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Virtual Recruitment of Foreign Fighters and Their Threat Upon Return: The Case of the Peshmerga and the People’s Protection Units
Thomas Hader and Peter K. Forster
Although not a new phenomenon, the term “foreign fighter” or “foreign terrorist fighter” (FTF)[i] have been popularized in recent years in response to the unprecedented increase in the number of non-state actors traveling to fight for foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS. The largest spikes occurred between 2014 and 2015 in Iraq and Syria.[ii] While the FTFs joining ISIS received the most attention, overlooked were the individuals travelling to fight alongside the Kurdish militias against ISIS. With ISIS largely defeat by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), one of the primary factors driving Western recruits to join Kurdish militias, specifically the Peshmerga and People's Protection Units (YPG) which were part of the SDF, was apparently eliminated. However, the Turkish Operation Olive Branch, which is intent on eliminating the YPG from northern Syria, is renewing the possibility of a resurgent flow of Western fighters to the region.
The Turkish government views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); a US State Department designated foreign terrorist organization. The YPG denies any connections. In January 14, 2018, Turkey initiated a military intervention into northern Syria. This was in response to the US announced intention to arm and train a 30,000-man SDF border patrol force to be deployed along the Turkish and Syrian border.[iii] Initially, Turkey condemned the plan, citing the armament of the YPG a threat to its national security. Then in an unexpected move, Turkish troops attacked the city of Afrin, Syria with a mission to destroy all YPG strongholds. Turkish officials stated that they are intent on pushing their forces as far as the eastern town of Manbij to accomplish their objectives that potentially brings them in direct contact with the US troops stationed there.[iv] Turkey also requested that the US cease supplying weapons to the SDF. The US agreed to do so on January 21, 2018.[v]
The threat to the SDF is now two-fold, remnants of the Islamic State still pose problems for the militias and an armed and trained Turkish army is encroaching on the territory they once held. Without the backing of the US, the SDF’s presence in northern Syria remains uncertain. This renewed conflict may reignite the recruitment of Westerners ready to join the SDF’s ranks. Foreign fighters including Americans, Britons, and Germans as well as other nationalities who had previously fought alongside the Peshmerga and YPG are already on the frontlines in Afrin.[vi] As recently as July 2017, an American joined the YPG.[vii] Furthermore, a British citizen that had never been associated with the SDF announced publicly his intent on joining the SDF in its fight against Turkey just eight days after the invasion.[viii] As the conflict continues to grow, the possibility for an increase in foreign fighters attempting to join the SDF is likely.
This study examines the organizational recruitment processes, vetting procedures, and facilitation used by the Peshmerga and YPG between 2014 and 2016. By identifying the patterns and trends, which existed during the recruitment cycle, the project seeks to improve our understanding the techniques and tactics used by the groups to recruit foreign fighters. Moreover, recognizing how the Peshmerga and YPG recruited in the past may provide evidence on what tactics, techniques, and processes to look for in the current environment. Finally, its conclusions contribute to the development of counter-strategies inhibiting the recruitment of Westerners eager to fight in the region. A renewed flow of FTFs to the Peshmerga and YPG threaten to further destabilize the area, increase the conflict with a NATO ally, and potentially increase the likelihood of an unintended clash between the US and Turkish forces, all of which have grave consequences for NATO and the region. Figure 1 below shows the current territory occupied by each aggressor.[ix]
Methodologically, this study uses the Geneva Academy Briefing No. 7 definition of a foreign fighter -- “an individual who leaves his/her country of origin or arbitral residence to join a non-state armed group in an armed conflict abroad and who is primarily motivated by ideology, religion and/or kinship”.[x] Building upon this definition, this project uses data collected from Internet platforms to examine the processes of recruitment, vetting, and travel facilitation at the group level based upon individual reports. It examines the entire recruitment processes holistically to develop a representative process for the average recruit. This study examines only foreign fighters from the United States.
To qualify as a foreign fighter in this study an individual had to be living in the United States, and had to have expressed interest, attempted to travel, or successfully travelled to join either the Peshmerga or YPG. This study identifies a three-step process by which violent non-state actors (VNSA) are successfully integrated into the Peshmerga or YPG.
Stage 1: Recruitment
The advent and widespread adoption of residual and emerging Internet platforms (e.g., static website, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and others) have fundamentally changed the way in which VNSA reach their audience. In the last decade, new forms of social media have enabled VNSA to spread their narrative across the globe, a feat previously unattainable on such a scale. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have allowed these organizations to not only publicize their doctrines ubiquitously, but also to befriend interested individuals on a one-on-one basis and tailor recruitment tactics to fit the interests of each potential recruit. This has resulted in the emergence of a virtual network of sympathizers and active participants.
The tactics and methods that VNSA use for recruiting individuals depends on the level of sophistication and maturity the group has achieved in cyberspace. In general, less sophisticated organizations that do not have access to a large amount of resources or personnel will spread their message en masse to attract large numbers of interested participants foregoing in-depth authentication and vetting which is time and labor intensive. A more mature organization will tailor its messages and propaganda in order to target specific audiences to attract set of needed skills needed and improve the possibility of mission success. The YPG falls into the latter category carefully seeking recruits with a commitment to the cause as well as specialized skills.
Stage 2: Authentication and Vetting
Not only has the widespread adoption of social media allowed VNSA to recruit individuals, it also helps organizations perform a vetting process for new recruits. Authentication and vetting verifies the individual’s identity while establishing bonafides for joining the organization. This allows the organization to systematically recruit those who serve their needs, thus improving organizational effectiveness but also enhancing its operational security.
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, services such as Skype and Kik Messenger provide recruiters with the ability to authenticate the individuals seeking to join their organization. Prospective recruits undergo background checks using their known profiles; however, this will vary in degree dependent on the organization and its security measures. In the case of the YPG, this is relatively extensive. Concurrently the vetting stage takes place. During the vetting stage recruits undergo a grooming process which includes some or all the following -- developing trust, indoctrination, isolation from previous community, and pledging involvement. Confirming a level of commitment by the recruit is an important part of the process. Last, recruits may be assigned specific roles based on their skill set.
Stage 3: Facilitation
The final and most difficult stage of the recruitment process involves facilitating travel for potential recruits. The law enforcement and intelligence communities of most western nations actively pursue individuals attempting to join VNSA. As a result, groups may obfuscate travel routes and processes to keep them opaque. VNSA facilitate interested recruits with travel details, contact information, and financial or material aid to some degree.
Generally, new organizations will not possess the capabilities to send material or financial aid. Instead, they provide transient travel details for recruits who are asked to fund their own trip and stay. Sophisticated organizations can provide recruits with clear directions, stable contact information, and proper material or financial support, and may even have travel guides. Additionally, groups that are more sophisticated are likely to have contact networks on the ground that can help transport recruits to the conflict zone.
Peshmerga and YPG recruitment of foreign fighters has received very little attention from either the press or researchers. While it may seem counterintuitive to study recruitment into an organization who is fighting ISIS, the foreign fighter element in the Peshmerga shares certain characteristics in terms of medium for mobilizing and motivating FTFs, vetting processes, and even facilitation. Moreover, some western countries are beginning to characterize the YPG as a terrorist organization. By charging James Matthews and Aidan James with terrorist offensives for their activities with the YPG, the United Kingdom reflects this position.[xi] Furthermore, the British Parliament’s report “Kurdish Aspirations and interest of the UK,” released February 9, 2018, characterizes the YPG as the armed wing of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and concludes it should be linked to the PKK.[xii]
Given this reality, researchers and analysts should not discount foreign fighters who do not fulfill the Islamist extremist conditions in their analysis of recruitment techniques and tactics of non-state actors. Instead, a more holistic study of foreign fighters provides potentially valuable insight in terms of similarities and differences among organizations engaged in this phenomenon. This opportunity serves as the motivation for this study regarding the online recruitment of foreign fighters for the Peshmerga. For the purposes of this study, the individuals that volunteered to fight in Kurdish backed forces whether it was the Peshmerga or YPJ were grouped together and are referred to in general as the Peshmerga.
The Peshmerga emerged as a guerilla fighting force created by the Ottoman Empire in the 1890’s. It served the Ottoman Empire for two decades before being disbanded. In the years following World War I, the British employed the former members of the guerilla force to quell violent clashes in the region, in return for their assistance; an autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq was established. Ultimately, the British backed out of the deal, favoring instead to unite Iraq under the Hashemite monarchy as part of its mandate responsibilities.
In 1945, foreign occupiers created a growing resentment and sparked a renewed Kurdish nationalist movement. Kurdish soldiers from different regions united under one banner to form the first official Kurdish military force named the Peshmerga, or “one who faces death.” After several military victories, the Republic of Kurdistan was formed in 1945. However, by the end of 1946, Iranian forces recaptured the lands occupied by Kurdish forces and the remaining Peshmerga fled to Russia. The 1958 Iraqi Revolution brought about a new regime intent on sharing the land between Sunni, Shi'a, and the Kurds, thus allowing the displaced Kurds to return to their native lands. After the return of the Kurds, a new nationalist movement began in 1961 leading to the first Iraqi-Kurdish War. A short-lived peace treaty was signed in 1970, however, heightened tensions between the al-Bakr government and the Kurds led to the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War in 1974-’75 ending with the defeat of the Kurds.
In the 1980’s amidst the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds once more rebelled in an attempt to establish an autonomous region. Saddam Hussein viciously put down the rebellion including using poison gas against the Kurds. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm led to the formation of an alliance between the United States and remaining Peshmerga forces. The alliance between the US and Peshmerga continued through 2003 at which time the Peshmerga supported US military forces in joint operations leading to the defeat of the Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. In 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan held its own elections and has since remained an autonomous region in northern Iraq governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, protected by the Peshmerga.
To date, the Peshmerga have successfully recruited hundreds[xiii] of foreigners from at least a dozen western countries including the United States. In early June 2017, the most recent American recruit, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, joined the YPG.[xiv] Many of those who have sought out the Peshmerga and the YPG have done so through their sophisticated Internet-based recruitment process that links the organization’s mission with an online application procedure. This case study, examined eighteen individuals. The criteria for selection included living in the United States, expressing interest in, attempting travel to, or successfully travelling to join the Peshmerga in northern Iraq or its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish defense force in Syria.
One of the first documented American to join the Peshmerga was Jordan Matson, arriving in Syria on approximately October 1, 2014. After leaving the US military with only two years of service in the Army, Matson became preoccupied with the Kurdish movement against ISIS. After contacting the group through their Facebook account, he received enough information to successfully travel and join the Peshmerga. His story drew attention to the conflict, and soon afterwards, volunteers from across the world were contacting him through social media hoping to follow his example.
The Peshmerga became flooded with requests from hopeful Western volunteers. As a result, the Peshmerga media team created recruitment websites and expanded their social media presence to streamline their recruitment method. The following examines the progression of the Peshmerga recruitment network.
Stage 1: Recruitment
The world began to take notice of the Kurdish armed resistance against ISIS’ violent campaign in northern Iraq in early 2014. The Peshmerga used the atrocities committed by ISIS as propaganda in order to attract attention and support for their cause. Social media became an important outlet for disseminating information to their international audience. Not surprisingly, many Americans viewed the images shared online, which contributed to their mobilization in support of the Peshmerga. Consequently, the Peshmerga used social media to attract attention to their cause and integrated other online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to recruit individuals to fight alongside them.
As previously noted, Matson reached out to the Peshmerga through Facebook, and after directly corresponding with a member of the group, they sanctioned his request to join. After joining the Peshmerga, Matson became active on social media and assumed the role of recruiter after being injured. During this time, the first publicly identified recruitment site for the Peshmerga, Lions of Rojava was created on Facebook. The overall use of Facebook was so prevalent that the Peshmerga created an application website; however, of the known American volunteers in this study, approximately 35 percent utilized Facebook to contact the Peshmerga.
The first platform specifically created to inform, vet, and accept foreign fighters was known as the Foreigner Registration, Assessment, Management, & Extraction (FRAME) program. Peshmerga social media sites contained the website link making it publicly accessible. The site contained three main parts, an application, expectations from the applicants, and travel information. Each application requested that the volunteer provide basic information about themselves such as their name, date of birth, social security, passport number, military record, and criminal record. Ultimately, a new site called Legion replaced FRAME when it became inactive.
The Legion’s webpage was more complex than the original FRAME site and integrated a variety of technologies to provide volunteers with a more comprehensive picture of the realities of joining the Peshmerga. The Legion site provided applicants with all the requirements expected of a recruit including a kit list describing the necessary gear needed for day-to-day living as well as combat, and a gallery of images showcasing the work and environment that recruits should expect. Additionally, the media team uploaded a video highlighting what life is like in both armed conflict and leisure. Interestingly, Legion highlighted the humanitarian work in which volunteers were expected to take part. Just as it had done on the FRAME site, the application asked recruits to input their personal information, but specifically asked for their military record. Military experience had become a requirement for volunteers.
The third online recruitment platform used by the Peshmerga was a Google document form named Peshmerga Volunteers Form. The form was created using a standard Google Doc template and made publicly available through a link on Peshmerga-related social media pages. Unlike the FRAME and Legion sites, the Google form was a single webpage that contained fourteen blank fields asking applicants to list their personal information just as the previous sites had. However, it did not supply any information regarding requirements, travel information, or details of life as a fighter that had been provided in detail on both the FRAME and Legion sites. Based upon YouTube videos, the Google Doc was used to mitigate the international blowback resulting from their previous recruitment efforts. In general, the Peshmerga recruited individuals with similar backgrounds. Of the known foreign fighters, sixteen of the seventeen were males, with an average age of thirty-two. Additionally, thirteen had some form of military experience with nine having served abroad. The largest cluster of recruits arrived between January and March of 2015, with six recruits in a two-month time span. Figure 2 is a screenshot of the three recruiting websites created by the Peshmerga. From left to right they are FRAME, Legion, and the Google Doc.
Stage 2: Vetting
The Peshmerga’s social media campaign was a success. The increased publicity accentuated their military campaign against ISIS resulting in a growing number of Facebook requests from potential volunteers. The large influx of volunteers created a dilemma for the Peshmerga’s very systematic recruitment process. Many of the recruits hoping to join the group did not appear to be desirable candidates, either lacking the skills needed to face the harsh environment or combat experience.
In order to weed out less desirable volunteers, the Peshmerga enacted a rigorous vetting model. The process began with an extensive online application requesting personal information including full name, phone number, email address, Facebook profile address, date of birth, address, passport number, social security number, military identification number, area of expertise (military, medical, logistics, public relations, media, or marketing), skills and qualifications, whether or not an applicant is medically and physically fit, and lastly a deployment date with the Peshmerga. If the Peshmerga recruiters deemed an applicant had all the necessary qualifications, they would send that information to their recruiter in the United States who would conduct a background investigation. The Peshmerga’s rigor reduced the likelihood of accepting possible ISIS spies or volunteers who might compromise the group’s mission through behavior the group deemed inappropriate
If a candidate passed the online review and the background investigation, a Peshmerga recruiter would contact them privately via telephone, encrypted messaging apps, email, or a direct message through a social media account. During this stage, they made sure the volunteers were aware of the Peshmerga’s expectations. The Peshmerga asked that each foreign fighter sign up for a minimum of a twelve-week tour, had at least $200 per month for necessities, and was able to bring or purchase their own combat gear.
Finally, if a recruit agreed to all the rules and regulations necessary for joining the group, the Peshmerga asked for a formal commitment. Once committed, recruits were able to access the information needed to successfully plan their trip to the conflict zone.
Stage 3: Facilitation
The final stage of the Peshmerga recruitment network is facilitating travel and training for their committed recruits. The vetting team cleared an individual. The recruit then committed and agreed to fund him or herself. At this point, they received instructions on how to get to Iraqi Kurdistan. With no direct flights from the US, the first part of the trip required the volunteer to find safe passage to one of several airports with connections to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah International Airport. Using a practice known as “hidden city” ticketing, the recruits flew to a transit city then purchased a ticket to their final destination, Sulaymaniyah, using case. Peshmerga forces and other foreign fighters met the recruits, upon arriving at the airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, recruits and drove them to military barracks.
At the barracks, the volunteers were placed in a camp with other volunteer foreign fighters, who shared similar languages (e.g., Americans, Canadians, and Brits). In addition to making the recruits feel more comfortable, it also built an espirt-de-corps and improved unit command and control. At the outset, recruits were provided a single weapon and ammunition. For two weeks, the volunteers undertook basic military training and conducted live fire drills alongside the Peshmerga military units. Recruits received training using an AK-47s, PK machine gun, rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG), and a Dragunov sniper rifle.[xv] To facilitate interoperability, recruits were taught basic commands and strategies in Kurdish. During the training, recruits also become familiar with the terrain, learned battle strategies, and conducted basic operational drills as a unit. Peshmerga instructors used the two-week training period to assess candidates and decide a placement for each volunteer. After approximately two weeks of training, most foreign fighter recruits either were sent to the battlefront to fight alongside the Peshmerga or assigned to border patrol.
Figure 3 below shows the location of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq the site of the Peshmerga’s foreign fighter training site.
Threat from Returnees
Just as the act of joining a VNSA is a concern for Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the possible return home of radicalized trained FTF is a growing threat. Several factors mitigate the likelihood of Peshmerga or YPG returnee violence. Unlike ISIS or Al Qaeda, neither the Peshmerga nor YPG’s agenda calls for using attacks outside of the conflict zone to spread their message. The absence of a violent dawa is an indicator that the threat of terrorism at home from YPG returnees is less than ISIS or AQ FTF. Statements from recruits tend to support this point as well. Numerous YPG recruits, such as Caleb Stevens, have talked about being motivated by “a cause of justice” and see themselves on an altruistic journey confined on the battlefield.[xvi] As such, they are more likely to view this cause as being fulfilled only within a conflict zone, rather than a transnational call to duty. Third, the Peshmerga and YPG’s rigorous selection process reinforces avoidance of negative publicity for the Kurdish cause. This process thus potentially acts as a filter reducing the likelihood of recruiting those who may demonstrate violent ulterior motives after returning home.
Notwithstanding, more research is needed to substantiate this argument. Many who have joined the Peshmerga or YPG are predisposed to violence. While to date there are no known FTFs who have engaged in acts of domestic terrorism, the possibility remains that they may take it upon themselves to bring attention to the cause through the use of violence upon return. The limited research conducted on the return threat of former Peshmerga and YPG FTFs described three possible threat scenarios. The first includes FTFs attacking Turkish officials or institutions in their home country. The second involves FTFs joining violent leftist organizations that support similar ideals as the Peshmerga in their countries. The third involves FTFs joining clandestine and more violent splinter groups within the organization and carrying out attacks in Turkey.[xvii] A fourth scenario that is related to the others but also unique. Engaging “frustrated foreign fighters,” individuals, who wanted to travel but were unable to for some reason, is a potentially lethal combination.[xviii]
The most likely avenue is for returning FTFs to join leftist organizations supportive of the Kurdish movement within Kurdish diaspora. The largest three Kurdish diasporas in the world are in Germany, France, and the Netherlands.[xix] START’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) shows a picture of violent pro-PKK activity spanning three decades specifically across Western countries. The largest spike in PKK incidents occurred between 1994 and 1996, with a minor spike in 2016.[xx] Not surprisingly, Germany, with a large Turkish population, is the most common target accounting for 75% of the recorded 173 incidents. Moreover, since the GTD began tracking incidents perpetrated by the PKK in Western countries three involved fatalities. The most recent incident occurred in 2016 in the Netherlands when armed assailants opened fire on a Turkish ultra-nationalist organization called Grey Wolves.[xxi]
Although there are no links between FTFs joining supportive groups or contributing to violence, instances of vandalism by supporters have occurred in recent years. In 2015, the PKK took responsibility for the defamation of a Turkish mosque in Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Germany.[xxii] Also in Germany on February 5, 2018, a Turkish Mosque in Hannover was vandalized PKK supporters shortly after Turkey’s advancement into Afrin.[xxiii] On September 11, 2016, unknown assailants defaced a mosque in north London with the acronym PKK. During the same period, PKK sympathizers attacked a group of Turkish citizens at a march in Central London. The same sympathizers also are believed to have flung eggs and stones at the Turkish embassy.[xxiv] These attacks show that Western nations are prone to violent attacks by pro-PKK individuals and organizations, and thus an increase in violence by these groups is possible if fueled by returnees who do not want to give up the fight.
Such incidents illuminate the possibility of escalating clashes among former YPG fighters and perceived or real Turkish nationalists. Returning FTFs increase these groups’ access to military-style tactics, techniques and procedures thus enhancing their capabilities and perhaps willingness to use violence. As a result, law enforcement and intelligence officials should identify, vet, and to the extent possible maintain surveillance of Peshmerga and YPG returnees with a particular focus on those seeking or joining violent leftist organizations.
Vast amounts of research exist on why the individual or small group might join a violent organization and travel to a conflict zone, but little exists on how the receiving organizations recruit, vet, and facilitate the foreign fighter process. This study’s purpose is to reach beyond the individual and offer insight into the organizational process. Currently, the study does not provide policy recommendations, although the methodology and information provided would lend itself to developing such suggestions.
In reviewing the cases, it is apparent that the Peshmerga has a sophisticated recruitment system that aims at specifically targeting qualified fighters. They launch their recruitment in a virtual environment exploiting public news stories through their websites to raise awareness of their struggles. However, after seeking to establish a basis of self-identification among possible recruits, the process, unlike ISIS’s or Al Qaeda’s, becomes quite passive requiring potential volunteers to visit the online recruitment applications. Once a volunteer has chosen to “apply” to the Peshmerga, The Peshmerga gathered pertinent information online to be used for an in-depth vetting process that heightens the likelihood that the recruit is genuine. Peshmerga seeks to minimize political blowback by seeking to control for negative personal characteristics and providing anonymity for recruits in the entire process including travel to Iraqi Kurdistan.
While the Peshmerga recruitment process has a lower yield than that of ISIS or al-Shabaab, it maintains a robust system that effectively combines Internet technologies and in-country recruiters to ensure the volunteers can serve a military purpose. Moving forward it is uncertain whether the Peshmerga and YPG will revamp their recruitment efforts due to the mounting Turkish threat and withdrawal of US aid. However, the infrastructure exists to recruit, vet, facilitate travel, and train hopeful fighters and could easily be re-established. In such a case. many Western nations allied with Turkey would have to adapt measures to prevent a new wave of foreign fighters from joining the ongoing conflict.
[i] UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee defines an FTF as “individuals who travel to a State other than their State of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning or preparation of or participation in terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training…” https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/focus-areas/foreign-terrorist-fighters/
[x] Geneva Academy. (2014). Academy Briefing No. 7: Foreign Fighters under International Law.
[xvii] Corneau-Tremblay, Guillaume. “The Threat from Western Volunteers in Kurdish Groups.”Small Wars Journal, 1 June 2017, smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-threat-from-western-volunteers-in-kurdish-groups.
[xxii] "Kurdish PKK slogans found after attack on Turkish mosque in Germany," Europe Online Magazine, September 11, 2015."