Coloradan Was Among Dozens Of Americans Fighting For Foreign Militias In Syria

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<p>A still from a video of Levi Shirley <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">posted on YouTube</a> by Kurdish fighters.</p>

Levi Jonathan Shirley always wanted to join the Marine Corps but his poor eyesight prevented that, according to his family. Shirley decided to go to the war zone himself, joining the YPG, or Kurdish People's Protection Units. According to the New York Times, Shirley is among about 100 American civilians who have become vigilante fighters against ISIS, and Coloradans are over-represented in this group according to the British investigative journalism site Bellingcat.

Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel spoke with Washington Post national security reporter Dan Lamothe about America's volunteer fighters in Syria, and about what motivated Shirley to join Kurdish forces. In a YouTube video posted by the YPG after his death, Shirley calls ISIS "my definition of pure evil," and says, "I came here to stop that."

Lamothe on how foreign militias attract Westerners to join their ranks:

"The most conventional way is through various Facebook groups. One of the more popular ones is Lions of Rojava, Rojava being kinda that area in Syria where YPG fighters are very active against ISIS. And you typically would exchange some messages with them, and then work your way toward Turkey or Erbil in Northern Iraq and try to find your way toward some part of the fight."

On how the U.S. government treats American civilians who go to fight in Syria:

"This is an interesting conundrum at this point: Levi Shirley has been dead two weeks now, plus. And as of yesterday when I checked in with his mom, he's still abroad, there's no real firm sense of how they might be able to bring him home, and you can imagine the complications on that sort of thing, without the typical American logistics backbone you'd have [if the U.S. had a military presence on the ground]: helicopters, convoys, all of those sorts of things that are regular in a place like Iraq in the heyday of the war there, or Afghanistan now."

On the effect American civilians are having in helping the Kurds fight ISIS:

"Prior to [Levi Shirley], there had been very little reporting that highlighted them having a significant combat role... There's been a lot of other complaints, actually, from Americans who have served that have popped up in various news reports, that would suggest that once they get there they don't have the role they thought they would. They're kept more in a rear sort of role, and in some cases took exception to that. They felt like they were there more for propaganda value on the part of the YPG."