Westerners paying own way to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

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MILES AMOORE THE SUNDAY TIMES Amid a rain-soaked field of yellow flowers roughly 1.5km from where Islamic State militants are dug in, Alan Duncan, a Gulf War veteran, scans the mountainside for signs of the enemy.
Machineguns clatter in the distance as the former British soldier turned double glazing salesman, clutching a modified assault rifle and wearing a light vest stuffed with ammunition, patrols the front line in northern Iraq between Kurdish security forces and fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“They (Islamic State) are murderers, child rapists, they’re not even fit to be called humans,” says Duncan, 47, explaining why he traded civilian life in northeast Scotland for a chance to wage war against one of the most barbaric terrorist organisations in the world.

While Western intelligence agencies struggle to stop their ­citizens joining Islamic State, a small, yet growing, band of men and women have joined the other side.

The cause has attracted a ­bizarre array of former soldiers, surfers, bikers, adventure-seekers, arms dealers and a handful of evangelical Christians who believe they are waging a crusade.

Their motives are equally ­eclectic: revulsion at Islamic State’s beheading of hostages, the collapse of the Iraqi army, boredom or the chance of combat after years in the army. Others liken their struggle to that of the British and US volunteers who fought fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Duncan, who joined the Royal Irish Regiment aged 16, says he was horrified as he watched reports last year of how Islamic State gradually took over parts of Syria before butchering its way across the border into Iraq.

“I was kind of getting restless,” said Duncan, who wears a pistol on his hip of the sort that the Iraqi ­dictator Saddam Hussein gave his officers as a present.

“It was going away from a so-called people’s revolution in Syria to it becoming about Islamic ­extremism. And we were still throwing them arms. We were basically arming extremists.”

Late last year, after contacting Jordan Matson, a US fundamentalist Christian fighting in Syria, he joined Syrian Kurds fighting for the YPG, or people’s defence units.

Soon he was laying ambushes, sneaking through ­Islamic State lines at night to plant homemade bombs and fending off attacks on the front line.

However, Duncan quickly ­realised that the YPG fighters he was with were “as socialist as hell”, an ideology that clashed with his right-wing views — so he went home to his fiancee.

Undaunted, he returned, joining up with a newly formed Assyrian Christian militia fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces in northern Iraq.

The trip has cost him $US13,800, some of which he raised through a crowd-funding website.

Duncan is one of just seven foreign fighters with the militia, Dwekh Nawsha — whose name means “self-sacrifice” in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Christ — a fraction of the 50 to 100 foreign fighters with the YPG.

A three-hour drive south of their headquarters in Dohuk, ­trenches stretch for hundreds of kilometres through verdant hills scattered with bombed-out villages that mark the point where ­Islamic State was driven back by Kurdish forces and allied airstrikes in August.

For now, Kurdish forces in Iraq appear reluctant to allow foreigners to fight on the front line. US special forces have removed some from the battlefield.

Although the wait has been frustrating, Duncan and his fellow volunteers are optimistic that they will get official permission soon. Until then, they spend most of their time at headquarters, reading Kindles, listening to music on iPods, updating Facebook pages and drinking tea.

Tensions have flared. Duncan has been especially riled by one volunteer, a young American evangelical called Brett.

“He had long hair and this lip piercing, stalking about as if he’s some sort of gangster, using Facebook as a dating agency,” Duncan said with disgust. “He was calling himself ‘soldier of Christ’ and saying he sees it as a crusade. The ­Assyrians hated it. This fight isn’t about religion. This is about everyone — Muslims, Christians, everyone — working together against one common enemy. This is about humanity.”

Duncan is equally dismissive of other volunteers, many of whom he refers to as “clowns and Muppets” seeking “Facebook likes and five minutes of fame”. Others he calls “Xbox warriors. They’re young kids from the UK and US. They don’t realise in war you don’t get three lives. It’s not this comfy game. You’re sitting freezing your arse off. You’re not getting fed properly, you’re tired, you’re on guard duty. They are a waste of time and dangerous.”

Kurdish commanders say their weapons, some made in the 1960s, lack the firepower to take on the heavily armoured US military vehicles that Islamic State captured from the Iraqi army.

Duncan says anti-tank missiles, general purpose machineguns and sniper rifles would be enough to tip the balance and allow the Peshmerga to punch through ­Islamic State lines.

Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled Hamzo, commander of a Peshmerga commando unit, sits across from Duncan on the floor of a headquarters a few kilometres from Islamic State positions.

Although arming Kurdish forces would upset the West’s ties with Turkey, wealthy Westerners are working behind the scenes to send funds and aid to the Kurds.

Among them is Foster Friess, a US Republican multi-millionaire. The right-wing Christian donor is lobbying Washington to send weapons directly to Kurdish forces rather than via the central government in Baghdad.

Friess’s efforts have sparked­ ­rumours he wants to use his wealth and influence to arm the Kurds privately, which he denies.

“The US administration refuses to recognise that in this case the undeniable main effort on the ground in this war to defend ­humanity is the Kurdish Peshmerga,” said a retired brigadier ­general, Ernie Audino, who advises Friess. “There is no war against ISIS without them.”

Others have taken a more hands-on approach. Matthew VanDyke, a US filmmaker, spent the winter with four former US soldiers training a militia of ­Assyrian Christians at a covert training camp inside Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

“We are crowd-funding the war on terror,” said VanDyke, who set up a group called Sons of Liberty International to raise funds for his training mission.

It is unclear how Western governments will respond to the private individuals who train and fight alongside foreign forces.

Duncan is adamant he will stay in Iraq until Islamic State is ­defeated. He is desperate to fight in the battle for the city of Tikrit.

He has planned for any eventuality, even his own capture. “I have a couple of pistol rounds just in case,” he says. “They will never take me. I’m too much of a coward to go through all the torturing they do.”

The Sunday Times