In 2013, VICE spoke to Matthew VanDyke, an American documentary-maker who decided to pick up a gun and fight against Gaddafi in the Libyan revolution. His story is extraordinary. Taking his place at the frontline in a recent Middle-eastern conflicts, Matthew lives a life that makes Hemingway's look a little dull. He's traveled North Africa and the Middle-East by motorbike, visited Bin Laden's home, and been taken as a prisoner of war. (He escaped when rebels and other prisoners freed him.)
In the two years since his last conversation with VICE, VanDyke has seen two of his close friends, James Foley and Steven Sutloff, murdered. He has set up his own private security firm, Sons of Liberty International (SOLI), an organization that is actively fighting ISIS in Iraq, and he's kickstarted humanitarian projects and trained hundreds of Iraqi militiamen.
VICE decided to catch up with VanDyke and learn more about SOLI; the lines between activist, filmmaker, and fighter; and what VanDyke believes it will take to defeat ISIS.
VICE: Hi Matthew. Can you tell us about Sons of Liberty International (SOLI)?
Matthew VanDyke: Sons of Liberty International is the first military contracting firm operating on non-profit principles, providing free security consulting and training services to vulnerable populations to enable them to defend themselves against terrorists, insurgents, and oppressive regimes.
We will step in where the international community has failed, reacting quickly to security crises and enabling local forces to defend their own communities.
Where is SOLI currently involved? What kind of impact is the organization having?
SOLI is currently active in Iraq, is in negotiations with a militia in Syria, and has received requests for our assistance in three other regions of the world. We were instrumental in the creation of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian Iraqi militia based in northern Iraq. We have advised and trained them since their inception, serving as their closest advisors from December 2014 through May 2015, advising on everything from personnel decisions to their force structure, right down to the small details like the design of their insignia and what camo pattern they should be using. We have trained an entire 330 man battalion of the NPU. [We've also trained] their sergeants and officers in a special leadership course led by a former West Point instructor who serves as SOLI's lead trainer. We also served as a liaison between [the NPU] and US State Department personnel in Erbil. We have also supplied them, and as recently as September 2015 were still providing them, with some funding.
Just as important as our advising and training, however, is the pressure we have put on Western governments to support the Assyrian militias in Iraq, using our strong media presence to publicly expose the complete lack of government support for Assyrian Christians in Iraq. We have indications that these efforts have had an impact and that some government support for one or more of the Assyrian militias might be coming in the near future.
Anyone who kills friends of mine has made himself my target. I won't stop until ISIS is destroyed.
You launched SOLI in late 2014, not long after the horrible murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of ISIS in Syria. You had close friendships with both these men. How did their deaths impact you personally?
I met James Foley in Libya a few days after I escaped from prison in Tripoli, and we soon became good friends. He became my roommate at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, where the Libyan rebel government had given me a room—it had an extra bed so I invited James to stay there. When I returned to combat, I used to take him and many other journalists, including John Cantlie, in my military vehicle to the front lines so they could have better access and report safely. I last saw James in Aleppo a couple of weeks before he and John Cantlie were kidnapped, when he was reporting for GlobalPost and I was working on my film Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.
I met Steven Sotloff in Libya in 2012, and had dinner with him in Washington, DC just a few weeks before he was kidnapped in Syria.
These were good friends and great men, and their deaths had a life-changing impact on me. I had been working on Syrian Revolution issues before their deaths, but after they were beheaded by ISIS, I focused my work on combating ISIS. Just as my personal friendships with Libyans had been the catalyst for my action in Libya, my friendships with James and Steven were the catalyst for my action against ISIS. It had become personal, in addition to ideological.
How did it impact you as an activist in establishing SOLI?
Anyone who kills friends of mine has made himself my target. I won't stop until ISIS is destroyed, and SOLI is going to do whatever it takes to help make that happen.
In fighting ISIS on the frontlines, SOLI has concentrated on helping Christian militias in Iraq. Is there a particular reason that Christian communities are receiving your support?
I chose to work with Christian militias because they were being overlooked by the international community and weren't being helped by anyone.
Iraqi Christians (Assyrians) have been persecuted in Iraq for over a decade; their people [are] fleeing Iraq, going from a population of around 1.3 million in 2003 to perhaps 300,000 now. Their entire existence is at stake. Northern Iraq is the homeland of the Assyrian people, who have been there for thousands of years, long before Arabs or Kurds. They are losing their ancestral homeland as their people flee to other countries because neither the Arabs nor the Kurds have protected them so they feel they have no choice but to leave.
SOLI is helping them form a military force to defend themselves so that their people will have the confidence to remain and not lose their homeland. Our support of the Assyrian people is about far more than just ISIS.
In addition, Iraqi Christians have suffered greatly during the conflict with ISIS, and are highly motivated. Morale and motivation are decisive factors when training an army, making this community ideal for doing so and fighting against ISIS.
You're first and foremost an activist, and show a relentless commitment wherever you're involved. Are you personally working with people on the ground, specifically in Iraq?
Yes, I was the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) closest military advisor from December 2014 to May 2015. I worked very closely with their leadership to help establish and prepare the NPU for combat. I bring a unique perspective as an advisor, combining an academic background (a Master's degree in Security Studies with a Middle East concentration), with my experiences fighting in Libya in a conflict very similar to those currently taking place in Syria and Iraq.
Although my primary duties are leading SOLI and serving as an advisor to militia leadership, I also participated in training the NPU on occasion, and assisted with the development of the training curriculum and its implementation. The training programs, however, are designed and run by our ex-military trainers, as this is their field of expertise.
I also have contact with Assyrian Iraqi activists, assisting with humanitarian projects for the civilian population in Northern Iraq.
What challenges are faced by the people you meet there?
The Assyrian people and Christianity in Iraq are being erased from the country, both by ISIS and by other groups in Iraq that seek to marginalize and control the Assyrian/Christian population. SOLI stands shoulder to shoulder with the Assyrian people in the face of the myriad challenges they are confronting, which extend beyond just ISIS. These include political and security challenges that will affect them both now and after ISIS is defeated, which is why we are providing them with long-term, sustainable solutions for their self-defense.
Other challenges they face are internally displaced persons, refugees, the loss of their lands to ISIS, economic difficulty, and widespread traumatization of their community.
What is the most powerful experience you've had helping those abandoned by international communities?
My most powerful experience was my military service in the early days of the Libyan Revolution, before the involvement of NATO. There I saw the best and bravest of the Libyan people stand up against all odds, grab a weapon, and jump in pickup trucks heading to the front lines to face Gaddafi's tanks and jets. It was an honor to serve with such men.
Many of those that help with SOLI's training program are army veterans with practical field experience and expertise. What motivates them to become involved?
So far all of our personnel have been US military veterans, though we have had applicants from the UK and Europe. We have nearly 1,000 applicants, most US veterans and some of whom are retired high-ranking officers.
Applicants also include former Special Forces and other exceptional candidates who could make a small fortune in military contracting but are willing to volunteer for SOLI because they believe in the cause of helping the defenseless to defend themselves and defeat ISIS.
SOLI is funded through the charitable giving and fundraising. Are there any groups of people that are particularly generous to the cause?
SOLI is not incorporated as a non-profit but operates on non-profit principles by offering its services for free to those who need them, and SOLI is funded by generous contributions from people around the world. Our contributors come from over 20 countries, but the vast majority are Americans.
American Christians have been especially supportive. Everyone who makes a contribution to SOLI is having a tangible impact on the fight against ISIS and is part of a movement that takes action when the international community fails. And every dollar counts. SOLI is more efficient than governments, but our budget depends mostly on contributions.
Is it surreal to return to the US or West after long periods in Iraq and Syria?
No, not at all. I enjoy my time in the USA and have no difficulty transitioning between the two worlds. I can be in camo working with an Iraqi militia, and the next day in a suit meeting with officials in Washington, DC.
The fight against ISIS feels, in some ways, like it has just started. Is frontline activism a life's work for you?
Sons of Liberty International is likely going to remain my life's work. SOLI is innovative and effective. It has the ability to affect change on the ground in conflicts around the world. We intend to expand SOLI over the next few years until there is no terrorist group or dictator safe from being in the crosshairs of a group that we're ready and able to support.
We're able to do this far more effectively and efficiently than the government. The US government spent $250 million to train 60 Syrian rebel fighters, while SOLI spent around $50,000 to train 330 Iraqi fighters. Our model is one for the 21st century and we intend to have a significant impact on conflicts around the world in the coming years. The West may get tired of Syria, Iraq, and ISIS, but it is a daily reality over there and it isn't going away.