Facebook campaign draws foreign fighters to the Kurds

Facebook campaign draws foreign fighters to the Kurds
Fighters from across Europe and North America are travelling to support Kurdish forces in northern Syria - and taking to social media to attract more recruits.
3 min read
25 November, 2014
Westerners travelling to fight the Islamic State group have denied being 'mercenaries' [AFP]

The thousands of young men travelling to fight what they believe to be a religiously inspired jihad in Iraq and Syria has captivated the attention of politicians and the media in Europe and north America.

There are, however, other militant westerners making the voyage to the region - but to fight on the other side.

The intense media coverage of the battle for the Kurdish-dominated town of Kobane in northern Syria helped recruit westerners to join the fight against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

The recruitment of these fighters and the debate as to whether they are merceneries or merely volunteers has played out on social media.

    

This picture shows a number of westerners fighting alongside the Kurdish forces in Syria. Brits James Hughes and Jamie Read and American Jordan Matson are among them.

The Lions of Rojava Facebook site was set up by the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) and has gained almost 22,000 "likes" since it was established around a month ago.

It invites people to join the YPG in Kurdish northern Syria and "send terrorists to hell and save humanity".

All three men named in the picture have military backgrounds and the Guardian ran a story describing "UK 'mercenaries' fighting Islamic State terrorist forces in Syria".

The Facebook profiles for the two Brits show that Hughes served in Afghanistan three times and left the army this year after five years' service. Jamie Read trained with the French army. Matson, who is reported to have recruited the Brits, was in the US military for two years but never served abroad. 

The label "mercenary" was quickly denied on Twitter.

Graham Penrose is the owner of TMG Corporate Services, whose expertise include private maritime mecurity, private military security and close protection services. 

Acting in "a personal capacity" as a liaison between the Englishmen and their families, Penrose responded to the Guardian article in an open letter. "They have chosen to take action while leaders of the international community stand by and observe genocide," he wrote. "They have been called 'mercenaries' for doing this."

The comments on the page show support from around the globe for protecting the Kurdish people, and even more commonly, for fighting the hardline doctrine of IS. 

Many of the people offering to come out and fight are former military men who view the conflict as unfinished business from their campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm an infantryman from Arizona," begins one comment. "I've already been to Afghanistan twice. Someone please message me about the process to go fight the enemy again."

The Lions of Rojava page continues to advertise the arrival of new foreign fighters among the ranks of the Kurdish forces.

    



The flight of large numbers of young Muslims to fight their perceived idea of jihad has alarmed security services in the West. Countries including the UK and France are in the process of amending laws to increase the powers of the security and intelligence services.

However, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said there is a "fundamental difference" between fighting for the Kurds and joining IS.

Although it could be an offence to take part in a conflict overseas, the Home Office explained that the law makes provisions for dealing with "different conflicts in different ways". Dozens of British citizens fight each year in the Israeli army, for example.

The UK government, along with other western governments, is directly arming the Kurds - yet civilian support for their armed groups is legally problematic, as the YPG is aligned to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, which is deemed a terrorist organisation in many western capitals.