Baltimore’s Matthew VanDyke, a UMBC alumnus, has called himself a freedom fighter. Without formal military training, VanDyke fought alongside Libyan rebels against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. He was captured and imprisoned for six months before escaping. In February, he announced that he was “in Iraq helping to raise a Christian army to fight ISIS.”
That sounded so nice and uncontroversial that Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren’s only questions for VanDyke were “What can we do to help?” and “What do you want?” But as it turns out, it’s pretty tricky to offer military support to foreign nationals as an American civilian. As Mother Jones reports, it’s potentially illegal.
VanDyke’s Sons of Liberty International brought U.S. military veterans to the northern Iraq to train Assyrian Christians to fend off the advancement of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Eventually those veterans quit, fearing that VanDyke had not secured the permission of the United States government to conduct the training. VanDyke told Mother Jones that, at first, “nobody was sanctioning” SOLI’s activities in Iraq, but later recanted, saying that he had “complied with U.S. registration requirements.”
To further muddle the story, VanDyke said that he first informed the State Department, via the United States consulate in Erbil, of his training programs a month after they had begun, and that State Department officials “encouraged us to continue working with” the Assyrian militia. The State Department denies ever giving its approval.
After quitting SOLI over concerns that the group was operating illegally, retired Army Sergeant Michael Cunningham claims VanDyke threatened him over the phone:
“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 said that didn’t happen.
In another inscrutable dramatic twist, the Assyrian militia that worked with SOLI announced that it had severed ties with VanDyke’s group back in February only to later deny having done so.
It all just goes to show that “rais[ing] a Christian army to fight ISIS” as an American civilian is not so simple as it sounds.