Michael Enright in Belize with an Islamic State headband. Picture: Jeffery Salter/The Washington Post
Michael Enright in Belize with an Islamic State headband. Picture: Jeffery Salter/The Washington Post

LONG READ: He left Hollywood to fight against Islamic State, now he's marooned in Belize

By Manuel Roig-Franzia Time of article published Oct 21, 2019

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San Ignacio, Belize - It sounded like death made airborne in those brutal days in Raqqa.

Bullets screamed across the ruined streets in swarms thicker than flies on roadkill. Machine guns rattled.

And the rocket-propelled grenades. Those were the worst. They hammered down with awful concussive thuds, smashing cinder block into choking clouds of powder

For days in that sweltering October of 2017, Michael Enright crouched in an apartment building turned battle station, staring into the maw of the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria. Enright was the most unlikely of soldiers, pinned down there alongside his Kurdish and expat militia brothers, dodging bullets, blasting away with his Kalashnikov rifle, wondering whether these might be his last moments on earth.

"It felt like the devil himself was breathing fire on me," Enright says.

Less than two years earlier, Enright - a Hollywood actor by way of Britain - had been tooling around Los Angeles in an aging black Porsche 911 and hobnobbing with movie stars at awards ceremony after-parties. Enright, who bears a passing resemblance to actor Russell Crowe, had appeared with Tom Cruise in the movie "Knight and Day." He was guest starring as a bad guy on the television series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Since the 1980s he had been living the working actor's dream life in the entertainment capital of the world.

Yet, one day in 2015, in defiance of common sense and the tearful urgings of his friends, he decided to leave all that behind. Never having fired a gun at another human being, he embarked on an odyssey at the age of 51 that could have sprung straight from the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

His strange, sinuous meanderings have taken him on two harrowing tours of battle in Syria as a volunteer with the formerly U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. They also have thrust him into the byzantine pathways and switchbacks of the U.S. immigration system and, by his account, the wilds of international spy networks. His decision to overstay a U.S. tourist visa three decades ago and start a new life as an American has now made him unwelcome to come back to the only nation he considers home. So far, it hasn't mattered that he risked his life fighting an American enemy.

Because he fears returning to the United Kingdom, where some British volunteers with the Kurdish militia have been arrested and accused of consorting with terrorists, he finds himself, essentially, a man without a country. Unable to work, his money dwindling, he wanders, flopping for the past two years in slum apartments or couch-surfing in Belize and elsewhere in Latin America in the homes of people he meets in the streets or online. He hauls a thin pad to sleep on, a backpack, a handful of tank tops and shorts, and a clunky old laptop, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, will help him get back to Los Angeles.

Through more than two dozen interviews with his friends, fellow soldiers and others, as well as video and other documentation of Enright's battlefield exploits, The Washington Post has been able to confirm nearly every aspect of the actor's account. His saga has now captured the attention of Washington power players and veterans advocates who have been agitating to end Enright's exile and bring him home.

Michael Enright in Belize, where he landed after two tours as a volunteer fighter for the Kurds against the Islamic State. Picture: Jeffery Salter/The Washington Post

The details of his trajectory offer an unusually intimate glimpse into the forces that motivate men and women from around the world to throw themselves into conflicts not their own. Unlike mercenaries who flood into war zones for profit, Enright joined the fight for no pay, a throwback to the storied dramas of yore when the famed British writer George Orwell and others fought in the Spanish Civil War.

As Enright tells it, his war experiences were all about balancing an account. The ledger he holds in his head is particular to that of some successful immigrants - he says he wanted to repay America by helping to vanquish one of its terrorist enemies.

On screen, he'd often played the bad guy, leveraging his ability to shoot a menacing stare at the camera. In real-life, he yearned to be a good guy.

Enright envisions a final scene yet to be shot, one in which this master of small character roles steals the show by unlocking the secrets of a murderous, fanatical cabal: He's gathered intelligence about the Islamic State on the battlefields of Syria - computer memory cards, IDs, letters - that he hopes will unlock clues about the movements of the group in the Middle East and in the United States, he says. The improbable warrior/spy just needs the U.S. government to validate and value what he's found - enough to look past his immigration-law transgressions.

Despite his frustration, Enright, now 56, his hair cropped short and graying, has repeated the same phrase over and over in hours of interviews with The Post: "I don't regret a thing, mate. I'd do it all over again."

He'd grown up hard in a hard section of Manchester, where he says his father, a roughneck with a temper, committed suicide while battling cancer. Enright was 18.

He scraped together a living driving a taxi, he says, and a Pakistani immigrant taxi man named Mustafa became a kind of surrogate father. Mustafa - he'd never forget that man or that man's name.

All Enright wanted to do was go to America. He wanted to make American money. He wanted to kiss American girls. He wanted to be an American, for it was here that he thought he could not just reinvent himself - but also invent himself.

When he was 19, he says, he boarded a plane and went to New York, entering the country on the first of several tourist visas that he would overstay for his entire adult life.

Arriving in New York, he got a job as a busboy at a restaurant near the World Trade Center. The actor Kirk Douglas came in once, and one of the famed actor's companions gave Enright a $5 tip.

He'd gotten the acting bug as a teenager in England, and perhaps it was inevitable that he would find his way to Hollywood. His Manchester accent had marked him as a member of the lower classes in Britain, cutting off possibilities, but in Los Angeles it was the opposite. It opened doors, especially in auditions.

While trying to get himself established, he ran a youth hostel in Venice Beach. Carefree tourist girls came and went, looking for fun. There were plenty of girls to kiss.

"I was living this very hedonistic life," Enright says during an interview in the remote town of San Ignacio in Belize, where he's lived for months.

His first break as an actor came when he auditioned for the role of a boxer in a soft drink commercial. His competition couldn't punch; Enright, who had been pounding a speed bag at a boxing gym in Watts, got the part. The residuals paid his rent for months.

Actor Michael Enright, here in the 2013 film "Elegy for a Revolutionary," often played the bad guy on screen. In real life, he yearned to be a good guy. Picture: Courtesy of Paul van Zyl
Television roles trickled in. He played an Irish Republican Army soldier on the television series "JAG." He picked up more commercials.

Enright always has been impulsive, his friends say. In the 1990s, he flew to Rwanda after the genocide there, volunteering at an orphanage. The work appealed to his Christian notion of obligation, that human beings are commanded to alleviate suffering. He slipped back into the United States, once again, on a tourist visa.

A few years later, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, set him on a course that eventually took him to Syria. For days, Enright and his friends say, he couldn't stop watching the news.

"I cried every day," Enright says.

He told his friends that he wanted to join the U.S. Army and fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Here, he reasoned, was a chance to make a payment toward the debt he felt he owed to the United States. His friends talked him out of it.

It became the biggest regret of his life.

In Hollywood, Enright wasn't getting rich, but made a modest living. He got a gig as a Russian mobster on the television series "Kitchen Confidential." He played a deckhand in the film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," appearing in a scene with Orlando Bloom.

"On 'Law & Order,' I was once dissolved in a vat of acid!" he says, his eyes twinkling.

For Russian roles, his résumé said he was Mikael Enrightski. For French roles, he was Michel Henright. His accents were so convincing that casting directors wouldn't figure out he wasn't French or Russian or German until his scenes were already in the can.

"Well," Enright deadpans, "I speak 32 languages. Only a few words in most of them. But 32 nonetheless."

He lived in a part of West Los Angeles known for gang violence. He had his own brush with the law in 2003 when he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after the car he was driving struck and injured a man who Enright says threatened him during a traffic incident. Enright was acquitted and exonerated, according to court records.

People have a tendency to want to adopt Enright. Mike Chapman, who met him while working with a spirituality group for Hollywood professionals, started taking him home to spend time with his family.

"He was kind of like an uncle to our small children," Chapman says in a recent interview.

Orna Cohen, one of Enright's workout clients, folded Enright into her family, as well. At a Passover dinner at her house one year, she looked up and saw Enright, whom friends describe as a non-demoninational spiritual seeker, in tears. She walked outside with him.

"He was sobbing like a baby," Cohen recalls. "He looked at me and said, 'Orna, I feel God.' "

In August 2014, Islamic State troops swept into the Sinjar district in northern Iraq, an area that was home to the Yazidi, an ethnic Kurdish minority. Hundreds of men were killed in a genocidal massacre. Women were taken captive and subjected to rape and forced marriages.

Half a world away, Enright once again found himself obsessed with news: "I sort of became an ISIS junkie."

That same month an Islamic State terrorist beheaded the American freelance journalist James Foley, boasting of the killing in a gruesome video. The killer was later identified as a British man of Arab descent who became known as "Jihadi John."

Enright sought out a British friend in Los Angeles, a dashing, globe-trotting sort who goes by the professional name Rob Lancaster, who has worked as operative in the shadows of international conflicts and danger zones.

At a Santa Monica bar where their favorite football team, Manchester City, was playing, Enright told Lancaster that he couldn't stop thinking about the atrocities at Sinjar and the beheading of Foley.

"I'm going to right that wrong," Enright declared.

Lancaster had heard this sort of thing from Enright before, but he'd always dismissed it as a transitory emotional reaction. He'd tell him, "Don't go, you silly sot."

But Enright was insistent, and Lancaster concluded there was nothing he could do - except help.

Soon thereafter, Lancaster pointed his friend to a Facebook page.

At his Los Angeles apartment, Enright signed on to a Facebook page associated with the YPG, the initials used for the People's Protection Units, a mainly Kurdish militia.

He sent a straightforward message: "I'd like to go fight for you in Syria."

He waited four days before message notification popped onto his screen.

"Are you willing to die for this fight?"

He did not know the real name of the person with whom he was communicating. But he knew how he would answer.

"Yes," he typed.

The person who was messaging him didn't want him to have any illusions. The militia had very little equipment. No helmets. No body armor. They were fighting an enemy that had tanks and armored personnel carriers. If he were injured, the only painkiller they could provide was aspirin.

Michael Enright, an Englishman by birth, takes tea at a typical small restaurant in San Ignacio, Belize. Picture: Jeffery Salter/The Washington Post

Nothing could dissuade him.

"My feeling was that I was going to go there, I'm going to suffer, and I'm going to die," Enright says.

He sold his Porsche to pay for a one-way ticket to Iraq.

He told almost no one except Lancaster. Enright had no family obligations to hold him back - he'd been married briefly years ago but was now habitually single. He had no children.

Enright had once shot a prop AK-47 in a TV commercial for Norton anti-virus software. The only time he'd shot a real weapon was when he'd fired a couple of pistol rounds for fun in the woods during a long-ago Christian retreat.

The day before his departure, he went to a firing range in the L.A. area. It would be the sum total of his military training before leaving.

An odd calm settled over Enright. He felt no fear, he says. Knowing that he would probably perish in Syria gave him inner peace.

He flew to the United Kingdom, and there he began assembling gear. Boots. A jacket for the cold desert nights.

As his departure date approached, he sent a stream of messages to the person with whom he'd been communicating via Facebook. Days passed with no response.

He called his friend Lancaster, wondering whether he should fly to Iraq anyway.

"I wouldn't chance it," Lancaster said.

Instead, Enright headed for London's Heathrow Airport. He landed in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, around 3 in the morning. No one was there to pick him up. He checked into a low-cost hotel. He started sending more Facebook messages.

Finally someone responded.

"When do you arrive?" the message said, according to an image reviewed by The Post.

"I'm already here!" Enright wrote back.

That afternoon, a man called the hotel asking for him.

"You want to join the YPG?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.


Then, a familiar query: "Are you willing to die?"


A man arrived at the hotel the next day. Enright had no way of knowing whether he was walking into a trap: "I don't know if I'm shaking hands with YPG or ISIS."

Enright got into a car pointed toward the Iraqi-Syrian border. They drove deep into the mountains of Iraq, eventually hopping into an inflatable rubber dinghy and crossing into Syria via a narrow stretch of the Tigris River, its waters illuminated by a full moon.

There was no going back now.

In Syria, Enright says, he was led to a remote desert camp that the YPG fighters called "the academy." He'd spend six weeks there learning how to fire an AK-47 and other arts of war. Some of the expat volunteers he met at the academy and elsewhere were suspicious of his motives, Enright says, thinking he was out for publicity to generate better parts in the movies.

"Why would I risk my life for a role?" he would say.

Enright chose Mustafa as his nom de guerre to honor the Pakistani taxi driver who'd mentored him so long ago.

When Enright's new Kurdish colleagues found out he was an actor, they pressed a head-cam into his hand. They wanted him to collect footage that would document their struggle.

Enright resisted.

"I came to shoot, but not with a camera," Enright told them.

But he changed his mind when he found out that his camera would allow him to join up with any unit. The militia wanted "bang, bang" footage to promote its cause and demonstrate its commitment to eradicating the Islamic State. Enright wanted action.

He took the camera.

He got action fast. Within days, his unit was ordered to clear a village that had been bombed by U.S. forces supporting the YPG, he says.

"I was going to be coming face-to-face with a terrorist," Enright says.

He went charging into the town of Suluk. Heart pumping. Pure adrenaline.

Then he went flying. Not from a bullet, but from his own clumsiness and inexperience. Loaded down with gear, he face-planted, scraping long patches of skin from his leg and arm. His first foray as a soldier and he already felt like a klutz.

He'd get better at it. Head-cam footage shows Enright engaged in heavy fighting in the months to come. He took to fighting like a natural, say fellow soldiers interviewed by The Post. In the videos, machine-gun fire and explosions can be heard. Enright looks like a killer.

They tore a path through Syria, clearing villages where he'd sometimes encounter dozens of rotting corpses of Islamic State fighters in the streets. Stray dogs would eat the heads first. Enright had such contempt for his enemy that he watched with a sense of satisfaction.

"It's funny," he says, looking back. "In life they would take our heads off. In death the dogs would take their heads."

Enright spent six months fighting alongside the YPG, completing a standard tour of duty for foreign volunteers. But his life was about to become as bizarre and baffling as anything he'd encountered in the deserts of Syria.

Enright had left Los Angeles for Syria in a tornado of emotion. He's not prone to sit and calculate risks and contingencies. But as he prepared to return to the United States, it weighed heavily on him that he had a problem.

His epic tourist visa overstays, 30 years of living in the United States without legal permission, were going to make things hard for him - to say the least. He developed a plan: attempt to cross from Mexico into California through the San Ysidro border crossing south of San Diego, the busiest in the United States. Maybe he'd blend in with the hordes and get across, he thought.

In November 2015, Enright was stopped at the border by U.S. immigration officials and sent to a detention center in Otay-Mesa, according to passport records and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement corroboration.

Enright's account of his six weeks of detention is similar to those of Central American migrants who have been detained during the recent surge of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border. Blasting air conditioning turned the cells into ice boxes. The lights were never turned off. He was stuffed into a cell where there was no room to lie down.

At this point, Enright's account becomes harder to pin down. While detained, he says, he met with officials whom he believes were working for the Department of Homeland Security. He describes one of them as "Laura, the Blond Lady."

In his mind's eye, the Blonde Lady became an all-powerful being capable of offering salvation from his immigration hell. He's forgotten her last name, but remembers that she was "quite pretty." Over the course of several meetings, Enright says, he reviewed maps of Syria with the officials and described his encounters with Islamic State fighters.

Enright asserts that Laura eventually made an extraordinary offer: If he were able to return to Syria and gather intelligence about the Islamic State that would be useful to the U.S. government, she would make his immigration problem disappear.

"I thought, 'OK, I'll get intelligence for you,'" Enright recalls.

Enright says he has no documentation of the offer and it was not witnessed by anyone. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said that the agency could not comment on investigative methods and that it could not confirm the accuracy of Enright's account.

The Post has interviewed four people who say Enright called them about the putative offer while he was detained and believe he was being truthful about his understanding of the arrangement. A fifth person - filmmaker Adam Wood, now working on a documentary about Enright - says he learned about it from Enright shortly after the actor was released.

Michael Hecht, a psychotherapist who'd befriended Enright in Los Angeles and also received a call from him while he was detained, said in an interview that Enright might have been coping with his dilemma by hearing what he wanted to hear.

"I think in that situation you grasp at straws," Hecht said.

Hecht referred Enright to a Los Angeles lawyer, James Kajtoch, who traveled to Otay-Mesa to meet the actor. Kajtoch would later send an email to Enright, saying: "If you want me to provide terrorist information from Syria to our government, I am NOT the person to assist you. As much as I am interested in contributing to the fight against terrorism, I do not have time to do this."

In mid-December, Enright says, he was deported to England, still believing he'd made a deal with the U.S. government. Three U.S. deportation officers flew with him to London based on the results of a threat assessment that an ICE spokeswoman declined to detail.

Enright knew where he needed to go next. He wanted to hold up his end of a deal that he believed would restore his life in the United States.

He packed, one more time, for war.

The Washington Post

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