We have heard about how ISIS is recruiting foreign fighters to join its ranks. But it's happening on the other side as well.
Just last week, a Massachusetts man who died fighting against ISIS in Syria was laid to rest.
Last year, a British man who calls himself Macer Gifford left his job as a financial trader in London and went to join the Kurds and fight the self-declared Islamic State in Syria.
Gifford spoke on the condition that NPR not reveal his real name, because he fears for the safety of his family in the UK.
Though he had only a little military training — Gifford had joined the British equivalent of the National Guard — he was driven by a desire to defend people against ISIS.
"I was sitting at my desk in London, in an ordinary job, working in the city," he says. "Every day I'd flick on my computer screen and see the most horrendous crimes being committed in the Middle East. It just stirred me into action. I first wanted to donate money to charity, perhaps even work for a charity, but then the option came up that I could actually go out and volunteer and fight ISIS, so that's exactly what I did."
Gifford came back to the UK on the day the Massachusetts man, Keith Bloomfield, died.
"I never met him, although I met people who did know him," he says. "He had the same sort of values as me, and actually values that are very much ingrained within the culture of the United States, freedom, democracy, liberty."
On how he decided to join the Kurds
I was doing my research online [on] the different parties that were taking the fight to ISIS and the ones that were fighting generally in the region, and the one group that came up consistently in my research was the Kurds. It was the YPG in particular who were fighting for democracy. They weren't fighting [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, which for me, as a British subject, I couldn't actually volunteer to fight Assad directly, I could only fight the Islamic State ... The law is pretty hazy in this regard. Basically, you're not allowed to fight a state, whether that's an enemy of the United Kingdom or an ally. That's illegal. Me, I went out there just to fight the Islamic State.
On whether he had any second thoughts about his decision
Not a single one. From the moment that I arrived to the moment I left, I never questioned whether or not my decision was the wrong one, even when I learned of friends dying or even when I was fighting.
On the media attention he has received
It's strange that, if a Kurdish young man of 18 as well, 10 years younger than me, can volunteer to fight for his country, no one will blink an eyelid. But it takes a young man from the United Kingdom or from the United States or from Canada or Australia to go out and fight, for the media and the British government and the governments around the world to say, 'Ah, right, this is interesting,' and actually start to take notice.
On what he gave up in going to Syria, and what he gained
Before I left, I had a flat. I was just about to buy a house. I had a girlfriend. I had a job, a career, and I gave it all up to go out to fight. So now I've come back, six months later, I'm very much poorer but a lot more satisfied as a human being, and in myself.
MACER GIFFORD: I was sitting at my desk in London, in an ordinary job, working in the city, and every day I'd flick on my computer screen and see the most horrendous crimes being committed in the Middle East. And it stirred me into action. I first wanted to donate money to charity, perhaps even work for a charity. But then the option came up that I could actually volunteer and fight ISIS. So that's exactly what I did.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of a British man who calls himself Macer Gifford. Late last year, he left his job as a financial trader in London and went off to fight the self-declared Islamic State in Syria. He spoke with us on the condition that we not reveal his real name because he fears for the safety of his family in the U.K. We've heard about how ISIS is recruiting foreign fighters to join their ranks, but it's happening on the other side as well. Just this past week, an American man, who died fighting against ISIS in Syria, was laid to rest. The British financial trader says they all knew the risks of what they were doing. He is our Sunday conversation.
GIFFORD: There was an element in me that wanted it - that I wanted to actually defend people and actually stop the Islamic State in their tracks.
MARTIN: Had you had any military experience?
GIFFORD: No, not really. A few, sort of, years ago I joined the TA, which is our equivalent to the National Guard in the UK. The thing that drove me out there was my beliefs more than anything else. It was my desire to help people, defend people from the Islamic States and my trust and faith in democracy and freedom.
MARTIN: I hope you don't take this as a flip question, but you still wanted to keep your day job, right? Like, you could've joined the British military and just made that a career and defended people that way. But there was something about you that wanted to - this to be an experience that you had and then you could come back to your career as a trader.
GIFFORD: Well, actually, no, I've abandoned my career now. It was a hard decision to make. And I had - before I left, I had a flat, I was just about to buy a house, I had a girlfriend, I had a career, and I gave it all up to go out to fight. So now I've come back, six months later. I'm very much poorer but a lot more satisfied as a human being and in myself.
MARTIN: Let's back up and talk about how you got to that place. You decided you wanted to do this. You wanted to go defend people against ISIS. How did you wind up in Syria, fighting alongside the Kurds?
GIFFORD: Well, I was doing my research online at the different parties that were taking the fight to ISIS and the ones that were fighting generally in the region. And the one group that came up consistently in my research was the Kurds. It was the YPG, in particular, who were fighting for democracy. They weren't fighting Assad, which, for me, as a British subject, I couldn't actually volunteer to fight Assad directly. I could only fight the Islamic State 'cause the law is pretty hazy in this regard. Basically, you're not allowed to fight a state, whether that's an enemy of the United Kingdom or an ally. That's illegal. Me, I went out there just to fight the Islamic State.
MARTIN: What was it like when you got there?
GIFFORD: What happened was I booked my flight. I had to prove that I had done so to the YPG. They said that they were going to send someone to the airport in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq - in Kurdish Iraq, I mean - to meet me and that he was going to take me to a safe house and then on to the border. And that might seem absolutely insane to you, and it did to me, that you could meet someone off the internet who said to you that he was part of the YPG that was fighting Islamic State and that I was going to turn up. And I was supposed to turn up, meet them, get in their car and he was going to take me to a safe house.
MARTIN: Did you ever have a phone conversation with this person? This all happened online?
GIFFORD: It was all online. I didn't actually speak to them over the phone, which might seem crazy. But, I have to say...
MARTIN: It does a little bit. It does.
GIFFORD: ...It does - I bet it does. But let me tell you this, that I did do a lot of research. It's not like I was the first one to do it. There were other people, as well, who had gone and volunteered and gone by the same method. So, I just followed their online guidance, as it were.
MARTIN: So, there you are. You enter Syria through northern Iraq. Can you just describe what those first few days were like?
GIFFORD: The Peshmerga have been blocking the border between Syria and Iraq. I had to go, in the middle of the night, to the river that separates the two countries and run down to the water's edge, throw weapons that we had smuggled across the border into boats. They went over first, and then the boats came back, full of wounded men who were going to hospitals in Iraq. And then I got on one of the boats and went over and arrived on New Year's Day and crossed over and spent the first few days in a place called Qamishli and Karachi, as well, another base, just settling in and meeting some of my fellow Westerners.
MARTIN: Your fellow Westerners. So, how many people spoke English? Was communication a problem in your training?
GIFFORD: I was put with a group of seven other foreigners into my training program. The vast majority were - in fact, all of them, I believe, except for a Dutch guy - were from Anglosphere nations. There was Canada, America, Britain, Australia - all represented.
MARTIN: Did you have any apprehensions in those early days, any second thoughts?
GIFFORD: Not a single one. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, I never questioned whether or not my decision was the wrong one, even when I learned of friends dying or even when I was fighting.
MARTIN: Were you ever involved in direct combat against ISIS?
GIFFORD: Yes, I was. On numerous occasions. When I first arrived in the country, I did a week of training, and after that, I was put on the front line.
MARTIN: Where were you?
GIFFORD: I was near a place called Shingal, which is Sinjar Mountain, basically, near the Iraqi border. It was basically, I think, about a year ago that the Kurdish forces had tried to take Tel Hamis. They had advanced on the city without air support and they had been surrounded by ISIS tanks, and they suffered enormous casualties. So the positions hadn't changed since then. That was over a year ago. So, during January, all I did was train with my fellow Americans and fellow Brits. At the end of January - it wasn't actually, really actually, until the end of February, I should say - that the first operation started for Tel Hamis. And it involved 3,000 Kurdish fighters, numerous Brits and Americans, and we utterly smashed ISIS and took the city within just over a week.
MARTIN: When did you decide to go home and what triggered that choice?
GIFFORD: What circumstance.
GIFFORD: Yeah. I wanted to make certain that there was a definite achievement that I could look back on and say, right, I came, this has happened and now I can go home. And it happened just a couple of weeks ago. The last operation, just outside a place called Tiltama (ph), started where we took the Abdullahese (ph) mountains. We liberated something like 1,200 square kilometers of land, killed 550 ISIS fighters, and I didn't even fire a single shot that night because when we got to the top, there was nothing but charred vehicles and bodies because they had been bombed quite comprehensively by the U.S. Air Force.
MARTIN: Were the foreign fighters, you and the other foreign fighters, were you treated differently by the Kurdish fighters, by the YPG?
GIFFORD: A little bit. When we were going on operation, one of the generals turned up and said, oh, you're guests here. You're so welcome and just really tried to let us know that we meant everything to them and all the rest of it. And we had to actually to nip it in the bud and say to them, no, we're not guests here. We've come to help you. We've come to stand beside you.
MARTIN: Did you have to really work, though, to get them to understand you felt like you had a stake in it. Because you could always leave and, for many of these people, they were...
GIFFORD: That's true.
MARTIN: ...Fighting to protect their own homeland.
GIFFORD: That's very true, actually. That's another case of us being favored - is a sense that we can always turn around and say we've had enough and go home. But, that's what makes them so brave is the fact that they are fighting for their country and they are fighting for their homes. It's strange that, if a Kurdish young man of 18 as well, 10 years younger than me, can volunteer to fight for his country and no one would blink an eyelid. But it takes a young man from the United Kingdom or from the United States or from Canada or Australia to go out and fight for the media and for the British government and for the governments around the world to say, ah, right, this is interesting and actually start to take notice. That was the - my main motivation for going.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for talking with us.
GIFFORD: No problem at all. My pleasure.
MARTIN: That was a British man who joined the fight against ISIS in Syria. We are not revealing his name, at his request, over safety concerns, but he posts on Facebook under the name Macer Gifford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.