About Matthew VanDyke
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Information about Matthew VanDyke's award-winning documentary film about the war in Syria can be found at the film's website:
More information about VanDyke's work in Syria:
Among the best articles yet written about Matthew VanDyke appeared in Baltimore City Paper on July 10, 2013. It was the cover story and an in-depth feature about VanDyke, his fighting in the Libyan revolution, working for the Syrian revolution, and his plans for the future. Click on the image below to read it:
Another great article about Matthew VanDyke appeared in Das Magazin on 2/23/13. Written by Fritz Schaap, who spent a few days with VanDyke in the USA, it is an in-depth article about why VanDyke does what he does, why he fought in Libya, and his current work in Syria.
The original article with photos is at Das Magazin's website here (in German), but an English translation appears below:
Syria Needs You
Said Matthew VanDyke and Drove Off
As an American civilian in the war against dictators he found the meaning of life
Matthew VanDyke speaks only a few words in German. Skimmed UHT milk, UHT and homogenized. Not more than 0.3% fat, too. He knows the words in eight languages. They are on a milk carton from the Frischli company. VanDyke has read them again and again. Against the solitude, the silence, against the madness. At some point the guards left him the box. After some months, he still has it.
It now stands next to a few other souvenirs of recent years, in one of the boxes that VanDyke dragged from the basement of his home in Baltimore. An attempt at a museum. His own small exhibition of extremes. Between a plush sofa set and a piano full of pictures of him – most of them in foreign countries, most of them in uniforms, decorated by the proud mother: the lock of his cell, a stone from the ruins of Osama bin Laden’s house in Jalalabad, dishes from Gaddafi palaces, flags and posters of Libya and Syria. VanDyke distributed his life on the floor, then says goodbye to his mother and goes, while his life is left on the carpet. The American every day, so mundane things like cleaning – they no longer interest large VanDyke. His life has become a revolution, he says, and he goes home.
VanDyke is a bit lost on the first floor of one of these small red brick houses on the East Coast. Outside the windows Baltimore takes the color of iron, and VanDyke, a large thin man with sunken cheeks, goes into the kitchen, pulls out a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and comes back to the room. On the wall a new Libya flag and a shelf with a glass trophy, a prize that the commander of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade got for his services in Gaddafi’s overthrow. He gave it to VanDyke, now it is displayed with a few bottles of absinthe. Next to the TV, on a large white board to-do list, is written in black permanent marker: to help my friends, to experience history. VanDyke thinks big.
He sips a can of beer and sits in front of the computer before the recording of his life, for his life is far away at the time. In the pictures and videos another man is seen. Energetically grinning, full of adrenaline, full of energy. A man behind machine guns in the war.
A man with a mission.
“Why Doesn't Anybody Help Us?”
In his real life, VanDyke is a Libyan rebel inmate of Gaddafi’s prisons, propaganda filmmaker of the Syrian revolution. In his real life, he is Matthew VanDyke – freedom fighter, revolutionary. He is here in America because of his girlfriend and because he needs someone to help him to finish editing his film, a film of the Free Syrian Army, FSA, should get more money in the coffers, more money for weapons and ammunition. In November 2012 he was in Aleppo. On his computer, a monstrous black machine, hundreds of gigabytes of material from Syria are stored. VanDyke is now part of this revolution, he says. To understand this, one must go back a few years. In life. And in his videos. The two go hand in hand with him often. VanDyke has been filming his life for years.
In 2007, he set out with his black Kawasaki KLR650 to drive from Spain through the Arab world. Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and then Iraq. He knows the region, at least on paper. He has studied Middle East Security Studies at Georgetown and graduated summa cum laude. The road to the CIA was actually foreshadowed. “I wanted to do James Bond shit overseas,” he says. But then began the war in Iraq, which he declined. Not the idea of toppling Saddam, but an invasion he could not support, he would not be part of it. He started to plan his own James Bond shit.
In 2009, he came home from Iraq. “But I realized that I cannot make any adventure biker film of Iraq that doesn’t include the war. ” In 2010 he flew back and bought a black 250cc MZ Kanuni and met the photographer Dan Britt in Baghdad. “Someone who had the balls, who could follow through. Someone who was made enough. The plan: a motorcycle ride through two war zones. Iraq and Afghanistan.
VanDyke and his buddy Dan buy a second motorcycle, again an old MZ, and drive from Baghdad through Iran to Afghanistan. Two bearded young men with single-barrel shotguns under their coats. Dressed like Taliban in Afghanistan, to protect themselves, not to attract attention. “Warzone Bikers” – the name of the film that they make.
Why Did You Do That?
VanDyke smiles in response to the question and shows a film. A curly blond man, naked upper body, too tight 80s shorts, crawls with a rifle on his back crossing a river. Standing on a jeep behind a heavy machine gun and he shoots into the African bush and sails a little later on a two-master, alongside a blonde lolling in the sun on the open sea. “Alby Mangels,” says VanDyke and smiles. “I wanted to do a damn good new Alby-Mangels-adventure film. Therefore this trip. The idea was just the film, our own television series.” Alby Mangels was known in the 80s as a traveling adventurer cameraman. He made more than 70 films. VanDyke has about 30 of them.
However, he put his own movie to the side, not even finished editing, even though producers were interested. For no sooner is he back, sitting in front of the computer, cataloging the material and on the phone with television producers, as friends report from Libya. Muiz, one of the bikers from Tripoli, whom he has known since 2008, writes to him: “Tell your friends about me if I die.” And, “Why doesn’t anybody help us?” The Libyan Revolution had begun. Other friends come forward. The tenor is the same.
“Something happened to me. I could not keep working. I had the feeling that I need to go to Libya. I had no real friends anymore in America because of my long trips. But I did in Libya.” The next day he sits on a plane to Cairo. On 27 February 2011 he landed. Within 2 days the adventure junkie had turned into a revolutionary. Someone who was willing to kill for a good cause too, the weapon was not a deterrent, but to shoot. Someone who, as it turned out, had found the meaning in his life.
From Cairo, he calls Nouri Fonas, a friend from Benghazi. Nouri tells him to come to him. “It may not be the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but I have to…” he says in a video message to his mother and girlfriend before he leaves.
The last time VanDyke saw Nouri he was a hippie. When he finally arrives in early March 2011 in Benghazi, he does not recognize him. His old hippie friend Nouri is now a fighter. Before him stands a man in army fatigues and bulletproof vest. Nouri is the scion of a prominent family in Benghazi, now he is part of the rebels, and his surname is VanDyke’s ticket to war.
“I came to Libya to fight, but I did not know if that would be possible. If they would let me as a foreigner to easily fight in their ranks. I would have gone even to drive ambulances, I would have done anything to help, but thanks to Nouri I could fight,” he says with a beer in hand, while on the computer screen are flickers of war.
Nouri and his group, eight men, have two pickup trucks, one badly damaged. They change tires, drive the car into a military base, move the disks to repair what they can. “If it takes a year, it takes a year, I’ll still be here. I’m not leaving until Libya is free,” VanDyke tells Nouri, leaning on a pickup truck.
They go into the destroyed weapons and ammunition depot at Rajma, in the east of the country. Uprooted trees lying in the dust. A sea of green empty ammunition boxes. Shredded. Destroyed barracks. In the rubble, they are looking for weapons and ammunition. Load the pickups full, get two Dushkas, heavy machine guns of Russian design, and weld it back on the truck.
166 Days in Prison
Nouri remains in Benghazi to go to the base. VanDyke and a few other men go on a reconnaissance mission in Brega. The window of the jeep open, the wind makes the adventurer in him smile. Here we go: Brega is quiet, a few trucks with rebels drive through the streets, women do the shopping, children play in front of houses. Nothing suggests an attack. The sky is blue, a few clouds, no jets. The men have a time frame of a few days for Gaddafi’s troops to arrive. VanDyke’s truck drives through the streets, the inhabitants call welcome to the rebels and one brings a tray of coffee to the car. Then VanDyke’s memory is broken.
He wakes up briefly, finds himself in a car, tied, the ropes cutting off the blood. He falls back into unconsciousness, comes to on the cold stone floor of a room by himself, he does not see. “Take the blindfold off, and you’re a dead man,” a young man says in English. Blood was running down his temple. “I’m done,” he thinks, as a few days ago Gaddafi has burned 50 rebels in Bin Jawad. Nouri told him that one evening in Benghazi, as they planned the war – he remembers the gesture that Nouri made, the imaginary match that he lighted and dropped, then he loses consciousness again.
VanDyke sits at his computer, on which are the videos from Libya to prove that what he says is true. He seems controlled. It is important to him, how he comes across. And yet it seems all the experience affects him closer than he admits. Big sweat stains forming on his T-shirt, he massages his knuckles, and as always when he’s nervous, he sniffs, as if he had just chased a line Bolivian marching powder through the nose. He drinks from the beer.
The moment he regains conscience in Libya he hears his camera playing. Left of him is the translator, before him a table. Then his camera. “CIA? Mossad?” The questions cut the deadly silence. And then he begins to hear himself say on the camera: “Nouri, you remind me every day why we are fighting against the regime.” My death sentence, he thinks.
VanDyke Is A Hero
They fly him to Tripoli. Throw him in the back of a pickup and drive him to the Maktab al-Nasser prison. “I did not think that I’m coming out of there again. I was in uniform, I was caught in a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun and a Soviet anti-tank weapon on the back. I had videos on the camera in which I say that I support the revolution. I saw no way that I could have gotten out of it.”
85 days he sits in a small cell, 1 metre long 2.5 metres broad, the walls gray, no lights, just the little bit that passes through the tiny round window in the ceiling. He wonders what he will say when they interrogate him. When his night comes. He hears the interrogations of others. Their screams. But they did not interrogate him. Stroke for stroke, he carves into the wall, and soon there are more lines than any other prisoner in front of him.
He begins to pray. He chews his fingernails down and files with a plastic shard his toenails small so they did not – like George Clooney in the film “Syriana” – tear out the nails. But nothing happens. Three times a day he is allowed to use the toilet at the end of the hallway. The blue of the walls of the hall and the yellow of the ceiling, the only colors in his everyday life. Twice a day he gets food. At night, he chases the black bugs that crawl around on the small mattress, passing under the door of his cell. Nothing else happening.
At the 85th day he gets moved elsewhere. Nobody tells him why. A man blindfolds him and brings him out. He hopes for his release. He travels to Abu Salim prison, also in Tripoli. At the prison Gaddafi massacred 1,200 prisoners in 1996. There is no explanation.
His obsessive compulsive disorder, which he has since he was 16, is worse. His thoughts are always about the same thing. He begins to flush plastic down the toilet, thinking that if he does not destroy it, there could be other prisoners who will use it to kill themselves. He clogged the toilet and flooded the cell. His mind starts to go haywire. He sings Guns n’ Roses songs, sings the national anthem, to keep himself occupied. He runs up and down the cell to cause himself exhaustion to sleep more, and he reads the label on the milk cartons. Again and again. Eight languages: “skimmed UHT milk, UHT, and homogenized.” He feels bad for his mother, for his girlfriend. No one knows whether he is alive or dead. “But I had no self-pity. I knew that this can happen. Because I went there to overthrow a regime, you have to expect something like this. I knew that was the right thing."
The matter has since become his life. The thing is freedom. The thing is revolution. That’s why he didn’t fly back to America when he would have been able to. After another 81 days, on 24 August 2011, there is a riot in the prison, the inmates run the corridors, VanDyke thinks there are guards. He hears screams, now they come for me he thinks and knows only what happens when his door lock is cut off. He flees. He ran into the yard, the sun is blinding, VanDyke stops to take a piss. He heard gunfire and screams that sound like death. He runs in the other direction and escapes. The bodies of the men with whom he was captured are found months after the war in a mass grave.
He remains in Tripoli, waiting for Nouri. He does not listen to those who advise him to fly to the U.S. “In prison I got an idea of how it is under such regimes. I knew the importance of the revolution,” he says. And again: “I believe in the cause.”
Why Did He Not Come Home?
He sits for a few days at the Corinthia Hotel, sitting there in his black prison uniform in the lobby, the long hair, the beard is not cut. The uniform had become a part of him, he is not yet ready to take it off. He’s sitting there and listening to the buzz, the sound of life. He gives interviews. The BBC wants to talk to him, CNN, the GlobalPost, the Guardian, CBS. A few days ago CNN ran an interview with his mother and his girlfriend. He saw it in the evening after his escape. VanDyke’s name is now known. He looks at it as an obligation.
A few days later Nouri reached Tripoli. VanDyke puts on the headscarf, which he will wear in Syria, and they go to the front. They fight until Gaddafi’s army is defeated. VanDyke as a Dushka shooter of a jeep of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber brigade, as in Afghanistan American soldiers had let him shoot a few rounds with a .50 cal machine gun. That’s more experience with heavy weapons than most others have here.
VanDyke fights and films. The film about the war in Libya is being produced in 2013. Marshall Curry, a two-time Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, will make the film.
His girlfriend asked his mother why he did not come home after the escape from prison, after the torment, and she said this: “I have raised him so that he finishes what he starts.” VanDyke says: “If I have committed myself to something, I will stick by that."
Two weeks after Gaddafi’s fall, he flies back to America – with a new plan in the luggage. The assembled press who interviewed him when he landed in America in late 2011 want to know what he intends to do now, and he replies: “I am training for the next revolution.” He meant the Syrian one.
The American Terrorist
Therefore VanDyke sits now, on a cold Saturday morning in January 2013, in a car in Virginia. A fundraiser for the opposition in Syria. A home game. He just spoke to CNN about Syria and his propaganda film. “I have long wondered, how can I support the revolution in Syria the best way,” he says, while at the windows the misty American landscape passes by. “Fighting (personally) didn’t seem to be effective at that moment. What the rebels need are weapons because they have enough men, so I’ve made a film that is meant to raise money."
$13,000 he has put into the project from a fund which his mother had once built for him. Four weeks ago, he filmed in Aleppo. He was with the FSA on the road, every morning he put on the uniform, strapped on his 9mm Star Model B and the camera and after that searched for protagonists, faces who the Americans would donate for. After two weeks his name appeared on four Syrian television stations. The regime now officially sought after the American terrorist. He’s proud. He is famous now, and he likes that. “My credibility in the revolution increased a lot,” he says. Now he needs someone to cut the film, and anyone who will support him financially. Already in February the film shall be available on the internet. Therefore, Virginia.
About a hundred people gathered in the community center in McLean. It is selling food and trinkets, T-shirts, chains, and on the stage a painting by a Syrian artist is being auctioned. There are a lot of Facebook groups mentioned. No one has been in Syria recently. One can immediately see VanDyke.
“You’re my hero,” says the organizer. “You are doing more for Syria than most.” VanDyke looks down. He is embarrassed. “I’ll do what I can,” he then said, and you’d think that the big words had embarrassed him.
He sits at one of the round tables. A young man sits down next to him. “I admire what you’re doing,” he says very directly and looks intently at VanDyke, chewing slowly on a baked spinach bag. “Take me with you. I cannot sit here and do nothing. I cannot stand it, I have to finally do something for my country.” VanDyke eyes the man who asks him not to give his name. He looks sad, rushed. What he says is very serious to him.
After every television appearance, more and more emails come to him with the same requests. American soldiers push him to create an international brigade. For him to take them to war. VanDyke always declines. “How can I check them all?” But the young Syrian here beside him, that’s something else. “He has the right motivation,” he says later. They talk for awhile, and VanDyke promises him to take him when he goes to Aleppo again in March to help Nour Kelze, one of the two protagonists of his film, build a media and propaganda center.
There he sees his new role. New radio stations, martyr posters on all the walls, leaders, faces, figures, the people need to be convinced, and so far, says VanDyke, the Free Syrian Army does that badly. In Aleppo, an officer of the FSA said that 70 percent of the civilians are behind the regime. “This is a similar mentality in Europe: It is expected that the state is doing something for you. And the rebels don’t. They do nothing for the people. That is why the people turn back to the state.” An image problem, he sees that he wants to fix it.
He will bring to the public faces, he says, which stand for the revolution. Faces with which one can identify with. One of them should be Nour. A young pretty journalist. “I will make her a leader of the revolution,” VanDyke declared on the return trip. “She has everything you need for that. She believes unconditionally in the revolution. As I do.” His modesty and embarrassment is often followed by a very American form of megalomania.
But what is his motivation? Why is he doing all this for free, which is 9,000 miles away from his home? “I think in the 21st century no one should have to live under a dictatorship.” He thinks. “The year of the war,” he says, “was the best of my life. Each of us felt we were doing the most important thing he has ever done. Doing the right thing. We were part of something, everything had a purpose.” Outside of the fields of Maryland, flying by outside the window, is fog. Some deer standing in the woods. “And to know that we write history, that’s great,” he says, and even then he looks at his phone, the news from Syria running across the screen. After a few minutes, he adds: “Of course, the fights were not the best of my life. The shit is scary. Everywhere a tattered body, skulls open, all day, the sound of bullets whizzing around your head – but the feeling that the world is behind us, this comradeship. That was awesome.” When Gaddafi fell he understood one thing. It is possible. “And then I saw that it must be repeated. That was when it was clear, I am going to Syria.”
He has taken a lot of risks in his life. He was almost shot dead in Afghanistan by criminals, as well as by the police, he was beaten in Iraq, he sat in different prisons in Baghdad and security forces staged a mock execution, in Afghanistan he narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt. It has not deterred him. The prison in Libya has shown him that he is not invincible, he says. No longer. “Now I’m doing things that are more risky, but now there is a meaning, a purpose, which is much more logical than what I’ve done before."
It is this logic, a very old American logic. To bring freedom into the world, to bring the light into the dark corners of the world. A double-edged logic, because the American idea of freedom does not always equal that in the countries in which it is being exported. It is Sunday evening, and VanDyke sits in the beach house of his parents in front of a flat screen the size of a small car on a sofa next to the open kitchen. He flips through the channels. From reality show to reality show. One is about illegally brewing brandy in a forest, in the next a few drunken men hunt alligators, the next is an obese family accompanied by a camera. “This is the society in which I live – and this is the strongest nation in the history of mankind,” he says, as he believes the TV program had substantiated his point enough. VanDyke does not like today’s America. “Of course some people here think I’m crazy. But there were already the founding fathers, who said that it is not enough to live in freedom, that one must rather bring freedom in the world.” The absence of U.S. intervention [in Syria], he called the biggest foreign policy mistake, even bigger than the Iraq war. John McCain would not have made this mistake.
On the TV they are looking for the Yeti, and VanDyke mourns after the generation of his grandfather. A time when the 4,000 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, he says. Hemingway, Orwell, and Americans, whom he admired, men who went to fight for good. “They had understood and they had a different mentality. Today it is considered crazy to do something like this.” There is a lot of praise for what he does, but there is also a lot of criticism. War maniac some call him, money maniac, or adrenaline junkie.
“Before me there were also men who have done what I do. William Alexander Morgan, who fought with Che and Fidel in Cuba. As Comandante. He also said: “It is the duty of free people to fight for the freedom of others.” He gets a Samuel Adams from the refrigerator, opens it, but does not drink.
“Why didn’t people go to Libya?” He expected no answer. “It has shifted slightly between generations. Values. Commercialization has shifted these values. No one is interested in a kinship of humanity, no one here is interested anymore in international politics. It’s all about buying and consuming.” And while he says this is the Yeti hunting on television is interrupted by advertising.
A Second Che?
“In Libya, Syria no one finds it strange what I’m doing. Here they say you’re crazy, and where is Libya? But I do not care what others think about it. That’s part of what I’m fighting for: that people can speak their minds. I am now 33 and financially broke, but I have to keep going."
He is now planning that for five years Syria will be part of his life. And Syria is now something personal, he says. The night before, he told his girlfriend that he had ensured himself – this personal aspect. He had no friends there before he went in late October across the Turkish border to Aleppo. He went there to make it personal. It was a little reproach in her voice, a little resignation. He smiled and nodded.
And after that? A job? Security Advisor? “If you need me, then I go into Iran.” Perfect Ernesto. “But I have to be careful. The third is the dangerous one.” The death of Che Guevara – after Cuba and the Congo – was in Bolivia, the third country where he wanted to overthrow the government. VanDyke laughs. It is a joke. He would never compare himself with Che, he says.
the Libyan Civil War
When the Libyan Civil War began in February, 2011, Matthew VanDyke contacted some of his friends in Libya he knew from previous travel there in 2008. They told him about family and friends being arrested, injured, and killed. They told him about taking to the streets in defiance of Muammar Gaddafi, and the likelihood that they would soon lose their lives. One of them asked VanDyke if he would tell people about him if he was killed by the regime. They told of fighting against Gaddafi's guns with just rocks.
They asked why nobody was helping them.
VanDyke had heard enough. His friends and their families were suffering and he had to help. VanDyke told his mother, Sharon VanDyke, that he was going to help his friends and the revolution. Although he did not tell her his intention to fight as an armed combatant, he did make it clear that the mission was personal and that he would not be working as a journalist in Libya. She was supportive of his decision and drove him to the airport.
On February 26 he left the United States and flew to Cairo, and arrived in Benghazi, Libya on March 6. He met with his Libyan friend Nouri Fonas, whom he had met in Mauritania in 2007. The last time VanDyke saw him in 2008, Nouri was a traveling hippie.
Now he had become a warrior.
VanDyke joined Nouri and a group of rebels who were preparing to fight against Gaddafi. He began working for the cause on the first day, helping to repair and camouflage the Toyota Hilux pickup truck that had been damaged in the Rajma weapons facility bombing, and which they would be using in the war. They mounted a Russian DShk (Dushka) heavy machine gun on a turret welded into the back of the truck. They gathered ammunition from the bunkers at Rajma for the DShK, their RPG, and additional ammo for the rebel army forming in Benghazi.
There were not many rebels. At the time it looked as if NATO and the international community would not intervene to help the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Many Libyans were still sitting in their homes or in cafes in the east of the country, afraid to take up arms for a lost cause, knowing that when Gaddafi captured Benghazi they and their families would be executed or sent to prison for years.
It was a very desperate situation. Gaddafi's army was large and well-equipped. Most rebels only had AK-47s, RPGs, and DShk machine guns in pickup trucks. Some even went to the front line without any weapon at all.
VanDyke called his mother and told her everything he was doing in Libya. He told her about preparing the vehicles, acquiring weapons and ammunition, wearing a Libyan military uniform that allowed him to move as an undercover Libyan and gain access to military bases without difficulty, and various other work he was doing for the revolution. He told her that he and Nouri, along with the other rebels in their group, would be advancing west with the rebel army and working as support troops. This was partly true - they would be doing that work, but would also be fighting on the front lines as part of the main force, and VanDyke would be a DShk machine gunner. He did not tell his mother this because he did not want her to worry.
On March 12, VanDyke went with three rebels on a reconnaissance mission to Brega. Ra's Lanuf had just fallen to Gaddafi's forces, and Brega would be next. The plan was to recon the city, identify defensive positions, and then return to Benghazi to gather more men and weapons before going back to Brega to mount an organized defense. Nouri remained in Benghazi, continuing his work on an army base helping to prepare vehicles for combat.
On March 13, during the reconnaissance, they were ambushed by Gaddafi's forces. VanDyke was struck in the head during the ambush and woke up in a prison cell to the sound of a man being tortured in a room above him. He has no memory of the ambush or what happened to the men he was with.
He was interrogated in Sirte and then handcuffed, blindfolded, and transported by airplane to Tripoli. He was imprisoned in Libya's "nightmare factory," the Maktab al-Nasser prison, in a 4 x 7 foot cell for the first 85 days. He was then transferred to Libya's most notorious prison, Abu Salim, where Gaddafi had massacred 1,500 prisoners in 1996. During his entire 5.5 month imprisonment VanDyke was held in solitary confinement and underwent severe psychological torture.
The Gaddafi regime denied for months that they had VanDyke in custody, but Sharon VanDyke never gave up hope that her missing son was alive. She began a media campaign for his release. She wrote a biographical document about Matthew VanDyke that she gave to organizations that approached her willing to advocate for his release. This document clearly stated that Matthew VanDyke was in Libya working for the revolution, and specifically noted that he was helping to prepare Libyans for combat and not working as a journalist. Despite knowing he was not working as a journalist in Libya, some individuals and organizations made the decision to advocate for VanDyke. Unfortunately, a reporter labelled VanDyke a journalist in an article and that label was repeated in subsequent articles by media covering his disappearance, despite efforts by Sharon VanDyke and Matthew's girlfriend to correct them and make it clear that he was not working as a journalist in Libya.
Eventually the Gaddafi regime, under growing pressure, admitted that VanDyke was in custody, but refused to tell where he was or grant anyone access to him. The US government was never able to locate VanDyke. It was Nouri Fonas' contacts in Tripoli who discovered that VanDyke was being held in Abu Salim Prison.
On August 24 the prison guards fled Abu Salim prison as the rebel forces began to capture more territory in Tripoli. Before fleeing they released a few of the prisoners, who then released more prisoners. The prisoners broke the lock off VanDyke's cell and he escaped with them, running for their lives.
VanDyke waited in Tripoli for Nouri to arrive. During this time he gave interviews to the media. He was shocked and disturbed to learn that some media had reported that he was working as a journalist in Libya when captured. VanDyke devoted a considerable amount of time and effort while in Tripoli to do everything he could to make it clear to the press that he was not working as a journalist when captured, and that he should never be referred to as a journalist in their articles. He told them he was in Libya for "personal reasons," and that he came to "help his friends," without giving details.
The press were confused about why VanDyke was not returning home after spending nearly six months in prison and enduring so much physical and psychological hardship. VanDyke's mother, however, understood. Knowing that VanDyke was working as a rebel when captured, she knew he wasn't going to come home. She had raised him to keep his commitments, and he had made a commitment to the cause of freedom and to the men he was captured with. He had told those men he would not leave Libya until Libya was free. He also wasn't going to return to the United States and leave those men behind, or any prisoners of war behind. He vowed he would not leave the country until Libya was free, and until all cities were liberated from Gaddafi forces and all POWs were released from the prisons.
When Nouri Fonas arrived in Tripoli, he and VanDyke soon left for Benghazi. They spent one night in Benghazi and then rode with some rebels to Ra's Lanuf. VanDyke met with the commander of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade, Mohammed Akfayer, and asked to join his unit. Akfayer agreed and VanDyke enlisted in the National Liberation Army of Libya. Commander Akfayer assigned a KADBB Desert Iris military jeep to VanDyke and Fonas, which they later mounted a DShk heavy machine gun on. VanDyke became a DShk machine gunner, and Fonas was the driver.
VanDyke and Fonas were some of the first rebels into the town of Harawa the day it was captured, and took rocket fire from the enemy. This was the first of 40 engagements they would have with the enemy. VanDyke and Fonas took part in a lot of combat on the front lines during the Battle of Sirte, both with the DShk and as infantrymen, including in urban warfare and house to house fighting. When not in combat they worked closely with the international press covering the war, providing them with information to help them report accurately on the war, and taking journalists with them in the jeep to the front lines.
VanDyke was in Sirte the day Muammar Gaddafi was killed. With the war over, he and Fonas traveled to Tripoli for the celebrations, and VanDyke was able to meet with some of the friends for whom he had come to fight.
Matthew VanDyke was awarded a Shield of Courage Award for his military service by Commander Mohammed Akfayer of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade, and an Embassy of Libya Award for Support, Commitment, and Outstanding Dedication for his contributions to the revolution.
VanDyke has extensive film footage of his work as a rebel before being captured in March 2011, and of his experiences as a soldier in the National Liberation Army of Libya after his escape from prison.
He is currently writing a book and producing a documentary film about his experiences in Libya.
More photos of Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War can be seen here
Matthew VanDyke also writes The Freedom Fighter Blog, which contains personal accounts of his ongoing mission to combat authoritarianism, and analysis and commentary of current events surrounding the struggle for freedom worldwide.
After earning his Master's Degree in Security Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Matthew VanDyke wanted to see the Arab world. Inspired by the adventure documentary films of Australian filmmaker Alby Mangels, he set off for Africa and the Middle East on a Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle in 2007. His adventures lasted three years and took him across North Africa and the Middle East, to Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and finally to the battlefields of Iraq. Some of his most dramatic adventures included:
- Morocco - VanDyke suffered a serious motorcycle accident and broke his collarbone in the infamous Rif Mountains.
- Mauritania - His Kawasaki KLR650 had a burned out motorcycle clutch while on a deep desert safari in the Sahara and he had to hide it in the desert for days until he could negotiate with a villager to transport it back to Nouakchott in the back of a truck, with a goat. After his return to Nouakchott VanDyke met Mohamed Haidara, a Scottish paratrooper turned camel shepherd, and Nouri Fonas, a Libyan who was traveling the world. They all became good friends, and in 2011 Fonas and VanDyke served and fought together in the Libyan Civil War. In late 2007, in need of money, VanDyke became a car smuggler in West Africa, transporting used Mercedes from Morocco to Mauritania. After having two cars stolen and lacking the money to continue the smuggler's life, he resumed his motorcycle journey.
- Tunisia - Facing difficulties obtaining a visa for Algeria, VanDyke was forced to take Mediterranean ferries to get to Tunisia. He made attempts to sneak across the Tunisia-Algeria border but was repeatedly caught by Tunisian authorities. VanDyke also narrowly avoided serious injury in Tunisia when his gas stove leaked and burst into flames while he was cooking.
- Libya - VanDyke was the only American in history to cross Libya by motorcycle while Muammar Gaddafi was in power. VanDyke paid a bribe to obtain a visa for travel in Libya at a time when Americans were unable to obtain visas. After six weeks in Libya, during which time he filmed the local motorcycle scene, he was expelled from Libya by the Gaddafi regime under suspicion of filming things they didn't want filmed. He was given 48 hours to leave the country and drove over 1,500 kilometers from Tripoli to Tobruk in one day. It was during his time in Libya in 2008 that VanDyke made the friendships that would later compel him to return to Libya in 2011 to fight in the Libyan Civil War.
- Egypt - He toured Egypt by motorcycle in 2008 and 2009. While in Egypt he was hit by 3 vehicles, one of them being a police truck. In 2009 he drove the 1,200 kilometers from Aswan to Nuweiba virtually non-stop, a motorcycle journey that took over 24 hours due to mandatory police escorts in the Nile River Valley and checkpoints.
- Jordan - VanDyke became friends with members of the Jordanian Royal Family, toured the desert with two Portugese motorcyclists, and learned the hard way to never get the salty water of the Dead Sea in your eyes.
- Syria - During VanDyke's 3 trips to Syria he explored the dangerous Syria-Iraq border region and had his motorcycle stolen in the city of Hama. It was recovered when Syrians surrounded the thieves within minutes of the motorcycle theft.
- Turkey - He was briefly and humorously trapped in a gateway at the Syria-Turkey border when the Syrians allowed him to leave the country after the Turks had already closed their side, and was prepared to spend the night in the no-man's land until the Turks acquiesced and grudgingly allowed him into the country.
- Iraq - VanDyke was the first American to enter Iraq by motorcycle. He was the first foreign motorcyclist to travel to the city of Kirkuk and the Salahaddin and Diyala Provinces in Iraq, and attempted to drive to Baghdad by motorcycle a few times but was arrested by Iraqi security forces. VanDyke was arrested or detained 20 times by the Iraqi security forces between 2008 and 2010. Some of the arrests ended badly, but others gave him the opportunity to befriend those who arrested him, giving him valuable contacts in the country. In need of money he took a job teaching English to graduate students at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler, and later worked as a war correspondent embedded with the United States Army and Marines.
Matthew VanDyke suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which makes his adventures especially difficult at times. His OCD manifests itself primarily as heightened fears related to driving, avoiding trash, and obsessions about cleanliness.
More than a dozen companies have sponsored VanDyke's motorcycle adventure filmmaking by providing products and services.
Nearly everything described above was captured on film.
Some of the footage will be included in VanDyke's film about his experiences in Libya (currently in production).
More photos of Matthew VanDyke's Motorcycle Adventures in the Arab World can be seen here
In June 2010 Matthew VanDyke and photographer Daniel Britt, who met in 2009 while working as embedded journalists with the US Military in Iraq, drove motorcycles from Iraq to Afghanistan, by way of Iran. The project was a documentary film about their travels from Baghdad, Iraq to Bagram, Afghanistan by motorcycle to take an embed journalist assignment with the US Army in Afghanistan.
Iraq - VanDyke purchased two used MZ Kanuni 250cc motorcycles and used his connections in Iraq to have the motorbikes registered with Iraqi license plates to allow them to cross borders. VanDyke and Britt strapped on their bodyarmor and attempted to drive to Baghdad by motorcycle in August 2010. They were arrested by Iraqi police a few hours into their journey and interrogated near Baquba. They were then transferred to the custody of a unit near Baghdad, where they were hooded, beaten in the head, handcuffed, and accused of being Al Qaeda terrorists. They were interrogated again in Baghdad and made to face a wall in a Baghdad prison while an Iraqi with an AK-47 stood behind them. They believed they would be shot, and this incident appears to have been a "mock execution," a form of psychological torture. They were placed in a cell with other inmates and the US State Department was unable to locate them for two days. The second night they slept in a military barracks. The State Department eventually located VanDyke and Britt and secured their release. The incident was reported by the Iranian Fars News Agency as the arrest of two "Jewish Americans running espionage operations." VanDyke and Britt are not Jewish, were not conducting espionage, and are not spies. After Fars News Agency issued this report the State Department contacted VanDyke and Britt and advised them to leave Iraq as soon as possible. They left a few weeks later according to their schedule, after their Iraq filming was complete.
Iran - After the Fars News Agency article the Warzone Bikers project became especially dangerous. VanDyke and Britt knew that they could be detained after crossing the border and held in prison like the 3 hikers who had been captured a year earlier. They decided to continue, but left their bodyarmor and covert camera equipment behind in Iraq.
VanDyke and Britt were fortunately not arrested or questioned about what happened in Iraq. Although they were not harassed by Iranian authorities, they did face many difficulties due to problems with Britt's motorcycle, and VanDyke crashed his motorcycle on an oil slick on the road in Mashhad. He suffered no injuries and only minor damage to the motorcycle which was easily repaired.
Afghanistan - In addition to persistent problems with Britt's motorcycle, the two had to also avoid being kidnapped soon after arriving in Afghanistan. An Afghan friend told them of overhearing talk of a kidnap plot against them, and another Afghan friend later revealed that he received a phone call from a man wanting to kidnap them for ransom. VanDyke and Britt began dressing as Afghans to blend in, and carried sawed-off shotguns concealed beneath their clothing.
They quickly realized that due to the number of checkpoints and their difficulties in Iraq that travel between Herat and Kabul by motorcycle would be impossible due to the Afghan security forces. They transported the motorcycles on a cargo bus and dressed undercover as Afghan passengers on another bus with their concealed sawed-off shotguns beneath their clothing. During the journey on the IED crater scarred road from Herat to Kandahar to Kabul, VanDyke and Britt witnessed combat outside the bus window as they passed.
While in Kabul they became friends with members of a secret Afghan cult. VanDyke and Britt are the only non-Afghans to have ever witnessed the rituals and practices of the cult.
After some time in Kabul they drove to Jalalabad, where VanDyke stole a brick from Osama bin Laden's former house (which was bombed by the United States Airforce in 2001). VanDyke then planted an American flag in the ruins before they escaped from the dangerous neighborhood on their motorcycles. From Jalalabad they drove to Charikar and onward towards the destroyed Buddha Statues of Bamiyan, but Britt's motorcycle broke down on the way and so they camped behind a rockpile on the side of the road. During the night they were pursued by armed bandits searching for them, and narrowly escaped being captured.
The next morning VanDyke and Britt's motorcycles were discovered by plain-clothes Afghan police, who fired a warning shot, charged their position, and arrested them. They were later transferred to the custody of an American Military Police unit in Charikar. VanDyke and Britt were well-received by the US Army personnel at the base, and were allowed to spend nights at the base from then on whenever they passed through Charikar.
The arrests continued. In the village of Rokha in the Panjshir Valley they were attacked by a village mob and accused of being members of Al Qaeda. During this incident VanDyke was punched in the face by an Afghan police officer, who then drew his weapon and arrested them both. VanDyke had a camera around his neck that recorded the entire incident. In Pol-e-khomri the two were detained by the security forces, and were questioned by security forces in Mazar-e-sharif. VanDyke was later arrested in Mazar-e-sharif in a separate incident, but was released from custody after a couple of hours.
The two reached the city of Bagram in November 2010, successfully completing the motorcycle portion of the Warzone Bikers, Baghdad to Bagram project. However, they were arrested by Afghan police upon their arrival in Bagram, and were later transferred to the custody of the US military at Bagram Airbase.
In December 2010 VanDyke and Britt began their embed assignments with the US Army and were well-received by the soldiers who were supportive of the Warzone Bikers project that had brought them there. VanDyke has remained in contact with some of the soldiers from the unit he embedded with at FOB Baylough.
Nearly everything described above was captured on film.
Some of the footage will be included in VanDyke's film about his experiences in Libya (currently in production).
More photos of Matthew VanDyke's Warzone Bikers Motorcycle Adventures in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan can be seen here
In January and February 2009 Matthew VanDyke worked as a war correspondent for The Baltimore Examiner newspaper, embedded with the US military in Iraq. His embed experiences included the following:
Arab Jabour, Baghdad (COP Meade) - US Army 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment "Iron Thunder"
Arab Jabour, Baghdad (COP Dolby) - US Army 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division "Blackjack"
Khalis, Iraq (COP Blackfoot) - US Army Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker
Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division
Mosul, Iraq (FOB Marez) - US Army 1st Cavalry Division, 3rd Brigade, 3/8 Cavalry Battalion, Delta Company "Dragoons"Fallujah, Iraq (Camp Baharia) - US Marines
In November and December 2010 Matthew VanDyke filmed the US military in Afghanistan as part of the Warzone Bikers project. He embedded with the same unit the entire time, at the famous FOB Baylough:
Deh Chopan District, Zabul Province (FOB Baylough) - 3rd Platoon, Eagle Company, 2/2 CR
More photos of former journalist Matthew VanDyke in Iraq and Afghanistan can be seen here
Matthew VanDyke was born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA in 1979. He was raised by his mother, Sharon VanDyke, and his grandparents. He was the fourth generation to live in his family's house in South Baltimore. Sharon VanDyke was an elementary school principal; she retired in 2010.
Matthew VanDyke met his longtime girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, during his first attempt at overseas motorcycle travel in 2006. He had shipped a 1981 Yamaha XS650 to Madrid, Spain to begin his journey to Africa and the Middle East, but the motorcycle had not yet arrived. While waiting at a Hostel in Madrid he met Lauren Fischer, who was in Spain to teach English. Fischer moved into an apartment and VanDyke moved in with her.
His motorcycle arrived, but due to its age had a series of mechanical problems that required VanDyke to remain in Madrid. VanDyke decided to remain in Madrid and pursue his relationship with Fischer. They have been together ever since.
Matthew VanDyke graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a bachelor's degree in Political Science and a 4.0 GPA. He was the recipient of the Outstanding Scholar-Leader Award of the Political Science Department, a member of five honor societies, and represented UMBC at all three military academy student conferences. He is also a member of Mensa.
VanDyke graduated from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 2004 with a master's degree in Security Studies, with a regional concentration in the Middle East. His master's thesis examined the reasons why Al Qaeda targets the United States. VanDyke was one of the youngest students ever accepted into the Georgetown University Security Studies Program, having been accepted at the age of 22 (the average age being 27).
More information about Matthew VanDyke's academic background and accomplishments can be found in his LinkedIn Profile here:
Matthew VanDyke has worked as a documentary filmmaker, journalist, war correspondent, political columnist, talk radio show host, English teacher, international businessman, and soldier.
He is currently working on a documentary film about his time in Libya, blogging for The Huffington Post and The Freedom Fighter Blog, appearing on radio and television as an analyst and commentator, and doing various projects to assist the struggle for freedom.
Matthew VanDyke is also a Brand Advocate for Rawporter.com, an innovative new media platform connecting journalists and media outlets around the world.
More information about Matthew VanDyke's work history and experience can be found in his LinkedIn Profile here: