Eight months after a Canadian anti-ISIS fighter and his British comrade were killed in northern Syria, a member of their unit who survived the deadly clash has come forward with the first eyewitness account of what happened.
In an exclusive interview with Global News, Andrew Woodhead said he was with Nazzareno Tassone, a 24-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., and Ryan Lock, 20, when they came under fierce attack from the so-called Islamic State.
Hours later, Tassone and Lock were dead. The Iraqi doctor who examined Tassone’s body said he had been tortured with cigarette burns. A U.K. coroner concluded that Lock shot himself to avoid being captured by ISIS.
But Woodhead, 44, a Regina truck driver who recently returned to Canada after fighting in Syria, where he was injured in a landmine explosion, said almost nothing that has been said about their deaths was true.
Formerly in the British Army, Woodhead said he was upset with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which he said did not provide proper training or use basic fighting tactics.
“I’m angry at the way the YPG operates.”
WATCH: Nazzareno Tassone, 24, is originally from Ontario but moved to Edmonton last year. He died in Raqqa on Dec. 21. Kent Morrison has the details.Canadian man with ties to Edmonton killed in Syria while fighting ISIS
Like Woodhead, Tassone and Lock were international volunteers who had enlisted with the YPG so they could join the fight against ISIS. Two Canadians who also served in the YPG confirmed that Woodhead fought in Syria.
Woodhead said he met Lock, a West Sussex chef, at the Dolphin Hotel in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. They shared a hotel room before crossing into Syria last September. “I liked him from the moment we met.”
He ran into Tassone later, on the way to the town of Sarrin and they stayed together until the latter’s death.
“He could make you laugh even when you didn’t want to,” Woodhead said. Tassone was in awe of the special forces, he said. “They were like pop stars to him.”
But neither Tassone nor Lock had military experience and the YPG training academy they attended upon their arrival in Syria was focused mostly on indoctrinating international fighters in Kurdish nationalist ideology.
At about 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 21, Woodhead, Tassone, Lock and a German who called himself Andok Cotkar, entered a village in Raqqa district, on the West bank of the Euphrates River. They were with about 20 Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-back alliance of Kurdish YPG, Arab and other militias, Woodhead said.
They swept the village in about three hours but then started taking heavy fire. An Arab fighter went down behind Woodhead, shot in the shoulder, and Andok left with him as a medic. Andok confirmed the sequence of events up until his departure.
When the gunfire picked up, they took cover behind the scattered farmhouses. It was cold. A Kurdish commander arrived and spoke to Tassone, but he couldn’t understand the orders. Did he want them to withdraw or attack? They weren’t sure, Woodhead said.
The gunfire was coming from the front and the left. They moved back to a road. Woodhead had his machine gun. Tassone was preparing ammunition and grenades. Woodhead heard an explosion and saw Tassone huddled over, having taken grenade shrapnel in the right hand.
“It looked pretty bad, it looked pretty messy,” he said.
The ISIS fighters were close. They were well-equipped and good fighters.
“We were cut to pieces,” he said. “Daesh (ISIS) were a lot better than we were.”
By contrast, he said, the YPG went into combat with no plan, other than to fight and then call in airstrikes. He said he met good people in the Kurdish region. “But the way that the YPG treats its own soldiers, the lack of training, its unforgivable.”
Tassone bandaged his hand but couldn’t fight and he was going in and out of shock. “I kept saying to Nazz, ‘You need to get out of here,’ but he wouldn’t leave.” He wasn’t sure why Tassone stayed with him.
“Fear I’m guessing, or he didn’t want to leave us,” said Woodhead. “Sometimes you want to stick with your mates.”
The bullets were flying. The SDF fighters were running out of ammunition. “It became clear that nobody was coming behind us.” After an SDF fighter made it across a clearing and took cover behind a house, Tassone decided to follow after him. “His last words to me: ‘If I get out of this, I’m through, I don’t want to die in Syria.’”
While Woodhead provided cover with the machine gun, Lock also pulled back, trying to reach a different house. The last time Woodhead saw Lock, he was crawling backwards, firing his rifle. He believes Lock was doing so because he had been wounded in the leg.
Everyone was retreating by then so Woodhead ran for a house. Once he got there he saw two figures about 100 metres away. He believes they were Tassone and the SDF fighter. But he couldn’t get to them, the gunfire was too heavy, and he ran out of the village.
Told Tassone and Lock were at a hospital, he went to look for them but they weren’t there. Then he was informed they were dead, along with five Arab SDF fighters. ISIS had posted gruesome photos of Tassone and Locks’ bodies on social media, calling them “crusaders.”
A British coroner ruled earlier this month that Lock, wounded in the leg and about to be captured, had shot himself. But Woodhead disagreed. “No, I do not think Lock killed himself.” He believes Lock was fatally shot in the head by ISIS.
An Iraqi autopsy concluded Tassone had been tortured with cigarettes and killed with a fatal blow to the back of the head. But an Ontario coroner later told the family what the Iraqi doctor thought were burns were insect bites. He also found a piece of shrapnel lodged in Tassone’s head, which he said caused his death. That is consistent with Woodhead’s account of ISIS’ use of grenades in the village, although he said when he last saw Tassone he was wearing a helmet.
Exactly a month after Tassone and Lock were killed, Woodhead suffered a shoulder injury in a mine blast. A British citizen and Canadian resident, he returned to Canada in August and visited Tassone’s mother Tina Martino in Niagara Falls.
Martino said she was reassured to hear Woodhead’s account of what happened, and relieved that her son and Lock weren’t ambushed at night, as she had been told. “It was just a choice of which building he went in and happened to pick the wrong one,” she said.
Hundreds of Western volunteers have joined the fight against ISIS, including several dozen Canadians, some of them military veterans, but Guillaume Corneau-Tremblay of Université Laval, who has been studying the phenomenon, said the numbers have tapered off.
Asked about the government’s policy on Canadian citizens and permanent residents fighting with the YPG, a federal official sent a Global Affairs Canada statement that said it was illegal to leave Canada to join a terrorist group.
“The YPG is not currently a listed terrorist entity. However, Canadians fighting with or participating in the activities of an entity that has carried out terrorist activities or who individually facilitates such activities may be guilty of an offence under the Criminal Code.”
Woodhead said he was done with Syria and looking forward to getting back to work behind the wheel of a truck.
“I’ve had enough of it,” he said.