A Canadian-born immigrant to Israel has become the first foreign woman to join Kurds battling Islamic State in Syria, a Kurdish source said on Tuesday, as details of the volunteer's turbulent past surfaced.
Gill Rosenberg, 31, is a civil aviation pilot who enlisted in an Israeli army search-and-rescue unit before being arrested in 2009, extradited to the United States and jailed over an international phone scam, one of her former lawyers said.
Gill's story was first reported by Israeli radio. She recounted how smugglers helped her cross from Iraq into Syria in order to join the Kurdish ranks. "They (the Kurds) are our brothers. They are good people. They love life, a lot like us, really," Rosenberg said, explaining why she joined up after contacting the guerrillas over the Internet.
Rosenberg said that she had made contact with the Kurds through Facebook, asking them to allow her to join the Kurdish People's Protection Units, commonly known as the YPG.
Rosenberg immigrated to Israel from Canada in 2006, after studying at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and left behind a promising career as a pilot of Boeing planes for civilian airlines.
On her Facebook page, Rosenberg shared her plans for her mission in Syria two months in advance, when she uploaded a picture from Jerusalem showing an Israeli flag next to an Islamic State flag, and continued posting images until her November 1, her final day in Israel.
She then promised to upload pictures of herself wearing the uniform of the Kurdish forces. "As soon as the tailor finishes customizing my uniform, I'll post the pictures," she wrote. The next day, she posted a picture of her red boots. "It's been a long time, but it feels great to wear them again."
She later posted pictures from Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, and then from Erbil International Airport in Kurdistan. On November 9, she uploaded images from the Kurdish region of Syria and wrote, "In the IDF (Israeli army), we say 'aharai', After Me. Let's show ISIS (Islamic State) what that means." A friend wrote, "Take care of yourself, friend. You are one strong woman, and you'll destroy the Islamic State."
A source in the Kurdistan region with knowledge of the issue said Rosenberg was the first foreign woman to join YPG, the Kurds' dominant fighting force in northern Syria. She has crossed into Syria and is one of around 10 Westerners recruited by YPG, the source said.
Rosenberg could not be reached by Reuters for comment. A source provided an Iraqi Kurdistan cellphone number for her, but it was turned off on Tuesday.
Yahel Ben-Oved, an Israeli lawyer who represented Rosenberg in the US criminal proceedings, said she had no knowledge of her joining the Kurds though they had spoken recently. "It is exactly the sort of thing she would do, though," said Ben-Oved.
Rosenberg had consented to extradition and served around three years in a US prison under a plea bargain, Ben-Oved said. A 2009 FBI statement on the case names her as Gillian Rosenberg, among 11 people arrested in Israel "in a phony 'lottery prize' scheme that targeted victims, mostly elderly".
Israel's NRG news site reported at the time that Rosenberg turned to crime after running short on money, that she was estranged from her parents and had tried in vain to join the Mossad spy service.
Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, seeing in the minority ethnic group a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.
The Kurds are spread through Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. In the latter country, the have the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Israel bans its citizens from traveling to enemy states, among them Syria and Iraq. It has been cracking down on Israeli Arabs who return after volunteering to fight with Islamic State or other rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Canada similarly worries about its citizens fighting in Syria. Israeli and Canadian officials said they were aware of Rosenberg's case, but did not immediately elaborate on what if any efforts were being made to return her.
Reuters contributed to this report.