ISIS terrorists have taken over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and attracted thousands of new recruits, but the group has also brought some of its former adversaries back into the fight: American military personnel.
Known as the Islamic State, ISIS, or ISIL, it is the Islamist militant group responsible for ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and the destruction of antiquities throughout Iraq and Syria. The Arabs fighting the group call them Daesh, which is an acronym of the group's name in Arabic and also happens to mean "a bigot who imposes his views on others" (and they will cut out your tongue for calling them that).
The group started out as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq, then merged with other groups as Zarqawi was killed and the U.S.-led war in Iraq continued. It took many forms and went underreported in the West until after the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. In 2013, the group split from Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni group fighting the Asad government in Syria, declaring a new Islamic State, a caliphate — which muslim groups around the world (including al-Qaeda) flatll condemned. In 2014, when a string of military victories against Iraqi government forces saw Daesh approaching Baghdad on one front and trapping thousands of ethnic Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. The Yazidis were sure to be slaughtered if Daesh forces caught up to them. Who saved the Yazidis from certain death? The Kurds.
The Kurdish militia in Iraq, the Peshmerga, are the most effective fighting force in the region. Their sister service in Syria, the YPG, are battle hardened from fighting the Asad government and other Islamist faction in the Civil War since 2011. NATO air power provided cover for the already-capable Kurdish ground forces makes the Kurdish militia the best hope for pushing Daesh back into Syria and then cutting off their ability to win followers and wage war. Daesh is well-armed, well-equipped, and well-financed, while the Kurdish Peshmerga need all the help they can get.
Reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War before World War II — when foreigners flocked to that fight — people are coming from all over the world to fight ISIS. Called Heval ("friend") by their Kurdish allies, Americans are joining the Peshmerga's International Brigade, the Syrian YPG's Lions of Rojava, or a number of other Kurdish units fighting Daesh, and two-thirds of them are U.S. military veterans. Former Army reservists, Marines, Rangers, and other U.S. military veterans are coming by the dozens, lest the Daesh brand of violence engulf the whole world, like Fascism did after the Spanish Civil War. Each has their own reason for coming, each left their own lives behind.
Jordan Matson, from Wisconsin, was among the first to volunteer. He didn't spend a long time in the Army, but he's ready to stay with the Kurds for the long haul.
As of September 2015, the YPG boasted more than a hundred American ex-military members. The Peshmerga had only a handful, as those who are discovered by U.S. forces in Iraq are routinely forced away from the front.
Sean Rowe is from Jacksonville, Florida. He did two tours in Iraq while in the Army.
"This is something I feel compelled to do," Rowe told his hometown newspaper. "Women and children are being slaughtered over there. They need our help. I know we can make a difference." Rowe is an Ohio native who founded Veterans Against ISIS so he could "take the fight to them."
Bruce Windorski is a 40-year-old former Army Ranger from Wisconsin. He is fighting in Syria with Jamie Lane, a decorated Marine veteran from California. Windorski's brother was killed when his helicopter was shot down in Kirkuk. He originally ventured to Kirkuk to make peace with that. He went to fight in Syria instead. Lane saw footage of ISIS capturing Anbar province, where he served during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007.
"My friends were killed on these very streets," Lane told the Wall Street Journal. "I felt a big part of my PTSD is trying to find a reason for that mayhem and bloodshed, and I thought maybe if I go back I can fill that hole."
Lane joined through the Lions of Rojava Facebook Page, which advertises: "Welcome to our Family Brothers and Sisters. Join YPG…and send ISIS terrorists to Hell and save Humanity." Some even come back to America to help other veterans get into the fight. Lu Lobello of Las Vegas, Nev. is one such veteran.
"America is not fighting Islamic State," Lobello, a Marine, told the Wall Street Journal. "But Americans are."
In the video above, the Americans recall being pinned down as ISIS fighters closed in on their position, saved at the last minute by an armored Kurdish bulldozer. They hopped in while the driver covered their movement and drove the dozer with his feet.
"There's evil in this world that needs to be dealt with," Kurt Taylor, a former soldier from Texas told Fox News. "They're no joke. They're very disciplined, highly effective fighters. If we're not careful, they'll win."
With Taylor is an unnamed Marine from Washington State and Aaron Core, a former Tennessee National Guardsman whose tour in Iraq ended in 2010. When the terrorist organization killed journalist James Foley in August of 2014, he was determined to come back. They do not get paid for their time with the Kurds.
Samantha Johnston left her three children with a care taker and came to Iraq to help the children there.
"These children here who are homeless, orphaned; mothers and sisters have been raped and sold, fathers who have been killed," Johnston told the Daily Mail. "They are suffering, and I knew that I couldn't just sit and do nothing. I couldn't look my children in the eyes and say, 'I didn't do anything to help.'"
Patrick Maxwell is a real estate agent in Austin, Texas. When he was in Iraq as part of his Marine Corps duties, he never saw the enemy, never fired a shot. Maxwell, who separated in 2011 and had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life, still considers himself a warrior.
"I figured if I could walk away from here and kill as many of the bad guys as I could," Maxwell told the New York Times. "That would be a good thing."
Roberto Pena joined the Marines in 2001 and deployed to Iraq in 2003. He fought as a Rifleman in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 and fully understands the risks of going back to fight ISIS today.
"It's about humanity itself," he told NBC San Diego. "We cannot let atrocities continue to happen and history keep repeating itself, where we just turn a blind eye."
This month, a UK-based investigative journalism organization called Bellingcat released the results of a study it conducted on why Americans go to fight ISIS. Like the few mentioned here, some go out of a sense of moral need, some go for religious beliefs, and some are veterans who struggle to rejoin civilian life.
Americans who go off to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh face numerous criminal charges if they return. That isn't so for those going off to fight them. Governments of Canada and the Netherlands openly say there are no consequences for citizens going to fight ISIS in Iraq or Syria.
Running off to join the Kurdish fighters is easy, but not without its risks, of course. In June, Keith Broomfield of Massachusetts died during the battle for Kobani, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border. Broomfield believed a divine message told him to fight for the Kurds. Turkey has since entered the conflict and as part of its ongoing war with Kurdish separatists, has taken to bombing Kurdish positions where Western fighters might gather before advancing on ISIS positions. Looming large, too, is the prospect of being captured by Daesh.
The Peshmerga have since stopped accepting foreign volunteers. Other militias still do, but since most of the groups in the field in the region, including the YPG's sister militia in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK) are considered terror groups by the United States and allies, the unwary volunteer my end up fighting for the wrong side.