Washington-Growing numbers of Westerners appear to be trying to join the fight against ISIS in Iraq before it’s too late, frontline volunteer warriors say.
Although limited or unreliable public data make it difficult to track numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests aspiring anti-jihadists — many of them military veterans — recognize they may be running out of time to fight ISIS in a pitched battle as the group loses territory and morphs into a traditional terror group.
The volunteers are eager despite being strongly discouraged — and sometimes banned by their home countries — from doing so.
Louis Park, a 26-year-old Texan who returned to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region for a second stint with local anti-ISIS forces in June, told Agence France Presse he had seen a sharp uptick in queries from aspiring Western fighters.
“People know that the end is near and they are trying to get in while they can,” said the U.S. Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Park has embedded with the Dwekh Nawsha, an Assyrian Christian militia working with U.S.-backed Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect the towns of Telskuf and nearby Baqufa, around 30 kilometers north of Mosul.
“I’m getting inquiries from all around the world — 60 or 70 since I’ve been back,” he said in a phone interview from close to the Baqufa frontline.
According to a study released last week by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, of the 300 or so foreign fighters it tracked via social media heading to fight ISIS, more than a third are Americans.
The fighters are motivated by various factors, including wanting to make a difference or do something meaningful in their lives, and anger over a perceived inadequate international effort to counter ISIS’ barbaric acts.
“The primary grievance relates to atrocities being committed against civilians, with many accusing world leaders of turning a blind eye to the ongoing suffering of those caught up in the conflict,” the report said.
Another volunteer fighter who goes by the nom de guerre “Mike” said he is getting around a dozen messages a day from people who want to join the fight. A year ago, it would have taken him a week to get as many.
The uptick in foreigners heading to the Iraq’s Kurdish region has put authorities in a bind, with increasing scrutiny of volunteers and the equipment they bring.
“My advice for them would be: don’t bother coming down here,” the former Norwegian soldier with Kurdish roots said in an email.
“You will most likely not be allowed to fight and will leave broke and disappointed.”
The Kurdish government is under considerable pressure to keep Western volunteers away from the front line, he added.
“So they often place them at inactive fronts or in camps, where they are safe and free to post pictures of themselves with gear and weapons on their Facebook page,” Mike, 31, said.
Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites are filled with images from volunteers — sometimes showing dead ISIS fighters, sometimes depicting the monotony of life on the front.
Park and Mike have garnered tens of thousands of followers under their Instagram handles.
While most requests come from Americans, Mike said he’s received inquiries from Australians, Europeans and even from an Iranian.
“I’m guessing people are realizing ISIS is coming to an end and want to be able to tell people back home they have fought them in the battlefield,” he added.