These Westerners Joined an Iraqi Militia
The foreign fighters told us they’ll die to defend religious minorities
When an Islamic State blitzkrieg broke Kurdish lines in August, many of Iraq’s minority communities suddenly found themselves vulnerable. Thousands faced genocide, including Iraqi Christians who had depended on the Kurds for protection.
Many Christians fled to Western countries in search of asylum. But others wanted payback.
Several have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga, or formed militias of their own. One such group is the Assyrian Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha—Aramaic for “self-sacrifice.” Recently, several Westerners have traveled to Iraq and joined the militia.
In interviews with the foreign fighters, several claimed they had prior military experience. They told us they joined the group to fight back against Islamic State—a fanatical army the militia members asserted Western governments aren’t taking seriously.
But the Rev. Andrew White, a British-born priest known as “The Vicar of Baghdad,” said joining a militia is a terrible idea. White has lived in Iraq for years overseeing his congregation at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad.
He was active in promoting interfaith dialogue during the height of sectarian violence during the last Iraq war—and worked with both Sunni and Shia religious leaders. He survived dozens of kidnapping and assassination attempts. During the war, many of his staff died.
Today, he’s concerned about Christians traveling to Iraq to join the the latest war. He warned that Iraqi Christian groups have proven time and again to be “hopeless at fighting.” He said the newcomers don’t know what they’re up against with Islamic State.
“If going to join the new militia makes them feel good, great. But it will achieve absolutely nothing,” White recently told reporters at a fundraiser.
“There is very little that any Iraqi Christian or British Christian can do to help,” he added. “The best thing they can do is stay at home.”
Here to fight
“Shame on him,” responded Brett, an American who joined up with the Dwekh Nawsha. To protect his family, we have not published the militiaman’s last name, or the last names of other Western foreign fighters.
Brett scoffed at the reverend’s warning. “I don’t know what kind of Christians he deals with,” he told War Is Boring. “His people might not have the backbone to defend the people. We do and we’ll die for that.”
Scott, another American taking up arms with the militia, was similarly critical. “Maybe down in Baghdad they just want to run like the the Iraqi army did,” he said. “They need some leadership, evidently the vicar isn’t providing that.”
“He could stand up there like Gandalf in [the] Hobbit and say, ‘Thou shalt not pass,’ right?” Scott added. “But all he wants to do is complain about the Christian militias—he’s not helping anything. We need people who can solve problems, not people who complain.”
Brett said he previously deployed to Iraq as a U.S. Army soldier in 2006 and 2007. By the time Islamic State swept into Iraq, he was attending college in Lebanon, where he was learning Arabic and majoring in Near Eastern studies.
He said Islamic State’s atrocities against Christians and Yezidis motivated him to leave Lebanon and to fight against the Sunni jihadi group in Iraq. Brett recounted that he was particularly drawn to the plight of the Iraqi Assyrians, but insisted that he’s motivated to help all of the country’s religious minorities.
“Our aim is to give everyone the ability to practice their religion freely and to get the persecution out of here,” he said. “Because it’s an issue. It’s a big issue.”
Scott, a computer engineer and Army veteran, watched the war unfold from the United States. At first, he wanted to join the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
He learned about the YPG delivering aid to Yezidi refugees on Mount Sinjar, and he watched Internet videos of the Kurdish fighters in combat. Scott said he was unaware of any Christian militias fighting in Iraq at the time.
But Scott’s contacts in the YPG suggested he check out the Dwekh Nawsha instead, and told him the group might be a better fit. “I asked, ‘OK, how do you spell it?’ No wonder I didn’t find it, I was looking for ‘Christian’ on Google.”
He insisted he’s in Iraq to protect all people—Christian, Jewish, Yezidi and Muslim—from Islamic State. All the same, he said he’s glad to have found the militia, and to be with fellow Westerners who’ve joined their cause.
“I would personally rather be with Christians, because they can relate better,” Scott explained.
During the last few weeks, Scott said he’s become passionate about the plight of the Assyrians. “I started doing what little research and little education I had on the subject, and they’re a dying breed,” the software engineer said. “And I’d like to keep that from happening.”
“Daesh seems to want to clean the earth of Christians in the Middle East and of anyone else who doesn’t share their ideology of hate and destruction,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
“We need more supplies, we need more heavy weapons, we need more funds, but we’re doing a very good job with what we have,” said Tim, a British national volunteering with the militia.
Tim has no military experience, but he previously worked as a corrections officer and a bouncer. He isn’t religious, but said he supports religious freedom.
He sold his successful construction company to pay for his journey to Iraq. Like Scott, he originally planned to join the YPG, but shifted his sights toward the Dwekh Nawsha at the last minute.
The militia is still getting itself established. Lately, they’ve focused on paperwork, training and logistics as they prepare for battle. But it won’t be easy—they’re going up against the best funded and best equipped terrorist organization in the world.
When Islamic State invaded Iraq last year, the jihadi group looted Iraqi army supply depots. The militants seized state-of-the-art American weapons meant for Iraqi troops, including armored vehicles, artillery and heavy support weapons. Early in the war, Kurdish commanders warned Western governments that Islamic State had better weapons.
But Brett said that doesn’t scare him.
“They can have all the weapons they want, but they don’t have faith, they don’t have God.”
He pointed out that Islamic State has suffered several setbacks, and that the Peshmerga has essentially driven the jihadists back to Mosul. “Their weapons aren’t doing them any good,” he said.
Brett claimed Dwek Nawsha members have received the weapons they need, and are consistently getting more. He said the militia wants to purchase Humvees and other armored vehicles for the Assyrians. But finding the vehicles isn’t the problem.
“There’s many places we can get it, but it’s more funding to buy a couple of them.”
In the meantime, he and his fellow foreign fighters have devoted more time to training the Assyrians, and sharing the skills they said they learned in the military and security fields. Brett has been teaching them how to clear rooms.
“We’ll make them a very legitimate force,” the former Army private first class said.
Brett claimed the militia is “strong and getting stronger.” He told us that in addition to the local Assyrian recruits, he’s received emails every day from Christians around the world who want to join. But he insisted the militia only recruits westerners if they have military or security backgrounds.
The Dwekh Nawsha works “hand-in-hand with the Peshmerga,” he said. But he added that the militia hasn’t received material support from the Kurdish regional government or the Iraqi national government.
“The support we’re getting is from the Assyrians and the Christians around the world,” Brett explained. “We’re not getting any funding from any government, nothing like that. So we found other ways to circumvent this issue.”
A complicated war
Scott admitted that prior to attempting to join the YPG, he didn’t fully understand its relationship with the Kurdish PKK—a Turkey-based political party the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist group.
But he said he’s gradually come to understand the region’s complicated power dynamics. “One thing I’ve noticed about Iraq and Kurdistan is all the politics involved,” Scott added.
He insisted he doesn’t want to cause any problems with any of the other groups. “We are really here just to help them,” he said.
The Western militia fighters asserted they’ve worked with several other fighting groups. Brett even claimed they’ve worked with U.S. Special Forces troops in the Assyrian village of Baqofa.
But working together with local factions can be a challenge. Few of the Westerners speak any Aramaic or Kurdish—but Brett said his knowledge of Arabic helped him get around the region and communicate. He noted he would like to learn Iraq’s minority languages after he masters Arabic.
“It’s a team effort,” Brett said. “It has to be.”
But the Kurdish Peshmerga has lately asserted that they aren’t interested in bringing Western fighters into their ranks—with the exception of members of the Kurdish diaspora—unless they’re coalition advisers.
Military officials have begun to discourage Western volunteers from traveling to Kurdistan to fight, and warned the Peshmerga may try to stop others from going to the front.
Still, the foreign fighters with the Dwekh Nawsha said they want to build a good relationship with the Pesh, and were hopeful they will get the chance to fight.
Scott said he’s eager to help the Kurds any way he can—in particular, he’d like to share his skills with software and radio communications. He suggested that in return, the Peshmerga could give the Assyrian fighters weapons and equipment they’re not using.
“That’s what I would like to see, a lot of good cooperation.”
He said he feels a responsibility to help the Kurds, and explained they’ve been stalwart allies of the West throughout the ’90s and during the Iraq War.
“I wasn’t involved in the Iraqi war, but I personally think I owe them for all the help they gave my brothers and sisters,” he said.
Brett opined that Pres. Barack Obama’s policy of trying to assist moderate Sunni Arab fighters is a failure. The militiaman asserted that any time Sunni Arab fighters face the possibility of dying in battle, they flip sides and join Islamic State. He suggested that Western aid should instead go to Christians and Kurds.
“Why aren’t we arming the people that are helping to preserve peace for all people here?” Brett asked. “As far as I’m concerned our government isn’t doing anything. They talk a lot, but most of them are too busy playing golf to do anything.”
Scott said that what’s happening in Iraq and Syria should worry Westerners. “Believe in your values,” he said. “Believe in the things that make America great, or England great, the things that make France and all of Europe great.”
“Think of that and try to help the Kurds, help the Yezidis, all of the people here under the oppression of Daesh and help them using those same values.”
“I try to defend those values because the Kurds uphold those values pretty much,” he added. “As far as I know.”
But many Iraqi Christians—who these Westerners have come to help—have already fled to Western countries, rather than live in squalid refugee camps and dangerous front-line towns.
Scott said that he’s sympathetic to those who left.
“You know, they’ve lived here more than me, they know more than me, I don’t have any right to judge them or why they left,” Scott said. “But personally I think they should come back.”
He said he understood their fear, and gets why religious leaders like White are skeptical of him and other Western foreign fighters. “They have every right to be afraid” he added. “[But] there are people out there like Dwekh Nawsha who are here to help them.”
Scott suggested that Assyrian refugees should return to join the militia and fight the militants, reclaim their homes and help rebuild both Kurdistan and Nineveh province.
The software engineer turned militiaman said he felt a sense of fulfillment being in Iraq. “It’s the best decision I think I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.