Fighting ISIS: Meet the Underdog Army Holding the Line Against the Islamic State

In June 2014, ISIS fighters swept across the Syrian border and tore into Iraq. The militant wave seemed unstoppable, until they reached the border of Kurdistan—a homeland of a fierce and forgotten people. Today, ISIS controls over a third of Iraq–but the Kurds have united like never before to defend their home. Who are the Kurds and the people who hold the line against ISIS? On Explorer: Fighting ISIS, National Geographic writer Neil Shea travels to the heart of Kurdistan on a quest to meet the Kurdish fighters on the front lines against the world’s biggest terrorist threat.

The Kurds are a minority people with their own language and culture spread across the mountains of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. In Iraq, the Kurds control a territory the size of Switzerland. And although they “officially” remain a part of Iraq, they have their own president, parliament, and military. They’ve essentially created a state of their own. But today, it’s under threat. Explorer takes viewers along the borders of a Kurdish state —those real, imagined, and newly-defined by war—from the western metropolis of Sulaymaniyah to the frontlines of Kirkuk, and out west towards the ancient Christian holy lands and battlefields of Syria.

Watch the Q&A With Neil Shea: Inside the Kurdish Ground War on ISIS
National Geographic journalist Neil Shea discusses his experiences while embedded with the Kurds as they defend their home against ISIS.

Neil, alongside local photojournalist Hawre Khalid, heads south toward the city of Kirkuk. The outskirts of the city are where the bloodiest battles took place last year, and the two journalists are headed toward ISIS-held territory to meet an Iraqi police commander charged with keeping the city safe from jihadis. In the dead of night, Neil and Hawre meet up with General Sarhad Qadir, Chief of the Iraqi National Police. General Sarhad is a legendary Kurdish fighter. Wounded more than a dozen times, he’s been shot at, stabbed, and poisoned. Saddam Hussein tried to kill him, Al Qaeda tried too… and now ISIS wants him dead. He patrols Kirkuk and its outskirts with an iron fist. Neil and Hawre embed with Sarhad’s police force for on a night-raid through a poor Arab village to hunt for ISIS fighters.

From a distance, the Kurdish front line against ISIS looks solid—a wall bristling with tanks, artillery, and machine guns that stretches for hundreds of miles. But the Islamic State has shown just how easily such borders can fall, and the Sarhad’s night raid proved just how porous these borders can be. Neil and Hawre set out to see the front line, where Kurdish soldiers, known as Peshmerga, are fighting to keep the enemy out. On a base in Dokuk, Neil is surprised by who he finds in a Peshmerga uniform— a squad of volunteers who look like they’ve just walked out of an Army surplus store. There’s a French volunteer named Thierry, and even an American who says his name is “James Smith.” Neil and Hawre join James, Thierry, and their Peshmerga comrades down battle-scarred roads to the the front line, just two kilometers from ISIS territory. The soldiers dismount and take positions along a perimeter, where Neil interviews the western fighters and learns why they’ve chosen to fight alongside the Peshmerga.

For western volunteers like James Smith, this war is an escape that lends meaning to life. But for the Kurds, there’s no skipping out. This is their home. There’s nowhere to run. Everyone must stand up. The next day, Neil and Hawre head to the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah where a female-only Peshmerga battalion has its headquarters. At a firing range, raw recruits practice weapons handling and target shooting. The women are armed with Soviet-era AKs.

Watch: Band of Sisters
On the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, a female-only Peshmerga battalion has its headquarters. At a firing range, raw recruits practice weapons handling and target shooting.

SULAMANIYAH, IRAQI KURDISTAN- Nasrin Hamalaw is a Lt. Colonel of the Peshmerga Women's Battallion. The Colonel, her husband, and her eight children all serve in the Kurdish armed forces. (Photo Credit: NG Studios/ Tony Gerber)
SULAMANIYAH, IRAQI KURDISTAN- Nasrin Hamalaw is a Lt. Colonel of the Peshmerga Women’s Battallion. The Colonel, her husband, and her eight children all serve in the Kurdish armed forces. (Photo Credit: NG Studios/ Tony Gerber)

While some troops can afford to buy newer rifles, the AK is pretty much the standard weapon of the Peshmerga. Nasrin Hamlawa is the major in this battalion, and like all the top women in this unit, she’s been fighting a long time. She joined the Peshmerga in 1979 when the enemy was Saddam Hussein. Neil learns of the death of Nasrin’s youngest daughter. Captain Rangin Yousuf was killed in 2014 in one of the early battles outside Kirkuk. She was just 13 when she joined the Peshmerga, and only 26 when she died. The loss of a daughter is perhaps Nasrin’s greatest sacrifice, but it’s not her first. For Nasrin, there’s never been a time of peace. She is, above all, a warrior, shaped by the Kurds’ long struggle for survival…always watching, waiting for the next enemy to appear at the horizon.

In his hotel room, Neil works on his story for National Geographic Magazine. If he can just pull together enough pieces of truth, his story can reach beyond borders and front lines to show what life in Kurdistan has become.

Tucked in below the high-rise skeletons, a small camp of Yazidis, members of a Kurdish minority who fled from a city called Sinjar when ISIS swept through in 2014. They’re not Christian, not Muslim, but belong to a faith that’s possibly much older, and, to outsiders, more mysterious… and ISIS considers them the worst kind of infidel. Neil interviews a pair of refugees who serve tea and tell their tragic stories. Their resilience is both remarkable and inspiring. Already hundreds of Yazidis have joined forces with the Peshmerga to take the fight back to ISIS. They hope one day to return to their homes, and in the meantime they’re preparing themselves as best they can for whatever comes next.

Watch: A Few Miles From ISIS
National Geographic writer Neil Shea travels to the heart of Kurdistan on a quest to meet the Kurdish fighters on the frontlines against the world’s most feared terrorist threat.

Don’t miss Explorer: Fighting ISIS Sunday at 8/7c on the National Geographic Channel

Comments

  1. Alan duncan
    Kurdistan
    March 24, 4:58 pm

    I’m a British volunteer with the peshmerga and I just watched the program, well done and thank you for showing the world the peshmerga fight for humanity and it’s fight for people of all faiths

  2. Alesha
    Australia
    March 26, 7:36 am

    This documentary was amazing. It made me see and understand so much more than the every day news coverage decides to tell us. I cannot put it into words, just how sorry I feel for all of those people fighting against isis and their inhumane, horrific practices. And the saddest part of all is the lack of genuine help and support from other countries. Considering what these countries are capable of, even if it meant rescuing innocence.
    There is no justification possible for taking the life of a child. They are the purest most innocent stage of the human life cycle. How can they be killed for being a religion or part of a society isis disapproves of. They know of nothing else.
    The saddest part is that you would assume that would be common sense in this century. So so sad. Its all just too sad.

  3. Francisco Belard
    March 26, 12:58 pm

    Very well.

  4. omer ismail
    Iraq
    March 30, 8:28 am

    Thank u Neil Shea it was good report about as as iam kurdish from erbil we want fredom also be country like other people i hope u come back see u again in erbil thank u

  5. Pedro
    California
    April 2, 4:27 pm

    Way to go Smitty. Proud of you! Let me know if you need a care package. Good times.

  6. jamie wales
    uk
    April 8, 2:35 pm

    Hi I’m looking to go and fight the isis can anyone help me find the right contact’s to go and jion.