US civilians and veterans leave home for Isis fight with help from social media
5 May 2015, the Guardian
rom his muddy outpost on the front line in North Iraq, Grim can see the black flag of the Islamic State snapping in the wind just 500 metres away.
The 52-year-old Boston native – who several months ago found his way to a peshmerga base south of Kirkuk – sits in a crude breeze-block shelter, surrounded by mud and dirt, gunfire crackling in the background.
“We are fighting a scourge,” said Grim, who did not want to disclose his real name. “We are fighting murderers and rapists: people who burn people in cages, people who behead people. This is not a civilised army. They are animals.”
Grim said he had been moved to leave behind his life in the US and take up arms after reading about the militant group’s persecution of Yazidi and Christian civilians. “I have two kids and a beautiful woman at home,” he said. “She knows I’m here and she’s not happy about it, but she understands.”
He is just one of dozens – and possibly scores – of Americans who have traveled thousands of miles to northern Iraq to fight alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Christian militias and against Isis. Some of the volunteers are civilian with no military experience; others are veterans of the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; most have washed up in a war zone with little more than a one-way ticket and a few contacts made through Facebook.
These Americans have joined hundreds of western volunteers reported to have trickled into Iraq and Syria since Isis declared its caliphate last year. Their arrival has provoked mixed reactions on the ground: militia groups defending the Christian minority have expressed gratitude; some Kurdish fighters told the Guardian they would rather see the US government send guns and heavy artillery.
But the influx of American volunteers does not look set to end any time soon. Several new groups, predominantly of military veterans, have emerged, hoping to provide a more organized framework for those willing to risk their lives in a foreign war.
Several months before setting off from Boston, Grim began researching the Peshmerga online and came across two members of the Asayish – Iraqi Kurdistan’s intelligence and security forces – on Facebook. Many Peshmerga fighters and members of the security forces are easy to find on social media: there are several Facebook pages run by members of the forces themselves, and many of them keep their social media accounts public, with their contact information on full view.
After looking at different Peshmerga profiles, Grim said he chose three people to contact individually. “I followed their activities and when I felt comfortable, I told them I wanted to come and fight with them. I was welcomed with open arms.” That was enough reassurance for Grim to get on a plane to Erbil.
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