Skip to main content

Western volunteers rally to Iraq Christian militia

American, British and Canadian volunteers with military experience and 'patriotic' zeal flock to fight IS militants in Iraq
Brett, a US national who joined the Iraqi Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha, poses with his weapon for a photograph of his tattoo of Jesus on 5 February, 2015, in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Qosh (AFP)

Decked out in his US army-issued fatigues and a lip stud shining from his mouth, the young American fighter cuts an unusual figure in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Qosh.

He served in the US army in Baghdad in 2006-2007 and has now returned to fight the Islamic State (IS) group with Dwekh Nawsha, a Christian militia whose name is an Assyrian-language phrase conveying self-sacrifice.

The 28-year-old, who goes by the pseudonym Brett, has become the figurehead of an emerging movement of foreigners coming to Iraq to support Christian groups.

Bearing a tattoo of a machinegun on his left arm and another of Jesus in a crown of thorns on his right, Brett jokingly refers to himself as a "crusader".

IS never captured Al-Qosh - but it came close enough for its mostly Christian population to flee to the neighbouring autonomous region of Kurdistan.

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," Brett says, speaking from a Dwekh Nawsha base in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

"But here we're actually fighting for the freedom of the people here to be able live peaceably, to be able to live without persecution, to keep the church bells ringing."

'Patriotic as hell'

Also acting as a recruiter, Brett says he wants to establish a "foreign fighters' battalion".

In his first week in charge, he brought in five volunteers from the US, Britain and Canada, all of whom he says have military or contracting experience. 

Brett says he has 20 more volunteers already lined up to join. 

Brett's first recruit was Louis Park, a mild-mannered Texan who retired from the Marines in December.

"I did not adjust well at peace time," he said with dipping tobacco tucked in his lip. "I wanted to get back out here."

After serving in Afghanistan, Park says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder "and some other things" that barred him from combat deployments.

As early as October 2014, he began saving money to join the fight against IS.

Park says he travelled to Iraq to continue defending his country, even though Dwekh Nawsha - with barely a few hundred fighters in its ranks - sees little frontline action.

"I'm patriotic as hell," he says. "If my government won't fight them I will."

The growing contingent of foreign recruits have a variety of reasons for joining the Christian militia.

Andrew, an older man from Ontario, Canada, came because he heard about "slaughterhouses" where IS allegedly cuts people up for organ trafficking.

There is no evidence that such places exist but the rumour has been widely circulated by evangelical and anti-Islam organisations, especially in North America.

'A bunch of damn Reds'

One seven-year US army veteran called Scott says he was planning to join the Syria-based Kurdish "Popular Protection Units" (YPG) until he found out they were "a bunch of damn Reds."

Other foreigners in Dwekh Nawsha say they were turned off by what they see as the socialist streak in the YPG, an affiliate of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party whose months-long battle against IS in Kobane attracted many volunteers.

Alan Duncan, a prominent British foreign fighter and veteran of the Royal Irish Regiment, recently left the YPG for similar reasons.

He told AFP that an exodus of foreign fighters from the YPG had begun, naming several well-known volunteers currently fighting for the group he says plan to leave in the coming days.

Jordan Matson, a former US soldier who has become the poster boy of YPG foreign fighters, argued that some volunteers may have lost their bottle when confronted with the intensity of the fighting in Kobane.

"Most of the internet cowboys have come to realise this isn't a normal deployment," he told AFP. "So they lose the stomach to come or stay."