The first foreigner to be killed fighting against the Islamic State alongside Kurdish forces is believed to be an Australian who died on Tuesday. The man was fighting with Kurdish militia near the Sinjar mountains in northern Syria. He has since been identified as Ashley Kent Johnston, 28, from Maryborough, Queensland. Johnston adopted the nom de guerre Heval Bagok Serhed while fighting.
He had been fighting with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), when he was reportedly killed. Johnston reportedly served a seven-year term in the Australian army reserve as a rifleman and medic.
Jordan Matson, a fellow foreign fighter with the YPG from the US, issued a statement after the death. "Ashley was a good man who never complained and was always positive," he said. "He came to defend his country even when his country labeled him a criminal for doing so and before his country was willing to defend itself."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, claimed to have confirmed the death with multiple sources. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated: "We are aware of reports that an Australian male has reportedly been killed in northern Syria."
It continued: "Australians who become involved in overseas conflicts are putting their own lives in mortal danger. Any Australians fighting with non-state militia in Syria or Iraq should end their involvement in the conflict now and leave the conflict zone."
The YPG have actively recruited foreign fighters and run several English language social media accounts under the banner, "Lions of Rojava," which has been used as a tagline for Westerners who join the Kurds fighting against the Islamic State, also referred to as Isis.
"We the YPG regretfully inform you of the death of one of our bravest western fighters Heval Bagok Serhed," read a statement posted on the Lions of Rojava Facebook page. "He is the first Western fighter to be martyred fighting the evil of ISIS. Rest in Peace our Brother.
"He was taken from us in a heroic assault on ISIS positions in a small village near Shingal. His squad of 8 fighters where (sic) in a truck which had broken down and it was critical that they dislodge ISIS form their positions so they pushed on fearlessly with little regard for the own safety.
"They where (sic) massively outnumbered and outgunned but fearless in the face of this as they knew another ISIS death meant saving the lives of countless civilians. He was a fearless and exceptional soldier as well a great man."
Many of the foreigners who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State have joined the YPG. Among the reported recruits are Britons James Hughes and Jamie Read, Canadian-Israeli Gil Rosenberg, as well as the former president of the Australian Labor Party in the Northern Territory, Matthew Gardiner, who allegedly disappeared from his position to take up arms.
A recent post by the Lions of Rojava, in which names were redacted, appeared to show the overwhelming interest of Westerners in supporting the YPG militia.
Yet foreigners face not only great personal risk, but also the threat of criminal charges once they return home. Many countries have laws targeting citizens who join militant groups abroad. In Australia, for example, traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight can be punishable with life imprisonment.
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