Meet the American Vigilantes Fighting ISIS

Clay Lawton, 26, from Rhode Island, left, and the 45-year-old Texan called Azad. (PHOTO CREDIT: Moises Saman/Magnum, for The New York Times)
Clay Lawton, 26, from Rhode Island, left, and the 45-year-old Texan called Azad. (PHOTO CREDIT: Moises Saman/Magnum, for The New York Times)

May was the flowering month for the Syrian thistle. The pink heads grew from the rubble in a small village south of the city of Tel Tamer, in northern Syria. A local Kurdish militia had liberated the village from the Islamic State, or ISIS, in the night. Coalition airstrikes had set fire to the grass and blackened the earth. Concrete buildings and small mud-brick homes were charred and gutted, riddled with bullet holes. The belongings of residents confettied the ground. At a curve in the road lay the corpse of an ISIS fighter.

I found a 26-year-old American civilian named Clay Lawton standing alone, just outside the village. Square-jawed, with large eyes and bright teeth, he was a volunteer freedom fighter with the local militia. ‘‘I’m from Rhode Island,’’ he said. ‘‘You know it? Most people confuse it with Staten Island or Long Island.’’

While we were talking, the unit he had arrived with drove off. Now he was alone, wondering how he would find a commander and return to the action. ‘‘I guess you could say I’m free-floating,’’ he said.

Lawton first heard about ISIS on ‘‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.’’ At the time, he was lounging around Key West, driving tour boats from island to island, going to parties, talking to girls. Three months later, he ran out of things to do and bought a ticket home. He lived with his parents and took a job painting houses, thinking he would start a career as a carpenter. After high school, he spent a couple of years in the Army but never deployed. He always wished he had. When a friend from boot camp sent Lawton an email full of links to videos made by the Islamic State — the execution of James Foley, clips from the day ISIS executed 250 Syrian soldiers in the desert — Lawton looked up ‘‘how to fight ISIS’’ on his lunch break.

A Facebook page called the Lions of Rojava was recruiting foreign volunteers. It was affiliated with the People’s Protection Units, known by the Kurdish abbreviation Y.P.G., the military arm of a faction that since 2012 has controlled a sweep of land between the Islamic State’s territory in northern Syria and Turkey. Rojava, as the Kurds call it, is a place that didn’t exist until a few years ago, when civil war in Syria opened up a front for Kurdish nationalism.

Lawton sent the page a message, and within a day a Y.P.G. representative invited him to join the fight. He had about $800 in savings. In February, he flew to Norway and then to Dubai, and from Dubai to Sulaimaniya, in Iraq. ‘‘From there I was really nervous,’’ he said. As he spoke, Lawton sipped water from his CamelBak. ‘‘I thought everyone was ISIS. I thought I was going to get kidnapped.’’ A fighter picked him up in a fake taxi and took him to a safe house where another American who was scared and lost was still hanging out, because he was so desperate to get to the front. Lawton told him to come with him, and so they went together.

Lawton arrived in Syria, was given an M-16 and in just over two weeks was participating in the offensive at Tel Hamis. ‘‘Fighting ISIS wasn’t high-profile yet,’’ he said. ‘‘Wasn’t a big deal. Easy ride to the front.’’

His nom de guerre was Heval Sharvan, but the freedom fighters called him Captain America. ‘‘I think, after this, I might want to relax and go back to work,’’ he said. ‘‘Maybe New York or maybe Miami. Well, Miami might be too chill.’’

Lawton told me about the day he killed an ISIS militant. A Kurd gave him a sniper rifle to attack an ISIS-controlled village. Lawton took a position on the roof of a building and saw an ISIS fighter with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher running below. Lawton shot him.

‘‘The guy just exploded,’’ Lawton said. ‘‘He was just gone.’’ Lawton still had the rifle at his side, close to his body like a purse.

‘‘That was my first kill,’’ he said. ‘‘Kinda weird, but I had a nightmare that night.’’

‘‘About the militant?’’ I asked.

‘‘It’s hard to explain,’’ he said. ‘‘You know these guys are animals, but even with that knowledge … ’’ He trailed off. ‘‘You know you have to let the brain figure it out on its own,’’ he said. ‘‘He pointed the R.P.G. at me. He would have taken me and my friend. It was hard for me. Killing people, you know you are here to do it. But then, when it happens, and you see it. It’s different. He just exploded.’’

We walked together up the road toward the village. Barley fields spread for miles all around us. ‘‘A couple days later, I was good,’’ he said. ‘‘Ever since then, it’s been no problem. I just have to remember the videos.’’

He meant the videos of Foley, of the Syrian soldiers. He looked down and softened the earth with his boot. ‘‘See,’’ he said. ‘‘I have a big heart, and I never pictured myself actually doing it. I like to see the good in everybody.’’

The foreigners were sleeping in the villages, standing guard, burning trash, with no schedule and no plans. They were easy to spot. The Irishman with bright red hair and skin pale as the sky. Assorted Europeans who traveled in a pack. The Americans with too much sunscreen and gear. Some were fresh to the fight, and others had been on the ground for months.

At the village where I met Lawton, another American walked alone up a dirt road. The man was almost six feet tall, fair-skinned and balding with a goatee. He was a 48-year-old Ohioan named Avery Harrington, though the Kurds called him Cekdar. He was sweating but in good spirits. He drank noisily from a water bottle. A purple-velvet Crown Royal bag that held empty magazines dangled from his belt.

‘‘I’m 54 days over my visa stay,’’ he confessed.

Harrington was in the Marines during the first gulf war but never made it to the desert. Before arriving, he worked in the Ohio Department of Transportation as a highway technician, plowing snow in the winter. After connecting with the Lions of Rojava, he flew to Iraq in March 2015 with $10,000, body armor with steel plates, two canned hams, turkey bacon, 25 pairs of clean socks and 10 packets of baby wipes. He was able to cite the customs regulation — Section 126.17, Subsection F — that allowed every citizen to take one full set of body armor, including a helmet and gas mask, overseas. He paid more than $500 in baggage fees. The hams never left Iraq.

In April, when Harrington finally arrived in Syria, he was part of such a huge influx of foreign recruits that the Y.P.G. started making special units for Westerners, groups of roughly 12 soldiers. They went through a kind of boot camp called the academy. Harrington was one of seven in his class, including two other Americans, a New Zealander, an Iranian and two Brits, one of whom was an actor named Michael Enright. They trained together for just more than a week, learning to clean and dismantle Kalashnikovs. Those with more experience, like Harrington, were given PKC machine guns. Drills started at 6:15 a.m., and the men sometimes practiced blindfolded to prepare for nighttime attacks.

Why were the foreigners there? Some were escaping life back home. Others were old soldiers, trying to fill a void. A few just had delusions of grandeur. They came for the feeling of solidarity, or adventurism, or they came to fulfill a childhood fantasy, to act out some violent adolescent emotion. The youngest fighter was 19, and the oldest, I was told, was 66, a former English teacher from Canada named Peter Douglas. The veterans hoped to kill ISIS fighters and train the locals as they had been trained in the Marines or the Army. The civilians, among them a surf instructor and a philosophy student from the University of Manchester, wanted to learn what they could. They hoped their stamina was enough.

It started the same way for each of them: watching the war on television, then acting on their feelings of impotence and anger. They bought plane tickets from Philadelphia or Miami or Washington and flew solo across the Atlantic, following the orders of a Kurdish militant on Facebook who barely spoke English. It was exciting; it turned them on. They were there to help.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jennifer Percy