To Syria and Back

Saturday, 16 September 2017

It was a quiet night until the bombs began crashing out of the sky. Only a few minutes earlier, on the roof of a gray, single-story building not far from the city of Manbij in northern Syria, Josh Walker had been peacefully sleeping. Now the walls were collapsing beneath him, he was surrounded by fire, and his friends were dead.

Walker, a 26-year-old university student from Wales in the United Kingdom, was in Syria volunteering with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish-led militia that has been a leading force in the ground battle against the Islamic State. He had made the long journey to Syria after flying out of a London airport on a one-way ticket to Istanbul, appalled by the Islamic State’s brutal fascism and inspired by the YPG’s democratic socialist ideals.

Over the course of six months last year, Walker learned to speak Kurdish and shoot AK-47 assault rifles. He trained and fought alongside militia units made up of Kurds, Arabs, and young American, Canadian, and European volunteers. He faced Islamic State suicide bombers in battle and helped the YPG as it advanced toward Raqqa, the capital of the extremist group’s self-declared “caliphate.”

In late December, Walker returned to London. There was no welcome home party waiting to greet him. Instead, there were three police officers at the airport who swiftly arrested him. The officers took him into custody, interrogated him, searched his apartment, and confiscated his laptop and notebooks. After risking his life to fight against the Islamic State, Walker was charged under British counterterrorism laws — not directly because of his activities in Syria, but because the police had found in a drawer under his bed a partial copy of the infamous “Anarchist Cookbook,” a DIY explosives guide published in 1971 that has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.

The case against Walker is highly unusual. He is the first anti-Islamic State fighter to be prosecuted by British authorities under terrorism laws after returning to the U.K., and he appears to be the only person in the country who has ever faced a terror charge merely for owning extracts of the “Anarchist Cookbook.” The authorities have not alleged that he was involved in any kind of terror plot; rather, they claim that because he obtained parts of the “Cookbook” — which is freely available in its entirety on the internet — he collected information “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Walker is due to go to trial in October, where in the worst-case scenario he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Until then, he is free on bail, living with his mother and working part time as a kitchen porter in a restaurant. In an interview with The Intercept, he talked in-depth about his experiences in Syria and shared stories about the harrowing scenes he witnessed on the front line, which have profoundly affected his life. He also discussed for the first time the British government’s charges against him, which have not previously been publicized due to court-ordered reporting restrictions that have prevented news organizations in the U.K. from disclosing information about the background of his case. A judge lifted the restrictions late last month.


The sun is beating down on a hot summer’s day in Bristol, the largest city in southwest England, with a population of about 449,000. Outside a derelict former electronics store on a busy residential street in the St. Werburgh’s area of the city, Josh Walker is waiting. He is thin, about 5 foot 9 with a thick head of wavy, dark brown hair, wearing a faded green T-shirt, black trousers, and sneakers, and carrying a white plastic bag. We walk to a nearby park, where Walker pulls out two cans of cold beer from his bag, lights a cigarette, and begins explaining how he wound up on a journey to fight the Islamic State in Syria.

After leaving high school at age 18 in 2009, Walker had a variety of temporary jobs — he worked in construction, in gardening, and in an office as a volunteer for a politician who would later become the mayor of Bristol. In 2014, he decided to enroll at a university in Aberystwyth in Wales, about 130 miles west of Bristol, and he began studying for a degree in international politics and strategic studies.

As an avid follower of global affairs, Walker had been keeping a close eye on the fallout from the Arab Spring — the democratic uprisings that in late 2010 spread across the Middle East and North Africa. By 2016, the major unrest in most of the countries — like Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt — had largely petered out. In Syria, however, the demonstrations evolved into a full-blown civil war and led to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

What began as protests against the tyrannical leadership of Bashar al-Assad morphed into something far more complex, with a multitude of warring militias fighting one another to gain control of territory across the country. Islamist extremists were quick to capitalize on the chaos. The Islamic State group, which had previously been active primarily in Iraq, entered into the fray and took control of large swaths of Syria through 2013 and 2014, imposing strict Islamic rules and draconian punishments for anyone who disobeyed.

At university, Walker had watched it all unfold and discussed the events with his friends and professors. But he was not content to view the crisis on television as a passive observer. He wanted to help.

“I had enough of talking about history while it was being made,” he recalls. “I couldn’t just let it play out without being involved somehow and without seeing it for myself.”

So he hatched a secret plan to travel to Syria.