Adele Proctor and Josh Walker
Image caption Adele Proctor had no idea her son was going to join rebel Kurdish militia

Adele Proctor was teaching when she found out her son Josh Walker was not on holiday in Turkey but fighting against so-called Islamic State in Syria. So what is it like being the mother of an anti-IS fighter?

Walk into Adele Proctor’s house and you can be under no illusion that she is proud of her son.

Photos line the hallway of Josh Walker through the ages – here he is with a sword at a Welsh castle, here he is with his mum travelling in India, and here he is giving his mum a kiss aged 18 months.

But the pictures stop a year-and-a-half ago – when Josh, now 27, went to volunteer with forces fighting against IS.

“I thought he was going on holiday to Turkey,” said Adele, a performing arts teacher in Bristol. “I was teaching a class and one of the students said something about a bombing at Istanbul Airport. I burst into tears. Josh was due to be flying home at that time.

“I left the classroom and tried to phone his mobile. It said the phone was no longer available.”

Image caption Josh spent his early years in west Wales before moving to Bristol in his teens

In a panic, and convinced of the worst, Adele, originally from Narberth, Pembrokeshire, phoned all friends and family she could think of who might know where her son was.

Josh’s father – her ex-partner – phoned and told her he was volunteering with Kurdish militant group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“He told me Josh wasn’t in Turkey but in Kurdistan,” said Adele. “So I went from despair at believing he had died, to relief at the fact he hadn’t been caught up in the bombing.

“Then it dawned on me where Kurdistan actually was – it is a region in northern Syria and Iraq.

“I spent the next few days completely spun out, trying to get my head around what could happen to him, and the fact I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to Syria as the situation “is extremely volatile and dangerous”.

It is thought six men who have travelled from the UK to fight IS have been killed to date.

Thinking about if there had been any clues to his intentions, Adele remembered when he left.

Image caption Adele trained as a professional dancer before becoming a secondary school teacher

“He isn’t usually a man of many words. But as he left he gave me a massive hug and looked at me and said ‘I really love you mum’.

“Now I think he was making sure I knew he loved me in case he didn’t come back.”

Josh, a politics and strategy student at Aberystwyth University when he went to Syria, was born in Pembrokeshire.

“He was always going to do something political,” said Adele. “When he was younger he wrote to politicians asking why they stopped free milk in schools. He was seven at the time.”

When she separated from Josh’s father Adele said her son “became my whole world”.

“I don’t think I realised it until he wasn’t there but it has always been me and Josh.

“His father and I brought him up saying ‘if you believe in something then do something about it’, and Josh is idealist and passionate.

“But he knew I would have stopped him going if he had told me what he was planning on doing.”

Image caption Josh, pictured here on a family holiday, has been working as a kitchen porter while waiting for the court case

When he finally got in touch, Josh told his mother he was planning on staying in Syria for six months.

“He said essentially he was in a warzone and that there would be times that he wouldn’t be able to get in touch,” said Adele. “Often my only way of knowing if he was alive was seeing if he had been online.

“I became really obsessed with Facebook and Messenger and as long as I saw that green light next to his name from when he’d last logged on, that was okay.

“The longest I didn’t hear from him was eight weeks.

“I just had to have this blissful ignorance in my attitude towards him when I didn’t hear from him. But underneath there was a deep panic all of the time.

“I knew if he needed me I wouldn’t be able to get to him. But I also knew if he died when he was out there, he was doing something that he wanted to do and I would have to respect that.”

Image caption Josh, pictured with his mother on his first day at university, emailed lecturers from Syria asking to defer his place

Eventually, at the end of 2016, Josh returned to the UK. On arrival he was immediately questioned by the police and his flat in Aberystwyth searched.

Then Adele got a call from the police saying Josh was on his way home.

“I was watching TV, checking timings on maps, trying to do everything I could to pass the time. Then his little face appeared at the window of my front room. I ran out and gave him a massive hug.”

Adele knew Josh would have been in danger but was unprepared for the stories he told her.

“That night he just talked,” said Adele. “I was so angry with him but I didn’t say that. It was like he needed to debrief, to tell someone about the things he had seen and what he had been through.

“I asked him to be really honest about some of the things he had seen because I didn’t want him hiding anything from me. How could I support him if I didn’t know?

“He was bombed twice. One time he was having a cigarette on the roof a building, and the other side – where everyone else was – was bombed. He was the only survivor.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Josh was found not guilty of possessing terrorist information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing for an act of terror

“And his good friend Ryan Lock died a week after Josh left – if he had still been there he would have been with him.

“So that night he wanted to have a drink with me and remember all those who had been lost. He looked older. He was less naive.”

Soon after they learned Josh was going to be prosecuted under the Terrorism Act because he had a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook under the bed in his student flat, which he had used for planning role plays when running the Crisis Games society.

It led to a drawn-out prosecution before Josh was finally cleared at Birmingham Crown Court last month.

“To come home and face a charge under the terrorism act just really messed with his head,” said Adele.

“I ended up on anti-anxiety medication because I was trying to do my job, keep on top of all my other responsibilities and support Josh through the court case.

“They were trying to say that an extremist could have gone into Josh’s bedroom in Aberystwyth and found that information and gone off and committed an act of terrorism. Thankfully the jury cleared him.”

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said: “As in all cases, our decision to charge was made following detailed consideration of the evidence and in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”

Adele said she and Josh were taking a bit of time to try to get back to some kind of normal life.

She hoped he would return to university next year and maybe one day there would be a graduation photo to join the others on her wall.

She said: “Now it’s all over I feel really happy. It’s like being in a Disney film; when I’m walking around outside in all the autumn leaves, everything seems like it’s a brighter colour.

“I am proud of him taking a stand, even though it has been so stressful for me.

“We brought him up with the belief he should stand up for what he believes in and that is what he has done. So I guess you should be careful what you wish for.”


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