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News | Sept. 27, 2018

“Hunting ISIS” director visits DIA

By Chasen Thoennes, DIA Public Affairs

A natural sense of curiosity is what “Hunting ISIS” director and photographer Sebastiano Tomada says led him to pursue assignments in war zones from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria.

Tomada spoke with members of the DIA workforce as part of the agency’s Masterminds speaker series, detailing some of his experiences as a war photographer and the inspiration behind his History Channel series “Hunting ISIS,” which follows civilian and military veteran volunteers who travel to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS with help from the local military.

“I don’t have any beautiful or psychological reason for what drew me to covering war zones,” Tomada explained. “I was simply curious about why men and women chose to fight.”

Tomada began covering the war in Afghanistan in 2010 as an embed with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, an experience Tomada described as “intense,” especially as a new reporter and recent college graduate. He would go on to spend two years in Afghanistan and a brief stint in Libya before moving to Beirut, Lebanon in 2012 to cover the Syrian civil war.

While in Syria, Tomada, who was embedded with the Free Syrian Army, was among the first journalists to enter the city of Aleppo—an assignment he considered one of the most dangerous of his career.

“If I had to choose one thing to define the fighting in Aleppo, it would be snipers. Snipers were everywhere.”

Following the rise of ISIS, Tomada moved to Northern Iraq to cover the Kurdish operations in Syria and Iraq, and the offensive to recapture Mosul. While accompanying Kurdish forces on a front line patrol, Tomada was surprised to run into another American, and even more surprised to learn the American was fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Tomada would go on to meet many other Westerners who left their homes voluntarily to fight ISIS; following them across the battlefields of Iraq and Syria for the next two years.

“Again, a sense of curiosity led me to find out what drove people to join a fight that wasn’t necessarily theirs, extremely dangerous and for no pay,” Tomada said.

Tomada described a good portion of the Westerners he interviewed as former military members who chose to fight because they wanted to do good in the word. However, he claimed others were there because they were bored or unable to assimilate to civilian life back home, were thrill seekers or sought the brotherhood of war. When asked what drove them to fight, Tomada stated many of the volunteers told him they felt useless back home and “needed this.”

Tomada expressed that despite their good intentions, some volunteers caused problems for the forces they were trying to help, especially those with no military experience. However, he singled out those with a medical background as the most useful on the battlefield. During the battle of Mosul, the nearest medical support was hours away, so volunteer medics were invaluable.

In “Hunting ISIS”, Tomada says he aimed to depict the struggles faced by the volunteers, as well as explore the reasons behind their decision to leave home for conflict in the Middle East. While the documentary follows just a handful of volunteers, Tomada noted that during his time in Northern Iraq there were around 100 Westerners within the ranks in the fight against ISIS, all with similar motivations.