A Tribute to James Foley and Steven Sotloff

The world has been shocked by the beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, by ISIS in Syria.

These horrific killings were especially shocking to those of us fortunate enough to have called James and Steven our friends.

I have spoken at length about James and Steven in the media in recent weeks to help their legacy and tell the world what they died for, but I want to write this blog as a tribute to these two great men. It is important that we never forget them, why they were in Syria, and what they gave their lives for.

James Foley

Matthew VanDyke, Nouri Fonas, Clare Morgana Gillis, and James Foley in Libya

Matthew VanDyke, Nouri Fonas, Clare Morgana Gillis, and James Foley in Nouri Fonas’ home in Benghazi, Libya. November, 2011.

My friendships with James and Steven both began in Libya. I first met James in 2011 a few days after I escaped from Abu Salim Prison. James had returned to Libya a few months after his release from a Libyan prison where he was held for 44 days, captured near Brega with journalists Clare Morgana Gillis and Manu Brabu. A fourth journalist, Anton Hammerl, was with them before they were captured but was killed by Gaddafi’s forces.

The Foley family had been in touch with my family when I was missing in action in Libya as a prisoner of war, and James’ uncle had helped create the Free Matthew VanDyke Facebook page for my family. We had heard of each other from our families before we ever met that day in the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli.

We became friends over swapping prison stories about our time as guests of Colonel Gaddafi. James, like most of the journalists in Tripoli at that time, did not have a room at the Corinthia Hotel and was sleeping in the lobby, so when the NTC (the rebel government) gave me a room at the Corinthia, I invited James to take the second bed as my roommate. We were later joined by two other journalists, Jonathan Pedneault and Saad Basir.

We were roommates for about a week, while I waited for my Libyan friend, NourI Fonas, to reach Tripoli so I could return with him to combat on the front lines. During this time I gave James a tour of my prison cell at Abu Salim Prison, and he filed an excellent report for GlobalPost. Soon after, I returned to combat on the front line.

During the war, Nouri and I would sometimes take journalists with us to the front line so they could report on the war while we were fighting. This was safer for them than jumping in a random vehicle because Nouri was a good driver and I was on the gun, and we did proper recon of the route, taking precautions that some other vehicles did not.

Among the many journalists we took or escorted to the front line was James Foley, during which time I got to see him in action as a journalist. He was courageous, smart, and had a way with people that instantly attracted them to him. The Libyans loved him.

Journalist James Foley riding in Matthew VanDyke's KADDB Desert Iris 4x4 vehicle in Libya during the Libyan Revolution

Journalist James Foley riding in Matthew VanDyke’s KADDB Desert Iris 4×4 vehicle in Libya during the Libyan Revolution (October, 2011)

I would see this again a year later in Aleppo, Syria. When I arrived in Aleppo, Syrians were asking me if I knew James Foley and when he would return. He had made an incredible impression on them just by being himself. The Syrians too, loved him.

James arrived a few weeks later and we went out into the streets of Aleppo with three other journalists. James was filming and reporting for GlobalPost and I was making my film Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution. Together we ran across streets to avoid snipers, talked to local fighters and civilians, and filmed the war. It was like old times, only I was behind a camera this time instead of a gun, and we filmed each other as we had in Libya as well.

James Foley, Matthew VanDyke, and Omar Hattab in Aleppo, Syria

James Foley, Matthew VanDyke, and Omar Hattab in Aleppo, Syria (October, 2012)

The footage from that day is some of the last of James Foley alive. A little over two weeks later he disappeared in another part of Syria.

I never saw him again.

Steven Sotloff

I first met Steven in Libya in 2012, on my way back from filming Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution in Syria. I was in Tripoli to give a speech at the Libya Summit when Steven contacted me offering to mediate a dispute between myself and a mutual Libyan friend. I had never met Steven before, but accepted his offer. Steven successfully worked things out between the Libyan and I, and after that somewhat unusual first meeting we became good friends.

Steven, like myself, was a North Africa and Middle East specialist. He had learned Arabic, appreciated the culture, made many friends and contacts in the region, and had an affinity for the subjects he was reporting on. He wasn’t one of those journalists who jumps from warzone to warzone. Steven really cared about Libya and Syria and the plight of the people in these countries, and he was driven to bring their stories to the world.

Steven and I would often talk about security in Syria and what was going on behind the scenes in Aleppo. He was fully aware of the risks and did what he could to reduce them. We met for dinner in Washington, DC along with some Syrian activists and my girlfriend Lauren Fischer, and discussed his upcoming trip to Syria. We also talked about the disappearance of James Foley.

This was the last time I saw him, and I wish I had taken a photo of us.

A few weeks later, Steven was kidnapped in Syria.


What made James Foley and Steven Sotloff such great men and such great journalists? They cared. They weren’t covering stories, they were covering people. When James Foley saw that Dar Shifaa Hospital didn’t have an ambulance, he held a fundraiser to buy one for the hospital. When Steven Sotloff decided to report from the Arab world, he took the time to learn Arabic, understand the culture, make connections, and truly understand the region he was covering, taking on additional risks as a dual-nationality American-Israeli so that he could do the best job possible.

They went the extra mile. They cared. And the people whose stories they were telling knew it and they loved both of these men.

The loss of these two great men, whom I am truly blessed to have known, was not in vain. Their legacy will endure in the memories of their family, friends, colleagues, the people in the regions they covered, and in the masterful journalism that both left behind for eternity.

Their deaths have catalyzed an international response against the barbarity and cruelty of ISIS which will lead to the destruction of this scourge on humanity. Their deaths will lead to the liberation of millions who have suffered under the rule of the Islamic State and have an impact on world history.

The man who killed them thought that he was ending their lives, but he was wrong. In death James Foley and Steven Sotloff have achieved immortality, and their legacy will endure forever.

The Anniversary of D-Day and the End of American Isolationism

Matthew VanDyke's grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz, who was at D-Day

My grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz, was at D-Day

With each footprint they left on the sands of Normandy on June 6, 1944, US soldiers were writing the future of our country. Their mission was to march forward towards the enemy, facing extraordinary danger and the horrors of war as bullets flew over their heads and their friends fell around them. There was no retreat and scarcely any refuge on the open, sandy beaches as they took endless fire from an entrenched, determined enemy.

Just as there could be no retreat from the mission that day, there could also be no retreat from the responsibility that the United States had taken on that reached far beyond the shores of France.

American isolationism, a mainstay of US foreign policy since the founding of the republic which only gained in popularity after WWI, came to an end on D-Day. Prior to WWII, Congress had barred the United States from even joining the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) and had passed Neutrality Acts that codified isolationist policies as law.

These policies had only encouraged Nazi Germany’s rapid advance through Europe, and it was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany subsequently declaring war on the United States that our country went to war.

The beginning of the end of Hitler’s reign of terror through Europe started on D-Day, June 6, 1944. My grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz, was there. As his landing craft approached the shores of Normandy, another one nearby was hit by enemy fire and exploded. His survived, and his service in the US Army would take him across Europe and eventually to Germany, where he saw the horrors inflicted by the Nazi concentration camps on the emaciated survivors who were saved by the US Army.

Matthew VanDyke's grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz, serving in Europe during WWII

My grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz, serving in Europe during WWII

Those camps were one of many factors that led to a permanent shift in US foreign policy following WWII. No longer would the United States sit idly by and watch other parts of the world descend into chaos and barbarity, or wait until it was nearly too late to act in the interest of national, and international, security. A shift away from isolationist policies also became necessary in a new, post-war era where America needed to compete on the world stage with another emerging superpower, the Soviet Union.

In recent years, following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a growing isolationist sentiment among the American public that is reminiscent of what occurred after WWI. And similar to the period after WWI, US foreign policy has shifted towards isolationism in a way that has had a disastrous effect on international security. The two most notable examples are US inaction on Syria, which has contributed greatly to regional instability in the Middle East and a resurgence of Al Qaeda, and a muted response to Russian expansionism in Ukraine that will have profound consequences for Europe and beyond.

One of the key lessons of WWII, the consequences of isolationism, appears to have been largely forgotten. The United States cannot afford to wait until threats to international security are boiling over before taking action. Europe was nearly lost to fascism in WWII because of a timid, isolationist foreign policy that failed to provide adequate support to the French and British early in the war. The costs of action became much greater later in the war when it became necessary to save Europe through massive national mobilization that would bring to bear the full might of the US military starting on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Americans should honor the sacrifices made and the victories achieved on D-Day with more than ceremonies and celebrations, but also by continuing forward in the spirit of what our country accomplished on that pivotal day in world history. We must march towards the enemies of freedom with the same courage shown by those men on D-Day no matter how difficult the task or the sacrifices necessary to preserve liberty not only for ourselves, but for others around the world. Just as it was seventy years ago, if America isn’t going to do it, who will? The answer remains the same.

Matthew VanDyke's grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz

My grandfather, US Army Sergeant Aaron Steltz

The Syrian Electronic Army Hacked My Accounts

Recently some of my accounts were hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) because of my work for the revolution in Syria. It has taken me awhile to restore the accounts because I have been in Germany and Poland for a couple of film festivals (Camerimage Film Festival in Poland paid for my flight and hotel in Poland). The hacking of my accounts wasn’t my top priority.

However, the hackers have recently sent me a threatening email that is basically an attempt at extortion or blackmail.

The hackers have made it clear that if I do not give in to their demands they will find creative ways to destroy my reputation by using the information they obtained combined with screenshots of my accounts to fake emails and messages that don’t actually exist.

I find it amusing that they’re going to have to do this since they were disappointed that I had nothing to hide in my email and Facebook accounts. Was discovering a lawsuit I am in the process of filing, a personal matter between Nour Kelze and I, a professional dispute over my upcoming Libya documentary, financial issues, some inside jokes with girls, and my occasionally dirty sense of humor really worth all that effort of hacking me? They made a big show of hacking me and ended up with nothing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my lack of response to their demands and this post exposing their failures and threatening email to me will provoke them into trying their best to damage my reputation. I don’t fear their faked emails, messages, and whatever else they have planned, and in fact it will be interesting to see how they’re possibly going to follow through on their threats and just how creative they will be considering how boring their posts on my hacked Twitter feed and Facebook page were.

I Saw The Horrors of War at Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Syria

A year ago today, I began filming the documentary about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.

On my first day of filming I saw a baby without a head brought to Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. I wrote a detailed account of what happened at the hospital that day and posted it on my Facebook page that evening.

I had seen the horrible realities of war while filming in Iraq and while fighting in Libya that no person should ever see. But what I saw in Syria that day, on my first day of filming Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, would be seared into my memory for the rest of my life and strengthen my resolve to fight against any government that would do this to its own citizens:

Click here to read what I saw that day in Syria

The Controversy Surrounding the Syria Film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival

The documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, is being shown at over 75 film festivals around the world, has won nearly 20 awards, has been seen by millions on television, and has been the subject of intense media coverage for over a year.

With the exception of the ranting and raving of YouTube and Twitter users, the film has not generated much controversy. It is a straightforward and honest film – the story of the Syrian revolution as told through the experiences of two young Syrians, a male rebel fighter and a female journalist. I simply let the two subjects of the film, Nour Kelze and Omar Hattab (Mowya), tell their story without injecting my personal views about the conflict into the film.

This lack of controversy changed at this year’s Arpa International Film Festival held at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution was to be awarded the prestigious Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award, one of the highest awards and honors of the festival (Armin T. Wegner was a German soldier turned human rights activist whose photographs documented the Armenian Genocide.)

That Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award was announced in the press on September 13: “The 2013 nominees and Special Awards recipients Matthew Van Dyke and Sev Ohanian truly reflect the festival’s core philosophy, which is to cultivate cultural understanding and global empathy. These are films which shed light on people and places that Los Angeles audiences might only know from the news. Matthew’s film follows two people on the front lines of the conflict in Syria, while Sev’s film shows the tragic effects of cultural divide here in the United States.” (Sev Ohanian was being awarded the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award for his work as a producer on one of the biggest films of 2013, Fruitvale Station.

The Arpa International Film Festival contacted me requesting that I attend the festival to receive the award in person, noting that the recipient of the award has personally received it each year since the inaugural award in 2003.

For nearly 2 weeks there was no reaction to the announcement. Then suddenly, just a few days before the awards ceremony on September 29, Arpa International Film Festival director Alex Kalognomos was flooded with phone calls demanding that the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award be withdrawn for Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution. The pro-Assad activists had begun their campaign against the film.

The complaints were primarily from Armenian-Americans (Arpa International Film Festival is an Armenian-American event). Some objected to the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being given to a pro-revolution film because they believed that a humanitarian award, and especially one with Wegner’s legacy attached to it, should not be awarded to a film that takes one side and features two subjects who advocate armed struggle against an oppressor. This was an understandable concern given many people’s limited perspective on what humanitarianism is and means.

However, many others openly voiced their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They accused Arpa International Film Festival of giving an award to a film that shows the Syrian revolution in a positive light, when in their view the Syrian revolution will lead to a genocide against the Armenian community in Syria. They argued that the Assad regime had protected Armenians in Syria and that supporting the Assad regime was in the best interest of the Armenian community.

Judging by the complaints, most of these people had not seen the film. They accused the film of celebrating Al Qaeda (Al Qaeda is not mentioned in the film, no members of Al Qaeda appear in the film, and the only fighters in the film are part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which in recent months has occasionally been fighting against Al Qaeda).

After a couple of days of being flooded with phone calls, some of which threatened protests against the festival, Alex Kalognomos informed me that the Arpa International Film Festival had decided to withdraw the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award this year. Alex Kalognomos was very sympathetic and apologetic about the situation.  He was also concerned about my welfare during the Q&A session and assured me that it would be conducted in a civil manner but that I could face tough questions.

I told him that I made the film in one of the most dangerous places in the world, Aleppo, Syria, so there was nothing I feared in Los Angeles, California.

Alex also informed me that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive a new award, the Silver Lens Award, that would honor courage and bravery in filmmaking. The Arpa International Film Festival Silver Lens Award would be given annually, with Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution being the inaugural recipient of the new award. This was to be a great honor.

I was disappointed that the film would not receive the humanitarian award because it would have been a great way to highlight the humanitarian nature of the crisis in Syria. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had already won a similar award, the Best Human Rights Short Award (sponsored by Amnesty International) at the Isle of Wight Film Festival in the United Kingdom.

However, I recognized that this was a great opportunity for dialogue about the conflict in Syria and to get Americans talking about the Syrian revolution. I contacted several activists and asked them to rally revolution activists to support Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution through phone calls, Tweets, Facebook posts, and emails to Arpa International Film Festival.

And they responded with a level of energy and commitment that was inspiring. The Syrian American Council (SAC) and the Syrian American Alliance (SAA) sent emails to their members and posted online about the controversy, asking their members to contact Arpa International Film Festival in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution receiving the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award.

Alex Kalognomos received many calls in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, and he really tried hard to discuss the issue with each caller when possible.

On the night of the screening of the film on September 28, the night before the award’s ceremony on the 29th, Syrian-Americans (mostly from SAC-LA) faced the protestors against the film outside of the famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.

A police helicopter even came and hovered above, watching the protest. But they did not find violence, just scenes like this:

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

They also saw supporters of the film outnumbering those protesting against it.

At the Q&A session after the film I did receive a few tough questions, mostly having to do with Al Qaeda in Syria, which my film had nothing to do with.

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” during the Q&A at Arpa International Film Festival.

It provided a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is the only thing standing between Al Qaeda and the Armenian community in Syria, and that the Free Syrian Army protects Armenians and Christians from both the Assad regime and Al Qaeda.

It was also a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for the liberty of everyone in Syria, including Syrian-Armenians.

I chose not to prepare a speech for the awards ceremony the following night, deciding instead to speak from the heart given the level of emotions that others had expressed surrounding the giving of a humanitarian award to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution at the Arpa International Film Festival.

In addition to reiterating that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda and that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for all Syrians, and thanking Alex Kalognomos for his kindness and professionalism throughout the controversy, I made two points that need repeating here:

  1. I was pleased to see the protestors against the film because it showed that they cared enough about something to get up off their sofa and show up outside Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre to express their opinions. This freedom of expression is part of why the Syrian revolution is being fought, so that Syrians can one day have that freedom as well. I appreciated the dialogue between the pro-revolution and pro-Assad protestors and although I disagree with supporters of the Assad regime I was glad that they expressed their opinions on an issue they are passionate about.
  2. I accepted responsibility personally and on behalf of other Syrian revolution activists for failing over the past two years to effectively communicate to the American people who the Syrian rebels are and why they are fighting the Assad regime. The Q&A session after the film had revealed that some Americans believe that the revolution is run by Al Qaeda and even that the Free Syrian Army is synonymous with Al Qaeda. It is not their fault, however, that they believe this but instead our fault for failing with public outreach to inform the American people about the Syrian revolution. I said in the speech that we all needed to do a better job of communicating with the American people and that the controversy surrounding the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being awarded to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had energized me to work even harder on doing so effectively.

There are many lessons we can learn from what happened at Arpa International Film Festival this year – that there are many interests involved in the Syrian conflict, that activism in the revolution is alive and well, that Arpa International Film Festival is a professional and well-run event, and that Alex Kalognomos deserves much acclaim for his handling of the controversy.

And that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution sure looks good on a big screen like the one at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

The Syria film

The Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” being shown in the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles during the Arpa International Film Festival

However, the most important lesson of all is that the Syrian revolution must refocus its efforts on public outreach.

When we have Americans confusing the Free Syrian Army with Al Qaeda, we are facing a serious problem. We will never convince Americans to support the Syrian revolution if they believe that international intervention would be in support of Al Qaeda. We must do a better job of communicating to the American people that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda, that the Free Syrian Army is the beating heart of this revolution, and that the Free Syrian Army needs our support.

I would like to thank all of those who contacted Arpa International Film Festival to voice their support for the film, particularly SAC, SAC-LA, and SAA.

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival.

I would also like to thank Arpa International Film Festival for the Silver Lens Award, as well as Arpa founder Sylvia Minassian and Alex Kalognomos for their care and support, and for having one of the best film festivals I have ever been to.

Click here to watch the documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution

Please share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, etc.

Comments on the blog and under the film on YouTube are also much appreciated.

Thank you for your support.

What Is the UK Sending to Rebels in Syria? You Might Be Surprised.

The Independent has a story out today detailing what the UK is sending to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in Syria.

When they read The Independent article, supporters of the revolution won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Here is my assessment, based on what has been reported in the article:

Five 4×4 vehicles with ballistic protection – one convoy for a FSA general they like Six 4×4 SUVs – one convoy for a FSA general they don’t like
20 sets of body armour – 20 rebels are going to feel like they won the lottery
Four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne) – to carry the bodies of those who didn’t win the body armor
Five non-armoured pick-ups – for retreating when you realize the UK didn’t send you any weapons or ammunition
One recovery vehicle – a tow truck to haul back the destroyed wrecks of the 4x4s and trucks that were sent
Four fork-lifts – to unload the weapons and ammunition that wasn’t sent
Three advanced “resilience kits” for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies – is three enough to rescue 20 million Syrians?
130 solar powered batteries – because the environment is the top priority
Around 400 radios – rebels can use these to desperately call for the weapons and ammunition that wasn’t sent
Water purification – there’s chemical weapons in the air, but at least the water will be clean
Rubbish collection kits – it won’t be a good war for television if there’s rubbish everywhere
Laptops and VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) – so the rebels can read on the internet how the international press has labeled them all extremists
Printers – to print a sign saying “great, now please send us the weapons and ammunition we need to win this war.”

“In addition, funds have been allocated for civic society projects such as inter-community dialogue” – dialogue has worked so well in this conflict so far
“and gathering evidence of human rights abuses” – documenting and complaining about human rights abuses is far easier than international intervention to stop them from happening in the first place

“The last “gift” to the opposition, announced by William Hague last week, is that £555,000 worth of counter-chemical warfare equipment is on standby… Even the chemical equipment may not be of much use without adequate training. Potential users need the ability to assess threats and calculate the correct dosage for medication, along with an appreciation of differing field conditions…” – Perhaps it is better this way, since the pain of burning eyes and skin will at least be a distraction from the pain of feeling abandoned by the world.

Jolly good show, mates.

(This article is also available in Arabic and French)

The Long, Hard Slog That Is Syria

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

The Long, Hard Slog That Is Syria

“Standing on the front lines in Aleppo you can’t just smell the gunpowder, you can smell the depression.  It hangs in the air far thicker than smoke, and with far worse effects.  The fighters have a hard time seeing through it but they push forward anyway, having no choice.”



Read it by clicking here


(Also available in French here)

Please leave comments at The Huffington Post website below the article!

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

One year ago today I escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya.  I had spent half a year being psychologically tortured in solitary confinement, pacing in my cell, staring at the walls and fearing that this would be all I would know for the rest of my life.

matthew vandyke in maktab al-nasser prison, tripoli, libya

On the 165th day of this unimaginable hell, prisoners came to my cell and broke off the lock.  I escaped Abu Salim with other prisoners of war and we ran for our lives.

That night I was watching the story of my escape on CNN.

The world thought I was dead for most of the time I was in Abu Salim prison – I was missing in action.  Despite the widespread belief that I was buried in the desert, Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocated for my release and the international press covered the story.  Only in the last two weeks before my escape did the Gaddafi regime even admit that I was alive and in custody, but they still would not let anyone see me or check on my condition.

HRW went to Abu Salim a few weeks before the prison break and was told I wasn’t there.  I was there, and I was being held in solitary confinement under deplorable conditions.  The Gaddafi regime did not care what the US government, NGOs, or the international press had to say.  I would still be in that cell, if not executed, if we hadn’t won the war.

I had come to help the Libyan rebels, and then the Libyan rebels came to help me.  My fellow rebel prisoners broke me out of the cell and we escaped together.  There was no outside intervention to save me from the horrors of Abu Salim.

A few days after my escape, I was at the Corinthia Hotel as a guest of the rebel government and I came under intense pressure, especially from HRW, to leave Libya.  The international press started calling my mother telling her to convince me to leave as well.  The press was confused about why I was still in Tripoli days after escaping from Abu Salim prison, as if I was waiting for something.

I was waiting for something – for Nouri.  Nouri Fonas was my friend of four years with whom I had been serving in the rebel forces before I was captured.  Transportation was difficult and it took Nouri a few days to arrive from Benghazi.  Soon after he arrived, we left Tripoli together.

The press and HRW had no idea where I went.  They assumed I had conceded to their demands and gone home.

Instead, Nouri and I spent one night in Benghazi, paid a visit to the Ministry of Defence, and then headed back to the front line.  We joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber brigade, were assigned a military jeep that we fitted with a DShK heavy machine gun, and returned to the war.

freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke in the libya war

Just as when I first joined the revolution in March 2011, nobody was supposed to know about my return to the front lines.  My participation in Libya’s revolution was supposed to be a secret, a personal matter, but being captured and imprisoned in Abu Salim erased my anonymity.  I tried once again to stay below the radar when returning to the front lines after prison until a photographer spotted me as I passed through a checkpoint in the jeep.  The secret was out.

It was for the best, it turned out.  Occasionally, I was able to take the press with me in the jeep to the front lines so they could report on the war while I fought in it, giving them a safe escort in an otherwise uncertain conflict zone.  And thanks to our commander giving Nouri and I a lot of freedom to move as we wanted and fight where we wanted, we had a rare grasp of what was happening on the various front lines in Sirte.  We fought at many different areas on the front lines alongside various other brigades, making us a reliable source of information for the media.

Nevertheless, I was criticized after the war by men incapable of understanding why someone who endured nearly six months of hell in the notorious Abu Salim prison would return to combat after escaping.  To this day some of these individuals, from the comfort of their homes in Europe and the United States, have tried to disparage me for keeping the commitment I made to Libya the day I first put on a uniform in March 2011.

Their criticism speaks volumes about their character, not mine.  I told the rebels when I joined them in March 2011 that I would not leave Libya until the country was free.  I honor my word; that is how I was raised.  I would also not leave Libya before the men I was captured with were accounted for – they could have been in prison in Sirte or another Gaddafi-held city.  Why would I ever abandon them?  Furthermore, how could I leave Libya when there were any prisoners of war still being held by the regime?

These wars of liberation aren’t a game and there aren’t any timeouts.  The war in Libya, and the war now raging in Syria, are all-or-nothing pursuits.  As Omar Mukhtar said, “We will not surrender. We win or we die.”  As I write this, there are thousands of prisoners waiting in their cells in Syria, just as I was waiting in a Libyan prison last year. 

No amount of reporting, NGO press releases, or rhetoric will get them out – Bashar al-Assad doesn’t care what anyone says, just like Gaddafi didn’t care what any of them said about me.

This isn’t the time for observation.  This isn’t the time for politely discussing the situation at the UN, or standing at podiums issuing idle threats about what might happen if lines that we keep moving are somehow crossed.  We are way past going through the motions of diplomacy. 

Those thousands of Syrian prisoners – men, women, and children- are waiting for us.  Each day they stare at the walls and wonder if it will be their last.  I know the feeling, and I’ll do whatever I can to help them escape from their Abu Salim.

And I’m starting with this film.

After Aleppo

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

“After Aleppo”

“Taking the fight to the streets of Damascus and Aleppo over the past few weeks wasn’t about holding territory. It was a demonstration of FSA capabilities, a display intended for both a Syrian and international audience and designed to achieve several broader goals.”

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(also available in French here)

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Have the U.S. and Europe Helped Arm and Empower Islamist Militants in Syria?

Have The U.S. and Europe Helped Arm and Empower Islamist Militants in Syria?

Matthew VanDyke and Nouri Fonas with ammunition they acquired from Rajma Libya

Nouri Fonas and I, March 9, 2011. We found these boxes of ammuntion in the destroyed Rajma base, along with 60mm mortar tubes from WWII. Most of the weapons used by rebel forces were captured from Gaddafi's army, including my AK-47, FN FAL, and DShK machine gun.

One of the primary arguments against arming the Syrian rebels is that their lack of organization and centralized command means that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants and terrorists in their ranks. This argument is based on a combination of various influences – legitimate concern, an inability of CIA and State Department analysts to think outside the cubicle, groupthink in policy circles, and a natural aversion to such a politically risky policy.

This timidity and lack of leadership will ensure one thing: that Islamist militants get weapons.

And he who controls the weapons controls the revolution.

There are six reasons why the Syrian rebels must be supplied with arms and ammunition from the U.S., Europe, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through the Syrian National Council (SNC) before it is too late:

  1. The rebels will get weapons from other sources. It is in our interest to buy influence and favor with them by supplying the weapons ourselves.
  2. Syrians will become more religiously radicalized the longer the war continues, as the suffering and death tend to make people more religious during war and potentially susceptible to extremist ideologies. The sooner the rebels receive the weapons, the sooner the war will end, reducing the impact of this phenomenon.
  3. Without conventional weapons the rebels may have no choice but to resort to bombings, including suicide bombings. This will spur radicalization, spread knowledge of explosive methods and technology, and turn Syria into a training ground for a new generation of terrorists.
  4. Islamist militants will be among the first to die in the war anyway because they actively seek martyrdom. Even those with second thoughts at least believe that God will protect them, which significantly diminishes their capacity for self-preservation on the battlefield. I witnessed this on occasion when I was fighting in the Libyan civil war.
  5. Supplying weapons through the SNC will allow the SNC to control the flow of weapons and ammunition to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups. Conditions can be placed on the SNC for the receipt of arms and its members can be held accountable for which rebel units receive weapons. Foreign advisers can also be on the ground and blacklist certain units from receiving weapons as a condition of supplying the SNC.
  6. Most importantly: Islamist militants are very good at acquiring weapons on their own through networking with terrorists and insurgents from Iraq and elsewhere in the region. By not supplying the rebels ourselves we are increasing the importance and influence of Islamist militants by making the Islamists the main players in arming the revolution.

I initially wrote these six points in response to an inquiry on a LinkedIn forum by a colleague asking for my opinion on arming the rebels because of concerns that they are becoming radicalized. A week after I wrote my response on the forum, Reuters published an article that confirms this is exactly what is happening in Syria.

From the Reuters article “Rebel rivalries and suspicions threaten Syria revolt”:

“Many say Islamist groups, from hard-line Salafists to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, bankroll many battalions that share their religious outlook”

“Fighters say private donors, possibly frontmen for Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have funneled millions of dollars to favored rebel groups. Many suspect the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are getting the lion’s share”

“Leftist politicians and other opponents of Islamists are trying to counter that influence by funding rival armed bands”

“We felt forced into aligning with the Free Syrian Army because it is the most widely known. If it gets recognized, we’ll get foreign aid,’ says the Idlib rebel Mahmoud.”

A few days later, another Reuters article revealed that the rebels are being forced to resort to bombings since they don’t have enough guns and ammunition:

“We are starting to get smarter about tactics and use bombs because people are just too poor and we don’t have enough rifles”

“You are going to start seeing an escalation as we improve our techniques of bomb-making and delivery.”

Recently there have been a series of terrorist attacks by Islamist militant groups within the Syrian revolution. These groups are gaining influence and becoming key players in the revolution because they can claim tactical victories against the regime. Rebels using conventional and guerilla tactics have been far less effective lately against Assad’s overwhelmingly better equipped military, supplied by Russia.

Unless the rebels are supplied with the weapons and ammunition they need to wage an effective insurgency, the revolution will be increasingly in the hands of the Islamist militants.

By not supplying the SNC with arms, the U.S. and Europe are essentially arming and empowering these Islamist militants.

We are on a collision course with the realities of the Arab Spring. It is time to take the wheel and do what we do best in the Middle East: buy influence with weapons and money.