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Baltimore man helps Christian militia fight ISIS in Iraq

Baltimorean Matthew Van Dyke (right) is in Iraq helping a Christian militia fight ISIS. Photo courtesy of Van Dyke
Baltimorean Matthew Van Dyke (right) is in Iraq helping a Christian militia fight ISIS. Photo courtesy of Van Dyke (Courtesy Matt Van Dyke / Baltimore Sun)

Matthew Van Dyke, the native Baltimorean, self-made freedom fighter and film documentarian, emerged from the shadows last week to report his latest adventure with a Tweet: "I am in #Iraq helping to raise a Christian army to fight #ISIS."

Sounds dangerous, but at least he's not in prison.

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The first time we heard of Van Dyke was during the Arab Spring of 2011, when he was reported to be missing in Libya. At the time, he was described as a freelance journalist and filmmaker. But those callings were not what sent Van Dyke, 35, to the Middle East.

Nearly six months later, we learned that he had been taken prisoner while fighting with rebels against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan ruler eventually deposed. When Van Dyke escaped from a Tripoli prison in the late summer, he reported that he had been held in solitary confinement by guards loyal to Gadhafi. The Libyan leader was killed by rebel militia in October 2011.

After that, Van Dyke moved into Syria to join the rebellion against the Assad regime, again as an armed freedom fighter in camos and head scarf. He has made two films about his adventures.

I last heard from him in September, when Van Dyke spoke about his relationships with the two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by jihadist militants associated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Van Dyke had met Foley and Sotloff during his travels three years earlier in Libya.

At the time of our last conversation, Van Dyke had turned his attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq who were forced by the Islamic State to flee their homes. He had already helped raise money for Christian refugee relief and said he was planning to travel to Iraq to help with that effort.

But Van Dyke took a deeper plunge into the conflict.

"I have been working to help raise and train a Christian army of 2,000 men to fight ISIS in Iraq," he wrote in an email Saturday. "My new company, Sons of Liberty International, provides free military consulting and training to populations facing threats from terrorists, insurgent groups and oppressive regimes.

"The international system has failed communities around the world in recent years, and there needs to be an organization capable of rapid on-the-ground action to step in and help when the international community fails to do so."

Van Dyke, with no known ties to the U.S. military, said he opened a camp north of Mosul in December to help train a Christian militia known as Nineveh Plain Protection Units, which formed last summer to defend the ancient Iraqi Christian communities in the Nineveh plains. According to various reports, the militia has the support of an ethnic Assyrian diaspora, including Americans who have donated thousands of dollars to the militia.

Van Dyke contacted me from a northern city where ISIS fighters attacked last week; they were repelled by Kurdish forces. He said he emerged from the shadows this time to help the Christian militia raise additional funds.

"I had mostly walked away from the public eye, social media," Van Dyke said. "And I was perfectly content to get back to doing important work in the field, and doing it as quietly as possible. ... I had hoped to continue keeping this work secret but the [Nineveh Plain Protection Units] wants to go public to help with international support and raising funds for the army."

No American advisers are playing a role in the training except for Sons of Liberty International, and the Christian militia does not receive support from the Iraqi government, he said.

Kaldo Oghanna, an Iraqi Christian politician and spokesman for Nineveh Plain Protection Units, confirmed Van Dyke's involvement in the first wave of volunteers.

Van Dyke says he recruited American combat veterans to work with the Christian militia at a former U.S. military base in northeastern Iraq. The training lasted about one month, he said, and finished with a graduation of about 350 militia last week.

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While expressing sympathy for the cause, some Iraq experts have questioned the wisdom of the formation of a sectarian militia in an already bitterly divided country.

"Christians have suffered mightily throughout the Middle East," says Steven David, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert in international security and civil conflict. "They are vulnerable, exposed populations without any great power protectors."

But, David said, starting up Christian militias "plays into the [Islamic State] narrative that they are in a holy, religious war." David also questioned what good Van Dyke and his associates could do, and warned that they risked becoming ISIS hostages.

"It is a concern," Van Dyke said, when I asked about that. "But it is an acceptable risk to help these people. ... And we're armed."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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