Wow. Our experiment is off to a great start—let's see if we can finish it off sooner than expected.
In late February, a Baltimore-born, self-proclaimed freedom fighter named Matthew VanDyke beamed into Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show from Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region. A few days earlier, he had announced on Facebook that he was in Iraq to "raise and train a Christian army to fight" ISIS and that he had formed a company called Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) to provide "free military consulting and training to local forces fighting terrorists and oppressive regimes." For months, the so-called Islamic State had terrorized Iraq's Assyrian Christians, forcing many to flee their homes and villages and seek safe haven among the Kurds. With ISIS on the march across Iraq and Syria—and making headlines for its brutal beheadings of journalists and aid workers—the story of an American taking an on-the-ground role in the fight sparked a media frenzy. VanDyke, who is 35 and holds a master's degree in security studies from Georgetown, was soon featured by media outlets across the country, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, and MSNBC.
This wasn't the first time VanDyke had become a media sensation. A few years earlier VanDyke had made international headlines after he was captured in Libya, where he had been fighting alongside rebel forces to overturn the regime of Moammar Qaddafi. He eventually escaped, and he would later say that his Christian faith deepened during his six-month imprisonment. A film about VanDyke, who had traveled across the Arab world by motorcycle, won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014.
"So, tell me what we can do to help?" Fox's Van Susteren asked VanDyke, as he described his latest venture. VanDyke, who sported a beard and black suit and tie, made a plea for funding to continue the effort. "We're really stalled right now, unable to really continue," he explained. "I've put about $12,000 of my own money in and I'm going broke doing this, so we really need donations from the public to help these Christians defend themselves and take the fight against ISIS."
But as VanDyke solicited donations, his operation was in trouble. By the end of February, the military director of the Iraqi Christian militia VanDyke's company was training would issue a press release formally severing the group's ties with the American (though he would later rekindle his relationship with VanDyke and SOLI). Meanwhile, the initial crop of US military veterans VanDyke had brought to Iraq as trainers had abruptly quit*, citing concerns that VanDyke may not have obtained US government authorization to provide military training to foreign nationals, as required by US law. Flouting such rules can carry massive fines—even prison time.
Asked how he had prepared for this training operation, in terms of obtaining permission from US or Iraqi authorities, VanDyke told Mother Jones that initially "nobody was sanctioning it." He added, "Part of the whole purpose of SOLI is to step in where governments had failed, so going and asking permission from the governments that have already failed is not particularly productive." (VanDyke later said that his company had "complied with US registration requirements.")
VanDyke says his company is "crowdfunding a war against ISIS." And SOLI notes on its website that it is "the first security contracting firm run as a non-profit." But elsewhere on the site, the company notes that "Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) is not a non-profit or 501c3; support is not tax deductible. SOLI is a company that operates on a non-profit business model." VanDyke won't disclose how much he has raised or spent. Doing so, he maintains, would put lives in danger: "I can't give a number for how much we raised, because I don't want our personnel kidnapped…The moment we announce what's in the account, then our people become more of a target, and then we get grabbed and that's what they're gonna ask for."
Last summer, ISIS began targeting the Assyrians of northern Iraq, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Militants massacred civilians, blew up ancient artifacts, and bulldozed settlements, including the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud. Horrified by the slaughter—and by the beheadings of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, both of whom VanDyke knew—he began contacting Iraqi Christian political leaders and offering his services to train a militia to repel the Islamic State from their territory. VanDyke wasn't the only one with this idea. A California-based nonprofit group called the American Mesopotamian Organization had undertaken a similar effort, dubbed "Restore Nineveh Now," to help the Assyrians defend themselves. Both VanDyke and the AMO would separately begin working with an upstart militia group that eventually dubbed itself the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU).
After securing the backing of some local leaders, VanDyke, who has no formal military training, began recruiting US military veterans to forge the NPU into a well-disciplined fighting force. One of his first calls was to Michael Cunningham, a retired Army sergeant who was featured in Restrepo, Sebastian Junger's 2010 documentary about the fierce fighting in Afghanistan's Korengal valley. VanDyke and Cunningham had met at a film festival, where Marshall Curry's documentary on VanDyke, Point and Shoot, was screened alongside Restrepo.
"How do you feel about going over and training a Christian army to fight ISIS?" Cunningham recalls VanDyke asking him. Cunningham, who was finding it difficult to adjust to civilian life, tentatively signed on. But, he says, he knew VanDyke had some significant groundwork to cover before they could begin their work. Most important, VanDyke had to get formal approval from the State Department. The Arms Export and Control Act requires US citizens to obtain State Department licensing before offering formal or informal military services to foreigners. This includes providing training or military equipment. A subsection of the law known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations stipulates that licenses should be denied unless the activities are "in the interest of the security and foreign policy of the US."
Cunningham says he repeatedly pressed VanDyke to obtain State Department approval. "I asked him every month leading up to our departure," he recalls. "He was like, 'No problem, I know all these people, and everything will be fine.'"
Cunningham's worries persisted throughout November, as VanDyke organized their trip, but his misgivings were eclipsed by a personal crisis. Cunningham's relationship fell apart, he was unemployed, and he was crashing on the couches of friends and relatives. "I could be homeless, or go to Iraq," he remembers. "So I left."
As VanDyke and Cunningham finalized their plans, the American Mesopotamian Organization, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to champion the interests of the Assyrian people, had been actively fundraising to equip and train the NPU, the same local force that VanDyke planned to work with. The AMO would eventually amass at least $250,000 to fund the militia, though the group, aware of legal concerns, was careful about how these funds were spent. It did not supply weapons, according to Jeff Gardner, the spokesman for the AMO's Restore Nineveh Now project. The AMO planned to use some of the funds to hire a military contractor to train the NPU in basic security procedures and community policing techniques. (According to Gardner, the AMO was not required to receive State Department approval because it would not be supplying weapons or providing military training.)
When VanDyke entered the picture, the NPU decided to work with both him and the AMO. VanDyke's arrival on the scene caught the AMO off guard. "I did not know that he existed," says David Lazar, the AMO's founder. "I had never heard of him." Lazar asked Gardner to keep tabs on VanDyke and check his background.
On December 10, when Cunningham and VanDyke arrived in Erbil, the NPU had already assembled an initial crop of about 25 men for them to train. Working out of the small Assyrian village of Sharafiya, Cunningham put the recruits through a US-military style boot camp. Each day started with physical conditioning followed by what VanDyke describes as "combat simulations," which included training in general military tactics, such as how to maneuver under fire. According to a training plan obtained by Mother Jones, the program also provided instruction in "room clearing," "military operations in urban terrain," "mortar employment," and "communicating and coordinating targets." (VanDyke says SOLI never provided training in "mortar employment.")
SOLI's training program was "secret," VanDyke says, "and it actually remained that way for December, January, and February." He says it was important to keep the program under wraps for safety reasons, since the Islamic State's stronghold in Mosul was less than 25 miles away from its training camp. According to VanDyke, he ultimately revealed the existence of the training effort—though not the location of where it was happening—because he was running out of money and needed to solicit funds to keep the project going.
During the first month of the program, VanDyke says, the State Department had no idea his training operation existed. He eventually met with State Department officials at the consulate in Erbil to explain what he was doing. "When we went to the State Department and told them we'd been in country over a month training this force, it was a surprise to them," he notes. "Essentially we were running a covert camp."
VanDyke says the State Department officials he met with responded positively to his training effort: "They encouraged us to continue working with NPU leadership."
But a State Department official says, "We have checked with State Department personnel at our Consulate in Erbil and they have conveyed no such" approval of VanDyke's training program.
In interviews with Mother Jones, VanDyke repeatedly said the State Department was initially unaware of his training efforts. He subsequently stated in an email that "Sons of Liberty International complied with US registration requirements prior to signing a contract with the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), as required by U.S. law." The State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls—with which all US-based military and security firms planning to provide services overseas must register—does not make public its registrants. But according to that office, approved registrants receive a certification form that they are free to share. VanDyke did not respond to a request to provide this documentation.
David Ellison, an arms-trafficking-law expert and consultant, said the penalties for providing military training to foreigners without State Department approval can be harsh, including millions of dollars in fines and possible criminal prosecution. "This all sounds very bad," Ellison says of VanDkye's training program. Scott Gearity, an expert on the Arms Export and Control Act at BSG Consulting, says that VanDyke's activities might pose a problem: "This doesn't seem like a very ambiguous case."
In the past, the Justice Department has aggressively prosecuted military contractors who violate the Export and Control Act. One high-profile case involved the infamous military contractor Blackwater, which in 2010 was forced to pay the US government $42 million for violations that included offering "defense services" to the government of the Sudan "without first having obtained a license from the US Department of State," according to an FBI press release on the settlement. As part of this case, Blackwater was charged with illegally providing training to Canadian law enforcement and military personnel.
Soon after Christmas in 2014, the initial group of 25 NPU recruits graduated from SOLI's training program, and VanDyke returned to the United States to fundraise. Cunningham stayed behind to train the next class of recruits. The NPU had received hundreds of applications from Iraqi Christians eager to receive military training, and it chose 350 to participate in the next session. To accommodate this larger class, the Kurds gave VanDyke use of a former US base known as the Manila Training Center.
Because this contingent would be far too large for Cunningham to train on his own, he and VanDyke agreed that he would recruit a few friends—all of them US military veterans with experience in the Middle East—to join him in Iraq. The men would be unpaid. "They were volunteers, and they knew they were volunteers from the start," VanDyke says. "We were going to try to fundraise, and if we fundraised, we had maybe the possibility of paying trainers in the future. But none of these guys came over expecting payment and wanting payment…The entire point of SOLI was to be all-volunteer."
According to Cunningham and two of the trainers he recruited, they were each under the impression that VanDyke was trying to raise money to pay them. "I put off signing up for school for this," says Miguel Gutierrez, a former Army corporal, who also appeared in Restrepo. "I got hopes and dreams. I didn't get paid."
By mid-January, with the second training program underway, Cunningham and the other trainers grew increasingly worried that they might be operating in Iraq illegally. Cunningham was concerned enough that when it was time to provide firearms training to the NPU recruits, he brought in members of the Kurdish military to teach them how to shoot. (In an interview, VanDyke dismissed the concerns of SOLI's trainers: "They perhaps were worried about getting in trouble when they came back for what they had done, which is ridiculous.")
In late January, the American Mesopotamian Organization's Gardner visited Iraq to check on the NPU's progress. He was also curious to find out more about VanDyke.
When Gardner visited the Manila Training Center, VanDyke was still in the United States. But Gardner did meet Cunningham and the other SOLI trainers, who unloaded on VanDyke. "They told me, 'We cannot work with this guy,'" Gardner recalls. The trainers complained that VanDyke's operation was disorganized, unprofessional—and possibly illegal.
Based on Gardner's conversations with the trainers and others at the training camp, the AMO urged the NPU to cut its ties with VanDyke. The militia's leaders agreed to do so after SOLI's second training program ended in early February, according to Gardner.
By mid-February, Cunningham and the three trainers he'd recruited quit. Cunningham says he delivered the news to VanDyke in a phone call, telling him, "I don't want to work with you; I can't work with you." According to Cunningham, VanDyke told him he had "fucked up real bad" for quitting. In a subsequent conversation, Cunningham claims, VanDyke made a loosely veiled threat: "I'll never forget: He says, 'I met with my [Kurdish secret] police friend and I told him about the situation between you and me, and he wanted to do something about it…You know [they] don't have the best human rights record. I tried to call it off.'" VanDyke denies threatening Cunningham and calls him a "disgruntled former associate."
On February 28—five days after VanDyke went on Greta Van Susteren's show to tout his effort to build a Christian militia—the NPU issued a press release stating that it was no longer working with him. "The rank and leadership of the NPU wishes to clarify that Mr. VanDyke and his company Sons of Liberty International are no longer being employed in any capacity by the Nineveh Plains Protection Units," the release noted, "and have not been since February 19, 2015."
Gevara Zaya, the NPU's military director, also sent a letter directly to VanDyke. "Your services are no longer being employed in any capacity," he wrote. "Please refrain from using any image, title, or reference to the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) in any capacity, commercial or otherwise." (VanDyke says he never received this letter.)
In an email interview, Zaya said that he was surprised and aggravated by VanDyke's media blitz. Though he was satisfied with SOLI's work at the training camp, Zaya noted, he believed that VanDyke was inflating his role with the NPU. "He was appearing in the media and spoke like he [was] our savior," Zaya wrote.
A few weeks later, in late April, Zaya sent a text message to Mother Jones to say that he wanted to revise his earlier comments about VanDyke: "While we were glad to have Matthew speak good about us…Matthew and us do not want people to think…he was a leader of NPU. [The] press release [was] to make clear that he is not a leader of NPU." Contrary to the NPU's press release and his letter to VanDyke, Zaya now said the NPU had never cut ties with VanDyke and that the NPU was considering a new training proposal from SOLI.
The AMO was dismayed that VanDyke was back in the picture, and continued to press NPU leaders to disassociate themselves from him. "The Assyrian people have suffered enough," Gardner says. "What they need are selfless men and women who have the skill and dedication to build a unified and peaceful future for all of Iraq's people. VanDyke's misadventures with a camcorder will likely have the opposite effect."
On May 11, VanDyke once again took to Facebook, this time to announce that he had launched a "leadership training" program for NPU sergeants and officers, led by a "former West Point instructor." He linked to a Sons of Liberty International press release, in which VanDyke was quoted saying, "The Christian community in Iraq has been pushed around for a long time, and it needs to stop. I have the right connections and experience to help."
Days later, SOLI issued another press release noting that VanDyke's training program had been cut short. In a press release, VanDyke reported that the NPU had been barred access to the Assyrian Democratic Movement's headquarters, where the training of fighters was taking place.* He blamed the AMO for this development. "The result is that SOLI cannot provide the NPU with additional free training or resources…at this time," VanDyke said in the press release. "Denying the NPU access to a training program before they are deployed against ISIS is unconscionable. It will likely result in the death of NPU soldiers."
Undeterred, VanDyke was meeting with other Christian forces in Iraq to pitch his services, according to the release. "SOLI looks forward to its next mission to support the Christian community of Iraq in their fight against ISIS," he said.
Clarification: According to VanDyke, there was a fifth trainer who left the program on good terms.
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately said that VanDyke reported that the ADM's ban had been directed at SOLI.
This article has been revised.