Event Summary: ‘HJS Report Launch – The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria’


by Leo Kirby

On the 17th August 2017 the Henry Jackson Society’s own Kyle Orton launched his report, ‘The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria’. Orton is a Research Fellow at the HJS, with a strong focus on Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  For his Masters, Kyle studied healthcare for Syrian refugees located in Lebanon.  He regularly writes for numerous outlets on the Middle East, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek.

Orton identifies that while the growth of the Islamic State has substantially raised the attention foreign fighters have received in the United Kingdom, within Syria and Iraq there have been less conspicuous flows of foreign fighters.  These include British citizens travelling to the Middle East in search of combat alongside anti-ISIS organizations there.  An under-emphasized flow is that which has gone to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, a group which has been designated by the U.K. as a terrorist organization.  This group – operating under the name People’s Protection Units (YPG) – is the main partner of the anti-ISIS Coalition.

The PKK has conducted a terror-insurgency against the Turkish state since the mid-1980s and has set up a vast criminal infrastructure in Europe.  This network raises money and recruits for campaigns through trafficking, including in drugs, weapons, and human beings. The PKK also conducts terror attacks and assassinations inside Europe. British citizens joining this organization are putting themselves at risk—four have already been killed—and their return poses a many difficult questions for the British government.

In his presentation Orton identified that somewhere in the region of 500 foreign fighters have joined the YPG, with 800 being an upper limit on the estimation.  Of these, the report profiles 60 fighters from 12 countries.  60% of these fighters were under 30, with 80% under 40.  There was found to be no consistent social or employment pattern amongst those who travelled, with soldiers, students, financiers and manual labourers all represented.  The personal reasons for travelling are multifaceted but include ideological factors (Marxist, Communist and Anarchist), self-actualization after a history of petty crime or drug taking, fame, adventure, and seeking video footage to sell for profit.

Orton considers that returning YPG fighters represent a real security risk to the U.K.  With this premise established, he then turned to the recommendations arising from his report.  The report recommends that:

  • The UK government considers updating the Foreign Enlistment Act, to prevent Britons joining non-state actors engaged in conflict abroad
  • Returnees from the YPG/PKK should be screened to assess if they require any further state attention, either from the criminal justice system or social services
  • The PKK’s deceptive propaganda on the nature of its project in Syria and its ability to recruit through its media platforms – whether traditional or social media – should be counteracted

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