an interview with Michael Enright
The Hollywood actor who fought ISIS is finally going home
A British actor left Hollywood to fight ISIS. Now he’s marooned in Mexico. In an exclusive interview from exile in Cancún, the Syria war veteran discusses how his unbelievable real-life script played out – and how he’s going home
This story was not inspired by true events. It IS true events.
Michael Enright was the personification of the American Dream: he left England to reinvent himself in Hollywood. He became a successful actor, a regular guest on top shows like CSI and Law & Order but felt unable to express his gratitude to the country that had made his new life possible. His desire to pay back this debt to America led him to a total career change – and to join the ragged forces fighting ISIS in Syria in March 2015.
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is one of the most complicated international crises of recent memory. Scroll to the end of this interview for a breakdown – then come back up.
Against all odds, and with zero training, he survived. However, when he decided to return to Los Angeles, a new problem surfaced; he wasn’t permitted back to his adopted home. He struck a deal with Homeland Security to be granted entry in exchange for going back to Syria and providing intelligence on ISIS. After apparently completing his assignment, here he became the apparent victim of wider geopolitics – while the US does not consider the Kurdish forces he joined to be terrorists, fellow NATO member and military ally Turkey does. Michael had no way of knowing this, of course. His re-entry to the US was denied.
In exile in Mexico, I met him at a TGI Friday in Cancún, the closest thing we could find to America.
Chapter One: Your friends called for you
Matt Graham: The documentary Heval explores your fascinating real-life story. Start at the beginning for us. Why did you go to Hollywood?
Michael Enright: I fell in love with America before I even arrived. I am from Moss Side, which is considered the rough side of Manchester, England, but left as a teenager to go and live in London. I remember watching American television and thinking it was just different to British TV, so energetic, crazy and optimistic and just – fun. When I eventually got to LA in 1983, I found the people as welcoming as they are on the screen. There were other advantages: my Northern working class accent didn’t open doors in England, in America it did. Something I had no control of was helping me.
In Los Angeles, I graduated from a co-star on smaller shows to guest starring on big hit TV shows like Alias, Castle, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Law & Order and CSI, and then was in various films opposite actors like Tom Cruise and Bradley Cooper.
Tell us about your life in your new home of Los Angeles.
When I first got over there, I opened a youth hostel in LA, and then one in Hawaii. I’ve always lived in poorer neighbourhoods. In Manchester, back in England, it was Moss Side, and in LA I lived in both Shoreline and Playboy Crip areas. (I once saved a gang member from dying of a bullet wound, but that’s another story.) I was also a boxer in South Central in Watts. Compared to where I was from, this was beautiful. It had these big, grand homes and gardens, and I thought: you don’t get these in Moss Side.
What led you to the decision to go and fight against ISIS in 2014?
It all started in a meeting I had with a Hamas soldier or terrorist (you choose your word). I was dating an Israeli girl and I wanted to hear the Palestinian side, so I went to Gaza on a fact-finding mission. When he went into the details of his life and his torture, it was evident that this man was ready to give his life up instantaneously. That had a remarkable effect on me, because I knew he was the most dangerous man I’d ever met – simply because of that mentality.
Then 911 happened. I can’t express how that affected me. I cried for six months solid. Then my emotions changed from tears to anger, and I decided to fight. I called the American military, and I got an answering machine, so I left a message. I called again and left a message with an American accent. They still didn’t call me back.
I was living at the time with an American actor called Casper Van Dien who dissuaded me from taking it any further. He said, “you’re an actor, you can have an effect in a different way”. It turned out to be the biggest regret in my life because I never paid my debt to America back.
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In 2014, ISIS appeared. In the or Shingal Mountains (Sinjar) they killed every male over 12 years old and turned their freshly made widows and fatherless daughters into sex slaves. We would see pictures of women chained up and men discussing buying them. Little girls were being raped. That felt mediaeval, even Biblical, in terms of the barbarism of it. There was an English man who started cutting off the heads of American citizens. They called him ‘Jihadi John’. It was the antithesis of how I felt about America.
There was an English man who started cutting off the heads of American citizens. They called him ‘Jihadi John’.
ISIS were fighting for something more than money and that was why they were winning. In Mosul, the Iraqi soldiers had more weapons, mostly given to them by America, and there were so many more of them, but they were terrified of ISIS who wouldn’t take any prisoners. They left the weapons to ISIS, who ended up driving across the desert in these brand new M1 Abrams tanks the Americans had given the Iraqi Army. The Kurds were the only ones who seemed to be putting up a fight, so I made the decision to join them.
I decided to sell my stuff and go to Syria. I sold my Porsche, my TV and a few odds and ends to fund the trip. I thought: I’m fifty, I won’t be coming back, it’s a one-way ticket. I expected to go to Syria to suffer and to die.
How did you end up joining the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which consists of local communities who are mostly Kurdish?
I found a group online called the ‘Lions of Rojava’. Getting over there was arduous and scary because I’d only ever dealt with these people online and nobody I knew had ever spoken to them. It was just me talking to an anonymous person, saying that they were the Kurds and gave me instructions to buy a one-way ticket, in Europe or the Middle East, but not to fly directly from America. They said “don’t contact us again until you’ve bought your ticket” – which I found a bit disconcerting. I flew to England and then contacted them. I was to leave on Sunday at 11 o’clock English time, changing in Turkey, and then arriving in Suli Maniya, Iraq, at three o’clock in the morning.
I wrote back, “Hi, you said to contact me. I’m leaving on Sunday.” I didn’t hear anything, so I was a little concerned. I contacted them again. Now I’m beginning to get panicky because it’s Thursday. I called the friend in the British Special Forces who had originally helped me get in touch with them and he advised me not to go. I messaged back, “Contact person! Contact person! Contact person! Man to man, tell me if I shouldn’t come because I am prepared to fight for you and die.”
They wrote back: “WE ARE NOT MEN. WE ARE WOMEN.”
I got in touch with their contact on Friday with my flight details, expecting to hear from them on Saturday – but nothing. Sunday came, and I contacted them again. In my mind, I was starting to think that this could be a fishing scam by ISIS to get a dumb Westerner to be the star of their next video. The other side was, I’ve sold everything in America on a one-way trip. I decided to throw the dice. I was just hoping for the contact person to be there to meet me. Part of me was scared because I couldn’t even tell the difference between Kurds and Arabs.
We are not men, we are women.
When I arrived, there was no one there. I thought: I’m in the Middle East, in Iraq for the first time at 3 in the morning and I don’t know anybody. I got myself a hotel and the next morning I went to an internet cafe.
Now, I’m really angry. I contact them again. “What happened to you? I gave you my details, there was nobody there.” I thought: I’m going to blow the whole thing by getting angry. They replied, “OK PLEASE GIVE US YOUR FLIGHT DETAILS?” I wrote back: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? I’M HERE. YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO MEET ME AT THE AIRPORT.” I gave them the hotel number and I decided to go there and chill. Five minutes after getting there in a taxi, the receptionist told me, “Your friends called for you”. I called them back and I got a voice on the other end. He said his name was Hozan. I said, “This is Michael Enright.” He asked if I wanted to join the YPG, “Are you willing to fight and to die?”.
I answered: “Yes”.
He said: “We’re coming to your hotel at noon tomorrow.”
I was starting to think that this could be a fishing scam by ISIS to get a dumb Westerner to be the star of their next video.
The hotel reception guy asked me what I was doing in Iraq. I said I was going to fight ISIS with the Kurds. His eyes went like saucers when I mentioned the YPG. I told them that it was them on the phone. He repeated what I’d said, “YPG is coming to this hotel tomorrow to pick you up? This is very dangerous. My friend,” he said, “do you know them?” I had to admit that I did not.
“You’re a nice man, you cannot go with them. It could be ISIS.” The truth was, I couldn’t tell the difference between a Kurd, which the YPG would be, and an Arab, which ISIS would be. I asked him if he could.
“He said yes.”
When they came the next day, he told me to stay in my room. My life depended on him making the right choice. I didn’t know if I was going to shake hands with ISIS or the YPG. I went down and there were two black haired, brown eyed men. “Hi Michael,” they said, and we shook hands. I turned to the receptionist with my back to them, and he gave me a look and whispered, “It’s ok.” I kissed him on both cheeks and got in the car with them.
We drove from safe house to safe house as we got closer to the Syrian border. We crossed illegally in a rubber dinghy over the Tigris river, and smuggled ourselves into Syria, followed by a 20-kilometre walk. Eventually, we were picked up by a truck and taken to the YPG base camp.
Chapter Two: Fight or flight?
Although it must be a very difficult subject for you, can you tell us about some of your memories of fighting with the YPG against ISIS?
During my YPG time, I nearly died over and over and over again. When you’re on a lot of operations, the risk of you getting hurt or killed is high. I went on a huge amount, sometimes twice in one day, as I believed I was going to die there anyway. One time I was in a firefight, and an ISIS sniper’s bullet hit the rock right next to my head. It splintered into my face. In the film, Heval, you can see my reaction from the head-cam from the pain as the rock hit my face.
Another time, I was in a mortar pit. Some YPG female soldiers went past. One waved at me. An ISIS mortar shell aimed for my position. It missed, but badly injured her and killed one of our soldiers.
Is there a moment that most captures that conflict?
Another time, we arrived at a settlement. Some of my unit put their guns down and asked for water. A little boy was crying, so I did a magic trick for him. He was looking scared at my gun, so I put it down. I had brought some tricks to make the kids and babies smile to see that there were honourable people who care for others.
But It was an ambush. ISIS opened up with machine gun fire and started shouting, “Allah Akbar.” I couldn’t get to my gun because the bullets were hitting where it was. I ran into the nearest house for cover.
I was trapped inside a two-room house. My entire unit had run off and I was the only one left. I saw two ISIS outside the window. Just as I realised I didn’t have any weapons, two more ISIS went up onto the roof. Now there’s two outside the window and two outside the door and two on the roof and there’s an Arab man in the corner with me. I saw a very old, dull knife and grabbed it. I crouched down by the door because the first one who came in was getting that in full force in his jugular vein. The Arab man started praying. I looked at him and back at the door. You’re either in fight or flight mode. We were both paralysed with fear, but we were both in two different places. He was a civilian, and I was a soldier.
I waited for 20 minutes with this knife while the firefight was taking place outside, and my soldiers retreated. I told the man that he should go, and he thanked me. He could easily have turned me in. ISIS would have killed him if they found out he didn’t.
It was just a few minutes before the ambush that I had been playing magic tricks with his five-year-old son, and met his wife. I thought: if he dies, she’s going to be a widow and raise a fatherless child in poverty, pain and hardship. I told him to go and laid down by a wall underneath a mattress, so I could see if the door was opened.
I was absolutely petrified, not about dying, I was resigned to that, but about being tortured. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It would be a long and painful death, and I was thinking of the ways they might do it. Sometimes they would pour gasoline on us and set us on fire. Or would they strip me naked, put a rope around my neck and drag me behind a car, with them beating me all the way? Or maybe it would just be the ISIS Classic: orange jumpsuit and cut my head off on camera.
The YPG were incredibly ill equipped. We had no helmets or body armour. No grenades. But then I remembered, and this was my salvation…I realised I’d taken a grenade from an ISIS prisoner two days before. For atheist and agnostic readers, please forgive me, but I just felt the grace of God whoosh over me like a wind. I knew I was going to be OK. I wasn’t scared anymore because I now knew that I wasn’t going to be tortured. I thought about Heaven and Jesus, and I thought: let’s go. I held the grenade under my chin the pin in my other hand, and I waited all day for them to enter.
That’s when I remembered that this was the inauguration day of Donald Trump. When I first arrived, America was the only force that was actually helping the Syrian Kurds. I looked at Barack Obama as my Commander in Chief. He said he’d arm them, which he actually did. I had one hand on the grenade with one finger in its pin and one hand pointing to heaven at the same time as Trump had one hand on the Bible. We were on the same team but having a very different day.
I had one hand on the grenade with one finger in its pin and one hand pointing to heaven at the same time as Trump had one hand on the Bible.
When the bombs come, they make a distinctive sound. I waited flat on the stone floor freezing listening for airstrikes. By this point, the British had joined the war along with the French. Normally I loved to hear the airstrikes because they were only ever on ISIS positions; I went to sleep on the rooftops listening to them at night. But not by now. I’m open to those same strikes in an ISIS location.
It was silent. I could hear ISIS talking on the roof. They were able to hear ANY sound I could make. After four hours, I needed the bathroom, but I knew they’d hear me. My mind was racing, and I started thinking crazy thoughts. I thought if they did catch me and put the orange suit on me and put me in a video, someone would say: “He was one of the most underestimated actors in the world. Did you see his performance in his death video?”
Then I needed to cough.
Try something: next time you clear your throat, don’t allow yourself to cough for just five minutes and see how hard that is. I couldn’t take that chance. But finally, I heard the wailing sound of airstrikes. As soon as I heard an explosion, I coughed once and hoped for another bomb, just so I could cough again. Even though it could be my last cough.
The ISIS men on the roof were determined. I could hear them taking shifts. Three hours at a time. I knew the YPG would come back in the morning. When it got light, I planned to make a run for it, but I knew I would get shot in the back by ISIS. About 1130, I spotted a long tunic. It was too small for me, so I put the sleeves around my neck and draped it over my coat like a robe, almost like a Batman cape. I put a Keffiyeh – an Arab traditional head scarf – on my head.
The Arab man had split, which made sense. I walked down the street a little bit more and then I heard some men in dark clothing speaking Arabic a long way away. They were saying, ”TAL TAL (come)!”. I knew from being a soldier, and having personally arrested ISIS soldiers, that you do exactly what you’re being told to do or get shot. This is war, not a police arrest. The first thing you do is put your hands up and wave them to show they’re not holding guns. Of course, ISIS had taken my gun, so I put my hands up and started waving. There was a road to my left, so I started walking sideways with my hands up to appease them. But, bang bang, they started shooting at me.
I’m a good runner, even at my age. I used to sprint every day, which empowered me to know that I would be able to keep up with guys in their twenties because they never exercised. I ran for a full 15-minutes without knowing which way I was going. I’m in an ISIS village. But I made a wrong turn, until I ended up 300 metres away from the same men all over again.
I was in range of their Kalashnikovs. They had two PK machine guns, which will just tear you up, ten bullets per second. There it was, “TAL TAL” again, but much closer. It’s the same men. So, I started putting my hands up and walking toward them. I knew they wouldn’t shoot me right away, because I knew they’d want to talk to me. I walked slowly toward them, giving me time to think. I see another road on the left, around 150 metres away. One centimetre at a time I kept on walking, drifting left. About 20 metres away from the turning, I was planning to dive for cover.
Then I heard, my name, “Mustapha, Mustapha!”. This is the name that was given to me in the YPG. The ISIS men I’d been listening to all night were gone. These were my men after all.
That’s when I pulled the GoPro camera off my head, and Iooked straight into the camera and said…”I’ve made it, can you believe that shit?” I was willing to die until we took Raqqa, and I said to camera: “I’m going to come and get another gun and I’m coming for you, Daesh (ISIS). Fuck you!”
Tell us about some of the people you met along the way while fighting with the YPG…
I had gone specifically because of what had happened to America, but I fell in love with the Kurds. They overpowered me with their generosity. They are incredibly charming and hospitable – and very charismatic people. I lost many Kurdish and Arab friends. It’s important to say that Sunni Muslim Arabs were also heroes on the good side fighting against ISIS.
There were not many, but there were a few other Western volunteers, and they were interesting because they had come for different reasons. Some of them were ex-military, frustrated in their own military careers. Many of them had never deployed; they were fully trained but had never been able to do anything with their training. They were from various countries, but predominantly England and America. There was an assortment of other nations too, Irish, Aussies and Kiwis and even a couple of Israelis and English and American Jewish guys. Others were politically motivated, and they found the YPG to their liking. Then there were others just like me who were blown away by the viciousness and barbarism of ISIS.
Chapter Three: The devil’s eyes
After you served your first tour with the YPG, what happened when you tried to go back to Los Angeles?
After I fully completed my tour, I decided to return to America by flying to Mexico and walking across the International Border from Tijuana. I had previously overstayed my visa and knew it was likely I might have a problem re-entering the United States. I felt that because there were so many people crossing in Tijuana, it would be easier and quicker for them to see a British passport and just let me in. Every single fibre of my being was saying “don’t do this,” – but I didn’t listen.
A computer is faster than any man and it came up right away. I was flagged as an overstayer and arrested.
I was held at an Immigration centre in San Ysidro with all the illegal aliens and political refugees, interestingly about 30% of whom were Muslim. The conditions were unbelievable – I was given something like a yoga mat to sleep on. When you turn over in the night, your hip bone goes into the ground, and you don’t have enough room to put your legs straight because there’s so many people there sleeping in the same room. The lights are on 24 hours a day. And the air conditioning is on really high so you’re always freezing cold.
Once I told them where I’d been, Homeland Security got involved. I told them everything I knew. A blonde female agent named Laura said, “If you can help us get a bad guy, we can help you come home. We’re the American government and we can do whatever we want.” I now have friends who work in the intelligence world, and they found out that Laura probably didn’t have the authorisation to make me that offer. She was on a fishing expedition.
I promised to help them so I could get back to America. If I’d have tried to do this in Canada, they would have just sent me back to Canada. Instead of releasing me back into Mexico, which the Mexicans don’t allow, the Americans deported me directly to England. I decided to go back to Syria and was given a US intelligence officer to communicate with. I went back to Syria in June of 2016 and left in November of 2017 after we took Raqqa, with intel on ISIS, as requested. It was part of the deal I’d made to come home.
So, there was a deal. What intel did you bring them?
In Raqqa, we were in a residential building, but the bottom floor was commercial, and because the fighting wasn’t 24/7, we explored the businesses. One of them was a rent-a-car place that worked under ISIS. When we went through their files, we found that they had files on their customers – they take a picture of each of the people who rent cars from them, and the files give you their photos and details and occupation and at the bottom. The person signs the paper. We all fight under fictitious names, my name was Mustapha Rojava for instance, and ISIS also use ‘nom de guerres’. We were going through them for our own amusement. It was all in Arabic, but one of my friends told me each listed occupation: shopkeeper, bank worker. He came to one that said ISIS Soldier. I was shocked. I asked him to pull out all the files which indicated ISIS soldiers under Occupation. With my GoPro, I took film of faces, details, photos and signatures. It might be a fictitious name, but a signature was good proof that they were in Raqqa at that time.
I personally arrested many ISIS. We caught one fighter in a house who said he was praying when we caught him, claiming to be a refugee. My group was going to send him to the refugee camp, but I had gone through the ordeal – my time being trapped in the house – and my intuition was screaming that something’s not right with this guy. By that time, I’d been around an incredible amount of ISIS interrogations. You get intuitive about who’s honest and who’s hiding stuff.
There was one question I learned to ask in Arabic, “When was the last time you saw ISIS here?” An innocent civilian would answer matter of factly, but ISIS or sympathisers would elaborate because they were lying. That was the case this time. I got inches from his eyes, and I’ve never ever seen a man’s eyes like he had. They were soulless. It was like looking into a dark, dark, pit. Like the devil’s eyes. There was nothing there except pure evil.
I just said: “Daaesh” (ISIS). My group replied, “No Mustapha, civilian.”. They pulled up his trousers and his legs had tattoos. ISIS doesn’t allow tattoos, but he could have got them before joining. I insisted he be taken to the second interrogation and then to the Americans. Behind the lines there were American intelligence officers who also conducted their own interrogations for more high profile prisoners. That night our Commander showed me a picture on his tablet: the man I had caught was one of the higher ups in ISIS, one of the most wanted men.
Chapter Four: Homecoming
Tell me about where you are now?
When I got out in 2017, I decided to go to Belize. Its the only other English speaking country near America that’s cheap. After fighting for the YPG for a three-year-period, I was given a one-way flight and U$200 by the YPG Army Command. I wasn’t a professional mercenary like the press have since alleged. Those guys are well paid, but I got off the plane in Belize with next to nothing.
I went to the American Consulate in Belize, and I told them I had info on ISIS. They didn’t believe me because my story was so far-fetched. They asked me to have my intelligence officer call them before they would set up a debriefing. After that, every time I called, they said they were working on it.
I left LA in March 2015, seven years ago. In total I’ve been waiting for the American government to come back to me for five long years, two years in Belize and three in Mexico. Now that they’re going to make a movie or a TV series from the Heval documentary, they’ve applied for a Visa to help me come home – which has just been provisionally granted.
I have to tip my hat to an American soldier who’s now a Congressman, Mark Green, who heard about my story and decided out of the goodness of his heart to try and help me. Through his help and the help of one of his senior advisors, chief of staff Stephanie Scott, who has been remarkable and so incredibly kind, I managed to finally begin my journey home. Without them, I don’t think the visa would have been approved. I owe such a debt to them. Now I am just waiting for my interview at the American Embassy in Mexico. I am ready to start my life again, to go back home to America, to the people I love and cherish.
To be continued…
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is one of the most complicated international crises of recent memory. We’ll try to break it down a bit for you.
The Syrian Civil War exploded in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring with a popular revolt against the dictatorial President Bashar Assad. The war has continued ever since, with several participating armies in shifting alliances, and the intervention of several countries, including Turkey, Russia, the United States, Britain and France.
While the war was initially about a popular revolt against a dictator, it gradually evolved on national lines due to the multi-ethnic nature of the Syrian State. In 2014, a new phase of the war began when ISIS captured gigantic portions of the country as well as large areas of neighbouring Iraq, a territory which the Wall Street Journal estimated contained around eight million people, shocking the international community in the process.
They portrayed their state as a haven, a message which attracted huge numbers of volunteers from the West – but beneath this utopian image, their state was characterised by extreme violence, emblematic of which were its infamous online “execution films”.
Their messaging was strong, especially on social media, with the UN officially guessing that 15,000 fighters from 80 countries forming part of their armed forces. These included men like ‘Jihadi John’, a British former student from the University of Westminster, and star of many ISIS films. ISIS expanded quickly across both Syria and Iraq and established a capital at Raqqa, sweeping aside the US sponsored Iraqi Army in the process and taking Mosul, Iraq’s second city.
The YPG had been formed in 2011 as a Syrian Kurdish group and took the lead in opposing ISIS. The YPG came to encompass other nationalities threatened by ISIS, such as the Yazidis, a group related to the Kurds and Syriac Christians, both targeted by ISIS. The group also attracted a small number of international volunteers.
Turkey does not recognize the Kurds as a nationality, and due to their Kurdish ethnicity, the YPG is considered by Turkey to be a terrorist group. The YPG is supported by the women of the YPJ, who are estimated to make up 40% of its fighters.
In 2015, fighting in Syria reached a peak.
What’s so good about this?
Michael Enright is an idealist; someone who stands up for what he believes in, no matter the consequences. Few of us would oppose something we knew to be wrong by putting our life on the line – but Michael did this very thing, expecting no reward. In today’s world, immigrants are routinely demonised, but Michael shows us that immigrants are usually devoted to their adoptive countries. Michael wanted to pay a debt to a country that had given him a life he could never have where he came from. His unbreakable character, strength of will, and belief in doing the right thing is an inspiration to us all.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.