AL-QOSH, IRAQ – Decked out in U.S. Army-issued fatigues with a lip stud shining from his mouth, the young American fighter cuts an unusual figure in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Qosh.
He served in the U.S. Army in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, and has now returned to fight Islamic State militants with Dwekh Nawsha, a Christian militia that takes its name from an Aramaic phrase meaning “self-sacrifice.”
The 28-year-old, who goes by the pseudonym Brett, has become the figurehead of an emerging movement of idealistic foreigners drawn to Iraq to support Christian groups.
Bearing a tattoo of a machine gun on his left arm and another of Jesus in a crown of thorns on his right, Brett jokingly refers to himself as a “crusader.”
The Islamic State group never captured Al-Qosh, but came close enough that its mostly Christian population fled to the neighboring autonomous region of Kurdistan, joining tens of thousands of displaced people from Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and the surrounding Nineveh plains.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Brett says, speaking from a Dwekh Nawsha base in the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
“But here we’re actually fighting for the freedom of the people here to be able live peaceably, to be able to live without persecution, to keep the church bells ringing.”
The mass exodus that took place in mid-2014 has put the continued existence of one of world’s oldest Christian communities into question.
With Kurdish peshmerga fighters now clawing back territory around Mosul, some Christians are keen to take up arms for their survival, and Dwekh Nwasha is just one of several recently formed groups.
Brett, who also acts as a recruiter for the militia, says he wants to establish a “foreign fighters’ battalion.”
In his first week in charge, he brought in five volunteers from the United States, Britain and Canada, all of whom he says have military or contracting experience.
The foreign contingent is tiny compared to the thousands of foreigners that have flocked to join the Islamic State group. But interest is growing, and Brett says he has another 20 volunteers lined up and waiting to join.
Brett’s first recruit was Louis Park, a mild-mannered Texan who retired from the Marines in December.
“I did not adjust well at peace time,” he said, with a piece of moist dipping tobacco tucked in his lip. “I wanted to get back out here.”
After serving in Afghanistan, Park says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder “and some other things” that barred him from combat deployments.
As early as October 2014, he began saving money to join the fight against the Islamic State group.
Park says he traveled to Iraq to continue defending his country, even though Dwekh Nawsha — with barely a few hundred fighters in its ranks — sees little front-line action.
“I’m patriotic as hell,” he says. “If my government won’t fight them, I will.”
The growing contingent of foreign recruits give a variety of reasons for joining Dwekh Nawsha. Andrew, an older man from Ontario, Canada, says he came after hearing stories of “slaughterhouses” where Islamic State fighters allegedly cut people up to harvest their organs.
There is no evidence that such places exist, but the rumor has been widely circulated by evangelical and anti-Islamic organizations, especially in North America.
A video depicting the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by Islamic State fighters in Libya, which was released Sunday with the title “A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross,” has also sparked fresh calls on social media for tougher Western action against the militant group.
One seven-year U.S. Army veteran called Scott says he was planning to join the Syria-based Kurdish “Popular Protection Units” (YPG). But that was before he found out that they were “a bunch of damn Reds.”
Other foreigners in Dwekh Nawsha say they were turned off by what they see as the socialist streak in the YPG, an affiliate of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, whose well-documented months-long battle to break an Islamic State siege on the town of Kobani attracted many volunteers.
Alan Duncan, a prominent British foreign fighter and veteran of the Royal Irish Regiment, recently left the YPG for similar reasons.
He told reporters that an exodus of foreign fighters from the YPG has begun, naming several well-known volunteers currently fighting for the group that he says plan to leave in the coming days.
Jordan Matson, a former U.S. soldier who has become the poster boy of YPG foreign fighters, argued that some volunteers may have lost their bottle when confronted with the intensity of the fighting in Kobani.
“Most of the Internet cowboys have come to realize this isn’t a normal deployment,” he said. “So they lose the stomach to come or stay.”