Canadian who volunteers to fight with Kurds against ISIS says it’s the ‘right thing to do’
Dillon Hillier was working construction in Alberta when ISIS gunmen began their brutal push into Kurdish territory. A veteran of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, he decided he couldn’t just watch it happen.
Last weekend, the 26-year-old infantryman left Calgary and flew to northeastern Iraq to help Kurdish fighters fend off the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham. “I just felt it was the right thing to do since they’re facing some pretty tough times,” he said in an interview.
Dillon Hillier: Kurds “don’t care that I’m not a Muslim.”
The first veteran of the Canadian military known to have joined Kurdish forces battling ISIS, Mr. Hillier is part of a growing number of Western volunteers heading to the region to participate in the fight against the armed extremists.
“I look at what I’m doing as no different than when thousands of Canadians went to fight the Germans in World War II,” said Mr. Hillier, who served in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. “And I think ISIS is far more barbaric.”
Unlike the radicalized youths who have flocked to Syria and Iraq, Mr. Hillier is a military veteran and he is siding with ISIS’s most formidable enemy, the Peshmerga. Mr. Hillier said he expected to be joined over the coming weeks by volunteers from Canada, the United States and Sweden.
To help Canadians eager to fight ISIS, an Ottawa military veteran recently formed the 1st North American Expeditionary Force. Ian Bradbury said former Canadian Forces members had launched the non-profit group to provide financial and logistical support to friends who felt compelled to volunteer.
“Each of them has to buy their own kit before they leave,” he said. “And that gets quite expensive.” He put the cost at about $3,500, but said he hoped the group would provide donated clothing and equipment as well as discount airfares. On its Facebook page, it also offers “verified contacts” with Peshmerga units. Mr. Bradbury said he knew Mr. Hillier and had helped ensure his Peshmerga contacts were genuine.
“We’re just kind of a central authority to help guys out,” he said. The group was careful to ensure it was doing nothing illegal, he added. “As long as nobody’s being trained here, as long as we’re not forming any militia, it’s all in bounds.”
Originally from Carleton Place, Ont., Mr. Hillier joined the military at age 20. (At his request, the National Post agreed not to identify his well-known family for security reasons.) During the 2011 Manitoba floods, he packed sandbags to hold back the Assiniboine River.
In June 2013, he was sent to Kabul for six months as part of Operation Attention, a NATO mission that trained the Afghan security forces. He left the military in March after five years of service and found construction work in Alberta.
As a student of history he was familiar with the long struggle for Kurdish independence, and he was troubled by the violent ISIS challenge to the Kurds.
Because the semi-autonomous Iraqi-Kurdistan region centred north of Baghdad is secular, democratic and pro-Western, ISIS views it as an obstacle to the puritanical Islamic State it wants to impose in the region. Kurdish children kidnapped by ISIS have been tortured and forced to pray five times a day, Human Rights Watch said.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in the Kurdish capital Irbil on Wednesday that left five dead. In a communiqué posted on Twitter, ISIS called Kurds “apostate traitors” and said more attacks were coming “Allah permitting.”
Canadian Dillon Hillier, right, who has joined Kurdish forces in Iraq, is shown this week in Kurdistan.
“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Mr. Hillier said of ISIS. By contrast, he said the Kurds were broad-minded and tolerant. “They don’t care that I’m not a Muslim, it’s a non-issue for them. They’re different than the people they’re fighting.”
Through Facebook, he found a contact who put him in touch with a Peshmerga recruiter. “It wasn’t terribly difficult,” he said in an interview before he left. “The only thing I was worried about was walking into a trap, but I’ve confirmed the identities of people.”
In a sign of the increased interest in fighting alongside the Kurds, a Peshmerga Facebook page now offers tips for Western volunteers, suggesting travel routes and how much cash to bring (US$5,000). Volunteers shouldn’t expect to get paid, it said, but are free to leave whenever they wish.
While it warned not to bring weapons, it said AK-47s cost $700 to $2,000 at the local bazaars and M-16s and M-4s went for $3,000 to $4,000. But that could be recouped by selling them later, it added. “It would help if you have some former basic military training or experience.”
Veronica Kitchen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said it was not illegal to fight in a foreign conflict — although traveling abroad to participate in terrorism would be against the law.
As a result, while Canadians who join groups like ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusrah Front could face charges upon their return to Canada, those helping the Peshmerga would not, provided they did not commit acts of terrorism as defined by the Criminal Code.
Mr. Hillier flew to London and Qatar before boarding a flight to Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq. He posted photos of himself on Facebook at a Peshmerga base on Tuesday, prompting comments of support and surprise. “What the hell are you doing there?” one friend wrote.
He said he hoped to pass on what he had learned in the Canadian Forces to the Kurds, whom he said were skilled mountain fighters but could benefit from his urban combat training, since they were now fighting street battles against ISIS in cities and towns. “I think what we can do is a bit of mentoring.”
He encouraged other veterans to join him, saying that even 10 could make a difference against ISIS, which is filled with foreign extremists, some of them Canadians. “If I can help stop one person from dying, I think it’ll be worth it,” he said. “And I hope to accomplish a lot more than that.”
It is a mission not unlike the one being carried out by the dozens of Canadian Forces personnel currently providing “strategic and technical advice” to the Iraqi security forces. Canadian CF-18s have also been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq.
Reached by phone in Iraq on Thursday, Mr. Hillier said he was gearing up for his deployment to the front lines, convinced he had done the right thing. “These people are amazing,” he said of the Kurds. “They’re just very, very friendly and just really hospitable.”
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