It was in the weeks after the Manchester Arena bomb that Daniel Burke travelled out to Syria to fight against the Islamic State.
The former paratrooper from Wythenshawe, 33, was one of many proud Mancs horrified when Salman Abedi killed 22 people and injured hundreds more by detonating an improvised explosive device as concert-goers left an Ariana Grande gig on May 22, 2017.
“When they attacked Manchester they were actively targeting children,” Daniel told the M.E.N.
“Nobody does that, nobody should be attacking children full stop. And at the same time it happened in my own city. I love Manchester to pieces. It pulled at my heartstrings.”
Daniel's decision to join the fight against IS would have dramatic consequences. He would survive sniper attacks, bomb blasts and infection. He would lose comrades in arms.
But the most surprising twist came after he returned to the UK - where he found himself arrested, charged with terror offences, and locked up at HMP Wandsworth - where he was wrongly labelled as a jihadi by other prisoners.
Last week, charges against Daniel were dropped at the Old Bailey following a Crown Prosecution Service review.
It had been alleged he arranged with others to provide money and military equipment for terrorism and engaged in conduct in preparation to commit, prepare or instigate an act of terrorism between October 7 and December 7 last year.
He spent seven months in prison.
With the case now dropped, his lawyers have demanded a more detailed explanation for the decision to offer no evidence in his case. So far, none has been forthcoming.
But, having joined a Western-allied Kurdish militia in order to take on IS, Daniel believes he unwittingly became embroiled in diplomatic issues between the UK and Turkey.
Now back home with his mum in Baguley and preparing to start a new job at a concrete firm, Daniel told the MEN of the extraordinary saga which began in May 2017.
On the night of the Manchester terror attack, as the horrific details of the bombing started to emerge, Daniel recalls the flash of panic he felt, worrying that his young cousin had been at the concert.
She was in fact safe, but Daniel was so disgusted by the atrocity that he felt compelled to act.
“By this point I knew terror attacks were getting worse and worse and they seemed to be speeding up,” he says.
Daniel had post-traumatic stress disorder at that time, and still does.
He joined the the Army in 2007, serving with the Parachute regiment in Afghanistan the following year, and, while he was prepared to lose friends, he was far less prepared for the impact of war on civilians.
He cites an experience in Afghanistan, towards the end of his tour, which left its mark.
While resting up in a village his troops found a lone, possibly orphaned child in an empty house.
“I really wanted to get this girl back to our base but because we’re a fighting unit we can’t take anyone with us,” he says. “I talked to the interpreter to see if she could follow us back to the base, about four miles.
“She walked with us for quite some time until we got to a place called The Gardens where it turns into Jungle. When we came out the other side, just near our base, I turned around and couldn’t see her.
“There are always rumours that if you help coalition forces the Taliban execute you. We had been in the girl’s house.”
Back home in Manchester, Daniel struggled from witnessing the horrors of war. He got into a fight and was discharged from the Army in 2009.
After this he got a new job, bought a house and tried to carry on, but he couldn't shake the sense he was meant to be a soldier.
Most of all, he wanted to return to the Middle East to help those fighting IS.
So, he applied to join the Kurdish militia group the YPG, or people's protection units - a Western ally against IS. The day after the Manchester attack his application was fast-tracked, and within weeks he was back in the Middle East.
After a convoluted journey through Mykonos, Athens, Amman, Cairo, Daniel ended up in Kurdish Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq, waiting to be picked up by the YPG.
“When I got there it was quite frightening,” he explains. “You have to text saying you’re on your way and send a picture. Then phone a number and they send someone to meet you who takes you to a location.
“At this location a guy came walking out of a hotel with an AK47 and three other blokes. I put my foot in the door so they couldn’t open it and got the taxi driver round the neck. I literally thought I was being kidnapped.
“They pointed further down the road and I saw a white SUV coming towards me with a guy hanging out the window with a picture of me on his phone.
“I had to give that taxi driver a big tip.
“Even when I got into the SUV I was a bit dubious. I was shaken up a bit because it all seems a bit strange, everything is done through smoke and mirrors.”
After arriving at a safe house Daniel met other westerners, including Oliver Hall, who would come to be known as an 'outstanding hero', and Daniel Newey. Months later, the friendship with Mr Newey would be at the heart of the criminal case against Daniel Burke.
But, as the three Britons made the long trip over to a YPG training camp, in Syria, acclimatising to the water, food and heat, they had no ideas of the fates that awaited them.
As things turned out, Daniel ended up leading a YPG unit down to the south of the country. Meanwhile his friend Oliver, 24, decided to instead head to Raqqa to clear mines. There, he was killed, aged just 24.
“Ollie wanted to do something to help people and he thought the war was going to end in a matter of days,” Daniel says.
“When he died that was a big blow, after that I lost my s*** quite a bit.”
Oliver Hall's inquest heard, in June 2018, that he had been inspired to take on Islamic State by the Manchester attack, like his friend Daniel Burke. But while Oliver would be described as hero by the coroner, after losing his life, Daniel ended up in jail.
It was mere chance that Daniel Burke didn't die in Syria, as Oliver and so many others did.
In late 2017, he found himself fighting in the Deir Ezzor region - one of IS' last strongholds.
Daniel would go back and forth to the front line as ISIS fighters put up such a strong resistance that taking a single house could take days.
“We lost quite a few blokes in droves of 20 odd people,” he says. “In one instance they killed the majority of people and tortured the rest. That happened just down the road from us but we didn’t know it was going on.”
One exhausting Day, Daniel was knocked unconscious by a car bomb, having failed to do up his chinstrap.
“The helmet flew off and I smashed my head,” he says. “You spend all this money on a helmet and carry it around all the time. That was stupid.”
But one of his most frightening experiences came during an intense battle in the city of Hajin.
After weeks of fighting, Daniel found himself and his fellow fighters in a single-storey house with no food and no water, surrounded by IS fighters.
“The sniper fire started to come in and massively intensified,” he says.
“We were surrounded by IS. They were in a high rise building. We just had a parapet on the roof, just a small wall.”
He recalls how at one point a grenade hit the house sending shrapnel flying, including a glass splinter which embedded in one of his finger.
“It got to the point where we’d run out of food and water so headaches were getting constant. It was a fight for survival," he says.
The team asked for an air strike and an armoured vehicle to take them away but were instead told it wouldn’t be possible.
“They said the best thing you can do is take one round out of your AK47 and put it into your top pocket, so if it comes to it it’ll be a suicide round,” he says.
“IS were formidable. They didn’t want to die but at the same time they had that fighting head where they didn’t care if they did die.
“I very much wanted to live but wanted to fight for the cause. It was a dark time in that house.”
Eventually the YPG troops arrived to relieve Daniel and the others, and Daniel thought he was safe...before spotting an IS sniper.
“The sniper started to take potshots at us,” he says. “The rounds had been coming through the wall. I was trying to find him but he found me first through a little hole in the wall.
“The bullet bounced off the top of the wall and just skimmed right down the side of my helmet. I fell on the floor.
“The most terrifying part was after I hit the deck my mate jumped up and looked through the hole and he fired another round straight through the hole.”
“I thought I’d been shot in the face. At that point, weirdly I said ‘Pokemon blue’. I think I was reverting back to a safe place.”
Daniel attributes that strange outburst to his school days, when he would take comfort in a Pokemon game on his Gameboy.
“It’s mad how your brain works,” he says.
Incredibly he survived. But the glass splinter caused his finger to swell up and turn septic and he needed urgent medical treatment.
During his time in Syria, Daniel says he photographed and retrieved documents and hard drives that he passed onto the UK counter-terror experts, and maps, which he handed to US special forces.
This information gathering was enough to convince the YPG that Daniel was a British spy and he says he was questioned for days before they were convinced otherwise.
He continued to spend time on the front line, gathered more information and worked as a medic before he was eventually told to head home after reaching the point of exhaustion.
Daniel spent a few weeks hiking in the Pyrenees before heading back to the UK in 2018.
But before he could get back to Manchester he was arrested - at Calais - on suspicion of terror offences. Counter-terrorism officers questioned him, before letting him go.
“I was expecting it,” he says.
“The CTU were just doing their job. Because people can turn. I think everyone needs screening when they come back to the UK."
He waited eight months for a decision to be taken as to whether he would be prosecuted before the CPS decided it would “not be in the interests of justice” to continue with proceedings against him.
Then the diplomatic and military landscape changed.
In October 2019, President Trump withdrew troops from the northern region of Syria where the US had been supporting Kurdish allies.
This move led to Turkish troops moving in to expel the Kurds - which it regards as terrorists.
Daniel believe these developments led to him being locked up.
Within weeks of Turkey expelling the Kurds, Daniel Burke was arrested on suspicion of new terror offences in Folkstone.
“I’m not a terrorist; you know I am not a terrorist," he told officers. "I have done nothing but fight for this country.”
Daniel has never explicitly been told what the alleged terrorism in the case was supposed to involve, considering that he only ever fought alongside Western allies.
At the time of the arrest he was heading to Spain, having bought land near Barcelona, he says, with the intention of setting up a rehabilitation camp for people affected by PTSD.
He was also considering working with an aid group in Syria, he says, his friend Daniel Newey having already returned to the country.
But as far as the authorities were concerned, Daniel was planning to go back to Syria to fight with Kurdish militia.
And so, in December 2019, Daniel Burke found himself charged with preparing to return to Syria to fight, assisting Daniel Newey to do so, and a terror funding offence.
Mr Newey’s father Paul and his brother Sam were charged too - Paul accused of funding terrorism by sending £150 to his son Daniel, and Sam with assisting his brother Daniel to prepare for terrorism.
The Neweys were granted bail, but Daniel spent seven months on remand in a single cell at Wandsworth prison where he was locked up for 23 hours a day during the Covid-19 crisis.
All three men were due to face trial until a hearing at the Old Bailey last week when the Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop the case following a review.
Daniel is still is struggling to make sense of what happened.
After all that time fighting IS, he says it made him feel 'sick to the stomach' to be accused of terror offences.
“(In Wandsworth on remand) Someone called me Jihadi Dan - it really p***ed me off,” he says. “He said it as a joke but it caught fire. It really got to me because Jihadi John is appalling, he’s the worst of the worst.
“Being labelled as a terrorist made me feel sick to my stomach and it made me feel very disappointed in my country.”
Daniel says he never had any intention to return to Syria to fight following the invasion by Turkey - a NATO member. He admits buying his friend Daniel Newey a ticket - to Barcelona - but says it was to help him 'relax'.
The prosecution had alleged that Daniel had repeatedly shown his desire to leave the UK to return to Syria in order to fight for Kurdish militia.
As well as assisting Daniel Newey, it was alleged that Daniel had arranged with others to provide money and military equipment for terrorism and engaged in conduct in preparation to commit, prepare or instigate an act of terrorism between October 7 and December 7 last year.
Daniel believes the case against him was political and would have forced the UK to look at Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds. And his lawyers believe it came after diplomatic pressure on the UK Government from Turkey to treat the Kurdish YPG as 'terrorists'.
Defence barristers have asked the CPS for a more detailed explanation for the decision to offer no evidence. But the situation is no clearer following another court hearing on Friday (July 10).
Daniel’s lawyers say his treatment flags up a need to review the scope of the definition of 'terrorism' in UK legislation.
“Its use in recent cases to prosecute British volunteers fighting against the genocidal activities of proscribed terrorist groups in Syria arguably goes far beyond the intention of Parliament in passing the legislation, and potentially brings the law into disrepute,” they say.
Paul Newey, of Solihull, has also spoken out after his case was dropped, alongside Daniel Burke's, telling the PA news agency: “There was no crime committed because it’s not terrorism – because my son (Daniel Newey) is not a terrorist.
“He was there (in Syria) fighting with the allied forces against Isis.
“He was doing the right thing – he has gone to put his life at risk for other people for no gain to himself.”
On the decision to press charges, he added: “It was madness, laughable. It just totally beggars belief.”
The case follows the landmark trial of Aidan James, 29, from Formby, who was jailed at the Old Bailey last November for training to fight against IS in 2017.
James was found guilty of training in weapons in Iraq with the terror group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But he was cleared of attending a place of terror training with Kurdish YPG units across the border in Syria.
The court heard he was acquitted because the YPG was working in defence of the Kurdish people against the threat of a lethal and 'genocidal' Islamic State force, with British support.
Asked about Daniel Burke's case, a CPS spokesperson said: “The CPS’s function is not to decide whether a person is guilty but to make fair and independent decisions.
“These are made on a case by case basis in line with our legal test. Cases are then kept under continuous review.
“As part of that responsibility, we have concluded our legal test for a prosecution is no longer met.
“We have therefore offered no evidence in the case against Paul and Samuel Newey and Daniel Burke.”
Despite everything, Daniel Burke has no regrets about fighting IS alongside the Kurds.
“The Kurds are very welcoming,” he says. “The Kurdish people are probably the nicest people I’ve met in my life. For a country that’s been at constant war, faced genocide, how they can smile and get through day to day life I don’t know.”