Johannes Koenig, musician, charged by Munich police for liking an article about the Kurdisch YPG on Facebook by the satire site Der Postillion. Sachelle Babbar/Press Association
The first time Roni ( a pseudonym) came home to London after his 8 months as a medic for the anarchist Kurdish YPG/YPJ in northern Syria, he was nervous. If it wasn’t to see his closest Kurdish friend — a filmmaker for the same forces — laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery, he would have never boarded the plane.
The passengers had not yet disembarked when four uniformed officers marched straight to his seat.
“They escorted me out like a celebrity,” Roni said.
The questioning was polite and ended in a “thank you for your cooperation,” but it was enough to convince Roni that this may be his last time in London. At least for a long time.
Roni has two passports: one British and one Turkish. He was born in a majority Alevi Kurdish town – a minority within a minority in Turkey – but remembers little about his childhood. His parents don’t talk about it. So he feels British.
The questioning might not go so smoothly next time Roni visits London because he might be linked to the PKK — whose ties to the YPG/YPJ are still debated — and lose his British passport. Only dual nationals can have their citizenship revoked for being a member of a terrorist-listed organization. To Roni, that would mean not being able to avoid compulsory military service in Turkey, where he would face near-certain imprisonment. It would also add another level of precarity in the UK.
So until he is sure that he is safe in the UK, he will wait in what he jokingly calls “Yugoslavia.” Considering how erratic the UK and other European states have been in pursuing their citizens who were former YPG/YPJ volunteers, Roni and his friends in arms will probably not have an answer to this quandary soon.
Abroad and at home
Turkey and Qatar are the only countries to list the YPG/YPJ as a terrorist group, since they equate it with the Turkey-based PKK. Despite heavy lobbying efforts, however, Turkey has not changed the mind of its NATO allies on this issue. Many rely on a strict demarcation between the two groups to legitimize their support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly YPG/YPJ-led group formed by the US-led coalition to help push back the so-called Islamic State. The SDF is the only opposition group in Syria that has won significant territory from Bashar Al-Assad and will remain a main player in forming Syria’s new geography.
While these coalition countries – for the sake of this article, the UK, France and Germany – don’t let Turkey have its way on how they maneuver in the Middle East, they make up for any friction in the relationship however by being vigilant about the YPG/YPJ domestically. These crackdowns on former fighters, whether to please Turkey or not, are a symptom of ever-expanding counter-terrorism powers across the continent.
The UK, France and Germany track YPG/YPJ fighters indiscriminately – as they do all combatants coming from Syria and Iraq – but only on occasion decide to take legal or punitive action, like opening court cases, confiscating passports or marking some with easily exploitable statuses. When they do, it has until now been action taken against non-Kurdish nationals (only Denmark has arrested a Kurdish YPJ fighter who was also a Danish national) and justified under the heading of counter-terrorism strategy.
Those singled out are not necessarily more politically radical than others, and did not necessarily have more evidence against them. Their exceptions may prove the rule, but they also mean potential precedents that could affect anyone else in the YPG/YPJ, including non-national residents, asylum seekers and its PYD political representatives. They indirectly touch people like Roni and send chills across Europe’s large Kurdish diaspora, which is already under the close eye of police. Kurdish European nationals who opt for the more entrenched PKK over the younger YPG/YPJ – the vast majority of them – could become easy next targets.
Their selection also reveals the sometimes conflictual, sometimes complicit relationship between the interior, foreign and justice departments – and the expanding ability of law enforcement to play acrobatics in pursuit of whomever they consider politically dangerous, terrorist-listed or not.
The UK, France and Germany do not have a consistent policy toward the few returning YPG/YPJ nationals and maybe never will. Yet something can be deduced from the actions already taken and the pathways already explored.
The United Kingdom
More than 400 non-Syrians joined the YPG/YPJ. Of those, most came from Turkey, then the US, then the UK. The British supported their operations through the SDF with non-lethal weapons and airstrikes in their fight against ISIS. Britain has also sold more than $1 billion in arms to Turkey and continues to court its buyers as a looming Brexit forces the country to find new friends.
When Turkey began stepping up its rhetoric against the YPG/YPJ, the UK, caught between the two, wondered if it had to choose sides. In October 2017, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons began an inquiry to decipher if the YPG/YPJ was in fact the UK’s friend or foe, terrorist or not. Two months before, the Henry Jackson Society had published a report arguing that returning YPG/YPJ fighters were a threat to UK security. The committee’s findings quoted the report but did not take the same position — it actually took none, apparently more confused than at the outset.
So, police continued stopping most YPG/YPJ returnees when they arrived and keeping their passports — an action reserved for citizens who have “actual or suspected” plans to disturb the public interest. Some were detained and questioned for hours. Some have had their movements restricted to certain places and hours, one of the more severe measures police can take to prevent terrorism. Some have had their houses raided for incriminating evidence. If the police have found evidence, the attorney general and the Crown Protection Services, have prosecuted. Three cases have occurred so far.
The first YPG returnee, Josh Walker, was charged under the Terrorism Act with possessing information “likely to be useful” for committing an act of terrorism: in his case, a digital copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. He was found not guilty.
James Matthews’ charge was more direct. The crown suspected him of being trained on a military camp "for purposes connected to the commission of preparation of terrorism". They argued that the same camp was run by the PKK. The prosecutor did not cite evidence to support the claim and gave no reason when the crown dropped the charge.
“The whole thing was a mess and a mystery,” Matthews’ lawyer, Joel Bennathan QC, told me. European citizens have the right to be able to anticipate why they might be prosecuted, but since the YPG/YPJ is a “grey area” whose treatment is “in flux,” said Bennathan, no one knows when or why the gavel might fall. He said that lawyers representing the returned fighters speculated that pressure from Turkey, possibly indirect, had influenced the decisions to go after its former fighters, some of which have become celebrated public figures. Roni sees Matthews’ case as a low-hanging fruit: the UK could cave in under pressure in a case against a British veteran that it is sure to lose.
One outstanding case could still set a precedent. Shortly after Matthews pleaded not guilty, police charged Aidan James with three counts of terrorism, including “preparation of terrorist acts.” Sources close to the case worry that the charges have more to do with acts the person committed unrelated to the armed group, but a conviction might damage the prospect of a similar defense.
In fact, courts could prosecute returning fighters for terrorism if they really wanted to. The UK has almost a dozen Terrorism Acts, including one about to be passed, that expands the definition of terrorism far beyond being the member of a listed group. Anyone who picks up arms abroad, not for the British army or for a mercenary group, qualifies. Anyone who travels to an area that the Secretary of State deems could expose the UK public to the “risk of terrorism” can be tried.
Foreign fighters and freedom fighters
Courts, at least until now, have chosen not to touch the YPG/YPJ. Even if the UK finds enough evidence to draw an explicit link with the PKK, they may still do nothing: only one recruit, Shilan Özçelik, has been convicted for trying to join the PKK. Possibly sympathizers made enough noise outside her prison gates to dissuade them from a second conviction.
But police still treat YPG/YPJ recruits as ripe for counter-terrorism strategy. The UK has a decentralized police force, so ten separate counter-terrorism units each follow their own way of doing things. One unit created a cheat sheet of extremist symbols, which lists the YPG as “regarded as so close to the PKK as to be almost a subordinate entity.” Several make recruits sign a document that says they will travel to Syria knowing that they might face terrorism charges when they return, and then detains them when they do. Sometimes decisions come from above, like the deployment of Prevent officers to the families of the fighters that fall.
John Cuddihy, former head of organized crime and counter-terrorism in Scotland who now advises forces internationally, lamented that broader counter-terrorism policy doesn’t explore the nuance between who is a “foreign fighter” and a “freedom fighter.” He said it is wrong to cram the YPG/YPJ and ISIS into the same category, though YPG/YPJ returnees are too few to motivate enough resources for a customized approach. For now, Scotland, which has a devolved system like Wales, targets potential YPG/YPJ recruits for deradicalization efforts just like any population “vulnerable” to extremist groups.
Since terrorism is “drawn in very wide terms,” its application is “profoundly dividing lawyers and counterterrorism officers,” says Bennathan. Indecision – and diplomatic concerns – can mean inaction. When Turkey sentenced former British soldier and YPG volunteer Joe Robinson to eight years in prison, the UK didn’t say anything.
France’s stance on the YPG/YPJ is clear: it is their closest ally in Syria, and the relationship – fed by on-the-ground support and a French cultural center – is built to last, according to the group’s spokesperson Nuri Mahmoud. The UK and Germany do not meet officially with their representatives of YPG’s political wing, the PYD, but French President Emmanuel Macron has shaken the hand of the Paris representative, Khaled Issa, in public.
The meeting didn’t stop him from also shaking hands, time and again, with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Commercial profit between the two, which adds up to about $14.6 billion, continues to rise. Turkey is not just a NATO ally, but also a partner in France’s fight against homegrown terrorism, promising to repatriate French ISIS fighters.
In the eyes of the foreign ministry, the dividing line between the PKK and the YPG/YPJ is solid. But the interior ministry could decide otherwise. (When asked for comment on its surveillance of the YPG/YPJ in France, the press contact for counter-terrorism policing refused comment on the domestic treatment of the PKK.)
Even without crossover between the two groups, the French police has a big counter-terrorism toolbox to pick from. Since Macron institutionalized the state of emergency, police and intelligence have the power to arrest and surveil, after warning the prosecutor, anyone who they have “serious reasons to believe” are “commonly in relation with persons or organizations inciting, supporting, spreading or adhering to a thesis inciting terrorist acts or doing their apology.” These acts must apply to French soil – which the YPG/YPJ has not touched. Police could then play up the premise that they were paid – in non-monetary ways – for their service, since fighting as a mercenary is illegal in France. But no court has tried to push that argument.
The last way to catch a YPG/YPJ volunteer, would be to stop them from flying to so-called “jihad zones”, given the risk that could come with working alongside a criminalized group. However, the Senate affirmed last summer that it grants Kurdish forces certain privileges: unlike other Syria-bound nationals, fighters with the YPG/YPJ “are not systematically pursued, regarding YPG cooperation with the French armed forces.”
But ‘not systematically’ does not mean never.
While some never see an officer, others have their passports confiscated, their driver’s licenses snatched, their bank accounts frozen. All of these powers came in with the new counter-terrorism measures. One former fighter sued the French state for how it treats of the YPG/YPJ. He won. Since then, said fellow fighter Serhat Tikkun*, police have been careful about pursuing them down the same alleys.
But the drills continue. Tikkun said that he and his mother have had regular check-ups with the DGSI, France’s domestic intelligence agency, since he was referred to psychological services that handle cases of radicalization. That was three years before he left, when he was first learning about the militia. He moves around a lot, so he has got to know counter-terrorism officers from around the country – along with their counterparts in other European states, thanks to Interpol tip-offs.
Most of the volunteers that came from France are former soldiers, but some are anarchist, communist and union activists. Of those, many were already closely tracked. Tikkun said that one DGSI officer told him that far-left terrorism is their second priority after Islamist terrorism – and that far-right terrorism comes only after separatist groups, like the PKK, which has risen on their radar.
The Senate report mentions that Islamic jihad “must not eclipse non-Islamic terrorism,” such as attacks against mosques by far-left groups “notably from the anarcho-autonomous movement, from which several have gone to Syria to fight against the Islamic State, and therefore are trained to handle arms.”
Still, Tikkun said that officers would not let him, a self-described communist autonomist, go as easily as “if I was called Mohammed and came from the projects.” Since the state of emergency was declared, several politically active Kurds have been detained for terrorist financing without specification. Even more have been flagged with “FIJAT” and “S” files, a signal for special police treatment to prevent threats to national security. Those marked are not the most obvious candidates, said a Kurdish activist close to them, while those who travel to Northern Syria for civil and political work have been let off the hook.
French surveillance of the politically-involved Kurdish diaspora is, to say the least, a sensitive topic. Former President François Hollande openly met with PKK members, but in 2013, three of them were assassinated in Paris. The slip-up embarrassed French intelligence, which since then has been softer on the group and its sympathizers. But with “terrorism” a buzzword in post-state of emergency France, the question of policing is very much back on the table.
Of the three countries, Germany has the least contact with the SDF and the closest relationship, historically, with Turkey. Its participation in the US-led coalition in Syria is mostly symbolic, while it continues – despite a current temporary hault – to sell Turkey arms and tanks that it used in its offensive in Afrin. Germany also leans on Turkey to keep its 3.5 million Syrian refugees on their side of the shore – and hosts the largest and most politically active Kurdish diaspora, the one most represented in the YPG/YPJ forces.
This equation makes the YPG/YPJ question a more urgent one to solve. The answer, though, still depends on who is asked.
For the federal prosecutor, no YPG/YPJ fighter has yet warranted a charge. The justice ministry has yet to weigh in on whether the group is a terrorist organization or not, but Die Welt reported that it considers it “politically inopportune” to do so while this would anger France or the US.
As for the interior ministry, a hint might come in a 2015 report where members of parliament asked about continuing operations against the PKK. In it, the interior ministry said that anti-ISIS fighters (it could not separate PKK and YPG/YPJ fighters) are fewer in quantity than Syrian jihadist fighters, but similar in quality.
“We do not distinguish between supposedly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorism,” said the report. In other words, they may fight for different reasons, but their weapons training – as long as it’s done outside the authorized frame of the German military – could pose the a similar threat to German nationals when they return. The report failed to cite when a returned YPG/YPJ fighter had intended to stage an attack in Germany. But their aims run close to those of the PKK, it found, a group which threatens the territorial integrity of a NATO ally.
Answering questions from a parliamentarian in October, the interior ministry counted nearly 250 anti-ISIS fighters who have left for Syria, half of whom have returned. Of those, federal police are investigating 32, including 27 for links to terrorist organizations; the others for planned attacks and recruitment for a foreign military organization. Seven of them were labelled “relevant” persons and two as “dangerous.” One is still being investigated for possible war crimes. Half of all cases were closed for lack of evidence that offenses were committed on German territory.
Terrorism is still not defined in Germany, but under criminal law, it is illegal to be trained in a camp run by a terrorist organization, to plan an attack in Germany or to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity anywhere. Mere membership of a terrorist-listed organization abroad cannot be prosecuted, however, nor can it justify the revoking of citizenship.
But officers are ordered to walk before judges can talk. When Martin Klamper* returned from Syria, he was detained at the airport and had his passport and phone confiscated. He is still waiting to get them back and is not allowed to leave Germany until further notice. He said other YPG/YPJ fighters from Germany avoid flying in for that reason, but police end up finding them anyway.
Some state police push even further. Bavaria – home state of the current Interior Minister – leads the way, followed by other state governments that have crept in expanding counter-terrorism powers for their police forces that skip judicial overview and lower the bar on searches and detention.
One additional measure of this kind is to revive the police title “Gefährder,” roughly translated to “potential threat,” which lets police detain anyone they believe might plan an attack. So far, the title has mostly been used on Islamists, and a few times on fascists and anarchists. We have learned of two cases when it was applied to returned YPG fighters. These individuals have limited access to justice, and their status is not recognized federally.
“We haven’t seen these kinds of laws since Hitler,” said Nick Brauns, who drafted the queries for Left Party parliamentarian Ulla Jelpke on how the interior ministry handles anti-ISIS fighters.
Brauns also compares Germany’s current crackdown on Kurdish political groups to what happened in the 1990’s, when the PKK was at its most active and most repressed in Turkey. Then, after attacks against Turkish sites in Germany, Germany became the first country after Turkey to list the PKK as a terrorist organization. Abdullah Öcalan, ideological father of both groups, has promised he would not touch Germany if his supporters were left alone – but his image was banned last year. The YPG/YPJ flag was banned, too, when police consider it is used to substitute the PKK flag. Enforcement has since been devolved to states.
If the YPG/YPJ is brought into the counter-terrorism frame alongside the PKK, its returning fighters who are not German citizens – about three out of four, according to the report that lumped together both groups – face even fewer protections since their cases would be treated by immigration, not criminal, law. A trip to Syria could then threaten their application for citizenship or asylum.
These counter-terrorism developments don’t stop at borders. Even when Brexit yanks the UK out of the EU picture, intelligence and police coordination, especially within the scope of preventing terrorist acts, will continue. Cuddihy, who helped shape policing of the Kurdish diaspora in Scotland, said that police in Glasgow, London and several German cities share intelligence and work together closely since they recognize that the Kurds share networks across those cities, too. Then there’s Interpol, Europol, and a smattering of new initiatives to encourage intelligence sharing and best practices. States choose how much they share, which tends to be on the rise.
Meanwhile, whatever intelligence these states don’t gather, Turkish secret services might. They have official permission for a number of surveillance operations in the three countries and, since the coup attempt in 2016, have been more aggressively on the lookout for members of both Gülen movement and the PKK — which to them includes the YPG/YPJ.
How far they can go depends largely on the stance each country’s interior ministry takes. This position isn’t static: it depends on who heads the ministry, what’s at stake in the relationship with Turkey or the US, and what happens politically in Syria. Then there’s what the fighters and their supporters say and do back home. One Kurdish activist in Paris also said that she’s found that there’s an unspoken balance in Europe. When France goes easier on the group, Germany plays bad cop, and vice versa.
In the end, some of the returned fighters even welcome the vigilance. They’re reassured that their police are watching out for terrorism, which is what they left for Syria to combat. But what worries them is the amount of information that police allow themselves to collect and sit on. They might not flex their counter-terrorism powers openly, but that doesn’t mean they never will.
“You’re on the books until you’re worthy of their political agenda,” said Roni. “We can be sacrificed for the greater agenda.”