Assyrian Christians in the Fight Against ISIS


NPU commanders with SOLI founder Matthew VanDyke at Manila Training Center in Iraq

NPU commanders with SOLI founder Matthew VanDyke at Manila Training Center in Iraq

Sons of Liberty International (SOLI) is the first security contracting firm run as a non-profit. SOLI provides free security consulting and training services to vulnerable populations to enable them to defend themselves against terrorist and insurgent groups. SOLI was founded in response to the deaths of my friends James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by ISIS in Syria in 2014. Having witnessed the failure of the international community to deal with security crises involving authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups, it became apparent that a non-state initiative could be instrumental by stepping in where the international community failed.

SOLI began operating in Iraq in December, 2014 with a covert training program for the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian militia of Iraqi Christians, and by closely advising NPU leadership. In January and February, 2015 training was moved to a Peshmerga base with permission from the Kurdistan Regional Government and the training was expanded to the entire NPU battalion of over 300 men. This was followed by a third training, a leadership program in May, 2015 for NPU sergeants and officers. This third and final training program for the NPU was recently covered in the longest feature article Maxim magazine has ever published, Exclusive Report: Meet the American Taking the Fight to ISIS.

The Iraqi government, recognizing that the NPU is now a trained and capable force, will begin integrating the NPU into the coalition against ISIS. Our mission with the NPU successfully completed, we will soon begin working with another Christian force in Iraq to assist them in similarly integrating into the coalition against ISIS.

In assessing our experiences over the past several months, we have learned a lot from our work with the Assyrians in Iraq:

  1. The Assyrian community in Iraq is exceptional. Demographically, the Assyrians of Iraq tend to have higher levels of education and per capita income than Iraq as a whole. Their work ethic is also more Westernized than the general population. This has made them ideal candidates for training, and they learn much more quickly than other forces being trained in Iraq.
  2. The morale of the Assyrians exceeds that of other forces in the region fighting against ISIS. Assyrians are eager to defend their homeland (the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq) and recapture territory lost to ISIS. The NPU has over 2,000 volunteers; their limitation to a battalion sized force is due to a lack of funding and supplies to field a larger force at this time. NPU soldiers requested morning physical training, studiously took notes during classroom instruction, and were eager to participate in all-day, difficult training sessions.
  3. Assyrians are excellent students for training. Having been denied the right to field their own military force in recent years, most NPU soldiers were recruits with no military knowledge or experience. They were eager to learn and train, and did not have poor previous instruction that needed correcting. We had no problems with egos, overconfidence, or know-it-all attitudes that can occur when training young men for combat. The NPU leadership, even those with previous military experience in the Iraqi army, were also eager for our instruction and advising, and were a pleasure to work with.
  4. The Assyrian community is less xenophobic than other regional minorities. Assyrians in Iraq recognize the need to form coalitions with other minorities in Iraq for mutual benefit and survival. The NPU is open to all Iraqis of the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq, and hundreds of Yazidis have already expressed an interest in joining the NPU.
  5. Assyrians should be utilized by the West in the fight against ISIS. Unlike the Kurds and Iraqi government forces, the Assyrian forces do not receive any Western support. Until recently, they were largely dependent on donations from the Assyrian diaspora community, and some Assyrian forces still are. Not supporting Assyrian forces in Iraq has been a serious miscalculation by Western governments, largely due to a misplaced fear of stoking sectarianism or following the desires of the majority Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias who fear an armed Assyrian Christian force in Iraq.
NPU graduation parade at the Manila Training Center in Iraq on February 18, 2015

NPU graduation parade at the Manila Training Center in Iraq on February 18, 2015

We at SOLI are very optimistic about the Assyrian forces playing an instrumental role in the fight against ISIS and in post-ISIS Iraq. However, there are challenges facing the community that should be addressed:

  1. The Assyrian community is not unified. Political divisions among the Assyrian Iraqis are devastating to their ability to form a unified, cohesive force capable of providing security for the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq. There are at least four major Assyrian forces operating in the Nineveh Plain region alone – the NPU, Dwekh Nawsha, Nineveh Plain Forces (NPF), and the Tiger Guards. Each is associated with an Assyrian political party or with the Kurdish Peshmerga. A SOLI attempt to initiate discussions between two rival militias to unify them in May, 2015 was rebuffed by both sides. As in other regional conflicts, most notably Syria and Libya, divisions are increasing as time progresses, and a unified Assyrian army remains an elusive dream. A unified Assyrian army should be the goal of all Assyrian forces in Iraq, as this is the only hope of resisting Arab and Kurdish aspirations for annexing Assyrian lands.
  2. Assyrian forces are plagued by interference from outside groups. This became evident early in our work with the NPU when two small organizations in California began issuing false statements to the Assyrian community and lying to the media about the relationship between the NPU and SOLI. Worst of all, these two groups in California even went so far as to repeatedly interfere with the training of the NPU. It is imperative that the leadership of Assyrian forces resist all attempts by outside groups to influence them – this is a duty they owe to the brave men they are leading in combat and to the Assyrian community at large who are depending on these Assyrian forces to protect their ancestral homeland. We praise the NPU leadership for having the courage to largely resist the influence of outside groups, even when repeatedly threatened by these groups that funding to the NPU would be cut.
  3. There is a disconnect between Assyrian forces on the ground and the diaspora community. The disinformation campaign of Lazar and Gardner was believed by a surprising number of Assyrians outside of Iraq, who repeated and even embellished the false information. This problem was exacerbated by the existence of false Twitter accounts like @AssyrianDefense which portray themselves as belonging to the NPU when they do not (the NPU’s only Twitter account is @NinevehPU), and individuals outside of Iraq falsely claiming to be spokespersons of the NPU. Such statements by third parties should be disregarded, as this has caused great confusion and a loss of confidence in Assyrian forces on the ground in Iraq, which has led to reduced donations to support the forces and potential complications for these forces when seeking international support.
An official NPU document about the NPU's great relationship with SOLI and stating that outside groups do not speak for the NPU

Official NPU document about the NPU’s great relationship with SOLI and stating that outside groups do not speak for the NPU

Despite these concerns, what we at SOLI have observed in working with the Assyrians of Iraq over the past several months has reinforced our confidence in the Assyrian forces to become one of the most important factors in the fight against ISIS and in the future security of Iraq.

In conclusion, SOLI has had an excellent experience working with the NPU and we congratulate them on their success. We look forward to working with additional Assyrian forces in Iraq to help enable their inclusion in the coalition against ISIS. We have great confidence in the Assyrian people and will continue to work hard for their noble aspirations of security and self-determination.

Long live the Nineveh Plain

Assyrian flag




Review of Roll Hard by Robert Young Pelton and Billy Tucci

Roll Hard is a new graphic novel by Robert Young Pelton and artist Billy Tucci about when Pelton was a journalist accompanying Blackwater security contractors on missions in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004.

The cover of the graphic novel

It is a phenomenal book. I rarely read graphic novels and I cannot remember when I last read any book cover to cover until I read Roll Hard. I’m not exaggerating when I say it really is so good that you won’t want to put it down.

I haven’t written a book review on this blog before, so I’d like to first address why I’m writing this one. First, Roll Hard really is good enough to warrant me writing a book review. Second, Roll Hard provides a very good insight into both the world of military contracting and the risks involved in conflict journalism. Third, Robert Young Pelton is not only my colleague, but someone who has given me very useful advice during our conversations over the past couple of years.

As a teenager I read Pelton’s bestselling book The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a highly entertaining guide with a sense of humor to which the book owes much of its success. Nearly two decades later I never imagined that I’d be having conversations with Pelton seeking his career advice and discussing with him many of the challenges and struggles in my work.

He’s smart, honest, generous with his time, and one of the most experienced experts on working on conflict zones. And importantly, Robert Young Pelton is also one of the very few individuals I know of whose career is in any way similar to my own.

So when he sent me Roll Hard to review I didn’t wait long before giving it a read.

Roll Hard offers an incredible look behind at the curtain at the extraordinary and controversial world of military contracting, which is covered in detail in Pelton’s book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.

A MK2 Mamba Armored Transport Vehicle and MH6 Little Birds in the graphic novel

Roll Hard tells the story of the Mamba Team, a team of heavily armed misfits with a hard-earned reputation for getting the job done in Iraq. Pelton went on missions with them in Baghdad as a journalist in 2004 during the Iraq War, and the bulk of the book is a combination of an edge-of-your-seat account of missions along “RPG Alley” (Route Irish, which ran from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone). In 2004 it was the deadliest stretch of road in the world and under frequent attack by insurgents using suicide bombers, snipers, IEDs, and of course, RPGs.

Robert Young Pelton with a Blackwater security contractor of the Mamba Team in the graphic novel

Robert Young Pelton rode along in one of the Mamba Team’s MK2 Mamba Armored Troop Transport vehicles on RPG Alley, and his writing, combined with famed illustrator Billy Tucci’s incredible illustrations (the best I’ve seen in a graphic novel), really capture the mixture of anxiety, adrenaline, and uncertainty in the Mamba Team’s missions.

Robert Young Pelton in the crosshairs of an insurgent sniper in the graphic novel

Robert Young Pelton in the crosshairs of an insurgent sniper in “Roll Hard”

As they face explosions and sniper’s bullets, and the unnerving reality of not being sure which civilians around them are actually insurgents trying to kill them, you really feel like you’re in a Mamba with Pelton and the team.

Robert Young Pelton and MH6

Next Pelton takes to the skies, climbing into a MH-6 Little Bird with the Night Stalkers air support contractors and zipping around Baghdad “fast, low and erratic” to avoid enemy fire. It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but it was real and Pelton captures it masterfully in Roll Hard.

A Blackwater military contractor in the graphic novel

As important as his captivating account of front line missions, however, is the insight Pelton provides into who the men of the Mamba Team were and why they were willing to assume such risk to their lives for a paycheck. The result is an incredible behind-the-scenes view of Blackwater and military contracting.

Roll Hard ends with the story of what happened to some of the Mamba Team in 2005 and 2006, after Pelton’s 2004 experiences with them. You’ll have to read Roll Hard to find out.

Roll Hard is available in print and e-book from

Robert Young Pelton is currently fundraising for a mission to track down the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. Learn more and donate to support the mission at

Read Robert Young Pelton’s article about Matthew VanDyke in Dangerous Magazine: “Matt VanDyke: Filmmaker/Fighter”

How Osama bin Laden Changed My Life

How Osama bin Laden Changed My Life

My article this week is at The Huffington Post.  Click below to read it:

“I didn’t learn that Osama bin Laden was dead until August 24, 2011, nearly four months after he was killed. I had just escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya a few hours earlier and was talking to my girlfriend on the phone for the first time in nearly six months.”

“I now realize with the benefit of hindsight that the course of my life was altered dramatically by Osama bin Laden in ways that I had never considered. Specifically, the response by my country to bin Laden’s attack on 9/11 changed my fate and exposed me to a world and experiences that would lead me down a very strange path.”

Read more at The Huffington Post HERE