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.

Walker was particularly drawn to what was happening in the Rojava region of northern Syria, where the Kurdish-led YPG had seized territory in the summer of 2012. The radical left-leaning group was implementing a “social revolution,” building secular, multiethnic communities that prize gender equality, ecology, and direct democracy.

Walker had read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” which describes the author’s journey to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascist nationalists in the 1930s. He had also read stories about Welsh miners who — like Orwell and some 3,000 other Brits — traveled to Spain to take up arms against fascism, battling alongside a ragtag coalition of anarchist, socialist, and communist militias.

He was inspired by these tales and saw parallels with what was happening in Rojava. Like the dozens of other young Westerners who have made the treacherous journey to Rojava in recent years, he identified with the progressive society that the YPG was trying to create, and in equal measure, he despised the violent fascism of the Islamic State. “They are the very worst aspects of the state and conservative order,” Walker says. “The militarism, the hierarchy, the repression, the prejudice, the misogyny — all of it rolled up into one in its most imperialist, genocidal form.”

But it was more than just the allure of the YPG’s social experiment and a desire to combat fascism that motivated him. He also felt an affinity for the Kurdish people, who have faced repression across the Middle East for decades, particularly in Turkey, where even teaching children to speak Kurdish remains a hotly contested subject after being banned for the better part of a century. Walker, who was born in Wales, saw some similarities between the plight of the Kurds and that of the Welsh people, whose own language was suppressed in favor of English in some Welsh schools during the latter part of the 19th century.

“There’s something to be said about a mountain-dwelling people with a history of resistance and their own strange language,” Walker says, referencing the Kurdish-Welsh connection. “People who are being shat on look out for each other and help each other out. It’s about solidarity — real solidarity.”


In the spring of 2016, Walker contacted a group called the Lions of Rojava, which is affiliated with the YPG and helps recruit foreigners for the fight in Syria.

Walker told the group, through messages sent via its Facebook page, that he wanted to come out and learn about its work. He explained that he had studied military strategy as part of his university coursework and noted that he had read “Democratic Confederalism,” a pamphlet authored by Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Öcalan’s 47-page text — heavily influenced by anarchist and libertarian theory — outlines his vision of a stateless, participatory democracy that is controlled and structured at a grassroots level through voluntary meetings and councils. In Rojava, the YPG has attempted to put Öcalan’s principles into practice, using his pamphlet as a sort of blueprint for its revolution in the region.

The volunteers behind the Lions of Rojava seemed impressed by Walker’s knowledge. At least, they were impressed enough to invite him to travel out to Syria and join them.

At first, Walker was concerned that the British government might try to prevent him from going to the war-torn region. In a bid to avoid any potential online surveillance, he limited his contact with the Rojava Facebook group to only a few messages and restrained himself from performing even the most basic Google searches about, for example, learning to speak Kurdish.

He purchased a ticket to fly from London to Istanbul from one travel agency. From another company, he booked a flight from Istanbul to Sulaymaniyah, a city in northeastern Iraq controlled by a Kurdish socialist party informally allied with the YPG in Rojava.

Walker told only two of his closest friends about his plans. He kept his parents — who are separated — largely in the dark, telling his mother that he was going to the Middle East to work with refugees and his father that he’d be going to Iraqi Kurdistan to help people fighting against the Islamic State.

“I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want to be stopped before I could go there,” Walker explains, taking another puff of his cigarette. “The consequences after I went were something else, because I might not make it back, I might die. But if I don’t get there at all, or I end up facing legal trouble or get my passport taken … it just would have made the whole thing a waste of time and caused a whole lot of problems without any real benefit.”

The YPG has proven itself to be a major force against the Islamic State in Syria, playing a key role in seizing the strategically important town of Kobani in early 2015 and now making progress on the outskirts of Raqqa. The group has been backed by the U.S. government, which has bolstered its operations with airstrikes and agreed to provide it with weapons and ammunition.

But Walker was concerned that amid the chaos and uncertainty in Syria, the Western position on the YPG could quickly shift. At the forefront of his mind was the YPG’s loose affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — otherwise known as the PKK — which the U.S. and the European Union have designated a terrorist group.

“I was prepared for the possibility that I could end up being deemed a ‘terrorist’ while out there through a change in government policy that perhaps overplayed the YPG’s links to the PKK or bowed to Turkish pressure,” Walker says. “That’s another reason why I didn’t want to tell my parents that I was going out to fight with the YPG. The last thing I wanted was for the police to be able to crack down on my family and accuse them of aiding and abetting terrorism.”


In late June 2016, Walker arrived at the airport in Sulaymaniyah. From there, he made his way to a shopping center in the city, where a contact associated with the Lions of Rojava had arranged for him to be picked up. He was taken to a safe house nearby and met four other foreigners who had also traveled to volunteer with the YPG — a Canadian, two Americans, and a German.

After a couple of days in the safe house, a young Danish-Kurdish YPG fighter named Joanna Palani drove Walker and the other volunteers northwest toward the Syrian border. In the dead of night, they were handed over to people smugglers, who helped lead the group on foot through dry, hilly scrubland filled with spiky bushes. The journey was fraught with risk: The group had to dodge minefields as well as armed patrols organized by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a right-leaning political party in Iraqi Kurdistan that has been trying to stifle the flow of fighters into Rojava.

The trek took about eight hours in total, and Walker had no water to drink through most of it. At one point, he and some of the other foreigners managed to scoop up some water from the banks of the Tigris River and drink it through a filter. By the time he arrived at his destination in Syria, he was exhausted and dehydrated. “All of us had been doing a lot of exercise and preparation, but still in the conditions it was a very difficult crossing,” Walker recalls.

He was brought along with the other foreign volunteers to a makeshift YPG training academy in northeastern Syria. It was located in the shadow of a mountain, beneath a base that was slightly concealed so it could not be seen from a distance. The living quarters were basic. There was a TV and a shower, a mess hall, and a kitchen for dining. The recruits slept on mats on the floor with pillows that were so hard they were used at one point as makeshift sandbags. “They were like concrete,” Walker says with a laugh.

The training itself lasted about a month. Each day would begin at about 5 a.m. with an hour or so of exercise. There would be breakfast, then several hours of lessons, focusing on history and learning the Kurdish language. Of course, there was also a strong military aspect to the academy, and it was here that Walker learned to shoot an AK-47 for the first time. Occasionally his commanders would stage ambushes, preparing the new recruits for the surprise attacks that they would later endure on the front line against Islamic State fighters.

Walker became close friends with one of the other foreign volunteers — a 24-year-old Canadian named Nazzarino Tassone, known as Naz. Tassone was with Walker from the start of his journey; they had first met at the safe house in Iraq. “Basically, he never fucking shut up,” Walker recalls. “He was very talkative and had very lowbrow humor. He was a little more center-right in his politics, but sympathetic to the Kurdish cause.” Tassone was not so much interested in the academic side of the training as he was the military aspect. He was a gun nut and desperate to get out on the front line.

Before long, he would get his opportunity.


The first time Walker encountered the Islamic State, he was in a farm building in an abandoned village not far from the Tishrin Dam, about 80 miles east of Aleppo. He and Tassone were keeping watch with a sniper rifle and binoculars when they noticed something suspicious. About a mile in the distance, there was a person approaching in an unusually large car. The pair shouted to some of the local Kurdish fighters, who called a commander to prepare an anti-aircraft weapon they could use against the approaching vehicle. Before the commander had arrived, however, Tassone spotted an Islamic State fighter creeping toward their base on foot, and he swiftly fired shots at him. Then “it just went crazy,” Walker says. “ISIS started firing at us, we were firing back. And this is the first time I’ve ever been in this situation.” He was scared, nervous, and lost his focus — before Tassone shouted at him to snap out of it.

He put down the sniper rifle he was holding, picked up a Kalashnikov, and took up a firing position. There was a flurry of gunfire, and amid the frenzy, an Islamic State suicide bomber attempted to drive a truck into the YPG’s position. Luckily, the truck was disabled after one of the Kurdish fighters blasted it with a rocket-propelled grenade. Once the fighting calmed down, Walker’s unit returned to their base, and another YPG unit held the position at the farmhouse.

Walker and Tassone were eventually separated and sent to different units. Walker spent about six weeks on the front line, where he estimates he was involved in about six days of fighting in total. It was his final experience of the conflict that affected him the most.

On November 24, Walker was sent out with several units of fighters to a position in a small town called Arima, between the northern Syrian cities of Manbij and Al Bab. His unit was tasked with guarding a crossing on the eastern side of the town. His team established a base inside a compound that had large red iron doors and two houses within it. They arrived at Arima early in the morning, just as the sun was coming up, and spent the day using machine guns to fend off Islamic State suicide bombers, who were charging at them in cars packed with explosives.

By nightfall, the fighting had paused. Walker and the five other fighters in his unit were taking turns to stand guard and get some sleep. Around midnight, on the roof of one of the buildings in the compound, Walker was woken up by one of the young Arab fighters in his unit, as it was his turn to stand guard. His commander had just returned to the scene in an armored car, and he could hear the loud hum of the engine rumbling in the background.

Then, in a flash, there was a massive explosion that seemed to come out of nowhere. Walker was thrown to the ground, his head smashed forcefully on the edge of the roof. Luckily, he had just put on his helmet, which possibly spared him his life in that instant.

There was a second or two of eerie silence immediately after the explosion, followed by a terrible noise. Walker looked up from his position on the roof, and the young Arab soldier who had awoken him seconds earlier had disappeared and one side of the building had collapsed in on itself. A Turkish fighter jet had bombed their position.

“We would never have been sleeping on the roof if we expected to be bombed,” Walker says. “We were fighting Islamic State. We didn’t think the [Assad] regime would bomb us and didn’t expect the Turks to come so far south.”

Walker tried to compose himself. He looked around but struggled to see beyond a wall of smoke and fire that was surrounding him. Before the YPG had seized the village, the fleeing Islamic State fighters had poisoned all of the water tanks by pouring oil into them. When the airstrikes hit, the blasts burst the water tanks and ignited the oil, creating an inferno. In turn, the fire spread across the YPG’s supplies of ammunition, and there were stray bullets firing off in every direction, crackling like popcorn as they exploded in the heat.

Walker caught sight of Kajin, another young Arab soldier from his unit, who was stumbling around badly injured and confused. Part of his head had caught fire and his eyes were glazed over, but there was still life in him. Walker put out the fire on his head, grabbed his hand, and tried to pull him toward a staircase that led down to the ground, shouting in both Arabic and Kurdish that they had to get out. But before they could get off the roof, one of the stray bullets struck the young fighter in the neck, killing him.

“It was the single worst thing I have ever experienced,” recalls Walker, who looks shaken as he describes the incident. “They say ‘war is hell,’ but I didn’t realize they meant it literally. I saw hell. It was just fire and screaming.”

Somehow, Walker managed to escape with no serious injuries. If the bomb had landed just a few meters closer, he would never have survived. He clambered down the crippled staircase, using a mangled iron handrail to guide himself to the ground. He scrambled across the debris and in the distance heard the sound of his commander’s radio. The commander had not been in the building at the time it was hit. But the rest of the fighters in the unit had disappeared. It later emerged that half of Walker’s unit were killed or injured in the blast. Another YPG squad located about 200 meters away also suffered big losses. Two of Walker’s close friends — an American named Michael Israel and a German called Anton Leschek — had been killed, as had two of the local Kurdish fighters: a female sniper named Sarya and a young male recruit named Mordem.

Walker’s unit was taken out of the village and replaced by another group of fighters. The airstrike had shattered his morale, and he was now left with the grim task of having to identify the disfigured corpses of his friends Israel and Leschek in a nearby hospital. He also had to collect the personal belongings of the deceased pair from the YPG’s base so that they could be returned to their families in their respective countries. And there were funerals to attend for the local Arab and Kurdish fighters who were killed.

The YPG had been pushing toward Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria. But now the operation was delayed. The Turkish airstrikes hindered progress. External factors — in particular the outcome of the U.S. election — were also having a direct impact.

Through the transition following the November 8 election of Donald Trump, outgoing Obama officials wanted the incoming Trump administration to sign off on sending the YPG weapons to help with its assault on Raqqa. But the Trump transition team — under the guidance of its then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn — rebuffed the plan.

It later emerged that Flynn had been acting as a paid agent for the Turkish government, which views Kurdish groups as its adversaries and opposes arming them. Flynn resigned in February this year; three months later, the Trump administration finally agreed to begin arming the YPG.

By mid-December last year, Walker was still not back out on the front line. He had returned to a YPG base near the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where he had been reunited with his friend Tassone, the Canadian.

Being back together with Tassone had lifted his spirits somewhat. But he was beginning to contemplate returning to England. Part of him wanted to wait for the Raqqa offensive to begin, but another part of him thought it was time to go home. He had spent nearly six months in Syria, and he had always planned to return home if he made it that long. Tassone was encouraging him to stay for the next big fight, but most of the others at the base were advising him to leave, telling him that he shouldn’t tempt fate one last time.

Walker made the decision to depart and traveled out of Syria toward Iraq. In Sulaymaniyah, he was taken to a safe house where people affiliated with the YPG helped him organize his travel to the U.K. While he was waiting for his flight to be arranged, on Christmas Day, he received some crushing news.

Tassone had returned to the front line and been killed in an Islamic State attack.


As he arrived back at London’s Gatwick Airport, Walker knew something was not quite right.

While he was waiting in line to make his way through passport control, he noticed there were a couple of men wearing suits lingering behind the security barrier, and more police than usual. As soon as he got through the passport gate, Walker was approached by one of the suit-wearing men, who asked him to show his passport again. He was then ushered to the side of the room and introduced to a detective from London’s Metropolitan Police and two detectives from Wales’s extremism and counterterrorism unit — one male, the other female. The female detective read him his rights and told him he was being arrested on suspicion of involvement in the “commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

In the back of an unmarked police car, Walker was driven about 215 miles west to a police station in Ammanford, Wales, where he spent the night in a cell. The officers confiscated most of the possessions he was traveling with, including his YPG uniform, cellphone, diaries, and notebooks. The following day he was interviewed about his time in Syria. The officers told him they had previously dealt with people returning from the Middle East who were suspected of fighting with the Islamic State, but never anyone who had been fighting against the Islamic State. They asked him basic questions about why he had traveled to Syria and about his military experience there, querying whether he had learned how to make bombs. For Walker, the whole scene was confusing. “I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on. I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve survived … but holy shit, I’ve been arrested.’”

It is estimated that at least 300 Westerners have traveled to the Middle East to fight against the Islamic State, but the treatment they receive when they return home has varied wildly. American fighters who have battled alongside the YPG and other pro-democracy militias have re-entered the U.S. without any difficulties. In Australia, police have questioned and confiscated the passports of returning fighters upon their arrival back into the country. In the Netherlands, the authorities arrested a military veteran on suspicion of murder because he had fought with the YPG in Syria, but later dropped the case after a public outcry. And in Denmark, the authorities served a YPG fighter who returned from Syria with a travel ban, and took her into custody after she violated it.

British authorities’ treatment of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq in recent years has been highly inconsistent. In April 2016, the issue was the focus of a debate in the British Parliament. Robert Jenrick, a Conservative member of Parliament, said during the discussion that he had personally been in contact with the families of 20 British anti-Islamic State fighters. Two of the 20, he said, had been arrested under the Terrorism Act; four were questioned but not arrested; and 14 came and went at will, unquestioned. In several publicly reported cases in the U.K., returning fighters have been arrested or questioned but then not charged. That is what makes Walker’s case particularly unusual.

After his initial interrogation, Walker was released on bail and he was not charged with committing any crimes. But that changed after police searched his apartment in Aberystwyth and found extracts from the “Anarchist Cookbook” in one of his drawers. They subsequently charged him under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act, which states that it is a crime to collect, make a record of, or possess a document containing “information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Walker says that he downloaded an extract of the “Cookbook” while at university, where much of his time was spent learning about the military, intelligence agencies, and counterterrorism. He participated in a role-playing group called the Crisis Games Society, which organized simulations of major political or security crises in an effort to educate students about decision-making in emergency situations. On one occasion, Walker took part in a game in which one team of students performed the role of the security services, and another team played the part of terrorists plotting an attack; the groups were separated in different rooms and had to try to outwit each other. They used the “Anarchist Cookbook” as part of their research for the terrorist aspect.

Through his trial, which will be held in October, Walker’s legal team is likely to argue that he had a “reasonable excuse,” on academic grounds, for his possession of the “Cookbook.” Walker says fellow students have provided witness statements that back up his explanation, and he is confident that he will eventually be exonerated. But still, he is struggling to come to terms with the strange irony of the predicament he has found himself in. He nearly died fighting against Islamic State terrorists, but now he too is being treated as if he were a terrorist.


In mid-May in London, Walker had an early morning hearing at the Old Bailey court, which handles serious criminal cases. He turned up looking tired and scruffy in a black suit jacket, blue shirt, black trousers, and white sneakers. His hearing was scheduled between two others — one involving an accused rapist, and another involving a group of three suspected Islamist extremists who were allegedly preparing to carry out a terrorist attack.

The night before, Walker had struggled to sleep. He had a nightmare about a Turkish jet bombing his father’s house with all his friends sleeping inside, reminiscent of the incident he had experienced in Syria. “It was the most vivid dream I’ve had in a long time,” he says. “My body felt the same. The sounds were the same.”

The horror he witnessed, unsurprisingly, has changed his life. He now gets anxious when passenger jets fly overhead, and he is haunted by flashbacks. On one recent afternoon, he was cleaning the kitchen of the restaurant in Bristol where he has been working part time when he smelled some burned blood from one of the pots or pans that had been used to cook meat. It took him right back to the hospital morgue, where he had to identify the disfigured corpses of his friends Israel and Leschek. He had to quickly leave the kitchen and step outside to get away from the smell.

Many of the friends Walker made in Syria are still there — alive and well — and continuing the fight. Walker is reluctant to be in the spotlight, but he hopes media attention on his case can help educate people about the YPG and its plight in Rojava. “I’m not really that important in all of this,” he says. “There are other people still over there.”

In the short term, pending the outcome of the government’s case against him, he plans to re-enroll in university and complete his studies. He also intends to return to Syria one day, when the war is over, to help rebuild the country. “Sometimes I do still have a bit of a taste for a good fight against some bad fascists,” he says with a wry smile. “Winning a battle — people trying to kill you and failing — it’s an amazing feeling. I miss it in a lot of ways.” He pauses, taking a deep breath. “At same time, I know I’m lucky,” he adds. “I rolled a six on a dice, and I managed to survive.”

This article was first published at The Intercept.