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A Group of Veterans Is Equipping Western Fighters Heading to Battle the Islamic State

Hundreds of vigilantes from Canada, the US, and Britain have applied to receive mental, physical and logistical support before joining Kurdish forces fighting militants in the Middle East.
December 8, 2014, 8:10pm
Photo via AP

The way Ian Bradbury sees it, many former North American service members that are watching the bloodshed sweeping across the Middle East are going to fly there to help battle Islamic State militants — whether they're prepared or not.

Bradbury, a Canadian military veteran, would prefer that they are prepared. So the retired Ottawa corporal, together with a small team of other Canadian veterans, set up a support group named the 1st North American Expeditionary Force (1st NAEF), to equip men and women boarding planes to Iraq with the necessary survival tools.

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"We have veterans who are packing up and leaving under very difficult circumstances," Bradbury told VICE News. "They don't have networks or verified contacts. We can't stop them leaving, and quite frankly somebody needs to watch out for those guys."

26-year-old Dillon Hillier volunteers to fight with— Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish)November 21, 2014

The group is a fledgling organization formed only a month ago in the wake of reports of an uptick in Canadian citizens flying to Syria to join forces with the Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants there. Hundreds, including Americans, Australians, and Brits, have contacted Bradbury expressing interest, but only a handful will make it through to the next group of 1st NAEF-trained service members to head to Iraq, which is scheduled for January, he said.

That's because all applicants for 1st NAEF training are first vetted under strict regulations, and must provide proof of military service and training, two character references, and pass an internally conducted psychological assessment to determine their reasons for joining combat.

"We're trying to select those who are going to be the most value," Bradbury said. "The last thing anyone needs is a whole bunch of untrained people running around."

Once approved, the 1st NAEF will advise the veterans on a range of combat processes — from the legal implications of fighting without their home state's consent and pre-departure preparation, to how to properly treat a head wound once they enter the fray.

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Ex-Canadian soldier fires assault rifle at Islamic State in video. Read more here.

Last week, VICE News Canada reported on ex-Canadian Forces soldier Dillon Hillier, 26, who is believed to be among at least six known former Canadian military personnel to have teamed up with Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Two videos of Hillier have since emerged and gone viral online. One is of the Alberta native firing an assault rifle across a trench toward Islamic State militants, and another shows him bandaging a fellow Kurdish soldier after the man had been shot in the face.

Bandages are just one of many medical items in short supply in the region, Bradbury said. Compressions, triangle gauzes, and tourniquets are among a long list of basic supplies the group is hoping to furnish to Canadian and Peshmerga forces, through donations, in the next rollout.

Despite the influx of support, strong criticism has been leveled at the group for its well-intended but potentially damaging mission, which could incentivize lone wolf-type mercenaries, attention-hungry amateurs, or "guys looking to go on war vacations," according to Bradbury.

"That's the last guy we want," he said of potential war vacationers, adding that the group's intention is not to draw people away from joining the Canadian military — whose involvement so far in battling the Islamic State has been limited to participating in US-led coalition airstrikes against militant targets, and helping train Iraqi forces on the ground.

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Bradbury said he would rather encourage anyone to "join the service of this nation," and wants "to make sure anyone we're supporting follows along those lines." This means those supported by the group will only fight alongside Kurdish Peshmerga and other forces deemed legitimate by the Canadian government.

Ottawa soldier shooting comes as Canadian jets Leave to Bomb Islamic State. Read more here.

These former service members will work in direct support of the Peshmerga, Bradbury explained, but won't actually be joining them — a technicality that reduces liability, and provides a sort of "buffer zone," he said.

The group, Bradbury said, has "zero contact" with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which has been linked with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) — a group designated by many Western governments as a terrorist organization.

Bradbury points out that other Western fighters have not made the same distinction.

A Canadian-Israeli woman and ex-IDF soldier, Gill Rosenberg, is among those who have also gained internet popularity as a fighter with the Lions of Rojava, a YPG-linked recruitment group whose stated mission is to "send terrorists to hell and save humanity." The Lions of Rojava has been successful in recapturing a number of towns from Islamic militants.

The 1st NAEF will also withdraw immediate support to any fighters deemed to have committed a criminal act in combat, while "war crimes will also be reported," Bradbury said. "We are trying to set an example for fighters."

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The Canadian armed forces did not immediately respond to VICE News' requests for comment.

Canadian foreign affairs spokesman Francois Lasalle told VICE News that Canada has long advised against all travel to Syria and Iraq.

"Canadians travelling to Syria and Iraq, including those who travel there to join local campaigns in the fight against ISIL, must do so at their own personal risk and must be aware that rescue missions in this dangerous area will not be conducted," he said.

The Islamic State may now have slightly more than no air force. Read more here.

Canadian citizens are also among a growing contingent of Westerners who have joined extremist groups in recent months. Over the weekend, a media arm of the Islamic State released another propaganda film featuring an Ottawa jihadist who called for Canadian Muslims to journey to the militant group's self-declared caliphate or carry out homegrown terror attacks.

"You either pack your bags or you prepare your explosive devices. You either purchase your airline ticket or you sharpen your knife," the fighter, Abu Anwar al-Canadi, formerly known as John Maguire, says in the video.

The militant also referenced two terror attacks conducted on Canadian soil in October — one involving a deadly attack on two Canadian Forces members in Montreal, and another fatal shooting at Ottawa's Parliament Hill.

Islamic State member warns of NYC attack in exclusive interview - the Canadian jihadist. Watch the VICE News video here.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields