The following article was originally published in The Economist on December 22, 2016.
“ANOTHER Christmas out there, another bowl of soup, that’s the plan,” declares Tim Locks, a former nightclub bouncer and a self-styled warrior. “Out there” is the unrealised state of Kurdistan.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) does not know precisely how many foreign fighters have joined its ranks. There are certainly fewer than have joined Islamic State (IS)—the force that men like Mr Locks yearn to fight. More than 3,000 people have joined IS from Europe, according to estimates from the Soufan Group, a consultancy, and around 150 from America. The people from beyond the region who have joined the Kurds, on the other hand, probably number in the hundreds: perhaps 1,000 all told.
In February 2015 Mr Locks became one of them. A rough childhood left him with a loathing for bullies, and, he says, “there’s no bigger bully in the world than Daesh” (a term for IS much disliked by the group, and so used by those who fight them). He regrets not having joined the British Army, but at the age when he might have done, as he explains, “suddenly you get a driving licence and there’s girls and clubs and things to go and do”. If he had joined up, he might not have felt something was missing as he neared 40.
In August 2014 IS captured Sinjar, a town in northern Iraq. They drove its Yazidi population on to a nearby hill; they massacred thousands. Like most people, Mr Locks had never heard of the Yazidi, ethnic Kurds persecuted by some Muslims as devil-worshippers for revering an angel who takes the form of a blue peacock. But he had followed the rise of IS with bewildered anger. The slaughter on Mount Sinjar proved more than he could bear. “I just thought right, that’s enough, I don’t know what I can do, but unless I’m there I can’t do anything.” He rang an estate agent and put his house on the market.
He found a Facebook page for the “Lions of Rojava” (Rojava being the part of northern Syria the Kurds claim as their own). An American who fought with the Kurds created the page to let others follow him. It had information on how to join the fight and gave Mr Locks, and anyone else who was interested, a chance to chat with fighters in the field.
Online to front line
There were many such sites on various social networks, some just offering information and contacts, some looking for money. To help defray costs, foreign fighters had learned to crowdfund their war using Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. In exchange for a sense of what the war was really like, the fighters asked for donations via PayPal. In effect, they sold their war.
The accounts the fighters used were sometimes blocked: Instagram and PayPal won’t let their platforms be used to buy weapons. But funds reached them anyway, to be spent not just on weapons, but also on food, water, cigarettes and energy drinks. In return the accounts provided a window on war in its entirety: loafing; feeding rations to stray dogs; mocking the enemy. But the images that got the most response show blood. In one photo on Instagram an IS fighter lay twisted and dead, his bullets near him, blood flowing through the long hair typical of jihadists. It was liked by over 16,000 people. A video of an IS fighter who had been shot by a foreign fighter getting medical care received over 300,000 views.
Mr Locks had no idea how to shoot someone, but he reckoned that any skill could be learned. Online he discovered a firearms course in Poland. Out in the forests no law prevented him from training with pistols and rifles loaded with live ammunition. It was expensive, but he felt it was money well spent.
Reaching Iraqi Kurdistan proved surprisingly easy: flights went from London, with a visa available on arrival. The hard part was getting out of Britain, where the authorities tend to take a dim view of people leaving to fight in Iraq. Mr Locks booked a business-class flight to allay suspicions. At the airport in Sulaymaniyah, near Iraq’s border with Iran, he called contacts he had made online. A driver picked him up and delivered him to his unit, called Dwekh Nawsha (“the self-sacrificers”, in Aramaic).
At first he froze. Then he ran from the roof and tried to bury himself in the ground.
There were former American soldiers who felt that the war in Iraq had not ended, there were others like him, there were outright fantasists. One of his more striking comrades was Gill Rosenberg, a former soldier from the Israeli Defence Forces who had come looking for redemption after she had served a prison sentence in America for fraud.
The volunteers had to pay their own way. There were plentiful AK47s for just $300 each, but they weren’t accurate at long distances. M16s, the American army’s standard rifle, were better but more expensive—up to $2,500 each—and harder to find; most of those available had been abandoned by Iraqi troops. Some of the fighters also carried pistols so that, if they thought they were about to be captured by IS, they could take their own lives first. A reliable Austrian Glock purchased to this end would cost $3,000.
After helping the team buy weapons, Mr Locks was still far from the front. That was no accident. The Kurdish forces were keen to avoid the public-relations nightmare of western volunteers getting killed, and so did their best to keep foreigners behind the lines. But after weeks of negotiations he got himself sent forward.
He did not get to Syria; few of the volunteers do. Instead, he ended up in a patch of rough desert near an Assyrian Christian village called Baqofa. Telegraph poles ran into the distance on one side; on the other was a water tower flying the black flag of IS. That was the village of Batanya, once also the home of Assyrian Christians. His mission was to hold the line. On his first day, he narrowly missed getting killed by a mortar. From a rooftop perch he saw sand rising in ominous clouds as the shells dropped closer and closer. At first he froze. Then he ran from the roof and tried to bury himself in the ground. It made him smile. He was an ordinary man who had decided that he would not sit in comfort while people were being slaughtered. Sand in his face, he realised, was what he had come for.
He scrapped with other soldiers whose motives he disliked. One self-proclaimed “Soldier of Christ” had a tattoo on his back of the archangel Michael, a Bible full of notes and highlighter marks; he saw the war as the latest Crusade. Some fighters were taking the opportunity to set up security companies. Others played music or used their mobile phones when they were supposed to be watching for the enemy.
Not all phone use was frowned on. Officers who grumbled if anybody spent too much time on YouTube made an exception for instructional videos; Mr Locks learnt how to use a mortar from them. But the professionals worried about how much of the war appeared on social media. Some heard that IS used Kurdish soldiers’ posts to gather intelligence. Others worried about reliability. How could a soldier know, for instance, that the “weapons expert” telling him how to use a rocket launcher was not an IS intelligence cell providing dangerous misinformation?
Western and other intelligence services were certainly paying attention in the online world. Several volunteers had agreed to provide intelligence to their home countries and stayed in touch with law enforcement using secret WhatsApp groups to relay troop movements and enemy positions, including the locations of foreign fighters on the IS side.
Mr Locks left after five months. He had come under mortar fire, been shot at and shot back. He had not paddled an inflatable across the Tigris to get into Syria like Mark Ayres, a Londoner of more or less the same age who had spent four and a half years as an infantryman with the Royal Green Jackets in his teens and had felt himself called to the fighting. He had not stripped copper from electrical transformers under IS fire to sell so the Kurds could buy armaments, as one Norwegian volunteer did. But he felt he had helped. And unlike Reece Harding, an Australian who left the Gold Coast to fight without telling his parents, he was still in a position to go home. Harding was just 23 when he was killed after stepping on a landmine.
Mr Locks always thought he’d return to the battlefield, though; maybe not, next time, as a volunteer, but as a bodyguard. He particularly wanted to be part of the force that took the Iraqi city of Mosul back from IS.
In November the battle started without him. But it started without all the people like him who had stayed in the country, too. Days before the attack the KRG announced that, though Kurdish forces would be taking and holding surrounding villages, none would enter Mosul. Foreign fighters were almost all to be kept back. Some foreigners who had been fighting in Kurdish units for nearly two years managed to get close to the action, but still had to stand by and watch the Iraqi army take over what they wanted to be their operation.
The dispirited foreigners trickled back from the front lines to Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan in taxis playing Dabke music. They returned to the down-at-heel Christian district of Ainkawa—in particular to the hidden German beer gardens near a statue of the Virgin Mary, where there were pitchers of lager and bottles of Lebanese wine. As they drank they heard Chinook helicopters clatter overhead carrying special forces west for the fight. As they passed, they threw chaff into the night.
Mr Locks still wants to go back. He wants to see IS fall. He wants the dull desert, the searing heat, the smiles of the Kurds, the stock of the AK47, the sound of a bullet loading more than he wants a house. He wants the nights lying on a rooftop watching for the enemy across a strip of no-man’s-land, feeling that this was all bigger than him, but that he could squeeze a trigger and send a bullet into the quiet.
The experience changed him and tired him. It did not satisfy him. He had come home. But he wants to go back: perhaps for others; perhaps for himself.
This article originally appeared in The Economist.