VOL­UN­TEERS BAT­TLE THE IS­LAMIC STATE

Amer­i­can, Bri­tish vol­un­teers bat­tle the Is­lamic State in Syria’s Raqqa

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah El Deeb The As­so­ci­ated Press

Dozens of Western vol­un­teers who have bat­tled the Is­lamic State in Iraq are now in Raqqa, the city in north­east­ern Syria that the mil­i­tants de­clared the cap­i­tal of their self-pro­claimed caliphate. Some are mo­ti­vated by sur­vivors’ ac­counts of bru­tal­ity at the hands of the ex­trem­ists, oth­ers for a fi­nal bat­tle to tear out the “heart of dark­ness.”

RAQQA, SYRIA» Hunkered down on the top floor of an aban­doned build­ing, two Amer­i­cans and a Bri­tish vol­un­teer face off against Is­lamic State snipers in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa. The trio, in­clud­ing two who served in the French For­eign Le­gion and the war in Iraq, have made the war against the Is­lamic State their own.

They are among dozens of Western vol­un­teers who have bat­tled the Is­lamic State in Iraq and now in Raqqa, the city in north­east­ern Syria that the mil­i­tants de­clared the cap­i­tal of their self-pro­claimed caliphate.

The men joined U.S.-al­lied Syr­ian mili­tias for dif­fer­ent rea­sons — some mo­ti­vated by sur­vivors’ ac­counts of bru­tal­ity at the hands of the ex­trem­ists. Oth­ers joined what they see as a quest for jus­tice and a fi­nal bat­tle to tear out the “heart of dark­ness.”

Tay­lor Hud­son, a 33-year old from Pasadena, Calif., com­pares the fight for Raqqa to the 1945 Bat­tle of Ber­lin in World War II that ended the rule of Adolf Hitler.

“This is the Ber­lin of our times,” said Hud­son, who dou­bles as a pla­toon medic and a sniper in the bat­tle against the mil­i­tants. For him, Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists “rep­re­sent every­thing that is wrong with hu­man­ity.”

Syria’s war, now in its sev­enth year, has at­tracted for­eign fighters to all sides.

Ex­trem­ists from Europe, Asia and North Africa have flocked to the Is­lamic State as well as lo­cal al-Qaeda-linked groups. Shi­ite Ira­nian and Le­banese mili­tias have sided with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, deep­en­ing the sec­tar­ian na­ture of the con­flict that has killed over 400,000 peo­ple and dis­placed over 11 mil­lion, half of Syria’s pre-war pop­u­la­tion.

A much smaller num­ber of Western vol­un­teers fight along­side the U.S.-al­lied Kur­dish mili­tia known as the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG. The U.S. mil­i­tary has de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship with the YPG and its ex­ten­sion, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, in the war against the Is­lamic State.

Be­fore that, dozens of West­ern­ers joined Iraqi Kurds fight­ing the Is­lamic State, spurred on by Kur­dish so­cial me­dia cam­paign­ers and a sense of duty many feel af­ter Iraq, the tar­get of a decade-long U.S.-led mil­i­tary cam­paign, col­lapsed un­der an Is­lamic State of­fen­sive within days in the sum­mer of 2014.

Some Western vol­un­teers have died in bat­tle. In 2016, two Coloradans — Jor­dan MacTag­gart of Cas­tle Rock and Levi “Jack” Shirley of Ar­vada — were killed while fight­ing with the YPG to lib­er­ate Man­bij, a Syr­ian city that was oc­cu­pied by the Is­lamic State. This month, the YPG an­nounced that 28-year-old Robert Grodt of Santa Cruz, Calif., and 29-year-old Ni­cholas Alan War­den of Buf­falo, N.Y., died in the bat­tle for Raqqa.

Since launch­ing the push on Raqqa on June 6, the U.S.-backed forces have taken a third of the city.

Hud­son, who has been fight­ing in Syria for the past 13 months, said he was moved to tears by me­dia re­ports of Iraqi Yazidi women en­slaved by the Is­lamic State. A phar­macy stu­dent who learned com­bat medicine in the field, he said he had treated some 600 wounded be­fore the march to Raqqa.

The pres­ence of Western anti-Is­lamic State vol­un­teers in Syria has cre­ated some­thing of a co­nun­drum for their govern­ments, which have of­ten ques­tioned them on ter­ror­ism charges.

“I am not a ter­ror­ist,” said Macer Gif­ford, a 30-year for­mer bro­ker in London, who came to Syria three years ago to vol­un­teer first with the Kur­dish mili­tia. Now he is fight­ing with an Assyr­ian mili­tia against the Is­lamic State. “I am here de­fend­ing the peo­ple of Syria against ter­ror­ists,” he added.

For Kevin Howard, a 28-year old for­mer U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tor from Cal­i­for­nia who fought in Iraq in 2006, the war is more per­sonal.

A skilled sniper who boasts of hav­ing killed 12 Is­lamic State mil­i­tants so far, Howard said he is do­ing it for the vic­tims of the Bat­a­clan theatre at­tack in France, where the sis­ter of one of his best friends sur­vived. The Nov. 13, 2015, at­tacks, claimed by the Is­lamic State, killed 130 peo­ple at Paris cafes, the na­tional sta­dium and the Bat­a­clan, where 90 died.

“This is a con­tin­u­a­tion of that fight. I think if you leave some­thing un­fin­ished, it will re­main un­fin­ished for a life­time,” he said, show­ing off his 1972 sniper ri­fle.

Hus­sein Malla, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Kevin Howard, a 28-year old for­mer U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tor from Cal­i­for­nia, fights with an Assyr­ian mili­tia that is part of the U.S.-backed forces bat­tling Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists. Be­hind him is Tay­lor Hud­son, also of Cal­i­for­nia.

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