Two years ago, the Islamic State declared its caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria. The declaration came after a three-week blitzkrieg through northern Iraq that left many thousands dead and ended with the capture of Mosul, the country's second-largest city.
Exactly 730 days later, the militant group still holds the city. It still embraces slavery, rape, and crucifixion without apology. It still saturates the internet with high-definition murder porn and slaughters civilians on the streets of Europe and America. But what's it like to fight ISIS? And can its cult of death ever be defeated?
I spoke to Mike, a 54-year-old dance teacher from Portsmouth, England who spent six months—from June to December of last year—fighting ISIS on Iraq's frontline. Mike, who asked that we don't publish his last name for security reasons, is one of a handful of British men—almost exclusively ex-soldiers—who have offered their lives, for free, to this battle. They go, they say, because their government doesn't want to. After all, since ISIS put a $150,000 bounty on the head of every Westerner there, there's literally no place more dangerous for a British man to be.
VICE: Hi Mike. So, what makes a man travel thousands of miles to fight, for free, in another army's war?
Mike: I don't see it as someone else's war. We created the power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS when we invaded Iraq in 2003—it's our fault. So when I saw footage of the Yazidi massacre, I thought, Why isn't anybody doing anything about this? I spent four-and-a-half years in the 80s fighting in Central Africa with the French Foreign Legion, so I'm used to combat with insurgents and had the skills and training. I thought, This is my chance to do something meaningful.
Were your motivations really purely ideological?
Largely. But honestly, I also missed the lifestyle of the military—its simplicity. Modern life is very complex—emails, the rat race, first world problems, all that shit. But at war, when all you've got to worry about is not getting killed, you become very mindful. It gives you more time to enjoy being alive. I remember speeding through the desert in an armored truck at 80 MPH—to avoid mortars—singing along to music on the radio at the top of my voice, and thinking, Fuck—how many 53-year-old men get to do this? It's pure.
What did people say when you told them you were going?
A lot of people in the dance community—I teach West Coast Swing—didn't understand why anyone would want to do this. They said, "God, are you having a midlife crisis?" I've had a different midlife crisis every day since I was 30, but I felt this was a threat that impacts me: my future, my kids' future.
What did your kids say about it?
I'm divorced with two kids, ages 30 and 28. They don't understand it, but then their old man has done quite a few things they don't understand. I think they tend to think, What's the crazy bastard up to now?
Related: Watch our documentary about foreigners fighting ISIS in Syria
How did you get out there?
I made some contacts through Facebook, booked a flight to Iraqi Kurdistan, via Turkey. I bought my own kit and weapons—a Soviet RPK machine gun and a Walther PPK pistol—from the local arms market in Sulaymaniyah and immediately found work with an NGO named Shadows of Hope, taken on by the Peshmerga to train soldiers. What I didn't understand was how bloody difficult it was to get myself in harm's way once I was there.
What do you mean?
The Kurds don't want Westerners going home dead—it's bad publicity—and I wanted the real McCoy.
How did you go about finding it?
While working with the Kurdish 2nd Special Operations Group on the frontline south of Kirkuk, I came across an outfit of American soldiers heading to the under-siege city of Sinjar—the same city where those poor Yazidis were slaughtered. They agreed to take me along.
What were the other foreign volunteers in your unit like?
Typical bloody Americans, mostly—loud, but a good bunch of guys. Some were ex-special forces, some ex-Marines, a former US Army Ranger… a couple, I suspect, still worked for the US government. They were all pretty hardcore and certainly knew their shit.
Did you get to the bottom of why others had to decided to go out and risk their lives?
Every man had his reasons. The unifying motivation for all of us was ideological—we were all ex-soldiers with the skills to help. But dig a little deeper and you'd find guys who missed the brotherhood. Others were adrenaline junkies, or had nothing at home so came to fill a void. Some had been in the forces but never seen action and wanted to tick that box. Everyone had an itch to scratch.
You arrived in Sinjar in October and stayed for three months. What was life like there?
Sinjar City was a live siege, the front lines in some places only 50 meters [54 yards] apart. The food was terrible, the sanitation was awful, infections rife. There was almost no electricity, except from a few generators. Ironically, I got better 4G on the frontline than I do in England. We slept in bombed-out houses, though the $150,000 price on the head of every Westerner meant we had to move every seven days.
Were you constantly fighting?
No. During the days ISIS hid in their tunnels, waiting for darkness. So we'd go on recon patrols, train Yazidi soldiers and treat the injured. Though, my abiding memory is sitting high on my recon position, watching literally thousands of oil tankers with Turkish number plates streaming up Highway 47 towards Turkey from ISIS-held territory. What were they doing? And why didn't the coalition bomb Highway 47? They could've cut this clearly huge part of ISIS' revenue stream at the push of a button, but they didn't. The complicity in the region is staggering, especially when it comes to oil.
What happened at night?
ISIS would attack.
What was that like?
One night, I was on watch with two Kurds. We were relaxed, smoking behind our hands, when, at about 1AM, we saw a torchlight dancing on a wall on the ISIS line. We were bored so we opened fire. That was their cue. Instantly, cries of "Allah Akbar" rang out in the darkness as waves of ISIS foot soldiers swarmed into no-mans land. Gunfire, screaming, tracer bullets whizzing over our heads like fireflies on fast-forward; pandemonium. I mean, these fuckers didn't care if they lived or died. We couldn't see them through the dark so shot at darting shadows and muzzle flashes. The only time you knew you hit one was when you heard screams. Their job was to get to within grenade-throwing distance; ours was to shoot them before they could. They never got through.
Why didn't the coalition just bomb them?
They tried, but ISIS always knew the planes were coming, like they had some kind of early warning system. In Sinjar, that's how we knew the planes were coming in—they would disengage and scurry down their holes.
In the two years since ISIS declared the caliphate, how do you think the situation has changed?
In 2014, ISIS was more of a conventional military unit, which allowed it to take all the ground it took before it declared the caliphate. But since Sinjar, it's lost so much territory that it's gone back, tactically, to being an insurgency. They're in defensive mode: hit-and-run attacks, suicide bombs in markets, attacks overseas. Basically, I think they over-extended themselves creating the caliphate, and now they only have the manpower to defend it. That's not to say they're on the run—they are closing ranks and consolidating in areas that will be very difficult to take back.
Do you think it'll ever be possible to defeat ISIS?
In my opinion, not as things are going. The trouble is: the Iraqi and Kurdish armies aren't moving terribly fast, and the West seems unwilling to commit in earnest. There are too many political interests at stake. For a start, everyone is making money out of the oil. Everyone. Also, the Kurds want autonomy against Iraq so they're more likely to want to strengthen their borders than commit to an all-out offensive in mainland Iraq. If we're going to destroy ISIS, NATO needs to step in. We need to have significant air bombardment, unlike the frankly piecemeal coalition airstrikes I saw. Then we need to put boots on the ground. We've got to stop seeing this as someone else's war. It is our war, and the Kurds, Iraqis, and others out there are fighting it, and dying, for us.
You don't seem too confident.
Well, it all depends on us. As it stands, my prognosis is that the patient is dying slowly. There is a cure, but it must be decisive, concerted, and soon.
Follow Matt Blake on Twitter.