A Danish politics student who trained as a sniper to fight Isis in Syria has told how she has ‘lost everything’ after being labelled a terrorist – and now faces assassination by Isis.
Joanna Palani, 23, dropped out of college to join the battle against jihadis in Syria, spending nine-day stretches alone on the frontline with her Russian sniper rifle trained on Isis targets.
Now she has been forced into hiding and is facing jail in her adopted country for defying authorities who banned her from fighting jihadis.
But she is also under threat from the fanatics who want to capture her and use her as a sex slave or convert her to their branch of Islam.
In an exclusive interview, she told MailOnline why she risked her freedom to fight Isis in Syria, her gruelling regime as a crack-shot sniper, and the devastating toll of war on her life.
She said: ‘I was willing to give up my life and my freedom to stop Isis advancing, so that everyone in Europe can be safe. This was my choice.
‘But I am seen as a terrorist by my own country.’
Joanna also admitted for the first time to MailOnline how she broke strict anti-terror laws to return to Syria last summer.
She said: ‘I am sorry I had to break the travel ban [imposed on me], but I felt I had no choice. I did not expect to lose almost everything for fighting for the safety of the same country which is now trying to take my freedom.
‘I live in one of the best countries in the world but I am hungry and homeless and freezing cold in bed at night, even though I am working full time. I don’t trust anyone.’
Joanna insisted: ‘I don’t want ISIS to threaten European countries or people in the same way they have done in Kurdistan.’
The politics student was issued with a travel ban in September 2015. But she defied authorities to rejoin comrades in her battle-hardened Kurdish unit fighting ISIS in northern Syria from June to October 2016 because she says she couldn’t bear to leave the women she had trained.
Now Joanna, who arrived in Denmark aged three with her family as refugees from Iraq, faces up two years behind bars for breaching the travel ban, intended to stop Danes from joining terror groups in the Middle East.
Speaking exclusively to MailOnline the sniper told how she feels hunted by the Danish authorities while also living under the shadow of an Isis $1m ‘kill or capture’ bounty.
Forced to move from location to location every three days, she says she is struggling financially and lacking all home comforts.
‘I am freezing cold every night and I go to bed hungry.
‘The Danish government is trying to set an example of me in court so they can say publicly that I am just the same as ISIS, but I am not a criminal.
‘I would take ten years in jail with pride to save people but I wouldn’t accept one day in jail for being a danger to Denmark. I don’t understand why they [the Danish intelligence service] would view me as a threat when I was fighting for Europe and for females everywhere.’
Joanna was arrested on December 7th last year by Denmark’s PET intelligence service under tough new anti-terrorism legislation intended to stop citizens taking part in the devastating conflict in Syria and Iraq.
She was held in prison for three weeks before being released on the orders of a judge before Christmas on December 23.
But while she was in jail she learned of a threat from another angle. Joanna was told that ISIS had now put a $1 million-bounty on her head.
Looking tired but defiant, Joanna says: ‘ISIS want to kill me, and capture me to convert me into a radical Islamist or turn me into a sex slave.
‘But I love my independence and freedom as a woman more than I fear being captured or turned into a sex slave by ISIS or for ISIS. My worries about being captured and killed are not as great as my love of freedom. That is what keeps me going.
‘My response is to keep moving, to keep going to class, to keep working. I will keep trying to show them that I am a liberated and independent woman. This is how I will defeat them.’
But she says she has also been targeted in the street, and even warned she could be captured by Isis and abused.
Sitting in a closed room at a secret location in the heart of Copenhagen, she told MailOnline: ‘I was threatened in the street last month by a Danish Muslim convert who I know has fought in Syria and last year I was attacked by four Islamist men.
‘There’s a $1 million reward on my head. It is possible for me to be captured and killed in these circumstances that I find myself in here in Denmark.’
The 23-year-old is keen to stay ‘on message’ with her YPG battalion, and refuses to accept she has reason to be scared.
‘I will never give them the victory of my fear. When we were preparing to liberate houses of ISIS sex slaves, we had this saying – one fighter goes to rescue but many fighters will come back out.
‘That is because the survivors often join us. Many of the girls we rescue join us and train to become fighters. So if they captured me, I would still fight them, for all of those girls as well as for myself. I will never submit, or let them win.’
It was as the battle for the strategically important town of Manbij, north-east of Aleppo, raged last summer that Joanna felt compelled to re-join her YPG, People’s Protection Unit, a brigade battling to break ISIS’ grip on northern Syria.
‘I was wanting to be back with my girls in Syria, as we were going to be going more forward and by that stage Special Forces had joined us on the ground so I knew it would be better. I wanted to be there.
‘It’s not so easy for me to be in Denmark when my friends are in Rojava and girls I had trained, who were younger than me, were in Manbij and I was not. I felt ashamed and guilty that I was not there.
‘They were trying to say there were no women in Manbij, but I knew they were there and that they were fighting forward.’
So on 6 June last year – still in possession of her passport despite the travel ban – she calmly flew back to northern Iraq. She walked for seven hours through the night to cross the border into northern Syria, where she was then driven to the front-line to be reunited with the young women she had trained to fight.
‘Something happened inside me that made me go [back to Syria],’ Joanna explained to MailOnline.
‘At that time in my life it was so much easier to be there [in Syria].
‘I had trained the female fighters, they got injured and they got killed, the fighters I had trained the year before. But no one knew they had died for freedom.’
Over several hours, this idealistic young woman told MailOnline how she fears for her life from the dozens of foreign fighters who have sought sanctuary in Denmark after fleeing ISIS.
The progressive Scandinavian country has the highest rate of returning jihadis in Europe, according to the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICC), due to their benevolent de-radicalisation programme.
Joanna bitterly resents the level of support offered to returning ISIS fighters by the Danish state, as she believes it makes the country a more attractive destination to those instructed to kill her.
An ISIS sniper from Saudi Arabia is ‘after her’ following news articles about her military exploits, she claims. The threat from this sniper made her commander send her to Manbij instead of towards Raqqa, where this Saudi sniper for ISIS is said to be located.
Although apparently an acclaimed marksman Joanna refuses to discuss how many ‘kills’ she has achieved – insisting there is no honour in crowing about taking someone else’s life. But she admits that as a teenager she idolised the female World War 2 Red Army sniper known as the Lady of Death – who shot over 309 Nazis.
‘I am a sniper,’ Joanna told MailOnline proudly, her eyes lighting up as she recalls the excitement of a mission.
‘I like using my brain and my body to focus on the mission. I loved my training. It was like Lyudmila [Pavlichenko] the Lady Death from the Russian Red Army.’
Joanna’s YPG battalion claim she has killed 100 ISIS fanatics in morale-boosting propaganda.
Describing the intensity of a sniper’s skills she added: ‘You have to be very patient. You have to be very calm. And you have to focus. You cannot lose concentration for one moment. You are covered in blankets and camouflage. I use a Russian SVD Dragunov sniper rifle.’
On the front-line at Manbij she spent days in the same position, apparently defending civilians fleeing the conflict zone, Kurdish comrades as they advanced and shooting ISIS fighters dead at night.
‘As a sniper I could be on the front line for nine days at a time,’ Joanna told MailOnline.
‘I would get up at 4-5am and get my SVD rifle and AK rifle my bag and two hand grenades.
‘I would take up a position away from the window, find a space where it would be comfortable, lay down with only my finger on the trigger.
‘I would have a headscarf over my head to cover my blonde hair and blankets over me. You have to remember to bring a bag for hygiene because you never know how long you will have to wait.
‘In the daylight we defend, at night hunt and shoot.
‘At night we would get close to the enemy. We would say we were ‘hunting’, going after ISIS, using our thermal scopes.’
However she only escaped death by inches when an ISIS fighter locked his sight on her during her last tour of Syria.
A friend bringing her a cup of tea took the bullet intended for Joanna. His dying body sent her falling through the derelict building on the front line where she had been hiding.
She fell almost ten feet, fracturing her skull.
‘I took up a gun again after four days,’ she told MailOnline matter-of-factly.
Now back in Denmark Joanna is constantly concerned about her security and never spends more than three nights in one place.
She says she was offered protection by Denmark’s PET intelligence service after ISIS put the $1 million bounty on her head, but says she refused because the agency is trying to lock her up under terror laws, and she does not trust them.
Now she sleeps on friends’ sofas, in shops and store-rooms, takes showers at friends’ homes, relies on charities for clothes and struggles financially.
‘I have given up some many things for greater justice in the Middle East and Denmark,’ Joanna told MailOnline.
‘I live in one of the best countries in the world but I am hungry and homeless and freezing cold in bed at night, even though I am working full time. I don’t trust anyone.
‘But it was all worth it.
‘A look from a little girl after we have helped liberate her and her family from ISIS, those are the experiences but make it all worthwhile.’
Fit and adventurous, Joanna loved the outdoors as a child and first picked up a rifle aged nine, at a shooting range, while on holiday in Finland.
‘I remember pulling the trigger and feeling the power,’ she told MailOnline.
‘I wasn’t any good, but I liked it a lot. I loved it in fact. I liked the power in the weapon, and the fact that the power was not even within the weapon, but in the person behind the weapon. I wanted to get better.’
She explained: ‘After we came home from Finland, I begged my dad to let me begin shooting. I said; ‘Baba, Baba [father, father] I want to be like you and train to be a Peshmerga fighter.’
Joanna continued to spend time with her relatives in Kurdistan, where she would spend her summer holidays from high school in Copenhagen.
So when still a teenager the winds of the Arab spring began blowing Syria Joanna was ready, she says.
Dropping out of college where she was studying politics, philosophy and biology, she went to Syria to join the uprising.
‘I could see the uprising in Syria was much more complicated than elsewhere in the Middle East,’ she told MailOnline.
‘Millions of people were fighting for democracy I wanted to be part of it. I was 17 or 18 when I first went to see it. The females battalion wasn’t created back then – that came later.
After first taking up arms against the Assad regime in Aleppo Joanna began a series of trips to Syria – increasingly turning her fire on ISIS as they mounted their rapid charge across the region.
She says she fought the fanatics at Kobane, liberated Yazidi girls imprisoned as sex slaves and switched units to fight ISIS in Iraq.
Her military career came to the attention of the Danish authorities and in September 2015, soon after she returned to Denmark on ‘leave’, a court issued her with a travel ban preventing her from going abroad created to stop Danes joining terror groups.
Her case also attracted a lot of attention on social media.
The stress of fighting in Syria’s seemingly endless conflict has certainly taken its toll. Joanna says she suffers from frequent and debilitating headaches, has lost a lot of weight and cannot sleep, she told MailOnline. She is exhausted and her clothes are donated from a local church where she sometimes sleeps.
Estranged from her family, Joanna is effectively homeless. She told MailOnline: ‘I am not looking for sympathy. I want people to understand that I don’t want a thank you note [for fighting ISIS].
‘I am sorry for breaking the law but I had no choice in my mind at the time. Those I risked my life for, are now taking away my freedom. I did not expect to lose almost everything for fighting for our freedom and our safety.’
By Nick Fagge and Lara Whyte, 7 February 2017, The Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4170840/Joanna-Palani-admits-sniper-fights-Isis.html#ixzz4YNg0Qh9s