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Finbarr Cafferkey and Philip O’Keeffe bonded in Syria over opposition to imperialism and Isis brutality – The Irish Times


Philip O’Keeffe and Finbarr Cafferkey first met each other in the summer of 2017 in Syria while fighting to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State, also known as Isis.

Disgusted by the violence of the terror group, both men had joined the Kurdish YPG, one of the main components of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was being heavily backed by western nations in the fight to reverse Islamic State’s territorial gains.

Although serving in different units, they met several times during the fighting and developed a bond. After the liberation of Raqqa, which Islamic State had claimed as its capital, the two men stayed in touch, even living together for a time in Brussels.

Both men were motivated by left-wing, anti-imperialist ideals and the Kurdish struggle for autonomy based on democratic principles. They both also felt a deep connection to the Kurdish people, which had suffered the brunt of Islamic State’s depravations.

“There are many similarities between the Irish and the Kurdish struggles. I have long admired the Kurdish people for standing up for themselves and I hope to help them do that,” Mr Cafferkey said in a 2017 interview, identifying himself by his nom de guerre Ciya Demhat.

So when news started to filter through last month that Mr Cafferkey, from Achill, Co Mayo, was missing in action while fighting invading Russian forces in Ukraine, it was clear to his friends that Mr O’Keeffe should be the one to break the news to his parents. They knew that Mr O’Keeffe, who has Irish and American citizenship, could get in touch with Mr Cafferkey’s parents and could get to Ireland easily from his home in Brussels.

At the time, Mr Cafferkey’s body had not been found but it was almost certain he had been killed along with several other fighters. Mr O’Keeffe’s job was to inform the family of this and to help them communicate with their son’s unit as more information came through.

Above all, Mr Cafferkey’s friends were determined his parents should not learn about their son’s death in the news, on social media or from a random official who never knew him (in fact, Irish authorities had no idea Mr Cafferkey was in Ukraine).

Mr O’Keeffe searched for the quickest way to get to Ireland and found that a flight through Heathrow was the best option. On the evening of April 22nd, he boarded a flight from Brussels. On landing in Heathrow, Mr O’Keeffe intended to remain airside and get directly on the onward flight to Dublin, never passing UK border control. However, when he exited the aircraft he was met by a large number of counterterrorism officers from the London Metropolitan Police.

They gave him a pamphlet explaining he was being detained under section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a wide-ranging piece of legislation which allows police to question travellers for up to six hours, without cause, to determine if they may be a terrorist.

The UK police say it is a vital tool in stopping would-be attackers entering the country. Civil rights campaigners say it ignores basic due process and has been shown to be of limited effectiveness.

It is not clear why Mr O’Keeffe was singled out. In the past, people who have fought with groups in the various Middle Eastern conflicts have been targeted for questioning by the Met under the Act. But he had fought with the YPG, which was explicitly backed by the US and UK. He had also fought and worked with the group’s specialised counterterrorism units which were directly trained by western forces.

Furthermore, after the defeat of Islamic State, he worked with a strategy project in Europe which was linked to the Met police, along with Nato and other security actors. Specifically, this group examined anti-drone strategies and systems in a counterterrorism context.


One of the many contentious aspects of section 7 is detainees are legally obliged both to answer police questions and hand over their electronic devices’ passwords. Refusing to do either is a separate offence punishable by imprisonment. Mr O’Keeffe was informed he had a right to a solicitor but that the police could not locate one.

“They have to give you a lawyer, or at the very least let you talk to one on the phone so you can be told, ‘Yes, you really do have to answer questions or you’ll be arrested’,” Mr O’Keeffe’s solicitor, Alistair Lyon, told The Irish Times earlier this week. “It is extraordinary that they would contemplate a prosecution of someone where they can’t provide the most basic right in what is an absolute outlier of a legal situation.”

The police also told him they had informed the US and Irish embassies of his detention, but only by email.

During extensive questioning, Mr O’Keeffe refused to hand over his devices’ passwords, leading police to accuse him of obstructing justice. He was held overnight before being released on bail the next day. The conditions included that the police keep his electronic devices, that he stay at a designated address and that he return for a hearing to determine if he will be prosecuted. Without his devices, he was unable to contact the Cafferkey family and they learned the news about their son from another person.

Mr O’Keeffe remains in London waiting to learn if he will face charges relating to obstruction of justice. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday in London has been pushed back, meaning it will be at least a week before he learns his fate.

The Met police have not responded to a request for comment.

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