Like hundreds of other westerners, Jamie Williams joined the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria because he took the IS threat personally. Now, back in Australia, he faces the prospect of having to clear his name for a second time.

By Joe McDonough

Posted on February 20, 2018

After a stint in Syria fighting IS as part of the Kurdish YPG militia (or People’s Protection Units), Melbourne man Jamie Williams faces prosecution as a foreign fighter.

He risked his life on the frontline in the Middle East to do what he could to help stem the tide of the world’s most sinister terror group, and now he could be jailed for it.

Second time he’s been forced to defend his actions

Williams — who trained with the French Foreign Legion — linked up with the YPG last year, his second attempt to do so, after previously being stopped from boarding a flight bound for Iraq at a Melbourne airport in 2014.

He was subsequently charged by Australian federal authorities over that first attempt, but attorney-general George Brandis dropped the case in 2016.

Williams’ lawyer Jessie Smith argued he was going to fight with the Kurds, who for all intents and purposes are the ruling government of the autonomous Rojava region (citizens were permitted to fight for a body exercising effective governmental control), and the Syrian Democratic Forces — of which the YPG is a key coalition member — is an ally of Australia.

Whether that two-pronged defence swayed Brandis’s decision is unclear, as he only offered a short statement saying he used his “discretion”.

Amnesty for foreign YPG troops

In 2015, two Australians Ashley Johnston and Reece Harding were killed while fighting for the YPG, and when Williams’ name was cleared he saw it as vindication that his two countrymen should be remembered as heroes not villains.

Indeed, so did many others. Harding’s parents Michele and Keith, campaigned to remove the Kurdish militia from the foreign fighters legislation, in line with other countries, so that Australians involved in the combat are granted an amnesty if they return home.

Former Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett backed the move, saying it was nonsense that people fighting for and against IS were grouped together.

“I want to say repeatedly that I don’t encourage anybody to go fight for anybody, including for the Kurdish militia, but to have a law that equates people who do do that with those going to fight for [IS] is just silly,” he said in 2015.

“People can see that it just doesn’t stack up, that it’s irrational and illogical and it’s unfair.”

Deja vu for Williams

After all that legal and media attention, Williams finally made it over to the war zone last year.

He recounted in detail his experiences to ABC‘s Four Corners program, which included frontline firefights and helping rid Raqqa of unexploded bombs and IS mines.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong here,” Williams told the ABC.

“I’ve supported the good guys in this fight… Da’esh [the Arabic name for IS] is an enemy of the world.

“The Kurds are going to be a good system. They’re going to be good for this region. They need the Kurds here. They need their system. They need democracy.”

Attorney-general Christian Porter will now decide whether to authorise a second prosecution of Williams, for entering a foreign country with the intention of “engaging in a hostile activity”.

“It mattered to me because as an Australian, Da’esh is a threat to Australia,” Williams continued resolutely.

“The Kurds were on the frontline fighting against Da’esh on behalf of all of us. I came here to help, to do my part.”

And while the Australian government has urged those wanting to fight to join the defence force rather than allied militias, Williams had exhausted all pathways.

He was rejected by the ADF with a drink-driving strike against his name, and was then released from the French Foreign Legion after being falsely accused of sexual assault.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, an estimated 300 westerners have joined groups such as the YPG to fight against IS, and very few have faced charges upon returning home.