Aidan James: British fighter who battled Isis in Syria jailed for four years

Merseyside father sentenced for three years for drug offence and one for attending place used for terror training 

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Thursday 07 November 2019 14:27
Footage of Merseyside man Aidan James with Kurdish fighters in Syria

A man who fought against Isis in Syria has been jailed for a terror offence in a landmark court case.

Aidan James denied the charges but was convicted following a retrial.

The 28-year-old was convicted of one count of attending a place used for terrorist training in Iraq, because the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had been present.

A jury acquitted him of a second count of the same offence, over training with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in Syria.

He was jailed for 12 months for the terror offence and three years for an unrelated offence of cocaine possession with intent to supply, which could not be reported during proceedings.

James denied anything other than an “incidental association” with the PKK and said he did not fight for the banned organisation, instead joining the YPG as it was supported by the US-led coalition to push Isis out of its territorial “caliphate”.

The first jury to consider his case could not reach a verdict in April, amid questions over why James was prosecuted from other British citizens were not.

Several British people who joined the YPG have been arrested and questioned by counterterror police, with some having their passports and phones seized, but faced no further action.

Eight British volunteers with the group – seven men and one woman - were killed in action.

One volunteer, former soldier James Matthews, was also charged with “attending a place used for terrorist training” but the case was dropped before trial last year.

A third YPG volunteer, Joshua Walker, was acquitted of an unrelated terror offence after police found a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook while searching his home.

Prosecutors alleged that James “set out to advance a political and ideological cause” by joining the YPG, and initially charged him with preparing acts of terrorism.

But a judge found that he had “no case to answer” on that charge, because fighting against Isis with the YPG was not terrorism.

Sentencing James at the Old Bailey in London on Thursday, Mr Justice Edis noted that the Kurdish group was “supporting the policy of the UK and other allies by fighting Isis” and was supported by the RAF.

Funeral for British Kurdish YPG fighter killed by ISIS sees procession in liberated Syria

The judge said James was solely convicted for attending a camp where PKK fighters were training, and that fighting alongside the YPG “was not terrorism at all”.

Justice Edis said James deliberately travelled to a training camp that was “operated by the PKK for their benefit” in Makhmour, Iraq, in October 2017.

“The offence is less serious than others because of the very limited extent to which you assisted or supported the PKK,” he said, adding that it was “not an ordinary case”.

“Attendance for any purpose at a camp where weapons training for terrorist purposes is provided is an offence, and there is no defence of reasonable excuse. The policy of the law is to keep people who are subject to the criminal law of the UK away from such places altogether.”

The judge said he had been warned not to fight in Syria by police officers from the Prevent counter-extremism programme, but was in a “fragile mental state”. According to an officer's notes of a meeting in April 2017, James said he wanted to help the “PKK YPG” in their battle against Isis and they warned him that he could be investigated for criminal offences.

In a Facebook post, he announced his intention to travel to “Syria fighting side by side with brothers in arms against the sick regime and ideologies of the so-called Daesh [Isis] and other Islamic extremists”.

“I don’t care for people’s opinions, this is what I want to do and need to do,” James added.

He was arrested later that month, but his bail was later cancelled and no further action was taken.

During his police interview James claimed he was going to Syria to help with “humanitarian aid” and dismissed the suggestion he was going for terrorism as “ridiculous”.

“Nothing will stop me going, even if you take my passport off me I will still find a way to go,” he told police.

"I cannot sit at home and watch people getting f***ing butchered because it's another country."

Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria

The defendant said he was ”ripped“ from 11 years of kickboxing training, but had been turned down by the Army, RAF, Navy and Territorial Army because of his mental health.

The father-of-one put his plans on hold, but set off for Iraq in August 2017 after his bail was cancelled and passport returned.

James later underwent a month-long YPG training course in Syria before being deployed to fight against Isis in Deir ez-Zor, taking part in battles to regain occupied towns.

As he prepared to come home, James wrote in his diary of his "amazing time", adding: "Lost good friends, met great ones, fought on front line numerous times, killed Daesh soldiers, been shot at many times by Isis and our own guys.

“Drove humvys [sic], sat on roof as drove through desert, attacked by suicide vehicles many times, mortar fire, sniper RPG, drones, chilled with donkey.”

The court heard a police negotiator was in regular email contact with James, assuring him over Christmas 2017 that officers could assist his return to Liverpool and “support you through that process”.

James was arrested after returning to Liverpool John Lennon airport on 14 February last year on flights via Baghdad, Amman and Amsterdam.

He denied terror offences but pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine with intent to supply, after the class A drug was found during his April 2017 arrest.

Justice Edis said he was a “street level dealer with a significant role in a small-scale operation”, and had been offending to fund his own habit.

“A psychiatric report shows that you suffer from some psychiatric conditions related to traumatic experiences you have suffered, but also to substance abuse,” the judge added.

“I have read the letters from your mother and sister and I think you owe it to them to make the best of yourself when you are released.”

Det Supt Will Chatterton, of Counter-Terror Policing North West, said: “We recognise that this is an unusual case but I hope today’s result sends a strong message that anyone attending a training camp for terrorist purposes is committing an offence, and can expect to be thoroughly investigated and potentially prosecuted.”