force (1stNAEF), which says on its website that it was "founded by security and business professionals frustrated by ineffective humanitarian, disaster relief and stability operations" around the globe, as being instrumental in assisting foreign fighters to join the war against IS.

Kurdish pershmerga at Kirkuk in Iraq (photo: Getty Images)
Foreign fighters are claimed to have allied themselves with KRG forces

The organisation′s media contact, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, declined to give his real name, saying he was only giving his time "where possible". He did not discuss the role of the 1stNAEF in assisting foreigners to link up with the People's Protection Units of Kurdistan (YPG), even though a number of reports – including those issued by CNN – referred to the organisation as being instrumental.

He said that the 1stNAEF's operations include "capacity, systems and threat, risk and vulnerability (TRV) analysis, liaison and co-ordination with KRG [Peshmerga] representatives. These operations when combined with extended regional analysis form the basis of our planning and coordination phases."

The KRG is the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in Iraqi Kurdistan and one of the main groups fighting IS incursions. It has been claimed that foreign fighters have allied themselves with KRG forces, but the 1stNAEF spokesperson declined to comment when asked specifically about those reports.

He did say that "the response from individuals both locally to North America and in the Iraqi Kurdistan region has been positive," adding that "we are a non-governmental, non-partisan, and secular" organisation.

What Young experienced in his brief time near the front went further than providing support against an enemy: for at least some of the foreigners, including Americans, it bordered on religiosity.

"I believe they were there because of the media - all too often it is portrayed as a battle between them and us. That really spoke to me and many others. That's why I tried to go join up. But in the end, I learned a lot and realised that it would be wrong to go and fight where I didn't belong." Although he stopped short of calling it a crusade, he did admit that for those who are on the frontlines, fighting IS, they "don't see it that way. They view Islam and Muslims as the enemy. It's really scary."

Manar Ammar

© 2015

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