Jack Untold: Inside the Fight Against ISIS
A narrative and interview with local Kobani, Syria resident turned journalist Jack Shahine
by Brandon Neilan
CINCINNATI/KOBANI — He stares through the lens — the streets covered in a mixture of mud, blood, and decaying bodies — the rubble-remain of buildings that had attested time, lay on the barren streets — and the decomposition and stench of foul dead remains and mutilated corpses permeated the air.
The eerie glimmer of the bloody garb worn by his enemy, captured by the brilliance of his camera lens — and the smiles of both the YPG, YPJ, and Peshmerga fighters that defeated them — all too well, told the story of how his people helped liberate Kobani.
03/03/ 15 4:29 EST, 10:29 UTC: I'm on the phone with Jack Shahine, a local Kobani resident turned freelance journalist — we speak for a good 40 mins — his English perfect — him and his family have been staying in the border town of Suruc, Turkey during the battle that decimated and claimed more than 80% of his city.
I sit down with my smartphone, pen and paper in hand — writing & scribbling the details and answers to my questions down in my notebook- looking at the predispose of questions I had thoughtfully written down, but conjoining my own prose as we spoke.
We had corresponded for the last 2 weeks between email and other digital means.
My Utter Curiosity
The Syrian Civil War, the Kurdish fighting, and the generality of how ISIS started sprouting up, made me spend countless nights researching the region — the more I researched, the more I gained interest.
The turning point for me to start writing on this topical region was a documentary I watched on Aleppo, Syria — this family had stayed behind for their father. Day in and day out the regime would bomb civilian populations with artillery shelling and airstrikes. The dad fought, the kids played — sometimes helping their father with supplies and the building of bombs, and the mother kept the family tightly knit together.
If you have ever seen pictures of Aleppo, you'll know what I mean — it is insensitive in my opinion to not show some type of sympathy and empathy about what has happened there. Here lies a city, that was once home to over 2 million people — and the majority of its buildings are in disarray and its destitution of modern amenities showing the fray.
Syria's Second Front - FRONTLINE
Three years in to Syria's civil war, another enemy has emerged: factions aligned with Al Qaeda. Syrias Second Front…
The war there, though, had been going on since 2011. The rebels and the FSA (Free Syrian Army) against the dictatorial Assad regime who waged war against his own people due to a supposed coup and a power-struggle.
I had known of the Kurds in the most simplistic way. I knew they had helped U.S. forces gain strategic momentum in both the first Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Working with our special operations, special forces, and intelligence communities to gain large swaths of territory in the north — while our main ground force in the south moved from Kuwait to Baghdad — courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps and Army mechanized & light infantry units, as well as tank and other armored divisions.
The Kurdish Peshmerga military units were pivotal during Operation Iraqi Freedom, they helped to capture numerous Northern Iraqi towns from the Republican Guard and Regular Iraqi Army and eventually helped with the assault and capture of Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, they also helped to capture al-Qaeda leader Hassan Ghul — through interrogation and intelligence — this eventually led to Operation Neptune Spear — and the death of Osama Bin Laden. I knew they wanted their own region of Kurdistan to be a geographical territory & region on World Maps to call their own.
But I started to acquire further knowledge, through my first-hand research & correspondence with locals on the ground.
Jack & The Fight Against ISIS
And now ISIS was here. Moving their caliphate & fighters — that mind you were arriving by the hundreds every day — from east to west, taking over parts — whole towns and cities.
Indicative to the unequivocal response from the U.S. government, namely the U.S. State Department and their decree that this was not an imminent threat — and the Turkish military staying on the sidelines during a border battle. Turkish tanks are seen setting up wall formations overlooking hilltops —pot shot artillery rounds making their way across the border.
Over 350 villages are scattered around Kobani — housing a population of over 200,000 people, this is part of the region deemed Kurdistan — due to the prominent Kurdish population.
In my interview, he describes how ISIS first cut off their supply of electricity over a year-and-a-half ago and that they have been without purified running water for over a year — resorting to generators for power, and old wells for water.
Before the war, he was both a teacher and translator and owned a house with his family. He had recently started moving his family and himself back to Kobani, Syria — as ISIS was now more than 18 miles away — stretched along their fortifications, on the banks of the Euphrates river to the west — they knew it was time to start rebuilding.
Brandon Neilan: Jack, I mean the first thing I want to say is thank you for taking the time to talk with me, especially considering the time difference and the conflict over there. I'd also like to get this off my chest and ask you if you and your family are in any immediate danger? I'd also like to make this as informal as possible.
Jack Shahine: Thank you my friend. ISIS is gone for the moment and my family and I are safe. The major turning point was the constant bombardment by the coalition airstrikes. People have been coming back since the city was freed on January 26th.
Brandon: From my understanding, coalition airstrikes meaning U.S. led. Is this correct? I've also heard UAE and other mid-east countries have dropped out as early as November of last year.
Jack: That is correct. The majority of airstrikes are being conducted by the U.S. When we first started seeing these airstrikes — it was mid-October— against ISIS — we cheered for joy. We hoped that some western military power would help us on the ground too, but that did not happen.
Brandon: So, from my understanding you were a teacher and translator before the attack on Kobani by ISIS.
Jack: Yes, before ISIS attacked — I taught English and was a linguist — and I want to point out something, before all this was happening in Kobani — I rarely used this Twitter account. Ever since, though, I've been using it to post updates on what is happening over here.
Brandon: That’s great, I appreciate it, as it better lets us understand exactly what is going on there from a local point of view. I’m not sure why the mainstream media has lost sight of the battle going on over there. But I’m trying to tell the story how it is.
Brandon: The Peshmerga helped a great deal?
Jack: Yes, especially in terms of heavy weapons. They helped capture quite a few villages around Kobani after YPG/J forces pushed ISIS out of Kobani. There was about 150 of them. The shear size of the force is not what helped drive ISIS out, the fact that they had their heavy weapons, which the other Kurdish forces lacked, is what ultimately helped drive them out.
Brandon: Heavy weapons being PKM’s, RPG’s, mortars?
Jack: Yes, there were far more YPG/YPJ than Peshmerga, but our brothers from Iraq helped out quite a bit with the heavy weapons systems they were able to procure and deploy against ISIS.
Brandon: There were some initial reports that the U.S. may have had some special ops or special forces units on the ground, is this rumors, or truth?
Jack: Rumors. As of right now, there have been no U.S. ground units here. Maybe with the FSA in other areas, but not anywhere near Kobani.
Brandon: I want to bring something else up. There were rumors that a cargo drop of supplies and food meant for the Kurdish forces fell into ISIS extremist hands — is this factual information, or can I discount this as nothing more than ISIS propaganda?
Jack: Yes, it was ISIS propaganda. The leaflets of supplies that were shown through different channels were not captured by ISIS.
Brandon: Throughout this conflict there have been many acronyms thrown around. YPG, YPJ, PKK, what are the differences between the first two.
Jack: YPG units are all male, YPJ are all female.
Brandon: And as far as the latter, I’m trying to say this without being objective…they are deemed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and its allies, can you explain this?
Jack: The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and its allies, including the U.S., UK, and NATO. There has been conflict for many years between the Turkish government and the PKK. There are certain ties between the PKK and YPG forces, although YPG/J is not labeled as a terrorist group, rather a militia.
Also, you know most Kurds are Muslims. However, the Kurds do not believe in what the Islamic State is doing, whereas the majority, probably 70%-80% of the Sunni population that is not comprised of Kurds do believe in what the Islamic State is doing.
Brandon: Thanks for clarifying, I feel the media makes things a bit more complicated — that was a great explanation. Where is ISIS now?
Jack: They are about 18 miles outside of Kobani, spread out along the Euphrates river to the south west, near the city of Sarrin — just about every village in this area has been liberated.
Brandon: That’s great to hear. Honestly I wish the U.S. would do more, I’ve had quite a few friends and family members that were in both Iraq and Afghanistan and would like to go back and finish the job — the Middle East is in quite a disarray now, and this al-Baghdadi is the first real caliphate in centuries.
Jack: Yes, well thank you for that, my friend.
Brandon: So, since you're in Kobani, obviously you have internet?
Jack: Yes, we are getting internet from Turkey, and the Turkish government has started to move in with humanitarian aid and relief. We are just trying to rebuild now, as 80% of the city is no longer standing. It will take a long time to rebuild. The Turkish government has opened the main border-gate for human aids for Kobani, but not enough, city needs more than this, we need for international organizations to enter city and evaluate the destruction and to start the rebuilding process immediately.
We also need engineering teams to come in and rid the towns and cities of IED and explosives left by ISIS. 40 civilians have been martyred by these hidden explosives since the liberation.
Brandon: Jack, thank you so much for this, your people are fighters. I do wish for you and your family’s safety and we'll talk again soon. If I have any further questions I’ll call or email.
Jack: Thank you dear friend, you as well.
The atrocities of ISIS continue. ISIS is continuously being pushed back, but is also amassing new territories in its push to more northern countries.
To contact the writer of this story, email email@example.com.
To contact Jack, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can HELP out by visiting and donating @ http://helpkobane.com.
To LEARN more about the battle against ISIS and the siege and liberation of the city of Kobani, Syria, visit https://medium.com/the-brando/the-battle-for-kobani-6b0c1427b3cf.
To SEE the photo essay, visit https://medium.com/the-brando/exclusive-photo-essay-inside-kobani-syria-78648114aa43