The Man Who Fought ISIS
An Interview with Jim Matthews, Author of Fighting Monsters
Many books are published, few are worth reading. Fighting Monsters is one of them, a truly important book because it takes you inside one of the defining conflicts of our times.
The title says it all: this book is about one man’s personal account of fighting ISIS. Jim Matthews joined the British Army in 1995 and passed the All Arms Commando Course to win the honour to wear the green beret. He was part of a team that won gold on Cambrian Patrol, the Army’s – the world’s – toughest patrolling exercise. He was also deployed to the war-ravaged Former Yugoslavia. However, he left the Army after four years to study, travel and do good with various human-rights groups, including stints in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. When ISIS reared its monstrous head, he was teaching English as a foreign language to military cadets in Saudi Arabia. It was there that he read about foreign volunteers fighting with the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the Kurdish militia battling the Islamic State. His fate was sealed.
Matthews puts you front seat in the action right from the first page. Dust, blood and bullets capturing the whole experience in the first few paragraphs before backtracking to the fateful decision that brought him there. Anyone watching the horror of the Islamic State’s caliphate unfold knew that they were looking into the eyes of evil, knew that this was the battle of our times, knew that they should do something about it. But few did. Beyond the people bravely resisting ISIS in their own countries, beyond the professional militaries of the West slowly beginning to involve themselves, few did. Jim was one of the few And to read his story is to constantly ask, what if that had been my story?
Matthews has the sort of credentials that not many others could muster: an Army background, an involvement in radical politics as a student and, as far as one can tell, few responsibilities, plus he had been in Syria before. He was trained, motivated and had local knowledge.
The writing is tight, no words wasted, no padding – the style of someone who has something to tell. That does not mean that the prose is unartistic. On the contrary: the narrative is brought into sharp focus by Matthew’s skill as a writer. When waiting to cross the Tigris by night, the water is as ‘flat and calm as a steel blade,’ summing up the tension and danger of the scene, or at another point describing a developing romantic situation, ‘like Jane Austen, only with more guns’.
Matthews generously spared some time to answer a few questions from Warfare.Today about the book and the man behind it.
Warfare.Today: You describe the process of joining very clearly, your initial personal motivation, then the technicalities of getting to Syria, but one thing that haunts the book is your inner search for meaning. You repeatedly describe your desperation to be in the thick of the fighting as if combat offered something deeper, more existential – that critical desire to ‘prove’ oneself that all men feel. To what extent was this search about finding authenticity in life through direct confrontation with death?
Jim Matthews: Well although I had various reasons for going (some clear, some maybe less so), I was always adamant that I was going there to fight, not just for personal reasons. I got into battle quite early in Shengal (Iraq), but when we went on the road through Northern Syria, there was a policy to keep the Westerners back from the cutting edge of things. At first that was frustrating, but after losing several friends it became a toxic emotional swirl of guilt, resentment and other negative feelings. After a period of languishing I was in and out of battle again, but also coming to a growing realisation that fighting isn’t everything. It’s a theme of the book, which is why there is less focus on a lot of the firefights and battles than on the people and what they are going through.
W.T: You also seem to suggest (p. 282) that you missed the meaning that was offered, that your search was in a way misdirected. Could you expand on that?
JM: Well as touched on above, for me the real lesson was the value of human connection and the importance of comradeship and loss. Those themes are the real take-away from the book and why I feel it’s different from just another soldier’s tale. It took me a long time to get to that view, and the loss of many fellow fighters.
W.T: The name of the book and Nietzsche’s quotation at the beginning – ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster’ – show the importance of this for you. Did you avoid becoming a monster yourself? (I think you did, but perhaps you could explain this a bit more.)
JM: Personally I’m not a Nietzsche fan at all, but it’s a great quote. I believe there is a real danger of losing your moral compass in an environment like that, if you don’t set lines for yourself and stick to them. There’s nothing clean about violence and killing; it degrades everyone. But as a friend of mine once said, there was never going to be a peace process with ISIS. What we did was necessary. On my own personal moral standing, perhaps it’s not for me to judge.
W.T:The passion and bravery of the Kurdish fighters comes across very clearly, but so, too, does their inefficiency and ineptitude. Could they have won this battle without Western military support?
JM: Not as swiftly and decisively. But they would never have given up either.
W.T: I started this book thinking ‘why didn’t I do that?’ But by the end I was left thinking ‘I’m glad I didn’t’. There were several levels to this, one was your palpable frustration with the Kurdish military and particularly the extent to which people were put in situations of unnecessary risk, especially chaotic, unsupported attacks where the danger from friendly fire was at least equal to that from the enemy. To what extent did this contribute to the high casualty rate among foreign fighters?
JM: It’s hard to say. Honestly. But remember this: whatever the criticisms of their amateurism, they were the ones doing it. Going up against Daesh with what little they had, in terms of kit, training, tech, intel and everything else. Many international volunteers – former marines, airborne, you name it – stayed with them for a short time and then left, unable to adjust. But if you stay, I think after a while you stop comparing them to an orthodox army and start to credit them for just how much they do get right, and achieve, given what they’ve got to work with and the odds against them.
It takes a special kind of courage to get into one of those makeshift armoured fighting vehicles and go racing towards Daesh fire. You really have to hand it to them.
W.T: The other aspect, of course, was your treatment at the hands of your own government. How did this affect you and what do you feel about it now?
JM: It was an extremely difficult and drawn-out process; made harder by the fact that neither the police, the Crown Prosecution service nor the government gave any explanations. After two years of investigation, they brought charges under the Terrorism Act, then dropped them six months later. The police are still randomly harassing me and my family. It’s been three years now and still no specific reasons given.
W.T: Having been through that war and survived, and knowing what you know now, would you do it all again? And why?
JM: Yes I would. For me personally it was a life-changing experience. But on the utilitarian side, it was something that simply needed doing.
W.T: And if you did it all again, would you do anything differently?
JM: I’d try to learn more of the language before going.
W.T: What about the decision not to go back for Raqqa in 2017?
JM: I was always divided about the Raqqa op. As far back as November 2015 I wrote on Facebook: “I’m personally weighing up whether I want to be part of any proposed push to Raqqa, if it kicks off. Apart from the fact that it’s way outside Rojava, the concern is who’s going to be leading it, how it’s going to be done and what the results will be for people living there. We’ve made mistakes before – inevitably – and I don’t want any part in a major bloodbath.”
Part of my reason for going to Syria was to defend Rojava and the new society they’re building there. It’s secular, gender-balanced and very progressive and forward-looking. Raqqa is well outside Rojava, but at the same time it was the endgame for Daesh and I did very much want to play a part in that. The choice was largely made for me, in that I was on bail on Terrorism charges in the UK at the time, and I would have had to get there illegally which would have caused huge problems on return to the UK.
W.T: An intense part of your life was lived there. Would you consider going back now? (And what are your reasons either for or against?)
JM: Well the Daesh threat is nothing like it was – they’re reduced to another terrorist movement now. There’s no more talk of a state, expanding and subjugating whole communities. As you say below, the bigger threat is from Turkey, who unfortunately happen to be a NATO partner, and major trading partner with the UK. We sell them a lot of their bombs. So it’s… complicated.
Turkey used a proxy mercenary force to invade and occupy Afrin, the Westernmost canton of Rojava. Many of those mercenaries were former Daesh militants and have been abducting women and doing all the other things in Afrin that Daesh are known for. And it doesn’t stop there. Turkey will happily use these thugs because Turkey hates the Kurds more than Daesh.
W.T: With the Kurds now facing a more organised and professional enemy in the form of Turkey, the continued threat from extremist Islamic groups still holding parts of Syria (even if ISIS is officially defeated) and the US measuring up against increasing Iranian belligerence, what do you see as the future for the region and especially for the Kurds?
JM: Unless some kind of a deal can be brokered by the major powers, perhaps with a buffer zone on the Turkish border, I think the future for that region looks very bleak. If the international community abandons the Kurds now, then everything they achieved there could be lost. And the world owes them more than that.
W.T: And of the Islamic State, do you have any insight on what they will do now?
JM: I think they will carry out terrorist outrages and exploit whatever opportunities they find, for the time being.
W.T: Is there a book to be written about your prosecution by the British government?
JM: No. I don’t think it’s worth a book and personally I’d just like to move on. If the police will let me.
W.T: Is the government still keeping tabs on you, do you think?
JM: They definitely are, at least at the level of the special branch police. I was detained, (interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted) under the Terrorism Act a couple of months ago coming back from holiday in France, and last week two officers turned up at my sister’s place and questioned her on my whereabouts and movements. This after three years of investigation and a failed prosecution. Apparently they didn’t get the memo.
Fighting Monsters is published by Mirror Books, 2019; 336 pages; recommended retail price: £18.99. Check listing on Amazon.co.uk.