The Kurds Were Fighting ISIS Long Before The US Was. This Is What It Was Like.
Before the US joined the war on ISIS, before Trump abandoned them, the Kurds were waging a lonely fight against the jihadis in a forgotten patch of Syria. This is their origin story.
Mike Giglio spent years reporting on the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As the formerly US-backed Kurdish fighters who sacrificed the most in that war now find themselves facing an assault from Turkish forces, Giglio — previously a correspondent with BuzzFeed News and now a staff writer at the Atlantic — looks back at when they first introduced him to the threat that would become ISIS in this excerpt from his new book, Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.
I stepped up into a school bus with my rucksack and body armor and was surprised to see the faces of schoolchildren looking up at me.
I’d thought the bus was just cover for the smuggler that an old friend had commissioned to ferry me across the Turkish border into northeastern Syria, but he also appeared to be its regular driver, and it must have been the end of the school day. The students lowered their eyes as I squeezed down the aisle and sank into an empty seat.
It was November of 2013, and I was preparing to meet with a little-known group of Kurdish militants who were opening a new front in the civil war. With me was the photographer Yusuf Sayman, who stuffed himself into the row in front of me with his own armor and camera bag. We stayed quiet on the ride as the bus made its usual stops along a dirt road that led from a Turkish town to the Syrian border, dropping off the uniformed children at their homes. When the last was gone, the bus kept driving until we reached a clearing where two smugglers sat beneath a tree.
We waited with them as dusk settled with a chill that hinted of winter. As the sun sank below the horizon, more travelers emerged, walking toward us from the surrounding fields. One man said he lived nearby, in the relative safety of southern Turkey, but worked in Syria at an oil refinery. His commute was a sprint along the smuggling paths just ahead, which cut through a minefield stretching beyond the razor wire that marked the border.
He was the first to tell me the story of the strange jihadis who had appeared in the forgotten patch of Syria beyond the mines. “They have got big beards, and they have keys hanging around their necks, and they say, ‘Allahu akbar,’” he said. He lifted his arms into the air. “And they explode.”
Over the next week I would hear the tales several times—of men with long beards and wild, flowing hair and a love of bombs and death. It was said that they believed the keys on their necks would open the gates of paradise. In some tellings, they even carried spoons in their pockets, to dine with the Prophet Muhammad when they got there.
Night fell with a heavy blackness. The man was talking about bombs, in the suicide vests the jihadis wore and in the cars they drove into markets and hospitals. One of the smugglers grabbed my body armor so we could move fast, and we joined the stream of men, women, and children rushing toward the border, the bags rustling and bouncing as we ran. Somewhere in the darkness the Turkish gendarmes guarding the border were shooting and shouting. We slipped through a hole in the razor wire.
A few weeks earlier, from Turkey, I had called a friend in Syria on a shaky Skype line. His name was Barzan Iso, and he was a partisan with the little-known Kurdish guerilla faction that controlled the swath of northeastern Syria that I was entering. We used to drink together in Istanbul, where I lived. Barzan had been living there as a political exile even before the war, but over the summer he’d returned to Syria. The civil war, more hopeless than ever after Assad’s notorious chemical weapons attack the previous August, was fading from the international news. Egypt was in the throes of a counter-revolution, and Libya and Yemen were spiraling into chaos. The Arab Spring was dead. But Barzan told me that something dangerous was rising in its place and arranged my trip with the smugglers so I could see it.
Yusuf and I hurried along a path the smugglers had cleared through the mines, which stretched for miles across the no-man’s-land that separated the two countries. The sounds of shouts and gunshots faded. We slowed to a walk, and the travelers around us dispersed into the night, leaving us with our smugglers. I saw a light glowing from a little shack that sat atop a hill. We walked toward it.
Inside, a man in army fatigues sat at a desk with a great ledger opened before him. This was my first encounter with the Kurdish fighters who would one day become America’s top ally in its then-unimaginable war against ISIS in Syria. He asked for our passports with the routine formality of a customs officer and began to copy the details into his well-worn book. Dogs barked outside. We were standing in what seemed to be a farm shed.
The war had divided Syria into little fiefdoms where each armed group strove to install its own bureaucracy. Sometimes it felt like one big, violent game of house. You had to be careful not to offend anyone, but you also had to make sure not to let them ruin your passport. On a trip Yusuf and I had taken into rebel territory early in the war, a fighter had met us at the border in a ratty sedan and driven us to the first checkpoint, where a billboard ad for an FM radio station read, “Welcome to Free Syria.” A man with a beard approached my window waving an entry stamp. I brushed him off, and we rolled past the billboard and into a wasteland of bombed-out buildings and mud flats crowded with refugee tents. The battalion that controlled that crossing was ousted by a rival soon after, and it continued on and on like that. Yusuf, a burly chain-smoker from Istanbul, had run a bar in Manhattan’s East Village before becoming a journalist. He had a phrase he’d use in the war’s early days in his scratchy jazz-man baritone: “mickey mouse.” There were mickey-mouse checkpoints and mickey-mouse courts and mickey-mouse bombs that exploded on their makers and a mickey-mouse missile that turned in the air and came back at the people who fired it. One time he hitchhiked into Syria with the mickey-mouse brigade.
The man at the desk wanted to keep our passports until we returned to sneak back into Turkey, but we protested, and he relented. Our guide arrived — a twenty-five-year-old who wore a pistol holstered at his waist — and led us to the back of a pickup truck. We bumped along to the nearest town, where a family sympathetic to the local guerillas welcomed us at their home with a late dinner. We sat on the floor over plates of meat and cheese and again heard the story of the men with the beards and keys.
The next morning we headed toward the regional capital of Qamishli in an old Astro van. The road wound past farm fields and oil refineries and through checkpoints run by nervous soldiers. We were far from the places like Damascus and Aleppo that had been the focus of the civil war. There, US-backed rebels and their Islamist counterparts were still watching as the territory they’d captured was carpet-bombed. Here it was different. This land was controlled by the Kurds, the ethnic group with roots in ancient Iran that was a minority in Syria as well as Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The Kurds accounted for about 10 percent of Syria’s population and were concentrated mainly in the northeastern corner of the country, an arid and lightly developed region between Iraq and Turkey. The Kurds called it Rojava.
Syrian Kurds were oppressed under the Assad dynasty, which viewed them as potential separatists. For decades, the regime had carried out campaigns of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing against its Kurdish citizens. At times it forbade giving children Kurdish names. When the Kurds had protested over their treatment a decade earlier, they were killed in Rojava’s streets. Many had been wary of participating in Syria’s Arab Spring uprising, understanding the kind of suffering the regime was capable of inflicting. Instead, when the civil war erupted, Kurdish leaders made a deal with their longtime enemy in hopes of keeping Rojava out of it. The regime ceded control of Rojava to the Kurds and allowed them to raise a militia, called the People’s Protection Units and known by its Kurdish acronym as the YPG, to defend it. In return, the Kurds promised not to join the rebellion. Since then, amid this uneasy detente, Rojava had been spared.
But in recent months the violence had come to Rojava in an unexpected way. The Kurds were under attack along their boundaries from the most extreme of the Islamist rebel fighters, including the bands of wild-haired jihadis I’d been hearing about. (I found the idea that they carried keys and spoons into battle to be far-fetched, and eventually decided that these details were simply part of the feverish fears the jihadis had whipped up among the Kurdish population.) It could seem strange for these radicals to have set their sights on such an out-of-the-way slice of territory if you only saw Rojava through the lens of the war between the rebels and Assad. But to someone planning to start a new war—and to draw the outlines of a new country—Rojava was valuable real estate.
It stretched for some two hundred miles along the Turkish border, which was still the gateway not only to the war economy of southern Turkey but also to transit routes to Europe and beyond. Rojava also abutted two Syrian cities that extremists were quietly working to control. Raqqa and Deir Ezzor were little known outside Syria, but they and their environs were home to Syria’s main oil wells and a combined population of more than 2 million people. They also sat along the desert highways that led to two key cities in Iraq: Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Mosul, the bustling city in the country’s north.
As we sped along in the Astro van, the road was mostly empty. When it passed through small towns, though, it was lined with banners, flying like flags. On the banners were photos of YPG soldiers—young men and women who looked down with stony faces at the passersby. They were locals who’d been dying by the dozens in their battle with the jihadis. “No one talks about us. We didn’t see anything on TV,” our guide said.
“They have got big beards, and they have keys hanging around their necks, and they say, ‘Allahu akbar,’” he said. He lifted his arms into the air. “And they explode.”
On the outskirts of Qamishli, we waited at the roadside for an escort, a pair of pickup trucks with armed militiamen in their beds. One went in front of the van and the other behind it as we entered the city. As part of the deal that had been struck, the regime still controlled a few key facilities, plus the airport and the city’s main road. The soldiers in the first pickup tensed when they passed regime police standing in black uniforms on the roadside. Eventually, we arrived at a Kurdish security headquarters ringed by roadblocks and guards. The regime flag flew from its own security building just across the street.
In the headquarters, we were greeted by a framed photo so large it was almost life-sized. It showed a haughty man with a thick moustache and an odd, recoiled look on his face, as if he’d just smelled something surprising. This was the Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Ocalan, who’d spent the last fifteen years in solitary confinement in an island prison off the coast of Turkey, where the government had also spent decades suppressing its Kurdish population. He was the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which had been carrying out an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since the 1980s and was designated a terrorist group by the US State Department. The YPG militia that controlled Rojava was a PKK franchise, founded at the start of the civil war by a handful of senior PKK members. The YPG seemed to be of another place and time, a throwback to leftist radical groups that flourished across Europe during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. They preached a neo-Marxist doctrine with a communal politics and deployed cadres of women fighters. The troops wore identical brown athletic sneakers that looked like Nike Air Force Ones and called each other heval, or comrade. Some were PKK veterans, and others were farmers and tradesmen recruited to help hold the lines. Their ardent secularism made them anti-Islamist and a natural enemy for the jihadis.
I sat for tea with a Kurdish security officer in his forties, Jewan Ibrahim, who wore a green flight suit with a green sash around his waist and a green jacket. There were plenty of Kurds who had opposed the YPG’s expansion in Syria and its deal with Assad, but they had been forced out, and the YPG now controlled all aspects of Rojava’s security and politics. Ibrahim said he didn’t regret anything. “That is how we kept our city,” he said of the deal. “Otherwise, it would be destroyed, like Aleppo. We learned from our revolution. We learned not to destroy our cities.”
Another reason to avoid a fight with the regime was the new enemy. Ibrahim said the same extremists who’d been attacking Rojava were gaining influence over the rebellion. While the deal with Assad was holding, cease-fires that the Kurds had struck with rebel groups were fraying as the rebellion changed. All across opposition territory, fighters linked to al-Qaeda were seizing pockets of turf in silent coups, like a snake gobbling up small prey as it lay in wait for something bigger. The jihadis were installing bureaucracies that were far more efficient than anything the rebels had tried before, establishing tax systems and demanding tribute on everything from weapons to cotton and grain. And they were targeting areas with resources such as oil that could be sold on the black market. Most of the other rebel groups relied on outside benefactors to survive—from the private donors in the Gulf to the intelligence services of countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States. The jihadis had a different plan. They wanted to become self-sufficient. The most brutal and effective was a group whose name telegraphed its ambition, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which locals referred to by its acronym: Daesh in Arabic, or ISIS.
ISIS had grown out of the Nusra Front, the extremist rebel faction whose young, idealistic members Leo and I had met near Antakya, and the two groups were in the process of splitting. Ibrahim said that the foreign mujahideen who’d been arriving in Syria were now concentrated in the ISIS ranks. In one recent battle, he said, “I saw people from Europe with my own eyes.” The fighters were still coming to Turkey by plane and could reach Syria easily across the border. Remnants of AQI, the al-Qaeda faction that had fought US troops during the Iraq War, were meanwhile crossing into Syria from Iraq. “The al-Qaeda in Syria is now even stronger than the one in Iraq,” Ibrahim said.
The Kurds had been the only group so far to stop the jihadis—driving them from a city called Ras al-Ain, seventy miles to the west, and from several towns—perhaps because many Kurdish fighters were veteran insurgents too. But they were being attacked regularly: there were car bombs, suicide blasts, and IEDs planted on the roadside overnight. A recent bombing in one small city had left fourteen civilians dead. Ibrahim said the jihadis were employing the same tactics they’d honed against the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The people who are planning this are very intelligent,” he said.
I would recall this conversation more than five years later, in the fall of 2019, when Donald Trump abandoned the partnership the US had eventually struck with the Kurds. Turkish jets and artillery began to pound Rojava less than a day after his call with Turkish President Erdogan about the pending operation. By then the YPG had been working with US troops for more than four years, joining with Arab battalions to form the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the ground force for the US war against ISIS in Syria, reportedly losing some 10,000 soldiers along the way. The Kurds had been fighting ISIS since well before the US saw the extent of the threat — and in the end they cleared the group from northeastern Syria, bringing an end to its physical caliphate. In the aftermath, they worked to establish a measure of order and, crucially for the Kurds, autonomy. Trump’s betrayal threw all of this progress into doubt — raising the prospect of an ISIS resurgence and killing the Rojava dream. Faced with invasion by the Turks, as US troops retreated, the Kurds turned to Assad for protection — a risky prospect that nonetheless fulfilled the mission Ibrahim had laid out back in 2013, of sparing the region from annihilation.
After meeting with Ibrahim, we piled back into the Astro van and drove through Qamishli. Graffiti was scrawled around the city, still visible beneath fresh layers of paint. “Our leader is the Prophet Muhammad,” read one. “I will sacrifice my father or mother for the Prophet,” read another. At the checkpoints that lined the roadways, soldiers tried not to stand in groups, believing it would make them more of a target. They paid extra attention to cars with male drivers and no passengers and to men with beards. They dug through pickup beds and opened hoods and trunks. They crawled on the ground to peer under flatbed trucks. “We’re afraid for our lives,” said one, who was seventeen.
One night, at an outpost near the front lines outside Ras al-Ain, the city where the Kurds had recently driven out extremist rebels, soldiers stayed warm in a tent beside a stretch of road. The sea of black around them was disturbed only by the occasional onward creep of headlights. A forty-six-year-old farmer and father of four from a nearby village said that, as the jihadis advanced on Ras al-Ain, he’d decided to pick up a weapon for the first time in his life. He had a short training session, learning to handle an assault rifle and operate its safety, and then joined the battle. “Whoever says he’s not afraid when he goes to fight is the biggest liar,” he said. “I was forced. There was only one thing in my mind: not to let any foreigners take my land.”
He recounted the enemy’s fighting style with awe. They fired rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, from the middle of the street, unconcerned with taking cover, and sprayed bullets as if they had an unlimited supply. More seasoned soldiers at the outpost said the jihadis also had well-trained snipers and fighters who could operate heavy weapons and tanks. “Their snipers are so good,” said one, holding up a bandaged hand to make his point.
The next morning we drove east to a town called al-Yarubiyah on the border with Iraq. It was unremarkable except for the convergence of two major roads: Iraq’s Highway 1, which extended to Mosul, and Syria’s M4, which went to Raqqa. The jihadis had seized it months earlier and held it until the Kurds freed it the previous week.
On the road into town, carloads of residents were returning. Flatbed trucks were piled high with furniture; one was packed with a flock of sheep. “I feel that I am born again,” said a man who passed with his wife and six kids through a checkpoint the YPG had erected to screen the new arrivals
In al-Yarubiyah, people ambled past buildings reduced to rubble and reopened boarded-up homes. Some had been looted. Pilfered belongings were strewn across a warehouse—an overturned armoire, spilling out girls’ clothes; a scattered deck of UNO cards; a medical dummy, opened up to reveal its insides. Soldiers picked through the mess, examining the clothing, tapping at a dusty tambourine. Sunlight filtered through bullet holes in the building’s metal siding.
Graffiti covered the town, the black spray paint extending across wall after wall, spelling out religious exultations and verses from the Quran, written out in exacting calligraphy. It ran along the gates of shuttered storefronts; it was stenciled onto telephone poles. It covered the former state security building, burned out and bullet-riddled, which had been converted into an Islamic court.
Most residents had fled when the rebels arrived. Those who remained recalled a foggy transition among the town’s new overlords. Fighters who seemed moderate at first were replaced with—or superseded by, or became themselves—fighters who were ardently Islamist. They began to impose a draconian code, forbidding residents from listening to music or smoking cigarettes and forcing them to fast and pray. One man, who owned a grocery shop on the main road, spent two nights in jail for owning a hookah. Bread prices skyrocketed, and fuel became scarce. Residents tried to avoid confrontation. “It’s a black-and-white world for them. You can become their enemy very fast,” the grocer said.
One day, at the intersection outside the grocer’s shop, the jihadis trotted out two dazed-looking men—one younger, the other maybe in his fifties—and presented them as agents of the Syrian army. The accused might have been sedated. They put up little resistance as the jihadis cut off their heads. The grocer said he stood and gawked. Another man recounted vomiting on the street. Another, who was twenty-five, said he recorded the scene on his phone. I asked to see the video, and he replied, “I deleted it, sheikh.” He had addressed me by the honorific for Islamic scholars, by mistake. Embarrassed, he explained that this had become a habit. “They ordered us to call them sheikh,” he said. “And if you didn’t say sheikh, then you had a problem.”
On the edge of town, at the border gate, what in peacetime had been a small administrative building stood unmarked by the ubiquitous graffiti. Inside, Kurdish soldiers had found cartons of TNT and the makings of a car-bomb factory. They’d hauled most of it away, but some items remained—thick metal cylinders to hold the explosives, sacks of aluminum powder to enhance the blasts, and metal ball bearings, taken from a local cement factory, to serve as shrapnel.
The bomb factory sat beside a large building where cargo trucks from Iraq and Syria once met to exchange their loads. Its vast floor was empty except for a collection of metal plates, which had been arranged neatly into rows. Each had been stenciled with the same careful script, the text tightly packed. “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” the plates read along the bottom, and above that, written like an official seal: “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
I stepped out into the sunlight and saw a policeman wandering the lot around the building. I asked if he knew the purpose of the metal plates. They were signs, he said. He pointed up at the yellow poles that marked the border, overlooking Syria and Iraq. “They wanted to take part from here and part from there,” he said, motioning from side to side, “and become the Islamic State.” •
Adapted from the book Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Giglio. Reprinted with permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.