A team of French veterans is poised to join forces with Kurdish soldiers battling the Islamic State (IS) group, without a mandate from the French government. The group’s leader tells FRANCE 24 about his motivation and the purpose of their mission.
Eight decades ago, they might have joined the International Brigades who flocked to Spain to help the Republican government in its struggle against General Francisco Franco. But today, the former French soldiers behind the “Task Force Lafayette” have picked another cause: the struggle against the Islamic State group.
The unit says it numbers around 15 men, all of them army veterans who have volunteered to fight. They have no official mandate from the French government, which has joined a US-led campaign of air strikes against the hardline jihadist group but is wary of putting boots on the ground.
The “Lafayette” group plans to join Iraqi Kurdistan’s “peshmerga” forces by the end of the year and stay for a minimum of four months. Two members are already on the ground, with the rest expected to join in December.
Gekko (not his real name), a 25-year-old veteran specialised in intelligence-gathering, says he first thought of setting up the task force in May of this year, spurred into action by reports of atrocities committed by the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
“I couldn’t just sit idly by, I had to do something,” he says, citing the jihadist group’s “execution videos, and the images of men, women and children killed, raped and crucified”.
The Frenchman began poring over Syria’s “multitude of movements, alliances and counter-alliances”, looking for an anti-IS group he felt he could trust and “that shared my democratic values”. But the task proved harder than expected.
“Had we joined one of the many factions in the Free Syrian Army, for example, we would have been accused of being anti-Bashar [al-Assad],” he says, referring to Syria’s embattled president. “It would have been perceived as interference [in Syrian affairs].”
Insisting on the task force’s strict “neutrality” and its refusal to take sides in the region’s political and religious divides, Gekko says Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters emerged as “the least risky choice”.
Sheltered, fed and armed by the Kurds
At first, Gekko planned to go alone. But when he mentioned his plan to a friend and fellow veteran, the response was enthusiastic. As news of the mission spread through word of mouth, others soon came on board.
Gekko says the task force numbers “around 15 men”, all aged between 25 and 55, with experience of deployment in Afghanistan, Mali, the Central African Republic and Somalia.
“We couldn’t be a larger group. In part because I wouldn’t be able to handle it, but also because most members were part of the special forces and are therefore used to working in small groups,” he says.
With less than three months to go before it deploys, the “Lafayette” crew are busy fine-tuning their mission. Once on the ground, they will be fed and sheltered by Kurds in the Kirkuk area, “but we cannot say exactly where”, says Gekko.
The group has a budget of more than €35,000 secured through individual donations, merchandising and funding from private companies whose names have not been disclosed.
A statement posted on a crowd-funding platform says the money collected will be used “to buy gear, medical supplies and humanitarian kits”.
On its Facebook page, the task force says a donation of €1,200 will allow the purchase of night-vision goggles while other military gear, including bullet-proof vests, has been ordered from a “supplier for the French army”.
As for the weapons, which cannot be carried on board civilian flights, Gekko insists they will be “supplied” by Kurdish forces.
“We will support and advise Kurdish forces on the ground,” he says, stressing the group’s mission and rules of engagement. “We will never be the first to open fire on the enemy, unless it is a case of legitimate defence.”
Neither mercenaries nor Crusaders
The French veteran vehemently rejects any suggestion that he and his comrades might qualify as mercenaries.
“We don’t receive a salary, we are not hoping to make a profit – we are volunteers, not mercenaries,” he says.
Under French law, it is illegal to take part in mercenary activities. But in practice French citizens are free to travel to Syria and Iraq to take part in voluntary work, despite government warnings to stay away from the region.
The French government has vowed to prosecute French nationals who join terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, and even threatened to strip them of their nationality. But there has been little mention of those who join anti-IS militias.
Contacted by FRANCE 24, the French defence ministry said it did not wish to comment on the case of the “Task Force Lafayette”.
Gekko says he has kept French intelligence informed of the group’s plans: “They know we are leaving and they will question us upon our return, as is standard procedure.”
The DGSE, France’s external intelligence agency, also declined to comment on the case.
Across Europe and North America, dozens of volunteers have flocked to the Middle East to join the fight against the IS group, frustrated by their respective governments’ refusal to put boots on the ground in the battle against the jihadists.
A Foreign Policy report in August said 56 Americans had joined a group known as the "Lions of Rojava", which is closely affiliated with the Syria-based Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the most effective militias fighting the IS group.
The “Lafayette” is not the first French group to join the battle. The so-called “Dwekh Nashwa” – “The Future Martyrs” in the Aramaic language spoken by some Middle Eastern Christian communities persecuted by the jihadist group – already has a handful of fighters on the ground. They advocate the formation of a “Christian Army” to fight the “Islamic barbarians”.
But Gekko rejects all associations with the latter group. “We are not Christians embarking on a Crusade but humanists determined to fight Daesh (the IS group’s Arabic acronym),” he says. “There is a difference.”
Date created : 2015-10-13