How a Bitcoin Developer Ended Up Fighting ISIS in Syria

Anarchist hacker and bitcoin developer Amir Taaki tells Haaretz about the 15 months he spent in Syria's secular oasis of Rojava, and describes his plan to foment world peace through technology

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Amir Taaki.
Amir Taaki.Credit: Matan Ackerman
Jonathan Jacobson
Jonathan Jacobson

LONDON – In November 2015, a Reddit user posed a question that many were wondering about at the time: Where in the world had the activist hacker Amir Taaki disappeared to? Diverse conjectures were put forward. Some claimed he was working on a new project that had the potential to topple the British government, or that he had been arrested by the British authorities, others circulated rumors that he’d sought asylum in Russia, and one user sparked a lengthy discussion when he wrote, “Sad to say but he might have joined ISIS.” One thing that was not in dispute was that Taaki was one of Europe’s – maybe even the world’s – most talented hackers.

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Amir Taaki was born in London in 1988 to an Anglo-Iranian family. The family moved to a drowsy tourist town south of the capital when he was still a boy. At an early age he began studying several programming languages, and he taught himself how to hack computers. The first mission he set for himself was to hack his school computer system, as a consequence of which he was expelled from middle school. Overall, Taaki did not get along well with the rigid British education system – he was subsequently expelled from three different universities – but he made up for it with his inquisitiveness and a flair for being an autodidact. Taaki went on to teach himself a variety of skills, from software engineering and a range of coding languages, to politics and such martial arts as judo.

As a boy whose father and grandfather were among the opponents of the Shah’s regime in Iran (his mother is of English-Scottish-background), Taaki took an interest in communism and anarchism in his teens. When he discovered the open-source software movement, it didn’t take him long to decide to devote most of his time to developing games and programs for the operating system that the movement promoted, Linux. By age 19, he was already delivering lectures at tech conferences.

In 2014, Forbes listed Taaki as one of the world’s most promising under-30 tech entrepreneurs. He also appeared frequently on news programs because of his work as one of the chief developers of the new virtual currency, bitcoin. However, in contrast to other bitcoin pioneers, the currency’s success and surging value didn’t change Taaki’s life. He continued to operate out of abandoned squats across Europe.

His next project was Dark Wallet, a digital wallet with anonymity features even more effective than the virtual currency’s original encryption. Taaki worked on the project with Cody Wilson, the inventor of the 3-D printed gun. Many people raved about the compartmentalization Dark Wallet offered, but banks and intelligence agencies added Wilson and Taaki to their list of high-risk individuals. Then, at the height of the development process, the project suddenly went dark itself, and Taaki himself seemed to have gone virtual. No one knew where he was.

Amir Taaki.

One of the few who did know what was afoot was Eric Voskuil, one of Taaki’s prinicpal partners and his close friend, a programmer who’d left IBM in order to spend a decade as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, before returning to the computer world. Since then, Voskuil had sold the startup he’d created to Microsoft and was active in the virtual currency realm.

In a Skype conversation from his hotel room in Singapore, Voskuil told me about his initial acquaintanceship with Taaki. “Even before I met him, simply by watching interviews and reading his code, I could tell that he’s a smart and talented person who’s passionate for the right reasons,” he said. The two met shortly afterward, and Taaki recruited Voskuil to work on Dark Wallet. Even though he’s two decades older than Taaki, Voskuil concedes with a smile, “Many times, I would change something in Amir’s code, only to later find out he was right in his original design – he has a unique ability to see the bigger picture.”

To my question about Taaki’s disappearance, Voskuil replied, “In the months leading to his leaving Dark Wallet, Amir didn’t stop talking about what was happening in Syria. He became obsessed with the war over there.”

Indeed, even as the rumors about him flew, Amir Taaki was already in Syrian Kurdistan. By the spring of 2016, when the truth became known on the various forums, one user summed up succinctly what many had thought and said in different ways: “Damn, you might like Amir or not, but the sonofabitch sure ain’t your average ‘Starbucks anarchist.’”

Oasis amid the horror

Last summer, while I was catching up on more than a year’s-worth of discussion about him online, I attempted to make contact with Taaki through the encrypted message app Signal. To my surprise, within half an hour, I found myself talking to the person who’s considered one of the world’s most notorious hackers, and he explained to me the reasons that had prompted him to make his way to Syria.

“It felt like something I was just sucked into,” he said of his 15 months in the Middle East. “I was on the internet one night, when I found out that there was a real anarchist revolution underway in Syria. I simply felt that I had to take a part in it. We hadn’t have anything similar since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. This was one of the biggest events in modern history, and I had to go and help them.”

The revolution he’s referring to started in a place the locals call “Rojava” (“the west” in Kurdish; Rojava is situated in the western part of the transnational region known as Kurdistan), or in its official name, the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.”

Rojava is one of the most fascinating political-social experiments of our time, a kind of democratic, egalitarian, secular oasis in the heart of the Syrian horrors and the volatile Middle East. Its gates are open to people of every ethnic origin and every religion, and under its banner men and women fight shoulder to shoulder to defend themselves against ISIS and the other forces around them.

Rojava’s brief history begins in the spring of 2012, about a year into the Syrian civil war, when President Bashar Assad withdrew his forces from the north of the country in order to defend his centers of power and the population groups loyal to him. The Syrian army pulled out of regions such as Jazira, one of the three areas that make up Rojava, in the country’s northeast, leaving its 1.5 million inhabitants – most of them Kurds living alongside a population of Arabs and Syrian-Assyrians and other minorities – to fend for themselves against ISIS and the array of anti-Assad militias.

People's Protection Units (YPG) soldiers in Northeast Syria. Credit: Andia / UIG via Getty Images IL

In short order, the vacuum left by the army was filled with members of the PYD, the Democratic Union Party, which was established in Syria in 2003 by PKK, the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and had operated since then in the underground. Under Assad’s rule, many PYD members were arrested, tortured and executed. At the end of 2013, following the army’s withdrawal, the Kurdish party, whose members belong to the largest nationality in the world that does not have sovereignty (30 million people), along with other regional minorities, declared the establishment of the Rojava autonomous region.

The so-called “Social Contract of Rojava,” first published in January 2014, is based on a set of principles referred to as “democratic confederalism,” which were put forward by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. It asserts that the autonomous region will respect all religions, ethnicities and languages, and that women and men will have complete equality. The contract does not declare the autonomous region to be Kurdish, but rather the result of joint organizing by Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens. Every person has the right of asylum in Rojava, and in fact tens of thousands of Yezidis and Christians who fled from ISIS live there. Its official languages are Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian.

Immediately after the declaration of independence, the two other Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, Afrin and Kobani, joined Jazira and declared themselves cantons of Rojava. The three, whose total population is five million, constitute the new democratic confederative autonomous region, which is headed by two presidents, one male and one female – though they have not claimed statehood for Rojava. The three senior figures at the head of every council (the equivalent of a government ministry) will generally be from three different nationalities. In addition, at least one of them will be a woman, as in Rojava, women are guaranteed to have 40 percent representation at every level and in every governing entity; similarly, each minority is represented in a manner at least commensurate with its size.

Ocalan’s vision was largely based on the writings of the late Jewish-American political philosopher Murray Bookchin. Per the principles of democratic confederalism, the smallest unit of political affiliation in Rojava is the “community” – a village or neighborhood with a meeting place where the residents congregate to make decisions about managing their lives. The communities send volunteers to serve in the district administrations, the defense forces and the police. They also share resources, processes of production, food and infrastructures, and they assume regional tasks in a range of fields, such as maintenance, security and infrastructure development. The emissaries and representatives of each cluster of neighboring communities meet in a “house of the people” to elect the town assembly and the two top officials. Office holders at all levels receive no salary but do their work on a voluntary basis, although the communities, which elect them by direct vote, also look after them economically.

“It’s not a form of localizing that is about shutting yourself from the world, but one of creating a space of mutuality and solidarity, trying to build a society together,” Taaki says.

Uniform and Kalashnikov

Last August, about a month after our phone conversation, I traveled to London to meet Taaki. I was instructed that I would find him in Romford, a suburb north of the capital, whose streets are densely packed with businesses and shopping centers. When we met, there was no sign of the sloppy clothes and Mohawk haircut that Taaki sported in the television interviews I’d watched ahead of our meeting. He hadn’t completely dispensed with his beard – which was meticulously trimmed – but he wore a black beret and a shirt with matching trousers, a kind of uniform he’s adopted.

Taaki led me into one of the lanes that branch off Romford’s main street, at the end of which a ramshackle door was hidden behind a few commercial garbage receptacles. We climbed up two flights of a fire escape, arriving at an exposed roof dotted with pots of tomato plants and puddles of August rain. By this route we arrived at the squat itself, a vast three-story structure with plenty of rooms and corridors. We sat down on living room sofas and he went on with his story.

The summer of 2014, when Taaki first heard of Rojava, was also the golden age of Islamic State. The fighters of the caliphate captured extensive territories from the Kurds and their allies, including considerable sections of Kobani, one of the main cities of the revolutionary autonomous region. Nevertheless, Rojava’s popular army and the PKK decided to send large forces to open a corridor between Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq, where some 200,000 Yazidis were besieged, and Rojava. Effectively, they saved the members of this syncretistic religious sect from death by thirst and hunger, albeit at a high cost to their own troops as well as at the price of control of Kobani.

Taaki recalls his thoughts during that period, when he discovered that his “fellow anarchists were fighting the most disgusting form of Islamic fascism” and that “it was my duty to help them. I opened a fake Facebook account and contacted the YPG” – the PYD’s military branch. The following February he flew from Madrid to Sulamaniyah, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. After the local police interrogated him and searched his effects, they sent him by taxi to a safe house of the Popular Army. He was taken to a camp in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he waited for two weeks with other foreign volunteers.

Female troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces discuss frontline positions from a forward operating base on November 10, 2015, in the autonomous region of Rojava, Syria. Credit: John Moore / Getty Images IL

In the winter of 2015, on a night with a full moon, members of the Kurdish party took the group down the dark hills to the Tigris River. Those moments are engraved in his memory, Taaki says. They proceeded on the river in wobbly rubber dinghies in groups of two or three, rowing amid tense silence (“because if the border guards heard us, they would shoot us”) toward the promised Syrian bank of the river, compared to which the deserts and snowcapped peaks of Iraq that they’d left behind were like an oasis. Waiting for them on the other side were members of the Popular Army with trucks, in which they were taken to a training camp.

Taaki tried to explain to an elderly officer that he’d come in order to offer his technological skills. However, the officer remained indifferent to his entreaties, and assigned him to a combat unit of foreigners. The world-class hacker was issued a uniform and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and without so much as a day of training was sent to the front, on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Taaki spent the next three and a half months in three different units of the Syrian Democratic Forces – presently a large proportion of their soldiers are not Kurdish – alongside Arabs Assyrian and Chechen forces. The largest of these is the Assyrian army (the Soturo), but there are also others: the 24,000-strong Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, made up exclusively of women, and the international volunteers, such as the Lions of Rojava and the International Liberation Brigades, a military force of coalitions of Marxist parties from Armenia, Spain, Turkey, Greece and Albania.

Only recently a new, independent group of volunteers joined the alliance. They are part of the LGBTQ community, who call themselves Fighters of the Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army, or TQILA as the unit is known by a slight manhipulation of its name, were recently photographed in hotspots of the battles as they hoisted the Pride flag along with their unit’s banner and a sign containing an imprint of the anarchist logo with the inscription, “These faggots kill fascists.”

The Popular Army alone currently numbers more than 63,000 male and female soldiers (about 33 percent and 40 percent of the fighting forces of YPGand PKK, respectively, are women). In addition, in January 2015, American aid to the Rojava forces, which began after they rescued the besieged Yazidis, became far more significant. The Kurds and their allies, both in Syria and in Iraq, were in the forefront of the war effort on the ground, and their combined forces dealt ISIS repeated blows.

According to Taaki, the fighting usually began after “Americans [fighter jets] would come and bomb ISIS, and then we would arrive in our trucks, clear our objective, making sure there were no jihadists left, and move toward the next target.”

In the course of his stay on the front, he says, he took part in only three exchanges of fire and never got closer than a kilometer away from ISIS fighters. He saw them mainly as black dots, tiny but threatening, on the hills opposite. At one point he was transferred to a different combat unit, and afterward heard that about a third of his former unit had been wiped out in an attack by the warriors of the Islamic caliphate.

One day in the spring of 2015, a Kurdish officer recognized Taaki from when he managed the foreign recruits. “What are you doing here?” he asked Taaki. “Really, what am I doing here?” Taaki remembers himself replying with a question of his own. A few days later he was discharged from his unit, and with his back to the front lines made his way toward the towns of Rojava.

He settled in Qamishli, the capital of the northeast district, which abuts the Turkish border, and spent five months improving his spoken Kurdish, after which he joined in the work of the regional economic committee. “Life in Rojava is communal,” he relates. “People, students or members of different committees get up early, when it’s still cold, eat breakfast together and go to work or classes, depending on their role, and sleep together.”

During his work with the regional committee, Taaki helped build a fertilizer plant and assisted with a research program on solar energy, taught locals how to use the internet and open-source programming, and wrote a manual for learning Kurdish and about the local ideology for foreign volunteers.

“It’s nothing like the West,” he says with ardor. “Whenever I wanted to go somewhere in Rojava I could just ask someone for a lift – we all helped each other because we were all part of the revolution. I never had any worries that I wouldn’t have enough money, or that I wouldn’t have anything to eat or where to sleep.”

Later, the local leadership asked Taaki to help design the technological curriculum of the new education system. He thus became the only foreigner was invited to take part in the confederation’s supreme economic committee.

“It taught me a lot of lessons about life, revolutions, and even about the technological world,” Taaki says with infectious enthusiasm. “We need to be serious about technology, it’s not just entertainment and games. Progress and technological developments don’t just develop from people doing it for fun on their own spare time, it takes a huge collective effort by people who are devoted to a belief. If we want technology to lead to anything meaningful, we can’t look at it as if it’s in a bubble, we need to understand it as part of political changes happening on global and local levels.”

Under surveillance

Gradually, Taaki came to understand that if he wanted to make his best contribution to the viability of the revolutionary vision, he must first return to the West, where he could work to mobilize resources and people. After receiving the blessing of the local leadership, he returned via the same route by which he’d come, before what felt like ages ago, and landed back in London in May 2016, in the belief that he would soon return to Rojava.

Police officers boarded his plane minutes after it landed, handcuffed Taaki, and confiscated his phones and his laptop, before taking him to a facility of Britain’s anti-terror agency for interrogation.

Even though he answered all the questions he was asked and told about all his experiences in Rojava, he says, he was placed under house arrest in his mother’s home and ordered to report to the local police three times a week. For ten months he lingered in this legal limbo, while the authorities repeatedly extended his terms of detention. The long months of house arrest were a crisis period for him, he says. He was deprived of freedom of movement, and “memories from the war came flooding back, appearing in my dreams. I [became] depressed, doing nothing besides reading and training, as preparation for the next step.”

Investigations against him are still ongoing, he told me toward the end of our meeting, “but they told me my bail conditions are finished, so I’m free to travel. But every time I go in or out of England they look into my stuff and ask me questions. I’m under surveillance.”

It’s not surprising, then, to discover that Taaki left England the moment that became possible, in order to continue working for Rojava. “My role now,” he explains, “is to support this movement with technology – with free open-source software and cryptocurrencies. I’m placed in a really unique position as a hacker, where I can use my capabilities to shape things on a global scale using technology.”

These days he moves about between cities in Europe, from conference to conference and from squat to squat, in an effort to disseminate the revolutionary message and gain the economic support of advocates of the Ocalan’s democratic confederalism, especially those who became rich thanks to the rise of bitcoin. However, this is only the first stage of a broader plan: to establish the technological arm of the revolution of “democratic confederalism,” first fomented in Rojava.

To that end, he has recently launched a rigorous recruitment process to the cause. The few tech wizards he selects will have to commit to devoting two years at least to the revolution. The members of the new revolutionary group of hackers will join him in the academyhe established in Barcelona. There he will put them through a training program of a few months, which includes studying the revolutionary ideology and the Kurdish language, along with technological training and a physical fitness program. Afterward, the group will head for Rojava, the promised land, where it will form the revolution’s technological spearhead.

The activist brigade will contribute the tools of the technological revolutions that took place in recent decades: from laying the infrastructures for fast internet, to the use of open source programs and encrypted virtual currencies such as the bitcoin. This could make it possible for them to bypass the economic sanctions imposed on the countryand aid in the concrete growth of a new political model and a decentralized economy, without the need for banks and similar capitalist financial institutions. This will be accompanied by the rise of a new political-social model, which is contrary and opposed to the centralism of the modern nation-state, and all of this in the heart of the Syrian tragedy.

“He wants to help make a free society come to life,” Eric Voskuil says of his friend. “People don’t know what to make of him. He was always a misunderstood character. I guess there probably couldn’t be a stronger statement for his true intentions than going to a war zone and fighting for what he believes in.”

Lasting peace

But what sort of world will Taaki and his comrades find when they get to – or in his case, return to – Rojava? It’s been almost two years since Taaki last trod on its soil – an eternity in terms of the war in Syria and the balance of forces in the Middle East. Until recently, Rojava’s situation was quite good, considering the circumstances. After Mosul was liberated by the Iraqi army last July, the Popular Army and its allies were able to retake Raqqa, which had served as the Syrian capital of the Islamic caliphate in the past two years. Overall, the military victories chalked up by the SDF since its establishment, particularly since the advent of American support, have left the new autonomy with about one third of the state’s area – three or four times more than they had in their possession in January 2015.

Amir Taaki.Credit: Matan Ackerman

However, even if the caliphate’s days look numbered, with the threat it posed to Rojava fading, its people are still fighting for sheer survival. Since the start of the year, the bulk of the fighting has shifted from the south to the northern boundaries of the autonomous region, which is where the string-puller and true enemy lies – Turkey.

The Kurdish-Turkish conflict is not new. But besides Ankara’s blood-drenched struggle against the PKK, the hawkish policy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward the Kurds inside Turkey itself, which has escalated especially since 2015, is also expressed in his approach to other organizations that are under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, to which PYD belongs. From the first minute, the Turkish government declared that it would not allow establishment of a Kurdish state on its southern border. Thus, as early as 2014, the Popular Army accused the Turks of granting funds, shelter and free movement into Syria to the volunteers and fighters of fundamentalist militias such as ISIS, who are fighting against them and perpetrating war crimes – an allegation that is voiced by other military and political bodies, including Israel.

Since 2015, the Turkish army itself has occasionally attacked Rojava and its forces by means of artillery barrages, air assaults and tank fire. Such incidents draw an immediate bellicose response by the YPG. In reaction to bombardments at the end of last April, in which dozens of Kurdish troops and their allies were killed, both the Americans and the Russians – in a rare display of cooperation between them – deployed forces throughout the confederation and on its border with Turkey, which went on bombing areas where those forceswere not present.

In June 2017, SDF troops, led by the Kurds, completed the siege of Raqqa. Precisely at that critical moment, Turkey sent its forces (together with jihadist militias loyal to it) in the direction of the Syrian border, with the aim of conquering parts of Rojava’s territory. This time the Russian army withdrew and then returned to its positions, though according to a different version it never withdrew, but the American forces moved rapidly to defend Rojava against a fellow member of NATO.

More recently, though, both the United States and Russia have announced their intention to pull their forces out of Syria. The close ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Assad are well known, but U.S. President Donald Trump, under whose administration American support for Rojava has only increased, nonetheless agreed to the Turkish demand to promise to stop arming the Kurdish forces. On January 19, 2018, the Russian forces that were stationed in the northwest of the autonomous region in 2017 in order to act as a buffer between it and the Turkish army, retreated. The latter declared that it was launching “Operation Olive Branch” against the “Kurdish terrorists” and began an incursion the following day. Even though an unnatural alliance was forged in the operation between Assad’s government and Rojava’s forces, the Turkish army, with the aid of rebels and local militias, continued its drive. Savage battles are being fought on earth that is still scorched from previous rounds.

I ask Taaki about the dangers that lay in wait for the revolution and for his plans. He replies that despite the threat to its existence, “even if Rojava falls, or fails, we’ll continue spreading the ideology of democratic confederalism throughout the world. Rojava is more than a place – it’s an idea.” To which he adds, “We have to drop these categories of Jew, Syrian, Arab and so on. I honestly believe Rojava could be an important movement for the whole region – it’s the only solution for a lasting peace in the midst of this chaotic Middle East.”

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