Terra incognita The heroes of our generation - The foreigners fighting Islamic State

In a world where so many find IS inspiring, they are a testament to the fact that there is a moral core of humanity that are willing to rise to the challenge when confronted by evil.

ISIS militant. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISIS militant.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Why I left? Because I couldn’t sit around any longer watching innocent women and children being raped and slaughtered. ISIS [Islamic State, also known as ISIL or IS] is a cancer and needs to be destroyed before it spreads any further.”
The quote was attributed to Ashley Dyball, a native of Brisbane, Australia who, according to reports, arrived in Iraq on May 5 and sought to join Syrian Kurdish forces in the war against Islamist extremists. His friend Reece Harding, also from Australia and 23 years old, had just been killed by a land mine while fighting.
“I have his sawn-off shotgun and will use it to avenge him,” Dyball was quoted as saying.
Harding’s father in Australia told reporters that “with all the information that’s spread about on the Internet with people beheading people, killing children, raping and beating women, I think it really did get to him in the end.” Harding and Dyball have joined a growing list of foreign, mostly English-speaking men who have traveled to Syria to fight IS. Estimates put the number of foreigners fighting with the Kurdish YPG, which has received the most volunteers, at between 200 and 400. In February Jordan Matson, a US veteran who was one of the early volunteers, told Fox News that around 40-50 foreigners were serving alongside him. He told the interviewer that he had gotten tired of watching Yezidis, Christians and others being massacred by the extremists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the fighters come from Europe, Australia, North America and South America.
But these handful of men are dwarfed by the staggering numbers of foreign fighters flocking to join their opponents. There are thought to be more than 20,000 foreigners who have joined the ranks of IS, more than 5,000 of them from Europe. More than 1,200 volunteers have come from France as well as 500-600 from the UK and Germany.
It’s interesting to consider the diametrically opposed motivations of these two groups. In May a Yezidi woman kidnapped by IS last year in Iraq told reporters that she was sold for $34 to an Australian IS fighter named Khaled Sharrouf. A 19-year-old told how “girls and mothers were dragged into cattle trucks by their hair before being taken to Mosul,” Islamic State’s main stronghold in Iraq, “where they were divided according to age and marital status before being forced to convert to Islam and sold off.”
Many of the foreign men who journeyed to Iraq and Syria to support Islamic State boasted online of raping women and of the joy of killing. This is the extraordinary thing about the war in Syria and Iraq: men from places like Australia or the UK saw the same images online and one group was outraged and sought to protect the weak, while the other saw a chance for its Hobbessian hedonistic tendencies to be indulged. The best that humanity can produce went to serve alongside the Kurds, and the worst that humanity can produce went to serve alongside IS.
It is an extraordinary story that draws comparisons to the International Brigades that went to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascism in the 1930s, made famous in such books as For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the moral clarity in the war against IS is even greater than that of the fight against fascism in the 1930s. People often forget, but the true depths Nazism would reach were not yet known in the 1930s. IS has proudly broadcast its mass murder for more than a year. IS boasted of its massacre at Camp Speicher in Iraq where 1,700 young Iraqi Shi’ite cadets were killed. It boasted of selling Yezidi women and raping them.
I remember last year, before many IS Twitter accounts were closed down, men with clearly British origins boasting of what to do with the “kuffar.” They reveled in the mass killing. One man, calling himself Abu Yazid, wrote, “We have a wonderful children’s play area.
Instead of a little ball pit they can jump in to it’s a pit of kuffar heads.” An Australian with the Twitter handle @ hafsozzie wrote, “Anyone interested 1 of 7 yehzidi slave girls for sale $2500 each don’t worry brothers she won’t disappoint you,” and he included a photo of a woman.
An American named “Scott” told The Independent that when he was fighting in Iraq with the Kurdish peshmerga they had killed an IS fighter and found that his gun had been decorated with a bone from a human spine.
“If that doesn’t sound satanic, I don’t know what does,” he said.
But it isn’t satanic; the evil men of IS are in fact often born and bred in the West. These aren’t some ignorant people schooled for decades on hate in the Middle East who came in droves to join IS, but people from wealthy and middle class neighborhoods throughout Europe, America and Australia. They learned their little lessons about democracy and human rights in school. They are evidence of the moral breakdown in Western societies caused by lack of moral clarity and the triumph of moral relativism.
On July 6 the BBC published an article discussing whether it was illegal to display an IS flag in London, after pictures emerged of a man walking near Westminister with a toddler and the group’s trademark black flag. But the debate shouldn’t be about whether it was illegal, but rather why no one cared or protested at the time. A man walked proudly next to the UK center of government bearing a flag that represents mass murder and enslavement, and no one cared.
That’s a real testament to Western morality.
The news articles about the “lonely Westerners” who join IS, like the June 27 article in The New York Times about the 23-year old American woman and Sunday school teacher from a rural community that embraced IS online, reveal a startling truth. The same Americans outraged about the Confederate flag willingly embrace modern-day slavery. People offended by the Nazi swastika will embrace its modern-day equivalent. Unlike IS the Nazis didn’t advertise the gas chambers, but the murderers in Iraq and Syria proudly post videos of people being burned to death or drowned, like the two media activists from the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently NGO that were filmed being executed on July 5.
Tens of thousands of people with access to the highest standard of living in human history, the greatest access to universal education and the most freedoms, willingly embrace the very antithesis of what they have been given.
On the other side of the coin, only a tiny group of people truly hate IS and truly believe in defending the weak and persecuted in Syria and Iraq. Only a handful. They get no hero’s welcome back home. They get no financial support. Lip service is paid to “never again,” but given the chance to actually stop these depredations, the level of commitment is paltry. Sixty-two nations are supposedly fighting IS, but when the Islamists lined men up and executed them in broad daylight in the UNESCO site Palmyra, no one did anything. If IS was on the run it couldn’t do that. When CNN went to publish a list of 25 endangered places it didn’t even bother to mention the archaeological sites IS destroyed. A program sponsored by the US to train Syrian opposition fighters has only trained 60 fighters, according to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on July 7. That’s the real story of the commitment to Syria’s opposition: millions of dollars and 60 people trained.
Our generation should see Dyball, Hardings and others like them as heroes of our time. In a world where so many find IS inspiring, they are a testament to the fact that there is a moral core of humanity that are willing to rise to the challenge when confronted by evil. Evil succeeds when the good do nothing. A handful of good people, responding to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” sought out foreign battlefields to defend the weak. Many have already paid with their lives. But they must not be forgotten. For every 100 foreigners who joined IS, only one has gone to join the Kurds. But the moral clarity of that 1% is worth all the rest.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman