A secretive unit of international veterans went on its first anti-ISIL mission last fall. Hours later, a Canadian was dead
WHEATLEY, Ont. — On a recent Saturday, Steve Krsnik made his way to the old manse where Valerie Carder lives with her dog, beside a family cemetery on Lake Erie, in a part of southwestern Ontario where farms sprout giant wind turbines.
Krsnik was slimmed down after ten months in Syria, the last four as a sniper in a secretive international fighting unit called the 223.
Commanded by a former U.S. Marine from New York known as Servan Amriki, Kurdish for “American Warrior,” the unit’s official name was the Martyr Bagok unit, in honor of Ash “Bagok” Johnston, the first Western volunteer to die in the fight against ISIL. But informally they were just the 223, after February 23, 2015 — the day the Australian was killed.
They were something new in the Syrian conflict: an anti-ISIL combat unit made up entirely of elite international volunteers, hand-picked by Servan. “All Western and very professional,” British fighter Jac Holmes said in an interview.
Krsnik and Carder’s son, John Robert Gallagher, were both in the 223. Both were also veterans of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. But only one of them made it home alive, which was why Krsnik had to visit Carder, to tell her how her son had died.
When a motorcade brought Gallagher’s body home last November, hundreds lined overpasses along Highway 401. Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory sent condolence letters. “John was a good Canadian boy,” Don Cherry wrote to Gallagher’s mother.
But the circumstances of his death remained murky. The letter his mother received from the General Command of the People’s Protection Units, under which the 223 fights, said only that “we lost our brave companion” in a “suicide attack” during “the fearless march toward the posts of the terrorist.”
Six months later, however, documents and eyewitness accounts detailing what happened that night in northeastern Syria, as well as interviews with former members of the little-known 223 unit, suggest his death was much more complicated than his family was led to believe.
“I always questioned, why was John put in that position?” A few weeks before visiting Carder, Krsnik sat in a coffee shop at a shopping mall in St. Catharines, Ont. He had grown up in the city, knowing he would one day be in the military.
At nearby Holy Cross Secondary School, Krsnik shared the hallways with Kuwaiti-Canadian brothers named Mohamed and Abdul Rahman Jabarah. In 1999, Krsnik joined the Canadian reserves and the Jabarahs joined al-Qaida.
By the time Krsnik was deployed to Kandahar in 2006, the Jabarahs had already flamed out. Mohamed is now imprisoned for life in Colorado for plotting to bomb Western embassies in Singapore under the direction of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Abdul Rahman was killed by Saudi security forces after staging terrorist attacks in the country.
Krsnik returned to Afghanistan in 2009 for another nine months, then surprised everyone by leaving the military for a woman he had fallen for. He worked construction in Alberta and returned to Ontario to apprentice as an electrician.
But adjusting to non-military life was a struggle. Adrenaline sports like skydiving and motorcycles couldn’t replace the thrill of Afghanistan. “You miss it,” he said. “You miss it so much.” The October 2014 attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa upset him deeply. Terrorists had killed two unarmed soldiers on Canadian soil.
At the same time, he had been reading about Syria and was troubled by the West’s lack of military assistance. A PPCLI veteran who had fought with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, helped Krsnik get in touch with a recruiter, and he told his family he was leaving.
“He kind of left out exactly what he was going to be doing,” his sister Anita said. But she had read about the Western veterans flocking to Syria and she suspected he would be joining them. Anita called him selfish for upsetting their mother. He replied that it was what he was trained to do. “Who else is going to do this?”
Last May, he flew to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and crossed into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled region, called Rojava. After two weeks at the YPG training academy, he got his hands on a sniper rifle and was sent to the frontline at Sarrin.
“He has a great reputation as a sniper,” said British fighter Steve Kerr, who entered Syria with Krsnik and trained with him. “I have the greatest respect for him because of that.” Kerr said he heard that Krsnik had 39 confirmed kills. Krsnik’s own count is 37.
Six months into his tour, Krsnik was on the frontline when he was told someone wanted to see him. He pulled back to a safe area and waited with a dozen other Westerners. Servan Amriki eventually arrived, looking clean cut with short hair, a moustache and a YPG uniform.
Servan said he was a former U.S. Marine, and he was recruiting for an all-Western fighting unit. Previously, Western volunteers had been embedded with Kurdish YPG units, which had proven frustrating because of language, cultural and tactical differences.
The American had written a report on how to make better use of the Westerners who were arriving in Syria to help defeat ISIL. The report had made its way to the YPG command, which Krsnik said had asked Servan to form an all-Western “tabor,” Kurdish for group.
“He gave us the low down on what he was doing and how things were going to be better,” said Krsnik, who liked what he heard.
“I had hope in his promises,” Ksrnik said. “We all wanted to be in this group because of the sales pitch. He made it sound perfect — tons of weapons, ammo and training as well as range time and vehicles.”
Over coffee, they talked out the details and Servan told Krsnik he wanted him on his team. Those that made the cut were told they would be moved to a new location, where they would undergo a “physical selection program and training,” Krsnik said. “He was back in 10 days and told us to pack our things if we are still interested.”
Through an intermediary, Servan declined to answer questions. But in a BBC News video he said he had come to Syria in late 2014 after seeing photos of ISIL atrocities, in particular a 9-year-old boy nailed to a cross. “I need to fight ISIS,” he said. “If it takes someone’s life, even if it takes my life, so be it. This is a worthy cause.”
Around the third week of October, Krsnik arrived at the 223 base. He would not disclose its exact location for security reasons but said it was central, so the unit would be close to the YPG command and could quickly deploy to wherever it was needed.
As soon as he got there, Krsnik thought he heard another Canadian voice. He approached Gallagher, who said he was from Windsor, and they shook hands. “He was a nice guy,” Krsnik said. “My first impression of him was he was a hippie liberal that supports the military in general but believes that world peace is possible. He had very strong will and he loved to debate everything.”
Gallagher had obtained a master’s degree in political science at York University after leaving the military in 2005. Feeling restless, he had arrived in Iraq in April 2015. In an essay he posted on his Facebook page, he argued that theocratic tyrannies like the one ISIL was trying to impose had to be crushed so that jihadists would “join the modern world.”
“John was an idealist and believed in the cause of fighting ISIL,” said Tony Giddings, a British fire team leader who served with Gallagher in the 223 and has since returned home to the United Kingdom. “I liked him as he was keen to fight.”
The 223 followed a strict code of conduct: everyone was required to shave daily, cut their hair short, follow orders and not mention the unit publicly, said Krsnik, who recalled that a fighter had been kicked out for posting a photo of the 223 online. They had to agree to a contract that committed them to at least four months with the team.
“I’m now with a new unit of international volunteers,” Gallagher wrote to his mother in an Oct. 23 Facebook message. The squad was made up of veterans of ten armies, he said. “Only a couple Americans so the craziness is under wraps,” he added. “This has the chance to be a big improvement.”
A series of videos recorded around that time show Gallagher and the 223 outside a walled town, speaking English with a mix of accents as they test fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. They cheer when it hits the target. “Perfect shot, man,” one of them says.
The camaraderie of the unit is evident in the video. They were all there for the same reason and they were eager to fight. There were personality clashes “but they got ironed out,” Krsnik said. “We all felt like we belonged,” he said, describing the 223 as “the best collection of soldiers in Rojava, hands down.”
For their inaugural team photo, the 223 lined up in two rows in front of a mud-caked building, displaying their impressive arsenal of military assault rifles and heavy machine guns. Wearing sunglasses, Servan kneeled in front with a smile on his face and an M-16 in his gloved hands.
“The unit is a good one,” Gallagher told his mother on Oct. 30. “Right now we’re not worried about the regime, we’ve all sort of teamed up for a little while (to) wipe out ISIS once and for all. Should be fun. My team is really on the ball,” he wrote.
“I’m not worried.”
The 223 got its first assignment four days later. A Kurdish commander named Herval Farhat needed help clearing ISIL fighters from a cluster of houses southeast of Al Hasakah. Servan assembled a six-man team consisting of himself, a U.S. machine-gunner, an Israeli RPG gunner, a Croatian team leader and a Kurd named Sipan who was embedded with the unit. Gallagher was the point man.
Krsnik went ahead with his sniper rifle to provide cover for the advancing group. When he saw two ISIL fighters planting explosives near the main house where the extremists were sheltered, he relayed the information to Servan by radio, he said.
Giddings stayed at the rear waiting to be called forward. He later said he thought it was a mistake to divide the unit up like that. “We should have all gone together,” he said in an interview. But only a few fighters were needed for the operation and Servan was eager for the 223 to prove itself.
The half-dozen 223 fighters set out on foot after dark.
“These were mostly clusters of mud huts, essentially moderately-sized villages,” said the machine gunner, who went by Tex because he was from Texas. “We were slipping constantly because of the mud,” he said in interviews. “I remember John slipped and fell so hard his feet went in the air and we all laughed so hard.”
The 223 team reached a farmhouse and watched an American C-130 gunship pound ISIL for 30 minutes. They began to move again shortly before midnight, pushing along the left side of the village while Farhat’s team of four Kurdish fighters took the right flank.
They stopped behind a building and Tex heard a noise between the trees and the house where Krsnik had seen the ISIL fighters. He informed Servan and fired off two bursts from his PKM machine gun. “I told John to throw a grenade into the shadow. I covered him as he prepped and threw the grenade,” the machine gunner said. “It was a good throw.” But the RG34 grenade lets off a pop like a firecracker when it is engaged so it gave away Gallagher’s position. The ISIL fighters would know exactly where he was.
Tex and his PKM were positioned to the right of the team. The Kurd, Sipan, had the left side covered and Gallagher was lying at the corner of the building, about five metres to Tex’s left. To Gallagher’s left, there were “a few small corridors and avenues of approach with a lot of cover.”
Three or four minutes went by in silence and then Tex saw something odd. Gallagher was on his feet. He was shouldering his rifle and seemed to be talking to someone. “In my mind,” the machine gunner said, “I’m asking myself, ‘What the hell is he doing?’”
Servan saw it too. Gallagher was talking to an ISIL fighter wearing a suicide vest. He gave the order to shoot and the gunfire began. Gallagher spun back, hit by a bullet fired by the ISIL fighter. “As this was happening John screamed something that I will never forget and still can’t understand,” Tex said in an interview. “He yelled, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Servan rushed to Gallagher. The ISIL fighter had been shot and lay a metre away but he was still alive. Apparently so he would not be captured or identified, the extremist held a grenade to his own head and blew it off. Although he was wearing a suicide vest packed with hundreds of ball bearings, it was never detonated. “John saved our lives that day,” said Tex, “because if he wasn’t there that guy would have blown us all up.”
The shrapnel from the ISIL grenade hit Servan but he was still able to drag Gallagher back about 30 metres. “I could hear John gasping for air,” Tex said. “I could see they were trying to find his wounds. I let off a couple of rounds at some movement and asked the commander to get on my machine gun so I could go and treat John.
“I got the commander’s M-16 and went over to John and began trying to work on him. I could see a single gunshot wound to the hip. He wasn’t even bleeding anymore by this time. I checked his pulse. It was weak but it was still there.”
Tex stuffed gauze into the wound and wrapped it tight. Twenty minutes later a Humvee belonging to another unit arrived and they loaded Gallagher inside. “He was not moving or making any sound and did not appear to me to be conscious,” Jim Matthews, the gunner in the Humvee said.
They drove across the fields to a Red Cross ambulance. Tirej, the RPG gunner, rode in the back with Gallagher. It took about 20 minutes to reach the ambulance but the Canadian was already gone. All the medics could do was cover him with a thin yellow sheet.
From his position, Krsnik could tell someone had been hit. He heard the gunfire and the code word for a casualty. But he didn’t know until he left his position in the morning that it was Gallagher. Krsnik had the same question as everyone else: Why did Gallagher stand instead of shooting?
“I’m unable to speculate as to why that was,” Matthews wrote in a recent email to Gallagher’s mother. “But perhaps it does him credit, if he was reluctant to open fire in the absence of certainty. Too many people shoot first and ask questions later. And while that approach may have saved his life it appears that John was not of that nature.”
An autopsy performed on Nov. 8 at the hospital in Al-Malikiyah found that Gallagher had a 9mm bullet entrance wound in his lower right abdomen. The bullet had passed through him but struck an artery and he died of blood loss, it said.
“I cannot blame anything or any one person,” said Tex, who has since left Syria and returned to the U.S. In combat, the unexpected can always happen. “We go in knowing very well that it could cost us our lives.”
Following Gallagher’s death, Krsnik said he began to question the 223 unit’s leadership. He also started looking into the commander. His research revealed that Servan was a 42-year-old New York orthodontist named Dr. Peter Theodorou.
According to New York corporate and court records, Theodorou launched a series of orthodontics clinics between 2003 and 2007. He was also once involved in a garage called Dr. Steven’s Auto Repair & Clinic, court documents show.
Theodorou was “Manhattan’s leading orthodontist and former Marine,” according to a philanthropic magazine called Black Tie. That article featured him at a fundraiser he and his brother hosted for their non-profit group Marine Assist, which provides dental work and plastic surgery to wounded veterans. In 2006 The New York Post listed Theodorou as one of the “25 sexiest New Yorkers.”
Two people close to him during those years confirmed his identity after viewing a video of Servan. Neither was surprised to learn he had joined the fight in Syria. Theodorou had enlisted in the Marines not long after leaving dental school, they said. He had served in Kosovo and Iraq.
Fighters in Syria said the 223 remains active. The father of a Briton killed in the fighting posted a Facebook message from Servan in February, publicly announcing that he had named the group after Johnston. “I am commanding that unit and we have done well in the past two operations.”
Speaking in fluent Kurdish, Servan said in a video recorded last year that he was from New York City and that the American people “love freedom a lot.” Switching to English, he praised the YPG as a small but fierce and effective fighting force.
“This is my new family,” he said.
After a falling out with Servan, Krsnik arrived back in Toronto in early March. RCMP officers spent more than two hours interviewing him at Pearson airport, he said. A Canadian Security Intelligence Service officer later contacted him and they met at a Tim Hortons.
He said he was open about what he had done and he had no regrets. Like the Jabarah brothers, the ISIL fighters he saw through the scope of his sniper rifle were on the wrong side. “Those people chose their path and I chose mine,” he said. “I have a pretty clear conscience about it.” His sister Anita said the family was proud. “Do I think he did the right thing? Absolutely,” she said.
Reflecting on the 223’s disastrous first operation, Krsnik didn’t blame Gallagher, but said he had been out of the military for a decade and had never taken part in a gun battle. “I don’t think he was ready to be put into that situation, to be thrown right into the firefight.”
Giddings also took issue with the way the operation was conducted. He said taking only half the unit to clear the village went against a commitment they had made to always fight as a group. Asked what went wrong, he responded: “Basically, I would say eagerness to fight. Working with a tabor of Kurds who we never worked alongside, lack of language skills. Leadership was poor.”
He agreed that Gallagher should have shot the suicide bomber who approached him instead of trying to speak to him. “I think John shouldn’t have gone that evening, personally, but that is retrospective,” he said. “John was a good soldier but his command of basic Kurdish was poor and he found it hard distinguishing between Kurdish and Arabic. I believe he shouldn’t have been at that firefight.”
In Carder’s living room, the cards that school children sent her on Remembrance Day were bundled in a box on the floor beside the piano, with the condolence letters from politicians and strangers. Out the window the lake glimmered under the bright spring sun.
The parents of other volunteer fighters killed in the conflict have written to her, she said, as well as those who served with her son. She said had a long visit with Krsnik and that others from the 223 wanted to come see her. “I find it really touching that they want to pay their respects to their fallen comrade’s mother,” she said. “It seems like part of an old fashioned code of honor.”
Sitting at her computer, she called up the Facebook messages her son sent from Syria, updating her on what he was doing, telling her not to worry, that no news was good news and if anything happened, she would hear from someone.
“Well guess what,” she said, “we did.”