DAQUQ, Iraq — The so-called Islamic State has recruited copious cannon fodder from around the world, along with quite a few ferocious fighters. But its toughest opponents on the ground, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, are attracting Western ex-soldiers for their ranks who are determined to see the self-proclaimed “caliphate” not only “degraded,” as Washington puts it, but destroyed.
At a Kurdish Peshmerga base on the fluid battle lines outside the ethnically and religiously mixed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, three American fighters sat down with The Daily Beast. We were less than half a mile from the black flags of ISIS, as the would-be Islamic State is widely known, and the soldiers asked that I not give too many details about their identities. They worry that their families could become special targets for a fanatical fighting force whose battlefields, like its targets, seem limitless.
Dressed in a Peshmerga uniform, Jeremy is a compact, affable 28-year-old-guy from Mississippi who fought with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s been fighting alongside the Pesh for the last six months.
Leo is a tall and direct 38-year-old Texan who worked security for private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mel’s background also is in military security contracting and he says he served for a while with an army from a European country, but he won’t specify which. Mel’s a little eccentric. At 41, the Colorado native sports a pair of carefully pointed canine teeth—fangs, in fact— and a goatee that gives off a strong goth-metal vibe.
For two months Leo and Mel have been with the Peshmerga, the erstwhile guerrilla army that now makes up the autonomous armed forces of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, and both are dressed in the gray flannel shirts and cargo pants often associated with private security contractors, but they and Jeremy all claim to be volunteers who are not receiving any kind of salary.
As we sit in the comfortable field office of Peshmerga Maj. Gen. Karwan Asaad, with Kurdish TV playing on a flat screen in the background, the hazy battle lines feel bizarrely distant despite a network of frontline dugouts only a few hundred yards away. But the Americans are anything but complacent.