Call To Arms: Why This British Man Left Behind His Family To Fight Isil In Iraq

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Published in The Telegraph Magazine on 21 May 2016

What makes a man leave behind his wife and newborn daughter and travel to Iraq to fight someone else’s war? Matt Blake talks to the British volunteers who are helping the Kurdish Peshmerga in their battle against Isil…


Pictures: ©Telegraph Media Group/Andrea Dicenzo

The battle had raged all day. By the time Kurdish Peshmerga forces had driven Isil from the town near Hammam al-Alil, on Iraq’s northern front  – now a cluster of bullet-ridden walls and burnt-out cars – just two jihadis remained.

It was a warm evening last November when Ben, 30, a gas and plumbing engineer from Fife, first saw them stumbling through no-man’s land, arms raised in surrender. He expected them to make martyrs of themselves, but instead they begged for mercy.

‘They appeared in the field wearing tracksuit bottoms and fake-leather jackets,’ he recalls. ‘The Kurds were yelling at them to keep their hands up as they shouted in Arabic, “Don’t shoot, we’re innocent.”’ They claimed to be farmers dragged into someone else’s war.

‘But we frisked them and found about 40 homemade beheading videoson one of their iPhones,’ says Ben. ‘Videos like those are what made me go to Iraq in the first place.’

The prisoners were loaded into a truck and driven back to the Peshmerga base in the nearby town Makhmur, which had been a battleground for years, taken over by Isil in 2014 before being regained by the Kurdish forces.

They were locked in a shipping container to await trial. This was the first time Ben, who had been fighting Daesh (as Isil is known locally) for three months, had captured one of its members alive. ‘I suddenly wanted to talk to them,’ he says.

‘I wanted to tell them that it wasn’t just the Kurds who hate them, but the whole world. And I had so many questions.’

The next day, Ben asked his commander if he could visit the cell. He agreed reluctantly. ‘When I walked in, they just stared at me blankly,’ says Ben. ‘It was their eyes that got to me – there was nothing there, like they had no soul. That moment I snapped and couldn’t control myself.

I shouted, “You’re f—ing disgusting, the worst people I’ve seen in my life and the things you do sicken me.”’ He describes it as years of anger accumulating, ready to explode.  Then he noticed a claw hammer.

‘I remember thinking, I could use this and nobody at home would ever know. That moment I saw something in their eyes, finally. I think it was fear.’  He reached for the hammer but stopped himself. ‘I realised I needed to stay professional, or else I’d be no different from them,’ he says.


Confronting the enemy

Ben is one of an estimated 50 Britons who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Kurds against Isil. He left behind his fiancée and baby daughter, now 18 months old. He bought his own kit and weapons, organised travel from Scotland, and is paid only in food and gratitude.

On the other side of the battle line, it is estimated by UK security services that more British Muslims have joined Isil than are serving in the British Army. Not since the Spanish Civil War, when about 2,300 British volunteers – most famously, George Orwell – went to fight Franco in the 1930s, have so many volunteered.

Much has been said about their reasons – why young Britons turn to Isil for meaning in the modern world. But what about the reasons of the men from the same towns and streets, making the same journey to fight for the other side?

After all, there is no place more dangerous for a British soldier to be. ‘The moment you step off the plane there is a $150,000 bounty on your head,’ says Ben. ‘And that’s dead.

‘Alive is a lot more. But I’ll never be captured; nobody leaves camp without a spare bullet or grenade in his pocket for himself. I won’t let my family see my head being sawn off on YouTube.’


Leaving behind a wife and daughter

It was in December 2014 that Ben first had the idea. Speaking from his home in Fife,  he explains that he was sitting on the  sofa with his fiancée, their daughter asleep upstairs, and was idly flipping between channels when he stumbled upon a documentary about the Sinjar massacre of August 2014, in which about 5,000 Yazidi women and children were made sex slaves by Isil, and countless men and boys were slaughtered.

‘I sat there thinking, these people need help and the world is doing nothing,’ says Ben, who served in the Army for 10 years from the age of 17, with various regiments including the 19th Regiment Royal Artillery.

‘I fought in Iraq for the British Army and have always felt we should leave a positive legacy there rather than the power vacuum that gave rise to Daesh. I had to do something.’

The next day, during his lunchbreak, he searched the internet for ways to help and came across a Peshmerga-affiliated Facebook page namedForeign Fighters Against Isis. He joined but soon became frustrated by its lax security and vetting measures.

‘There were guys posting travel plans and personal details,’ he says. ‘We all know how internet-savvy Isil is; what was stopping them sending hitmen to intercept us at the airport?’

Security is still a concern, even since returning to the UK. Ben, together with the other men interviewed, agreed to speak on the condition that their surnames were omitted. Their full names would, they said, make it too easy for Isil members to track them down online.


Reality and computer games

Ben and three members of Foreign Fighters Against Isis launched a rival initiative, International Peshmerga Volunteers (IPV), and within months he was receiving more than 200 enquiries a day from British men wanting to fight alongside the Kurds in Iraq.

‘We get a lot of young guys saying, “I’ve been playing Call of Duty for six years. Now I want to kill Isil,”’ says Ben. ‘We politely tell them we only take military personnel.’

In the year since its launch, IPV has shepherded 60 volunteers to the front line – and last August Ben was among them.

Telling his fiancée was, he says, the most difficult part. ‘She started crying. She said, “We have this beautiful baby and you’ll miss so many precious moments with her.”’

‘But I told her, I don’t want our daughter to grow up in a world where children are sold or raped or made to drive suicide vehicles into villages. In the end, she understood.’


Dangerous journey to Iraq

Ben bought a plane ticket to Turkey and took a connecting flight to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, where he met a fixer whom he had contacted online.

From there, he was driven, via a network of safe houses, to the battlefront.  ‘I remember stepping off the plane in Iraq and looking around for our fixer,’ he says.

‘People were staring, and I thought, what am I doing here? It wasn’t so much fear, but apprehension of the unknown.

‘It’s not like when I was put on a plane by the Army at RAF Brize Nortonand escorted to base. This time, it was all on me.’

Having heard rumours of Iranian bounty hunters posing as taxi drivers looking for Westerners, he was especially cautious. But he arrived at Makhmur to a hero’s welcome.

‘The Kurds couldn’t stop shaking our hands,’ says Ben. ‘The first time we ate at a restaurant in town, the owner wouldn’t accept our money.’

His first task was to buy a gun at the local market. ‘It was so bustling you could have forgotten there was a war on, were it not for all the firearms on sale,’ says Ben.

‘I chose a Chinese Kalashnikov for $350 because the Russian and Polish ones were $1,000 and an American M16 cost $3,000.’ He adds, ‘Mine is a perfectly good weapon if you know how to sight it properly.’


Life on the front line

For the next three months, Ben lived with David, 36, a former private in the Royal Logistic Corps from Dundee, and their Kurdish comrades in a house in a deserted village one mile from the front line at Telskuf.

‘We did  the electrics and plumbing, and slept on  mattresses,’ says Ben. ‘The food was terrible  – mostly rice with animal-fat soup.’

They also passed the hours laughing at Chechen mercenaries talking on open radio frequencies about how they’d spend the bounty if they killed a Westerner.

They spent their days sweeping liberated villages for IEDs, and training fighters in battlefield medicine and tactics. These guys couldn’t aim a gun properly and they didn’t know how to put on a tourniquet.

‘I’ve probably got better friends out there than I do at home,’ he continues. ‘War brings people together. You eat with them, sleep with them, and you know they’ll look after you. They’ll take a bullet for you.’

David adds, ‘I’ll never forget the moment an ice-cream truck from a local village pulled up on the front line during a firefight.

‘The driver opened the side door to reveal Coca-Cola, sweets, ice cream. He was laughing and taking everyone’s money, 10 yards from a heavy machine gun firing at Isil positions. I bought cans of juice and some cake.’


Untamed egos and clashing cultures

When the first foreign volunteers arrived in Iraq and Syria in the autumn of 2014, they fought Isil alongside the Kurds. But then they started dying, so the Kurds  give them safer jobs, such as those performed  by Ben and David.

‘Dead Westerners are bad  for publicity,’ points out Tim, 33, a volunteer from London who has worked as a scaffolder and security guard since leaving the British Army in 2012.

Many volunteers were left feeling cheated. They had crossed borders and seas to share their battlefield experience, but instead found an alien army, with confusing hierarchies, unwilling for them to fight.

Steve, a father of two from Devon, says he was shocked to arrive at his unit, comprising volunteers from Canada, Korea and America, to find a brigade of untamed egos and clashing cultures.

The men spent most of their days squabbling.  ‘There were lads who thought they’d be fighting every day, and became rotten apples when they found they weren’t,’ says Steve. ‘In the end I thought, I didn’t come here to argue and wipe the noses of grown men.’

But David argues that truly helping the Kurds doesn’t necessarily require firing a gun. ‘What a lot of guys don’t understand is that the Peshmerga don’t need more soldiers. They need equipment and training – that’s what will win this war. If I have to shoot someone, I will. But that’s not why I went.’


Frontline: firefights and battlefields

That is, however, exactly why Mike, a 54-year-old dance teacher from Portsmouth who was in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s, went to Iraq.

‘I missed the simplicity of military life,’ says Mike, who is divorced and has two grown-up children. ‘No emails, no bullshit, it is pure.’

He arrived in June 2015 and quickly grew bored of training cub soldiers and shaking hands. ‘Accuse me of a midlife crisis,’ he says, ‘but I wanted the real McCoy.’

His opportunity came two months later, when he chanced upon a group of Americans setting up a medical clinic in the mountain city ofSinjar, where Kurdish and Yazidi militias were battling Isil for control.

‘At the time the city was under siege,’ says Mike. ‘We were sleeping through gunfire in bombed-out buildings, moving in tunnels, running for cover every time a mortar, or coalition air strike, fell.’ The real fighting, he explains, happened at night.

‘We’d be on post, smoking quietly behind our hands. Then we’d see a light dancing on a wall on the Isil line. Naturally, we’d open fire. After that, Isil fighters would start shouting “Allāhu Akbar!” [God is greater] and swarm from their tunnels into no-man’s land.

‘Their job was to get within grenade-throwing range. Ours was to shoot them before they could. I never saw their faces; I shot at shadows.’ He only knew if he’d hit someone when he heard a scream.


Real Isil: junkies and militiamen

A 28-year-old volunteer from Birmingham nicknamed Polish (because he had an East European surname that was confused for a Polish one), spent four months in Iraq last summer.

His duties included clearing the battlefields of bodies, so he observed Isil’s battlefield methods first-hand.

‘First they sent in the junkies,’ he says. ‘I found all sorts of drugs in their pockets, from white powder to pills. If the junkies made a dent, they sent in the militiamen, then the best-trained fighters to finish the job.’

Ben also found himself in firefights when Isil attacked his base, but he won’t talk about them.

‘War is not a computer game,’ he explains. ‘It is real and can be very ugly. You have to understand that it will change you forever.’ Yet he is committed to the cause because he feels a deep sense of responsibility.

‘I don’t see this as someone else’s war,’ agrees David. ‘This is our war, and the Kurds are fighting it for us. We’re sleepwalking into a world war, and the situation is our fault. I do feel guilt over what we did to Iraq in 2003.’ Ben and David returned to Iraq in February. There are whispers of a major offensive against Isil’s key stronghold of Mosul this summer that, it is predicted, will be bloody but decisive.


War of good versus evil

Of the dozen British men I speak to, their reasons for volunteering are overwhelmingly the same. This is a war that has provided ex-soldiers with the opportunity to fight for a cause, one they weren’t necessarily offered by the British Forces.

For them, this is war in its purest form: good versus evil. Each had their own personal motivations for going, too.

For Ben, a particularly bloody tour of Iraq in 2005 (for which he was awarded the Joint Commander’s Commendation for bravery), followed by another in Afghanistan in 2009, had left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘I’d snap at my partner every time she opened her mouth,’ he recalls. ‘I was servicing boilers all day, drinking at night and began to think, what is the point in this?’

Therapy helped for a while, as did the birth of his daughter, but the ghosts of his past never left him.

His lowest moment came on Remembrance Sunday 2014. ‘I was in my van listening to the service and I started crying,’ he says. ‘Everything felt meaningless.

‘I’m under no illusion as to the enormity of the task in hand. But I now have a purpose in life, and  I get on with my fiancée much better.’

He pauses, and adds, ‘I know that, whether I save the life of one little girl or kill one fighter, then coming here has been worthwhile.’

This story was originally published in The Telegraph Magazine. If you prefer to read it there, click here.