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




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 Russian Invasion of Ukraine

It’s the 21st century, and a country has been invaded by the army of a shirtless man on a horse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a horse

Vladimir Putin. Russian President and shirtless equestrian.

As Russian troops march across Crimea and the Russian parliament considers the annexation of the territory from Ukraine, the international community is stumbling while watching a repeat of history. Six years ago the Russian bear reached its claw into Georgia and grabbed ahold of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, tearing them away from that sovereign nation through military invasion and creating two Russian satellite states functioning under the guise of being newly independent republics.

The international community didn’t stop Russia then, and it likely won’t stop Russia now. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been emboldened by years of US, European, and UN inaction to stop him, whether in Georgia, Syria, Ukraine or anywhere else. Putin will do what Putin wants to do, as he has always done, and the international community will watch, sweat, and offer little more to Ukrainians than speeches and press conferences condemning what has happened to their country.

When the dust settles, it will be Putin who decides what happens to Crimea, not the US, Europe, the UN, or anyone else. And when Putin decides that the Russian bear will claw a line through Ukraine establishing Crimea as an independent republic and de facto Russian satellite, nobody should be the slightest bit surprised.

Russian President Putin will not yield. German President Angela Merkel recently concluded after her phone call with Putin about the situation in Ukraine that Putin was “out of touch with reality.”

The question is, who’s reality is he out of touch with? Putin’s reality is shirtless horseback riding, shooting whales with crossbows, and hugging polar bears. Putin’s reality is supplying the Assad regime with weapons to massacre those struggling for freedom in Syria. Putin’s reality is invading neighboring countries to enforce his will on them at the tip of a bayonet.

The fact is, Putin’s reality is reality. Inaction on Georgia, Syria, and (so far) Ukraine has supplanted any reality of international law or standards with Putin’s reality, and for years now we have been living in Putin’s world.

Before another nation is invaded by Russia, before protestors in another country are silenced by Russian weapons, before Russia rewrites international norms of conduct and inspires other countries to begin enforcing their will through unprovoked military action, Putin must be stopped.

The reaction by the international community must be swift, punitive, and unequivocal in delivering the message that such aggression will not be tolerated in the 21st century. The fate of not only Ukraine, but the course of history in our time, depends on it.

(this article is available in French here)

The 2012 Benghazi Attack

Update: Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider has written an article titled “American Who Fought With Libyan Rebels: I Was Right About Benghazi” about my accurate assessment of what happened in Benghazi which I shared with Business Insider on September 12, 2012, the day after the 2012 Benghazi attack occurred.

The New York Times investigation by David Kirkpatrick into the September 11, 2012 attack on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, has confirmed much of my theory about who was responsible for the attack, what motivated it, and how little planning by the attackers was involved.

I knew how militias operated in Libya because I fought in the Libyan Civil War in 2011 as part of the rebel forces. Yet surprisingly, few journalists thought to email or call me after the Benghazi attack for insight into what had likely happened.

Freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke with his military unit during the Libyan Civil War

With my rebel military unit during the Libyan Civil War.

Instead, many journalists were reporting opinions that were not accurate, such as the attack being “a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid” carried out by Al Qaeda – opinions offered by the regular cadre of talking heads who are popular at cocktail parties in Washington, DC but who have no operational experience on the ground in Libya and certainly no experience fighting as part of a Libyan militia or military unit.

The media often follows this same pattern of behavior when reporting on the Syrian Civil War as well.

I first shared my theory about Benghazi with journalists who did think to contact me on September 12, 2012 (the very next day after the attack). I based this theory on my academic background in Security Studies, years of experience in the region, clues from a few eyewitness accounts that had emerged but were largely dismissed or overlooked by the media, and most importantly on my experiences fighting in the Libyan Civil War which gave me unique insight into how the militias operate.

Business Insider published my thoughts and theory about the Benghazi attacks on September 13, 2012 (just two days after the attacks) in an article titled Insiders Tell Us What Really Happened in Libya. My views on Benghazi can also be found in Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb’s New York Times Bestseller book Benghazi: The Definitive Report.

It has been frustrating to watch the tragic events in Benghazi being used as a political football in the US Congress and media. I have been confident that my theory about that day was much closer to what actually happened than what politicians and much of the press have been reporting for the past year. The political and media circus about Benghazi for the past year has been irresponsible because the myths and misrepresentations about what happened in Benghazi has politicized a tragedy that should have united all Americans. I hope those of you with an interest in what actually transpired that horrible day in Benghazi will take the time to read David Kirkpatrick’s New York Times report.

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.

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”

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

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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)