The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed to Maclean’s that the Canadian killed on Wednesday by an Islamic State suicide bomber in northeast Syria was 32-year-old John Gallagher of Windsor, Ont.
The attack took place in the early-morning hours, local time, as a coalition of anti-Islamic State fighters, including the Syrian Kurdish unit, or YPG, which Gallagher had joined in early July, pushed forward into the Islamic State-controlled territory east of Hassakeh.
“This was a new operation to clear out Daesh from villages south and east of Hassakeh,” says Rami Abdulrahman, director of the London-based Syrian Observatory, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
Gallagher, a former infantryman with the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, who had volunteered with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq in May this year before crossing into Syria in early July, was the subject of a Maclean’s profile in August. At the time, while on the front lines in Hassakeh city, he told Maclean’s of his desire to fight Islamic State.
“I fought with the peshmerga for two months,” he said, referring to the Kurdish militia in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. “We were pushing out the front line near Kirkuk, taking some villages away from ISIS. We came under fire, got to return fire, got to watch some air strikes blow them up. It was good fun.”
He is the second Canadian—and the first volunteer fighter—to lose his life fighting Islamic State, after a friendly-fire incident in March killed a Canadian special operations soldier embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.
But it’s not the kind of death Gallagher would have wanted. During the brief few hours he spent speaking with Maclean’s in Hassakeh, he spoke of his hatred of a “cowardly” enemy that refused to meet its foe directly on the battlefield. He praised his fellow Kurdish fighters and admitted that he had suffered from years of guilt after leaving the Canadian military only months before troops deployed to Afghanistan.
“My boys were there, fighting the Taliban,” he said. “A few of my good friends got killed. I’ve been living with that for the past 10 years or so. I felt there was more that I could be doing, that I hadn’t done enough.”
A handful of Canadians have crossed over into Syria and Iraq to join Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State. They have been joined by dozens more foreign fighters from the U.S., France and other European nations.
Gallagher has joined the few who have made the ultimate sacrifice. “He thought it was a cause worth dying for,” his mother, Valerie Carder, told Maclean’s via email. “He was a man of principle.”
A fellow foreign fighter, American Robert Rose—who trained with Gallagher when they first arrived in northern Iraq—added that the forces arrayed against Islamic State have lost a true hero.
“I’m honoured to have gotten to serve with him,” he says. “He was a man of great moral character who really cared about others and proved this by going all the way to northern Syria to help people he did not even know. John was much stronger then I ever was and a hundred times braver. I have been home the past three months, but he refused to leave. This is an example of a real hero, and my heart goes out to his mother and all the rest of his family.”