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British Soldier Leaves Army Base to Join Kurdish Forces Fighting the Islamic State

The 19-year-old, thought to be the first serving British soldier to travel out to fight the militants, told his parents he was "driven by the conviction the Kurds need the help of the British."

by Jenna Corderoy
Feb 20 2015, 6:55pm

Image via Reuters

A 19-year-old British soldier is reported to have left his army base in Cyprus and traveled to join Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

The family of the soldier, who has not been named for security reasons, contacted Sky News and said that he was "driven by his conviction that the Kurds need the help of the British, they need help with trained soldiers who can travel to the region."

A text message from the soldier to his family read: "I've gone to join the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. I'm with other British people and a Canadian at the moment.

"I don't know how to explain it to you but I really want and need to do this and I will be safe."

"I will get in trouble for going AWOL but it is minor and no prison sentence," he added.

The battalion that the soldier was reportedly serving with — the 2nd Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment — has been training Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq. It is likely however that he would join the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — rather than the peshmerga, as the latter force has recently insisted it will not accept foreign fighters.  The YPG is fighting in both Syria and northern Iraq.

The 2nd Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, training Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq. Video via UK Ministry of Defense/YouTube.

It is thought that the teenager could be the first serving soldier of the British Army to have traveled to join Kurdish forces. A Ministry of Defense spokesman said "We are aware of these reports and are looking into them."

Yet those who fight in foreign conflicts may face arrest on their return to the UK.

A Home Office spokesperson said to VICE News: "The UK has consistently advised against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. Anyone who travels to these areas is putting themselves in considerable danger."

It is not the first time that UK nationals have left the country to join the Kurdish forces. Last year, ex-soldier James Hughes and his friend Jamie Read went to Syria to fight against IS, and returned in December 2014 after spending three weeks there. Unlike those who have fought for IS and returned home, Read and Hughes were questioned but not charged with terrorism offences.

Earlier this month, it was reported that a former public schoolboy, 28-year-old Macer Gifford, gave up his City job and began volunteering for the YPG in Iraq and Syria. In January, a Kurdish teenager, Silhan Ozcelik, from north London was arrested on her return to the UK after traveling to the Middle East. It was reported that she had joined the fight against IS, but her family said she was on a humanitarian mission.

According to parliamentary records, in January, Defense Minister Michael Fallon said that the UK had launched 99 airstrikes in Iraq, and also provided training and equipment to Kurdish forces, including infantry, combat first aid, sharpshooting and counter-IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) training. He said: "Our training has been focused in Kurdistan through the Ministry of Peshmerga, and our other embedded personnel work only with the security forces of the government of Iraq, not with any of the Shia militia."

Fallon continued: "We have been training Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and are doing so at the moment. Training courses in Kurdistan are being managed and led by British troops, and I hope that they will help the peshmerga, in particular, in their fight against ISIL [the Islamic State]."

It is estimated that over 20,000 foreigners have joined IS or other Sunni militant groups in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, of which nearly a fifth were residents or nationals of Western European countries, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) said in January. The center estimates that 500 to 600 of them have come from Britain.

Recently, Imran Khawaja, a British jihadist linked to IS, who traveled to Syria and then faked his own death in order to return to the UK unnoticed, was jailed for 12 years.

On Friday, police launched an appeal over fears that three schoolgirls from east London have travelled to Syria via Turkey, and heading towards the region controlled by IS.  

Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy