Macer Gifford, a former currency trader from Cambridge, left the UK for Syria in 2014 after being horrified by the rapid and brutal gains made by the ISIS across Iraq and Syria. Crossing into the battle ravaged country on New Year’s Day he fought against ISIS during 2015, before returning for further stints of combat in 2016 and 2017.
Mr Gifford’s book ‘Fighting Evil: The Ordinary Man who went to War Against ISIS’ was published earlier this year.
Speaking to Express.co.uk Mr Gifford explained his motive for joining the anti-ISIS fight.
He said: “If people were to take themselves back to that summer of 2014 it was a summer of absolute horror.
“You saw the so called Jihadi John parading victims, journalists and humanitarian workers in front of the screen, decapitating them, you saw [the Kurdish city of] Kobani surrounded by ISIS, the Kurdish fighters there the YPG completely surrounded with their backs to the wall fighting for their very survival.
“If you looked towards Sinjar Mountain the Yazidi people, who we had already seen paraded through the streets and sold like cattle, were surrounded on Sinjar Mountain.
“I was sitting at home, I was working in a job in foreign exchange, every day just like everybody else I was picking up the newspaper, seeing these journalists, seeing these aid workers in orange jumpsuits, screaming why aren’t we doing anything.
“When the Kurds in Syria called for international volunteers and I just felt it was a great opportunity to go out to fight against ISIS, to stand for what is right in a conflict that is the clearest divide between good and evil since the fight against Nazism.
Macer Gifford left the UK to fight ISIS in 2014
Macer Gifford pictured with fellow YPG fighters including international volunteers
“This was the rise of a fascist organisation that there was only one response to them – and that was its complete and utter annihilation.”
During 2014 ISIS made spectacular gains in Syria and Iraq, capturing the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, Iraq’s third biggest city, in short succession.
The group made savage atrocities its calling card, massacring thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers after the fall of Mosul and selling women from the Yazidi ethnic minority as sex slaves whilst killing their men.
During this period ISIS also captured a number of western journalists and aid workers, many of which were beheaded with the videos later posted online by ISIS supporting media.
Mr Gifford, who had no previous military experience, reached out to the YPG on Facebook offering his support.
He continued: “So after reaching out to them on Facebook they told me to fly out Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq where I would be met by a guy who would take me to a safe house and from there transfer me across the border.
“And I can remember on that first trip being a bit of a bag of nerves thinking to myself am I doing the right thing here? Is this an elaborate plot by the Islamic State to capture me?
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Macer Gifford pictured in Syria
“It was only when I got there, when I spoke to the Kurds who met me at the airport, did I realise that not only was I with the right people but actually they were incredibly well organised.”
Mr Gifford was smuggled into Syria on New Years Day 2015 where he joined a YPG unit primarily made up of international volunteers.
Before joining the front line he had just one week of training from the YPG, though he later received additional instruction from American, British and French ex-military volunteers who had joined the fight against ISIS.
Describing his arrival in the warzone Mr Gifford stated: “In those early days you only got one week of training before they put you on the front line because this was a fight for survival.
“This was actually at a time when ISIS was winning. I was only given one week of very rudimentary Kurdish training before I was put on a truck with six or seven other international volunteers and sent to the front line.
“I went to the front line and ISIS was just a smudge on the horizon. For the first couple of months we really didn’t do much – we were just holding the line.
“In the early days it was just 3,000-4,000 Kurdish fighters on one front line, 3,000-4,000 ISIS fighters on the other front line and often the ISIS guys had more tanks and artillery than we did.
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YPG fighters, including Macer Gifford, pictured with a captured ISIS flag
YPG fighters in the back of a truck
“It was a very difficult and dangerous environment where the casualties were horrendous to western standards. It wasn’t unusual for a unit of 40 people to lose 10 dead and 15 wounded in one operation.”
In August 2014 the US, with other coalition partners, began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq.
Following a vote in Parliament British warplanes joined the effort the following month.
In late 2015 the YPG joined other anti-ISIS militias, including Sunni Arabs, Christians and Yazidis, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella group.
Mr Gifford explained how the fighting changed during his time in Syria from 2015-17, moving from open warfare in the early days to more urban combat later on as ISIS were forced into retreat.
Raqqa, the de-facto ISIS capital, was captured by the SDF after a fierce battle in 2017.
Describing the fight to seize it, which he participated in, Mr Gifford said: “Raqqa’s a city of 300,000-400,000 people and it was very much like Stalingrad where they [ISIS] had three or four years to prepare.
“They dug trenches in the streets, all the buildings had tunnels between them, every building was a fortification, every street was a barricade and there were thousands of mines everywhere.
“Hundreds of people died in Raqqa alone just from the IEDs.
“They were actually quite innovative in the horrors they would come up with.
“One in every three ISIS fighters typically wore a suicide vest so even if they’re close to death they would be lying on the ground ready to pull the pin in the last moments but also they would have drones in the sky, commercial civilian drones that had been modified to drop bombs and there would be civilian vehicles crammed with explosives and driven towards our lines.”
Whilst a small contingent of British citizens, like Mr Gifford, went to fight ISIS a much larger number from the UK went to join the terror group.
According to the BBC, quoting Government sources, this number is believed to be as high as 850 people.
Since the collapse of the ISIS ‘caliphate’ many have returned to the UK whilst other, such as ISIS bride Shamima Begum, have been stripped of their British citizenship.
Ms Begun is currently challenging the decision to remove her citizenship via the courts.
Mr Gifford warned the Government should be wary of allowing UK ISIS recruits to return to Britain, noting they were some of the group’s most fanatical fighters.
He said: “There’s a debate in the UK at the moment about whether we should invite British people who joined ISIS as volunteers, whether we should invite them back. Perhaps give them a slap on the wrist, they might end up in jail for five years, but largely try and reintegrate them back into British society.
“There’re genuine people trying to do that at the moment and I often say to them look, you do realise these people are the SS of ISIS. They are so fanatically committed that they’ve travelled a thousand miles to join them. They were captured reluctantly at the very end.
“To say to yourself ‘oh but they were young when they went, they might have psychological problems etr’ is to really miss the point of exactly who the victims are here and who the aggressors are and also who the most vulnerable people are here and who are the people we need to be keeping away from society. The SS of ISIS, these international volunteers, were often at the very front.”
Mr Gifford was also fiercely critical of the role Turkey, a NATO member, played in the Syrian civil war.
Macer Gifford pictured with fellow YPG fighters
Last year the Turkish army moved into northern Syria, confronting the SDF, after Trump pledged to withdraw American forces.
To survive the SDF cut a deal with the Assad regime and Russian military.
Mr Gifford stated: “Turkey’s very reliable in short and operates entirely outside of the [US led anti-ISIS] coalition.
“Turkey reacted quite quickly but it reacted for its own benefit.
“It always despised the Assad regime and did all it could in the early years to fund the opposition to Assad, sending both military and non-military aid to groups that would eventually become jihadi groups in Syria against Assad and they fuelled them. Turkey has long persecuted its Kurdish minority.”
In response to Mr Gifford’s comments the Turkish embassy in London insisted the Turkish state had been effective at fighting ISIS, which it calls DAESH, and said it considers the YPG to be a “terrorist organization”.
It stated: “Turkey is sheltering more than four million Syrians and Iraqis who have fled from the conflict and peril in the region.
“Turkey is also preventing PKK-PYD/YPG attacks, both to itself and the local civilian population in Syria.
“All in all, if North and West of Syria is relatively calm and peaceful today, it is thanks to the efforts of Turkey.
“Beside all these, Turkey is the only member of the Global Coalition Against DAESH, which has boots on the ground and fought against DAESH chest to chest. It neutralized more than 3000 DAESH terrorists.”