How an Anarchist Bitcoin Coder Found Himself Fighting ISIS in Syria
On a desert-cold, moonlit night just over two years ago, Amir Taaki stepped off the Iraqi sand into a rubber dinghy floating in the Tigris River. The boat was just wide enough to fit his compact body next to the much larger American ex-Army machine gunner sitting beside him. Taaki and the dozens of soldiers waiting on the shore were part of a motley crew of Kurds and foreigners from as far away as Britain, Portugal, Canada and the US, and they’d spent the last two weeks waiting anxiously in a mountain camp of Kurdish guerrillas. As one of the Kurds silently rowed the boat away from the looming snow-covered peaks behind them and toward the high reeds on the Syrian side of the river, Taaki was headed into one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. And he was elated.
“Something was finally happening,” he remembers thinking. “I was going to find Rojava.”
Taaki was already a notorious figure in the world of politically-loaded cryptography software and bitcoin. But that night, virtually no one in that world knew where he was. After years of preaching a crypto-anarchist revolution on the internet, Taaki had set out in secret to fight for a very real revolution—in Syria. The Iranian-British coder was headed to a state near the country’s northern border with Turkey: Rojava, where an unlikely anarchist movement was fighting for its life against the Islamic State. And so a subversive idealist who’d until then confined his radicalism to building cryptography software and bitcoin tools would end up firing an AK-47 at jihadis.
“This felt like something I was dragged into,” Taaki told WIRED shortly after returning to England last spring, after 15 months in the Middle East. “When I found out there was an actual anarchist revolution happening in Syria, I felt, ‘I have to do that.’ I was compelled to go help them.”
No sooner had Taaki safely made it out of Syria, however, then he landed in a different sort of jeopardy. For the last year, the 29-year-old has been under investigation by British police. Now that he’s back home, Taaki has found that his own government still isn’t sure if he’s a programmer, a revolutionary, or a terrorist.
From Bitcoin to Bullets
A self-taught software engineer, Taaki has long been a prominent and controversial figure in the bitcoin community, one who dreamed of using the cryptocurrency to flout government control, break economic embargoes, and supercharge black markets worldwide. In 2011 he developed his own complete rewrite of bitcoin’s core code called Libbitcoin and built a prototype for a decentralized Silk Road–style darknet market designed to be impervious to law enforcement. When WIRED profiled Taaki in 2014, he was a wandering activist, squatting in abandoned buildings in Barcelona, London, and Milan and leading the development of a widely anticipated piece of software called Dark Wallet, designed to allow untraceable bitcoin transactions.
Taaki wearing his YPG uniform in northern Syria in 2015.
Then, less than a year after the launch of its beta version, Dark Wallet development halted without explanation. “Is Amir Taaki still alive?” asked a thread on Reddit’s bitcoin forum a year ago.
By that time, Taaki was in Syria. In late 2014 he’d read about the YPG, a group affiliated with the leftwing Kurdish militant group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. On a Massachusetts-sized slice of land on Turkey’s southern border, the Rojavan Kurds were writing one of the few stories of hope in Syria’s horrific civil war: Taaki read about how they’d created a functioning, progressive society of more than 4 million people, based on principles of local direct democracy, collectivist anarchy, and equality for women.
“There hasn’t been a revolution like the one in Rojava since the 1930s,” Taaki says, comparing it to Catalonia and the Spanish Civil War. “It’s one of the biggest things to happen in anarchist history.”
The people in Rojava were putting into practice the anarchist ideals that Taaki hoped the internet and bitcoin might someday make possible. So when ISIS invaded the central region of Rojava’s territory known as Kobanî and massacred more than a hundred civilians, including women and children, Taaki decided to go there, hoping to lend his technical expertise to the budding revolution. “My fellow anarchists were fighting the most disgusting type of Islamic fascism, and it was my duty to help them,” he says.
But as with so many young Westerners drawn to fight on either side of the war with ISIS, Taaki’s life in Syria would turn out differently from what he’d imagined. In February 2015, he flew from Madrid to the city of Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, where Kurdish Iraqi police detained him for a day and searched his few belongings. When they determined that he wasn’t a member of ISIS and was instead seeking to join the Rojava movement, they put him in a cab to a nearby safe house to meet a YPG recruiter. That recruiter took him to a YPG camp in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistani, where he waited with a group of other foreigners who’d come to the Middle East from around the world, many with only a blind desire to kill members of ISIS. YPG operatives then smuggled the group to Syria in a full-moon trek down from the mountains, across the Tigris and into trucks that took them to a training camp of Kurdish soldiers.
When Taaki reached the camp on the Syrian side of the border, he says, he tried to explain to the elderly officer in charge that he’d come to Rojava to offer his tech skills in one of Rojava’s cities, not to fight. But as Taaki tells it, the man waved away his protests and conscripted him into a unit with the other foreigners. The YPG issued the short, slight programmer a Kalashnikov and a uniform and, without even a day of training, sent him to war.
“That’s how I ended up at the front,” says Taaki, whose only education in military basics came from his fellow soldiers during brief breaks as the convoy of trucks drove south. “If you’re called on to fight, you have to fight.”
Watch the clip above from the upcoming documentary the New Radical, which includes interviews with Taaki before and after his trip to Syria.
A Coder, Not a Fighter
As Taaki tells it, he would spend three and a half months in the YPG’s military forces. WIRED can’t independently confirm much of Taaki’s account of that early period in Iraq and Syria. But his story is short on self-aggrandizing detail; it is one of boredom punctuated by violent tragedy. He describes the daily pattern of his life: US air forces would drop ground-shaking artillery on ISIS positions, the jihadis would retreat, and his unit would load up into Toyota Hilux pickup trucks to advance forward and hold the new territory. His view of ISIS was usually as menacing black dots on distant hills.
Taaki says he was deeply impressed with the political education of the Kurdish rebels he met, who casually cited writers like Proudhon, Bakunin, and Rojava’s favorite American philosopher, Murray Bookchin. But the fighting itself was less inspiring: His first battle began when he was taken by surprise while outside his base testfiring a rifle to calibrate it; At the moment ISIS opened fire, he’d only returned behind the base’s walls because his friend had forgotten his jacket. One soldier in his unit died in a similar ISIS machine-gun ambush, his torso perforated with bullet wounds. Another committed suicide, inexplicably hanging himself in the kitchen of a base where they were sleeping. Taaki says he befriended one young Iranian recruit who later scrambled the wrong direction during a skirmish, was shot, and slowly bled to death while his unit helplessly watched.
At one point, a capable young Turkish Italian woman named Seran Altunkiliç, who commanded Taaki’s unit—most women in Rojava serve in its military alongside the men—learned of Taaki’s technical skills. She promised to get him discharged to serve a more useful role as a civilian. But before she could help him, he was instead transferred to a different group of soldiers. Later he learned that nearly a third of the 30-person group he’d been with earlier had been killed in an ISIS assault—Altunkiliç among them.
In those months at the front, Taaki says, he took part in only three actual firefights and never got closer than about a thousand feet from ISIS fighters. But seeing so many friends die—dozens in total, he says—took a psychological toll. He remembers waking up one night after a shell exploded next to the building he was sleeping in, close enough to shatter its windows. He bolted upright in his bed, hallucinating in that first moment that the room was full of bloody corpses and dismembered limbs.
Life in Rojava
Finally, one day that spring, an officer who’d earlier been responsible for managing foreign recruits spotted Taaki and recalled his technology background. “What are you doing here?” the man asked. “What am I doing here?” Taaki remembers responding. Taaki was discharged from his unit and, after days more of waiting, driven away from the front.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for WIRED
Taaki settled into Rojavan life in the northeastern city of Al-Malikiyah, and then in Qamishli, the capital. He joined the region’s Economics Committee and enrolled in Rojava’s language academy to learn Kurdish. And he began frenetically working to make himself useful in a society rebuilding itself in the Syrian war’s power vacuum. He trained local people on how to use open source software and the internet, created an ideological curriculum for all the foreigners who came to Rojava, helped build a fertilizer production factory, worked on a solar-panel research project, wrote a guide for foreigners trying to learn Kurdish, and helped start a young women’s revolutionary magazine.
“His work was difficult, because here very few people understand the importance of the internet, and of course nobody had heard about bitcoin or free software or anything like that,” says Pablo Prieto, a Spanish biologist based in Rojava who worked with Taaki on the fertilizer production facility. He also says the Rojavan community came to see Taaki as an important member. “He was very valued here … He left a deep footprint.”
Ultimately, Rojava’s leaders gave Taaki the task of helping to design the technology curriculum for the nascent education system. He later became the only foreigner invited to attend the meeting of the country’s economics conference, where the local government made the key decision to turn the land left behind by refugees into cooperative farms. “Being in that atmosphere, where all around you there are people working on building a new society—it’s indescribable,” Taaki says.
But just as he settled into life in Rojava, Taaki felt the West start to pull at him again. He began to fixate on the latest internecine conflicts of the bitcoin community. Taaki was particularly annoyed when, in May of last year, Australian programmer Craig Wright publicly claimed to be bitcoin’s creator, a claim Taaki believes to be fraudulent. And Taaki began to believe that returning to the UK and completing Dark Wallet’s development would allow him to help Rojava better use bitcoin as a fundraising tool, one that would circumvent the US and EU sanctions that prevent any funds from being transferred into Syria.
No Hero’s Welcome
So in May of 2016, Taaki made the long journey back to London, telling himself the trip was only temporary and that he’d return to Rojava soon.
Instead, British police boarded his plane within minutes of its landing at Heathrow. They took him to an airport detention facility. After a few hours there, he was arrested, his three phones and laptop seized. The authorities handcuffed Taaki and took him to a special terrorism investigation center where, he says, officials interrogated him about not just ISIS and the PKK but also about bitcoin and his close association with Cody Wilson, the libertarian creator of the first 3-D-printed gun. Taaki says he answered the questions and told the full story of his time in Rojava.
A day later, Taaki found himself under house arrest at his mother’s home in Broadstairs, required to check in with local police three times a week. For 10 months he remained in legal limbo as British investigators repeatedly extended their investigation. Even today, he hasn’t got his passport back. And Taaki says he’s been hesitant to organize new work on Dark Wallet or any other software project for fear that he might soon be in prison.
In a statement to WIRED, the UK’s South East Regional Counter Terrorism Unit declined to comment on any ongoing investigation. But spokesperson Parmvir Singh noted that “supporting, joining, or being a member of any proscribed terrorist organization is an offense under the Terrorism Act 2000, and the police will investigate allegations relating to any person suspected of committing such offenses.”
Taaki’s lawyer, Tayab Ali, says Taaki will fight any charges that may be brought against him. “Amir’s position is that any action he took while abroad was done to defend and protect civilians and was completely lawful in the context of domestic and international law,” says Ali, a human rights attorney who specializes in British terrorism cases. “If Amir is prosecuted, he would welcome a trial to both clear his name and to show that the actions of people in his position should not be the subject of criminal prosecution.”
One complication in Taaki’s case? The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, accused of decades of violent actions in that country. But Ali points to several other Britons who have fought for the PKK-linked YPG without being charged. He argues that Taaki has been unfairly singled out for a drawn-out investigation, though Ali says he has no sense of the reasons for that targeting. Taaki’s defenders at the legal advocacy group the Courage Foundation speculate that it may be related to Taaki’s subversive software projects or his Iranian heritage. “Amir’s treatment has been alarming,” says Naomi Colvin, Taaki’s case director at the foundation. “And it appears to be discriminatory.”
Speaking before his charges were filed, Taaki said that regardless of his legal fate, he doesn’t regret his trip to Rojava. At times, he says, he’s still surprised that he survived it. “I was certain I was going to die,” Taaki remembers. “But it would have been worse to continue living as a hypocrite—to call myself an anarchist revolutionary and then not to take part in a real revolution.”
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