News / USA

    Foreign Fighter: American Joins Battle Against Islamic State

    Matthew VanDyke, founder of Sons of Liberty International, or SOLI, a nonprofit group helping to train a militia of Assyrian Christians, whose northern Iraq homeland has come under attack by the Islamic State group.
    Matthew VanDyke, founder of Sons of Liberty International, or SOLI, a nonprofit group helping to train a militia of Assyrian Christians, whose northern Iraq homeland has come under attack by the Islamic State group.

    Since Islamic State militants declared a "caliphate" last year in parts of Iraq and Syria, thousands of Westerners have traveled there to join the battle.

    But one American man told VOA he has joined the fight, not for the Islamic State jihadist group, but against it.

    "I am in Iraq helping to raise a Christian army to fight ISIS," declared Matthew VanDyke in a statement on Twitter this week.

    VanDyke is a bearded, blue-eyed Baltimore native with a slender build and a master's degree in security studies from Georgetown University. He has formed what he calls the Sons of Liberty International, or SOLI, a nonprofit group that is helping to train a militia made up of Assyrian Christians, whose homeland in northern Iraq has come under attack by Islamic State militants.

    The militia, the Ninevah Plains Protection Units, or NPU, is one of several small groups of Christian fighters trying to defend vulnerable locals against the Islamic State group, which has carried out mass executions and expulsions of religious minorities.

    Without help, Christians will be 'wiped out'

    The jihadi onslaught against the ancient Iraqi Christian community is part of what prompted VanDyke to go to Iraq in early December and join the fight against the Islamic State group.

    "They've suffered greatly under ISIS," VanDyke told VOA via Skype from the northern Iraqi town of Irbil. "There's tens of thousands of Christian refugees and the population of Christians in Iraq is severely threatened."

    VOA was not able to confirm VanDyke's location.

    "A lot of them have left and have become refugees and will not return to their homes. And if the Christians cannot demonstrate that they're able to secure their own lands, Christianity will be wiped out," he said.

    According to VanDyke, the best way to stop the onslaught is to equip locals to protect themselves. To do that, he is recruiting U.S. combat veterans to come to offer specialized training to the Assyrian fighters.

    So far, Vandyke said five military vets have volunteered to help train the NPU.

    "And it's going quite well," VanDyke said. "We ran a covert training camp north of Mosul for about a month."

    "The results were very positive. I have observed the Iraqi army and the Afghan army in the past, and these fighters far surpassed them in their motivation and morale and talents and how quickly they learned and how seriously they take things," he said.

    Kaldo Ramzi, an official with the NPU, confirmed to VOA that VanDyke and the Sons of Liberty International have helped provide basic training to about 500 fighters that make up the Assyrian militia.

    Ramzi said for now, the NPU was focused on protecting lands not yet taken by the Islamic State militants. But once the group receives more training, funding, weapons and fighters, he said it planned go on the offensive to retake Assyrian towns captured by the extremists.

    Not part of US government efforts in Iraq

    VanDyke and Ramzi even claimed to have met with U.S. State Department officials at a consulate in Iraq, who, they said, have given the NPU and its coordination with SOLI their full verbal support.

    When contacted by VOA, a State Department official refused to confirm such a meeting.

    "American civilians who may have traveled to Iraq to take part in military activities are not part of the United States government effort in Iraq," the official said.

    "As our travel warning indicates, we have been clear that travel to Iraq remains very dangerous and that we do not endorse nonessential travel to Iraq by private U.S. citizens," the official added.

    The NPU is trying to coordinate its efforts with at least some other local groups, including the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force that is also battling Islamic State militants. Some of the NPU training camps have been held at Peshmerga bases, for instance, according to VanDyke and Ramzi.

    But while the Peshmerga, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, has had some success in retaking Kurdish areas from the Islamic State group, the paramilitary group has been hesitant to expand its efforts to other non-Kurdish territory captured by the Islamists, leaving many Assyrians desperate for help.

    "For over six months, neither the Kurds nor the U.S. have lifted a finger to liberate towns, like [the Assyrian city of] Qaraqosh, which are a 10 minute drive from Kurdish front lines," said Michael Knights, an Iraq security specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    Other small groups of sectarian fighters are also interested only in defending their own territory, leaving no single unified anti-Islamic State fighting force and making the conflict a necessarily sectarian battle.

    Western volunteers 'not needed or useful'

    But there are concerns about whether forming explicitly Christian armies, and involving foreign volunteers in that effort, will bolster the appeal of the Islamic State group, which already claims to be fighting a holy war and battling what it sees as Western crusaders.

    Knights, though, wasn't convinced this would increase the ferocity or change the nature of the conflict.

    "ISIL is sure as hell fighting a holy war against them. They won't be put off by any U.S. volunteers who are using the same language in return," he said. "We are already at a medieval barbarity stage and ISIL did that on their own."

    Others are more skeptical of the efforts of volunteers such as VanDyke.

    "I don't think his help or others is needed or useful," sid Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst with the Baghdad-based Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform. "The NPU has Iraqi federal government support, so American advisers are already playing a role in training.

    "It definitely adds to the propaganda daesh can use and there are enough foreigners already in Iraq," continued Jiyad, using an Arabic word for the Islamic State group.

    'Not fighting a Holy war'

    But VanDyke insisted he didn't have time to argue over semantics.

    "Do we really care what ISIS' talking points are anymore? That's a luxury enjoyed by people in the Western world who aren't being beheaded or burned alive, to be worrying about whether it reinforces ISIS' talking points," he said.

    But despite sometimes using stark, sectarian language to define the conflict, VanDyke stressed he didn't see himself as a modern day crusader.

    "It's not a religious war and certainly not a crusade or anything like it," he said. "The Assyrian Christians have lived in peace with their neighbors and they will continue to. They are interested in defending their own lands against ISIS and any other terrorist threats and that's it."

    Kidnapping 'always a risk'

    VanDyke said the Assyrian Christians were "eager to get out and defend their homeland." But he wouldn't say whether the group has actually begun taking the fight to the Islamic State group. He also wouldn't make any promises that he would stay off the front lines himself.

    VanDyke does have experience with Arab militias. His 2011 involvement with Libyan revolutionaries in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi was the subject of an award winning documentary called "Point and Shoot."

    This image released by the Tribeca Film Festival shows Matthew VanDyke in a prison cell from the Marshall Curry film "Point and Shoot." The film won best documentary, April 24, 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
    This image released by the Tribeca Film Festival shows Matthew VanDyke in a prison cell from the Marshall Curry film "Point and Shoot." The film won best documentary, April 24, 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

    But for now, VanDyke said he's "way too busy" managing his Sons of Liberty organization to take on any combat role.

    "This is really a full-time-plus job. It involves a lot of moving pieces and is quite a challenge, but a rewarding challenge and something I love doing. But there's certainly been no time for me being on any front lines fighting," he said.

    When asked whether he feared being killed or kidnapped by the Islamic State group, as other foreigners have been, VanDyke said that's a chance he's willing to take.

    "It's always a risk in this work. It's something I take precautions against, but it's not going to stop me from doing this work. It's something I believe in," he said.

    Pam Dockins contributed to this story from the State Department.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 3
        Next 
    by: Santos medina from: new York city
    March 13, 2015 2:26 AM
    Where do I sign up?

    by: jerald from: Mt zion, il
    March 02, 2015 9:43 PM
    I want to join and help any way I can...this terror campaign has to stop.....it's up to us as Christians and Muslims to help stop cruelty to life let alone humans...I think they burn 1 innocent we burn 4 of those ISIS sobs...or ten...eye for an eye...ones goal is peace....till we see

    by: Greg Ines from: Florida
    February 25, 2015 3:53 PM
    Please donate to this group; as they need all the funding they can get! The Iraqis aren't exactly passing out the military equipment the U.S.A. has given to them. No, Iraq is only arming THEIR Shite Muslims.
    Therefore, donate to: Sons of Liberty International.
    I already have, and will continue to as long as I can afford it!
    God bless them and their righteous efforts!

    by: Ana from: Ethiopian
    February 25, 2015 3:27 AM
    Stopping ISS is obvious job for all of us. But the task not be from politics and religious side .It must concern only humanity and human rights.

    by: Mindy Vaughn from: Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    February 25, 2015 12:14 AM
    I would like information to allow me to donate to The Sons of Liberty. I am so proud of this group of brave individuals willing to put their lives on the line to protect these Christian targets. I saw you on Gretta's show on FOX.

    by: Gail Denham from: Oregon
    February 24, 2015 5:20 PM
    I wish to make a contribution to the Christian militia in Syria - please let me know where to send the donation. If our govt won't do it or allow our military to do it-- God bless these volunteers - and keep them safe

    by: Arthur Carver from: Virginia
    February 24, 2015 3:55 PM
    Please define the procedures that will enable me to donate! I've just sent my federal taxes to be wasted in the U..S. A. I'd donate to this just and honorable cause and feel good about how the money would be spent!

    by: Rob from: Los Angeles
    February 24, 2015 3:34 PM
    As an Assyrian-American, I can't say enough about such honorable people like Van Dyke and others who put their own lives at risk to help our people in our homeland.
    Thanks Van Duke, Assyrians will always be grateful and God bless you!

    by: Hank Balsa from: USA
    February 24, 2015 3:30 PM
    If he is captured, will he demand America come to his rescue? If so, I say forget about it. He went where a war was going on and he KNEW capture was a possibility.He has no "business" being there and if life takes the above turn, cest le vie.

    by: Peter Tringali from: Melrose MA.
    February 24, 2015 3:07 PM
    I want to make a contribution to the Sons of Liberty International but cannot locate an address of the organization. If anyone knows please send me an email. Thank You.
    Comments page of 3
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