‘America is not fighting the Islamic State, but Americans are’
I may not be enlisted anymore, but I’m still a warrior,” former sergeant turned anti-IS militia member Patrick Maxwell told The New York Times when he returned to Iraq last year to fight the Islamic State.
“I figured if I could walk away from here and kill as many of the bad guys as I could, that would be a good thing.”
Maxwell is one of more than 100 Americans — many of them former members of the military — who have volunteered to take up arms against militants in Iraq and Syria, even as the U.S. government has hesitated to put combat troops on the ground.
In September, the U.K.-based citizen investigative journalist organization Bellingcat released a report examining this phenomenon, focusing on Americans who have gone abroad to combat the Islamic State. Using open-source information, including news reports, social media profiles and photographic and video evidence, the study offers insight into who is making this journey and why.
The report finds that an estimated 108 Americans from 31 states have joined militant groups that include the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia, and Iraqi peshmerga forces, as well as various Christian militias in Iraq and Syria. Texas, Ohio and Colorado are the most represented states relative to their populations.
About two-thirds of the American fighters have some background in the U.S. armed forces. Others, however, are ordinary civilians, and found groups like the YPG that are willing to accept inexperienced volunteers. Of the 108 fighters included in the report, only one is a woman.
By and large, those American volunteers who have fought for the Kurds have been individuals who have made their connections through social media. They have mostly traveled alone on self-funded missions. But several groups have recently sprung up to organize these disparate volunteers more systematically.
Veterans Against Isis is a group made up of U.S. military veterans who intend to travel to Iraq to combat the extremist group.
“I was gripped with a passion to go,” said Sean Rowe, one of the group’s leaders. “So I threw up a website so I could find other people who would go with me, because I didn’t want to go by myself.” Soon, he had about two dozen veterans; most had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Our mission is just to support locals in Iraq and eventually Syria against ISIS,” he said. “Most of us are Iraq war veterans. It is our intent to go and liberate Iraq and then to push into Syria.”
Rowe is from Jacksonville, Fla. 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.”
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, but found himself fighting in Syria. 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 the Islamic State,” Lobello, a Marine, told the Wall Street Journal. “But Americans are.”
The fight against the Islamic State is not the first time Americans have joined wars independent of their military. Pilots flew for the Allies in World War I and II long before the United States officially declared war. In the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Americans formed a contingent of more than 2,500 troops.
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 ISIS.
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.
“I couldn’t just sit and watch Christians being slaughtered anymore,” Matson said in an interview with USA TODAY. “I got sick of giving online sympathy. Five minutes of lip service does nothing. These people are fighting for their homes, for everything they have.”
“It wasn’t until an American was beheaded did we do anything,” he said of the execution of journalist James Foley in August of 2014. “We just let the monster grow and grow.
“For the U.S. government, it’s not about human life. It’s about how they look in the opinion polls,” added Matson, who was wearing a military uniform and a traditional Kurdish black and white scarf across his shoulders.
Matson, who now goes by the name Sadar, served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman from May 2006 until November 2007, attaining the rank of private first class, according to Army Human Resources Command.
“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.”
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.”