There's one question circling as I drive north to meet Jamie Williams on Melbourne's quiet suburban fringe: Why would a young guy from Australia risk his relationship, his job, even his life to try and fight ISIS? Then there's the other why. Namely, why would the Australian Government choose to prosecute him after he was stopped at customs? Jamie Williams is the only person ever brought to court under the so-called foreign fighter laws, ushered through parliament in the wake of the 2014 Sydney Siege. But Williams was trying to fight against ISIS, not for them.
It was December 28, 2014—just a few days after hostages Tori Johnson, Katrina Dawson, and gunman Man Haron Monis died inside Sydney's Lindt Cafe that Williams' girlfriend drove him out to Melbourne Airport. He was booked on the 11 PM flight, headed to northern Iraq via Doha. At first, it seemed like any overseas trip. Williams checked his bag and filled out his exit card but he was flagged down at customs. "Why are you going to Iraq?" the customs officer asked, peering down at the card he'd just filled out. Williams had ticked the box: Going for a holiday.
"[The officer] laughed and said, 'Nobody goes to Iraq for a holiday. Why are you really going?'" Williams recalls. We're sitting in the beer garden of a nondescript restaurant, sandwiched between a McDonald's and a kebab shop. All around us families quietly tuck into late Sunday lunches. In his late 20s, Williams has his hair clipped short, he sits rod straight the whole time we talk. He seems like a man who's been in the army for years.
Williams admits he was overconfident at the airport, never for a second did he think he'd be stopped because he was carrying an Australian passport. But suspicious customs officials had quickly pulled him into a questioning room and started scrolling through his phone. They found a text to a friend that read, "I'm going to Syria." The contents of his bag looked like a catalogue from an army supply store—combat boots, a special solar panel for charging electronics in the middle of nowhere, a chest rig for carrying ammunition.
Williams' supplies for Syria
"Once they started questioning me, I told them exactly what my intentions were," Williams tells me. He was headed overseas to join the YPG: the Kurdish people's army, which has been fighting, and winning, against ISIS. Amid the violent anarchy of the Islamic State, the al-Assad regime, and Syrian rebel groups, Williams saw the YPG—with its all-female battalion and democratic elections—as the only viable group to join. Plus, the US actively supports the YPG, and they aren't on the Australian terror watch list.
But, of course, war is never as simple as good and bad. The YPG's alleged links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) complicate things, because that group is designated as a terror organisation by US-allied Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and Australia. In February 2016, the Turkish bombed Kurdish forces who'd won an airbase near Aleppo in northern Syria. Enemies, allies—the lines have become so blurred by infighting.
"I didn't think I was doing anything illegal," Williams says. "I thought if I was just honest with what I wanted to do they'd see me on my way." And they did, sort of. Because the law was so new, so broad, no one really knew what to do with Williams. "I was actually told at the airport if I had been a month earlier, that they wouldn't have been able to stop me," he says.
Even now, Williams isn't sure whether he was arrested that day. He was read his rights though, and was asked to come speak with the anti-terror squad the next day. When he called his girlfriend, Jess, to pick him up, she thought he was checking in from his first stopover. It was 3:30 AM. He'd been in questioning for four hours.
When I broach the first why with Williams, it feels like we hit a wall. Why did he want to go? He talks about seeing all these horrible things ISIS was doing online: The beheadings, the slaughter of the Yazidi people, destruction of ancient cities. There was the "Ginger Jihadi," Sydney teenager Abdullah Elmir, who appeared in a video flanked by ISIS fighters, declaring war on the West. "I took that threat seriously and I took that threat personally," Williams tells me. "They are saying we won't stop until we destroy everything that you hold dear in Australia."
In trying to understand foreign fighters, it's common for journalists to scrape at their life history, attempting to find some trauma everything traces back to. And perhaps Williams' dad passing away violently when he was young did play into it. Maybe it was more about leaving school at 15 years old—most people drawn into the Middle East conflict, on either side, are young men who are frustrated by their own powerlessness in daily life. They tend to have few job prospects. Williams had been working as a security guard.
But this describes millions of people. That Williams hates ISIS, that he truly believes it's a force of evil—"these people, if you can call them that"—this does not make him unique. The fundamental difference between him and everyone else is that he went. He actually drove to the airport, filled out his exit card, and tried to pass through customs.
But trying to get Williams to talk about the psychology of why some people go and others don't is tough. Listening back to the tape of our interview, his silence after my question seems even longer than it did that afternoon, a couple of drinks deep into conversation. He concedes he is stubborn, and hints at impulsivity—rejected from the Army over a drink driving charge in his teens, he signed up to the French Foreign Legion on a whim and flew out Christmas Day 2011.
But here his girlfriend Jess looks up from her phone and offers another side: "Most of the people that I've spoken to through all of this, they have this mentality that it's just something they need to do." It's taken a long time for her to come to this kind of understanding. "I was initially…" she weighs up her words. "Not 100 percent understanding." Williams was obviously passionate about the war in Syria, but Jess says the day the day he told her he'd decided to go over there, it still blindsided her. "As much as I didn't want it to happen I couldn't really step in and stop that," she says. "It's not really my place to stop it even though I may have wanted to."
"I never really had any doubts," Williams says, loosening up. "I knew why I wanted to go and to do something like that you can't doubt yourself. If you have doubts you shouldn't be going." This resoluteness carried Williams through his entire trial—he never for a moment believed he was in the wrong. Even when he had to go to AFP headquarters for questioning the day after he was stopped at the airport, even three months later when they finally got a search warrant for his house and seized his phone, computer, army gear, and USBs.
It was only when Williams was charged that—reading through a piece of paper explaining his bail conditions—he realised what he'd got himself into. He wouldn't be going home that night. "They were explaining: 'This is the category you fall into.' It was the same as people who have committed murders or serious rapes, the worst of the worst crimes," he recalls. "I was charged with terrorism offences. It was the same law, same charge, that somebody attempting to join ISIS would've been charged with. That, to me, was the most offensive and hardest thing about this case."
Williams never really got his day in court. There were the committal hearings—four in total, months apart—but Commonwealth prosecutor Andrew Doyle asked for adjournments each time, waiting on instruction from Attorney-General George Brandis. Those early hearings were a circus. Held in remand Williams saw nothing, but Jess recalls battling through a wall of TV cameras to get to and from court.
Interest from government was high too. I remember squeezing into a packed court for one of Williams' committal hearings. Minutes later, after the government's lawyer had again asked for an extension, the whole crowd filed out—a sea of tall men in suits with weatherbeaten faces. "Do you know who they were?" asked my lawyer friend, who'd come along to show me the ropes of court reporting. He pointed to all the suits now striking up cigarettes out front of the court. I shook my head. "AFP, federal police," he explained. "You've obviously picked a good case."
But if Williams was a test case—an easy win for the government to set precedent—no one had expected his defence team would fight back so vehemently. Given Williams had admitted everything to the police, it seemed there was only one way things could go: Him pleading guilty. But his lawyer Jessie Smith, who took up Williams' case on legal aid, pushed for another path.
Smith's main argument was that the Kurds have effectively become the government in the Rojava region. Of course, there are those who dispute this. But it would follow that Williams joining the YPG, their military wing, shouldn't be different than joining, say, the French Foreign Legion. If Smith and Williams had won with this defence it would've opened the door to anyone who says they want to join the YPG. For the government, this would've been the worst possible outcome. So in February 2016, more than two years after he was first pulled up at Melbourne Airport, the case against Jamie Williams was dropped.
The Attorney-General's office responded to VICE's questions about Williams' case saying: "There are safer, legal ways of helping the people affected by these conflicts than travelling overseas to fight or support a terrorist organisation… The AFP will continue to pursue cases for foreign incursions prosecution, regardless of whether the person is fighting for or against ISIL [another name for ISIS or Islamic State]."
Reading profiles of other young Australian fighters like Reece Harding and Ashley Dyball, it quickly becomes clear my questions about Williams aren't unique. Everyone wants to figure out the why: Why do young middle class men (and sometimes women) give up their normal lives to fight in the war-ravaged Middle East?
But speaking with Williams something clicks about their motives—it's that very normalcy, the mediocrity of their lives that makes fighting abroad so appealing. That very 20-something urge to be part of something that matters. "There are people who say, 'Isn't it a bit of a crazy move?'" Williams admits. "I don't think it is. For me, it seems like a perfectly rational thing to do." And the barrier to entry was so low. Jamie Williams, Ashley Dyball, and Reece Harding all made contact with the YPG by messaging the Lions of Rojava Facebook page. It has more than 25,000 likes, and the group has amassed 34,100 followers on Twitter.
There's another thing these three young men shared too—in a matter of months they all went from nobodies to household names. Williams is a hero is the Kurdish community, which threw Harding a funeral fit for a prime minister when the 23-year-old was killed by a land mine in northern Syria. That's not to say any of them hungered for fame. Nor were they dumb kids looking for an adventure. As much as anyone can tell from the outside, all three genuinely felt it was their duty. What they were after, it seems, was significance.
I leave Jamie and Jess at the bar where some of their friends have gathered. With the recorder switched off, he's far more relaxed, but still exudes vigilance. I notice he's wearing very fresh Nikes. In limbo for the time being, still waiting for an answer to the question of whether it's legal for him to go to Syria, Williams has signed up for university—creative writing. He tells me stepping back into a classroom after 14 years is a scarier prospect than fighting the world's most hated terrorist group.
Across the parking lot, I unlock my car, the hourly news blares from the speakers as I switch on the ignition. A father and his teenage son sitting in the tray of the ute next to me, eating McDonald's, glance over. A voice from the radio says another young man is stranded in Syria after the Australian government stripped him of his passport. There are allegations he's a terrorist; he's adamant he was doing humanitarian work. He is 19 years old.
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