Do Britons joining Kurds to fight IS 'pose security risk' to UK?

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg    


British volunteers fighting against ISIS in Syria pose a domestic security threat to the UK, a Henry Jackson Society report written by young analyst Kyle Orton argues.

The report suggests that volunteers that joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG) could participate in ‘criminal-terrorist activities’ of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or could be recruited by other ‘extremist’ groups to carry out domestic terrorist attacks or ‘lone-actor atrocities’ upon return.

The report is full with fallacies such as suggesting that the PKK headquarters in Qandil is close to Suleymaniyah. Moreover, it falsely suggests that foreign volunteers travel by plane to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan and travel to Qandil for training and then go to fight in Syria.

In reality, the majority of the foreign volunteers go to Sulaymaniyah, connect with the YPG there, and then get smuggled over the border if they get permission from the YPG. Once they are inside Syria, they receive some training including on language, the YPG, ideology inside the academy for foreign volunteers. They are not trained in the Qandil mountains.

Furthermore, the report argues that volunteers could join other extremist organisations without specifying which: “Increasing the number of disturbed people with military training by allowing more to join the YPG provides a potential opening for foreign terrorist organisations,” the report says. It seems unlikely that volunteers that fought for years against ISIS suddenly grow a beard and join Jihadist groups like al Qaeda or ISIS to attack the UK.

British volunteers were very angered by the report, ridiculing the claims that volunteers would go back to the UK to carry out attacks on their own homeland. In fact, many of them say they wanted to join the YPG to fight ISIS, since they thought the British government wasn’t doing enough. There might be many different motivations for volunteers to join the YPG, but none of them would be the motivation to carry out terrorist attacks in the UK.

“What drove me to risk my life in Syria was the reluctance of the UK government to confront the Islamic State in any significant way. I do not blame Britain completely for the rise of ISIS but there is little doubt our actions in 2006 were a direct contributor,” Macer Gifford, one of the volunteers profiled in the report wrote in an opinion piece after the Manchester attacks. Now Gifford is fighting in Raqqa.

The YPG never had any ambitions to carry out atrocities in the UK. In fact, the YPG is the main partner for the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS. The UK is part of this coalition. British Major General Rupert Jones often visits Ain al Issa to discuss the recent progress against ISIS by the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqqa.

Joe Ackerman, one British volunteer profiled by Orton’s report was infuriated by the report accusing the author of being influenced by Turkey. “It’s madness, a definitely Turkish influenced piece as everything he talks about exactly comes from the AKP [Turkey ruling Justice and Development Party] affiliates,” he said. “To say we Westerners could possibly attack our homelands, laughable,” he said.

Aiden Aslin, another British volunteer profiled in the report that according to Orton could ‘radicalise’ and carry out ‘lone-actor atrocities’ or ‘crimes’ in the UK, did not even return to the UK getting tired of British police harassment and decided to go to Greece to help refugees instead.

“We started the fundraiser to raise funds to get a laptop as a teaching aid to teach English to Kurdish refugees to help them be able to report exploitation and sexual harassment and to ask for help along their way through Europe if they decide to continue,” Aslin told The Region a few weeks ago.

It seems the risks posed by British volunteers are marginal and after the fight against ISIS is done, it’s unlikely many British volunteers will go to Syria to join the YPG.