My first encounter with Kalen was awkward. The night I arrived in Syria, he walked into the safehouse like he owned the place, put down an AK-47, un-holstered a pistol, and peeled off his heavy navy blue flak jacket. Like everyone in Aleppo, he was covered in dust. But unlike most fighters here, he was clean-shaven and had a teddy bear strapped to his vest.
Bulletproof vests are uncommon among rebel combatants in Syria, and the bear was downright strange. It was fairly clear that he was not local and I was shocked when he started speaking to me in perfect French. I had seen other foreign fighters in Syria but they seemed unapproachable and humorless.
I was confused about who Kalen was and what he was doing there. I first thought he was a security consultant for the media team, so asked him in French: "Are we going to get to visit any field clinics?" "I'm not your fucking tour guide," he replied.
Yet after a few jokes accompanied by cigarettes and some French fry sandwiches garnished with an imperishable garlic mayonnaise, I began to warm to him.
He made it clear that he did not want his photo taken but otherwise was approachable and pretty funny. He constantly sang: "I love my job, I love my life, E I E I O." I was too nervous to ask the obvious question: "What exactly is your job?"
It quickly became clear, however, that his role extended beyond security for reporters. His office was adorned with a childishly crude sign that read: "I am Kalen. I will kill any man who comes in here." Below that was the logo of Kalen's security company — Mat2s-consulting.
At daybreak, we took our first trip into the city to cover a Friday demonstration. Kalen drove and smoothly navigated a notoriously treacherous city as I filmed out of the window. Kalen passed through rebel checkpoints with ease and seemed well known to the other fighters. After piling out of the car with a few militants and journalists, I was asked by an emaciated rebel to extinguish my cigarette as the pre-demonstration prayers began. Kalen did the same without being prompted, politely mingling with the men, arms folded over his AK-47, while the more religious fighters prayed.
'Ah yes, my little bear. He reminds me that there are children behind this war.'
After a few days, Kalen headed back to Turkey. When I followed him there he invited me for tea and lemonade, and I found him calmly Facebooking at a restaurant as displaced Syrians sat at the other tables smoking hookah pipes. His pistol was still on his belt, giving me the sense that Turkish border control did not present him any significant challenges. We agreed to stay in touch
I asked Kalen for an interview a few months later. At first he flatly refused, then one day I received a Skype call from him. "Remember that interview you wanted? The situation has changed, I am willing to speak with you," he said.
I knew that he would not reveal all the details of his work so we agreed that I would ask him questions and he would skip the ones he could not answer. We spoke a few days later in my mother's living room in New Jersey — a far cry from the warzone where I had first met him.
VICE News: What is your role in the revolution?
Kalen: Hmm… tactical and strategic.
What are your motivations to play that role?
[Hesitation and sigh] Let us say that in the beginning it was financial and later I embraced the cause. This is the case for many people. After living in Aleppo and seeing children being bombarded, the food shortages, the blackouts, all of that, you cannot stay uninvolved morally, you cannot stay neutral, and you have to pick a side.
In the West there is often the assumption that foreign fighters are all fundamentalists. Do you think this perception will cause problems for you?
You should know that I have two problems in the West. The perception could be that I am either a fundamentalist or a mercenary. It is important to know that in my country of origin being a mercenary carries a heavy prison sentence.
As for being mistaken for a fundamentalist, there are too many people who have worked with me who could corroborate my dislike of fundamentalism. Lets not forget that Muslims are not the only fighters. As time went by it became a more religious conflict, an ethnic conflict. Very sadly, I think that we could be headed for a religious war and we have to be clear about that very terrible risk. It's despicable that we are headed in that direction.
Do you think the West bears responsibility for its inaction?
Is it the fault of the West? Hmm, well they bear partial responsibility, but their hesitation is not entirely unfounded. They took precautions that in the end have unfortunately damaged their credibility. In the beginning they wanted to see how things would develop before lending assistance. This, however, left an opening for certain groups to take advantage of the situation. It is clearly difficult to determine who should be armed, and there are understandable risks, but I think that the Free Army still needs to be armed sooner rather than later.
Do you think that the people favor the Islamist element?
The situation is fluctuating. Depending on events, depending on the time, it seems like civilians support Islamists and then don't. I am talking specifically about Aleppo… The Islamists have put themselves in a position to gain a certain degree of sympathy from the population. However, there have been a great deal of demonstrations in Aleppo against Islamist parties.
Why is the Western media is so interested in foreign fighters on the anti-Assad side but seems to be mute when it comes to foreigners on the pro-Assad side?
I think there are several reasons for this, but let us say that it is easier for the media to access foreign fighters that are anti-Assad. Most media are not able to access Assad's soldiers. That is one of the primary reasons.
What do you think of the American jihadist (Eric Harroun)? It seems that he wasn't fully informed of whom he was fighting alongside?
I think he fell upon some jihadists who didn't really understand what he was up to either. He was there and then possibly wanted to leave but couldn't. It happens a lot. I think this American was looking for adventure and stupidly ended up with the wrong people. An American fighter served as propaganda. The Islamist narrative that he was converted and fought alongside them is very effective propaganda and it sells.
Fundamentalist factions don't always let journalists approach their fighters for interviews. Therefore most of the foreign fighters I met seemed not to be fundamentalists but rather Syrians who had been living abroad or who were born abroad.
To me those guys are not foreign fighters. I know of several people that I trained, they were from Qatar but they were Syrians who had been living in Qatar, not jihadists. I have seen people from Holland and three others from Italy. They were all Syrians who had left to live abroad way before the revolution. They decided to leave the comfort of their adopted countries to come back and defend their families, people, and homeland, which is completely understandable. If France was attacked tomorrow I would return to defend her, even though I live abroad.
So you admit to being a French national?
Well, there you go!!!
How do you see the conflict changing in the months to come?
It's really a difficult situation as long as there is no Western support. You could say that Aleppo is stuck in a war of attrition, right now. There is a point at which people are too exhausted from the fight. The ideal situation would be to send a UN force, as they did in Libya, to set up a no-fly zone for planes and helicopters.
Onto a less serious question, what's with the teddy bear?
[Laughs] Ah yes, my little bear. He reminds me that there are children behind this war. I don't want to lose perspective that I am still here for the defense of children. Every Friday, there are demonstrations and we guard them against enemy snipers, and the kids there would be afraid to see me with weapons. So I started carrying the teddy bear and it would make them smile. It entertained them as opposed to scaring them. It seems that he has become famous.
He is more famous than you are?
Yes, because he is even known by Assad's forces.
Have they made wanted posters of him?
I don't know, but I do know that once after an Assad soldier surrendered to us he recognized the bear, and was talking about it to his colleagues. Apparently he had seen the teddy bear on TV. I didn't even know about it. I didn't know he was that famous. It makes me laugh. I think he might be wanted as well.
I have an unusual question. What would you say to Assad if you had the chance to talk to him?
I think I would say nothing. It's rather what I would do to him. I may tell him that if his children were here (in Aleppo) I would be curious to see how he would react.
Do you have any war stories that you would like to share for some perspective on the situation?
We were driving towards the Turkish border with all our lights on. It was a civilian vehicle. We were attacked and bombarded by an Assad fighter plane. The car was cut in two. There is something that is really wrong with this because we were in a civilian vehicle and there were no fighters in it. Even if they want to argue that I am a fighter this was clearly a civilian car at night. The MiG fighter was unrelenting in trying to kill us.
All schools are targeted by the regime, all of them. We have to keep the locations of new field hospitals secret so that they are not bombed. People don't know where they are and they go to the hospital at the last minute and every two to three weeks the facilities are moved for their own safety. I think they have adopted a policy of total annihilation. They are not about to give up. Assad wants to keep his position — he will leave power when he dies.
How does Syria compare to other conflicts you have seen in your life?
It's truly the hardest and most emotional mentally. It is almost impossible to process. The conflict changed me totally. I had never taken up a cause before, for anyone. Before I would do my work and I accept the consequences but this totally blew me over.
I hesitate to ask who pays your salary?
Thank you (for your hesitation).
OK but I have to ask your name.
I'll take that as a no.
Yup. [Laughs] My name is Kalen!!!
Do you want to add anything?
I am not a utopian or a humanist but what is going on in Syria should not be happening. If we do nothing it will get worse and worse. It is vital to calm things down… This is not a game. I personally think the international community should use force. They are understandably weary of the fundamentalists' influence. Then they should intervene directly and establish a no-fly zone. It has worked elsewhere, they should do it right away — it's an international emergency.
It is clear that Kalen occupies a fraught space between the Syrian opposition and the West. And all sides of this ongoing four-year conflict, which has now flooded over Syria's borders, are using foreign fighters and consultants.
Yet while the presence of foreign jihadists is beyond doubt, the role of professional mercenaries still remains largely mysterious because they do not make their presence known. Syria's government has raised its concerns over mercenaries at the United Nations, and a special UN Working Group noted with "interest and concern… the aggravating role that mercenaries play in the conflict" in 2013.
While Kalen's accounts were fascinating and compelling, I was initially reluctant to discuss them because he refused to go into details about his employers or the specifics of his Syrian mission. I tried to press for more details, but he politely declined.
An article about Kalen appeared in Le Parisien in August 2013. The short piece featured an interview with him and named his company, Mat2s-consulting, which he ran out of Montreux in Switzerland. The publicity prompted a councilor in the city to raise questions about the presence of a consulting firm on Swiss territory recruiting mercenaries to fight in Syria.
A debate ensued about changing Swiss law to prohibit mercenary companies. Kalen told the Swiss paper 24 Heures: "Before forming my company, I reported to the police, where I was interviewed. Everything was done in good standing. In addition, my company pays taxes."
Whether due to legal threats or to avoid undue exposure, Mat2s-consulting was removed from the Swiss companies register a few weeks ago. Yet Kalen and his proxy social media accounts continue to post safety updates about Syria.
A great deal of mystery remains. French-language articles confirm much of the information Kalen told me — he is 34 years old, he served in the French armed forces, and then as a contractor in Libya and Ivory Coast. He has provided security for many journalists in Aleppo and claims to be motivated by money as well as ideology.
I am in no position to confirm all of Kalen's claims or solve the mystery. Many rumors surround him and, like many of the weird and wonderful characters in the Syrian conflict, he has reached legendary status in certain circles. If you discuss the "French mercenary" in a room full of war correspondents, it is likely someone will know him, through gossip and sometimes through first-person accounts.
I will probably never know the whole story, but can confirm that he exists, that he was present on the ground in Aleppo, clearly working with the armed opposition, and that due to external pressure he no longer is. But there is every indication that Kalen will remain a force in the shadows.