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Correspondence published for the first time shows how Johnston was recruited to fight Islamic State in Syria. By Lauren Williams.

Ashley Johnston’s recruitment to fight with Kurds in Syria

Former Australian Army reservist Ashley Johnston (centre).
Credit: Twitter

The first contact Ashley Johnston made was on Facebook. It was with a group called “Lions of Rojava” – a recruitment page for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

In October, he told his mother he was travelling to Europe. He was 28, a former Canberra postman and bottle-shop manager; the trip did not seem unusual. In December, he sent her a text message saying he was doing humanitarian work with the Kurds in Turkey. It was the last she heard from him. Two months later, he was dead.

In correspondence obtained by The Saturday Paper, it can now be shown Johnston was actively recruited by a Lions of Rojava administrator who uses the nom de guerre “Kader Kadandir”. Believed to be a woman, she helped facilitate Johnston’s passage and offered him advice and encouragement on how to join YPG fighters after reaching Turkey.

“I immediately recognised how strong a personality he had,” Kadandir told The Saturday Paper in a Facebook exchange that lasted several weeks. “Then I knew why he wanted to go. He travelled thousands of miles to Sweden. After he got there he wrote me a note. I realised how smart he was. Why? Because otherwise, the Australian police would have stopped him. If the police had seen his ticket to Iraq they would have stopped him. He was prepared for anything.”

In the initial messages between Johnston and Kadandir, he was asked about his military background and personal details. He was booked a ticket to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, via Sweden, to avoid detection by authorities in Australia, where his actions are an offence under laws prohibiting Australians from joining foreign conflicts.

In a message, written in Sweden on December 9, he told his recruiter: “Name is Ashley Johnston DOB 15/04/1986 Born Maryborough, Australia Australian nationality. Have not committed a crime nor do I do or sell drugs. Have not been to jail. Have not killed a person. Yes, have military experience (7 years Australian Army Reserve as a Rifleman and combat first aider).”

Detailing a military career that included a peacekeeping deployment to the Solomon Islands and as a first aider at Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, he told his recruiter he was qualified on “the usual RA Inf weapons (9mm browning, F88, F89, Mag58, 40mm launcher, 66mm, M72 A6, 84mm Karl Gustav F1).”

In the weeks leading up to and during his deployment, Johnston and Kadandir developed a bond over Facebook, exchanging jokes and emojis. Holding a camera phone in a bathroom mirror, he is handsome and determined, wearing a khaki jacket. “Your English seems good to me though,” he writes to her. “Thank you,” she writes back with a blushing emoji. “I will learn more and better.”

At one point, Kadandir asked Johnston if he had a family. “Because I don’t like if someone have family but will come and fight isis terrorists.”

According to accounts by YPG fighters, Johnston was killed on February 23 after being ambushed by ISIS fighters when the truck he was travelling in broke down during a two-week battle for the town of Tel Hamis in Syria. He was the first foreign fighter to be killed on the Kurdish side.

Earlier, he had warned on his Facebook page against “fakes” and written about the dangers of the region where he was fighting: “I am writing this because in my short time here so far I am absolutely disgusted by the amount of westerners that feel the need to either inflate or completely bullshit their resumé. There are a good number of people here with actual military experience from all over the globe that CAN AND WILL immediately spot you as a fake.”

“The Kurdish people are some of the most kind and trusting people I’ve ever met and your lies will get people killed. This isn’t a playground to live some fantasty/play soldier… it’s a fucking war torn region with countless people suffering, dieing and being displaced.”

Social media recruitment

The Australian Federal Police believe the internet, and Facebook pages such as that of the Lions of Rojava, play a key role in the recruitment of foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict. They warn against any Australian travelling to foreign conflicts.

An AFP spokeswoman told The Saturday Paper that the internet “has dramatically increased the access that these groups have to recruit and communicate with people”. The Australian government has committed nearly
$18 million to limit the impact of extremist narratives on domestic audiences by reducing the support that terrorist groups garner on the internet and social media. The AFP is also engaging with media outlets to encourage responsible reporting that does not amplify what they call “terrorist propaganda”.

This week the Northern Territory Labor Party’s former president Matthew Gardiner was detained and questioned by police as he returned after joining the Kurds fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. The AFP is understood to be investigating a number of people suspected of facilitating the travel to Syria and Iraq of people who intend to engage in the conflict.

But pages such as the Lions and others continue to recruit openly. Last month, the 1st Battalion British Peshmerga Volunteers Facebook page issued a notice: “We would like to clarify that we consider Australian and New Zealand forces to be ‘British’ … the drills system is the same and welcome ANZAC applications. And we are still desperately seeking officers positions to be filled, if you have held a commission in HMF or ANAZAC [sic] please get in touch. Many thanks.”

Another read: “Currently looking for retired officers Lt-Capt-Maj if you are a Sandhurst graduate of any corps and wish to be a leader in the fight against ISIL please get in touch.”

Yet while social media and the internet are a powerful recruiting force, experts say personal contact and sympathy with the Kurdish cause have a particular resonance among potential recruits. Terrorism expert and professor of politics and international relations at Monash University Greg Barton said social mechanisms and personal contact have been “underestimated” in discussions of foreign recruitment.

“Using social media, personal contact, building rapport, can be transformative,” he said. “If someone gives you enough to relate to them as a person … and you might be a bit lonely. One-on-one relations pay off in recruitment.”

Appeal of the Kurdish fight

Horror at ISIS propaganda in particular, and sympathy for the Kurdish cause, has also driven volunteers to take up arms against what they see as a threat to a way of life. The appeal of the Kurdish cause has parallels to the International Brigades that fought against Falangist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

“In Australia there’s a cultural orientation towards the plight of the underdog,” Barton said. “The Kurds are fighting for a nation of their own, they have made good use of opportunities to create a stable mini state … and have been the most impressive fighters against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. There is a sense the Kurds have been poorly treated … that all resonates.”

ISIS, he said, “despite being a sophisticated insurgency, is also an apocalyptic cult. It wants to encourage people to come and take them on.”

Kurdish groups in Australia do co-ordinate with the YPG and Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, and the Kurdish Association of Australia confirmed it worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Johnston’s family regarding the repatriation of his remains. Tributes poured in for Johnston from the Kurdish community in Australia and around the world; a martyr’s funeral was held for him in the Kurdish-controlled Syrian city of Darbasiye, and a Kurdish commemoration was held in Sydney last week, after his remains were returned.

But Kurdish groups in Australia say they actively discourage Australians joining their ranks. They have been keen to use Johnston’s situation to build a case for greater humanitarian and Australian military support for the Kurds and the opening of channels for this aid between Turkey and Syria. Australian Kurds are also campaigning to have the Kurdistan Workers’ Party delisted as a terrorist organisation here, a move that would prevent those supporting the PKK being prosecuted under some anti-terrorism legislation.

“We recognise the sacrifice Ashley made of his life for our cause. Ashley was a good person who just felt the Kurdish people needed help,” said Abdul Wahab Talibani, secretary of the Kurdish Association in Sydney.

“The Kurdish people have a big problem … ISIS was established by Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, purely to fight the creation of our nation. But we have over 40 million Kurds who are ready to fight … our people are more than capable. We need weapons and tanks … but we don’t need others to come and fight.”

The AFP has expressed concerns a martyr’s memorial may encourage further recruits. Opinions also remain divided over whether delisting the PKK as a terrorist organisation would lure other recruits.

But Barton suggests the move may have unintended consequences. “It would certainly change the way any future court case played out in Australia,” he said. But “if you could just fly in from Ankara, it might accelerate [the mobilisation of foreign fighters]”, potentially jeopardising the current arrangement with Turkey. “What you really want to say to the foreign community is that there are all sorts of good things you can do in terms of humanitarian aid and awareness.”

In a text message sent to his mother before he died, Johnston wrote: “This is something I really wanted to do and if anything does happen I want you to know my heart was in it and I felt it was something that needed to be done.” At that stage, he had not told his mother what he was doing. She had no reason to expect that he had joined a cause that had never previously animated him, that was so far from his own experiences. It was a cause for which he died.

“I dreamed night Heval Bagok yesterday,” Kadandir told me, referring to Johnston by his appointed Kurdish name. “I sat in a corner and I cried, when he came with his uniform and weapon to me and said ‘why are you crying Heval? What happened?’ with smiling face. I looked at him and was shocked. It cannot be, it’s been, you really live? ‘Yes, I’m alive, I’m not dead. Who told you that I am death?’. I then woke up. And was back with my eyes full of tears. In the dream I was very happy but then I was sad again. Bagok Heval was like an innocent child. He was an angel and will never get forgotten. A very brave man. He was a warrior.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2015 as "Ashley Johnston’s female recruiter". Subscribe here.

Lauren Williams
is a freelance journalist.

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