This Guy From Baltimore Is Raising a Christian Army to Fight ISIS…What Could Go Wrong? Jenna McLaughlin

In late February, a Baltimore-born, self-proclaimed freedom fighter named Matthew VanDyke beamed [2] into Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show from Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. A few days earlier, he had announced [3] 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 [4] degree in security studies from Georgetown, was soon featured by media outlets across the country, including the New York Times [5], USA Today [6], the Baltimore Sun [7], and MSNBC. [8]

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 [9] that his Christian faith deepened during his six-month imprisonment. A film [10] 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 [11]—even prison time.

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