Skip to main content

Other Peoples’ Wars

May 09, 2022
Mayara Santos Bueno and Joe Young


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Mayara Santos Bueno, an independent researcher in Brazil, and Joe Young, a Professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, explain why someone from across the globe would want to fight in someone else’s war.

In 2014, Carlos (not his real name), a 41-year-old computer science school drop-out from a small town in Brazil, got on a plane bound for Iraq, where he crossed into Syria and joined the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish militia fighting against ISIS. He had little money and no prior connection to the Middle East. Why would someone from the other side of the world travel thousands of miles to fight in someone else’s war?

People go abroad to fight in foreign wars for many reasons. Some volunteers join resistance groups or terrorist organizations because they feel a pull to help people with whom they share an ideological or religious identity. Some Americans, for example, have joined ISIS for this reason, while others have joined groups that fight against ISIS for the same reason. Some do it for the money: they work as mercenaries, government agents, or as employees of security contractors and private companies.

We spoke with two volunteers from Brazil—Pedro and Carlos (made-up names to protect their identities)—to understand what drove them to participate in a faraway foreign war, specifically the war against ISIS. When the civil war began in Syria, the Islamic State in Syria—ISIS, or ad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah—saw a chance to conquer territories and build a modern kingdom, or Caliphate, in the region. Given the reticence of the United States and the West more broadly to engage and employ ground troops, popular armed organizations were the most effective resistance to ISIS. Groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Democratic Union Party, Women’s Defense Unit, and especially the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) were able to retake cities, protect civilians from the war, and combat jihadist efforts. In response, Western volunteers began joining their efforts to counter ISIS from 2014 to 2015.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.