Report: 100-plus Americans fighting against ISIS

Report: 100-plus Americans fighting against ISIS
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More than 100 Americans have traveled overseas to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with local forces and militias, according to a new report.

The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue estimates that more than a third of 300 foreigners who have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS or the terrorist group formerly known as al Nusra are from the United States, with many of those being military veterans. 

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“Ex-military veteran fighters are also motivated by a desire to ‘finish the job’ and ensure previous sacrifices were not in vain,” says the report, released Tuesday. “This is true primarily among military veterans that have served in the region during the 'War on Terror.' Many fear that their previous efforts, and those of their colleagues that were killed or injured, will be in vain.”

The report is based on a database of 300 foreign anti-ISIS fighters compiled by the institute from open sources such as news reports and social media. The report cautions that it represents a sample, not a complete picture.

The 300 fighters come from 26 countries, with about 99 percent coming from Western or European countries. Americans make up the largest single country with 114 fighters, the report says.

The State Department has “strongly discouraged” Americans from traveling to Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS.

“The U.S. government does not support this activity, and our ability to provide consular assistance to individuals who are injured or kidnapped, or to the families of individuals who die as a result of taking part in the conflict, is extremely limited,” the State Department’s Syria travel warning reads.

Of the 193 fighters whose affiliation could be determined, about a third of the foreigners are fighting with the YPG, the Kurdish force in Syria, according to the report. Another 20 percent are fighting with the peshmerga, the Kurdish force in Iraq.

A “handful” is fighting with other groups such as Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army and various Shiite militias, according to the report.

Though the foreigners are referred to as fighters, many don’t see combat, according to the report.

“Often, inexperienced new recruits are engaged in low-level, menial tasks and are made to bide their time away from the action,” the report says. “Those with military experience or a particular set of skills can act as trainers to local fighters and militias, or provide specialist tactical, logistical or medical support.”

In addition to veterans wanting to “finish the job,” foreigners have a variety of motivations for joining anti-ISIS efforts. For example, some are frustrated with their own government’s response to terrorism.

“We occupied this land and left before they even had an air force,” the report quotes an American who served in a noncombat role in the U.S. Army and joined the YPG. “Today these kinds of atrocities are being committed and our governments are pretty much letting it happen.”

Others have joined because of dissatisfaction with their lives, report says.

“This time last year I was a stay at home mom/wife,” the report quotes an American who joined the YPG. “Even though I knew my marriage was up in flames I had still tried. I went through a very dark period in my life. … After joining the Kurds and seeing the problems first hand in other parts of the world my priorities were set straight again. Thousands don’t agree with my choice and honestly I don’t give a damn.”

Still others are motivated by a desire to protect an ethnicity or religion they have a connection to or simply to “fight against evil,” the report says.

“I don’t consider myself a hero or anything of the sort,” the report quotes an American veteran fighting with the peshmerga. “I came over here to help humans regardless of nationality, race or religion. Do I wish I got to do more? Yes, but with the situation given out unit, we’ve done all that we could.”