American Christian Matthew VanDyke wants to build an army composed of Christians in Iraq that could take on the terror group known as ISIS. However, questions remained on the legal status of his Middle East efforts back in the United States.
According to a press release posted on PRNewswire, VanDyke founded Sons of Liberty International, or SOLI, a security firm "that trains vulnerable populations to defend themselves against ISIS." He thought the terror group was a "scourge on humanity."
"I think if you believe in something, you should do something about it rather than just give a thumbs-up to the television from your sofa," VanDyke said.
VanDyke, who has a master's degree in Security Studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, contended that his security firm ran on a "nonprofit business model" that depends on "financial contributions from the public." He claimed that SOLI has trained more than 300 Iraqi Christians to fight ISIS as part of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU).
"The Christian community in Iraq has been pushed around for a long time, and it needs to stop," VanDyke said. "I have the right connections and experience to help."
VanDyke, a lifelong Christian whose faith in God deepened after he spent six months in prison during the Libyan Civil War of 2011, added that SOLI was stepping up in "where the international community has failed."
"The future of Christianity in Iraq is uncertain," VanDyke said. "Supporting Sons of Liberty International is a tangible way to make a difference."
Jenna McLaughlin of Mother Jones wrote a profile on the security contractor. She noted that although VanDyke initially may not have received permission from the U.S. government to train foreign nationals with military tactics, he claimed that SOLI now "complied with U.S. registration requirements."
"Part of the whole purpose of SOLI is to step in where governments had failed, so going and asking permission from the governments that have already failed is not particularly productive," VanDyke said, adding that his company was "crowdfunding a war against ISIS."
However, McLaughlin reported that VanDyke, who had no formal military training, has refused to disclose the financials on his organization, citing security reasons.
"I can't give a number for how much we raised, because I don't want our personnel kidnapped," VanDyke said. "The moment we announce what's in the account, then our people become more of a target, and then we get grabbed and that's what they're gonna ask for."
According to McLaughlin, VanDyke started offering his services to Iraqi Christian political leaders after being personally horrified by the beheadings of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley at the hands of ISIS. However, he first had to secure formal approval from the State Department.
"The Arms Export and Control Act requires US citizens to obtain State Department licensing before offering formal or informal military services to foreigners. This includes providing training or military equipment," McLaughlin wrote. "A subsection of the law known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations stipulates that licenses should be denied unless the activities are 'in the interest of the security and foreign policy of the US.'"
McLaughlin asked VanDyke to provide documentation from the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls proving he had permission from the government to train a Christian army; he has so far not responded to that request. Arms-trafficking consultants David Ellison and Scott Gearity indicated to McLaughlin that the penalties for providing military training to foreigners without State Department approval could include possible criminal prosecution and millions of dollars in fines.
"This all sounds very bad," Ellison quipped about VanDyke's methods.
"This doesn't seem like a very ambiguous case," Gearity said of VanDyke's activities.
Mother Jones cited a case where the Justice Department aggressively prosecuted controversial military contractor Blackwater over similar circumstances. Blackwater was charged for "illegally providing training to Canadian law enforcement and military personnel."
"[Blackwater] was forced to pay the US government $42 million for violations that included offering 'defense services' to the government of the Sudan 'without first having obtained a license from the US Department of State,'" McLaughlin wrote, citing an FBI press release.
According to McLaughlin, the NPU sent out a letter to VanDyke terminating his company's services in the fight against ISIS. However, an email from Lauren Fischer of SOLI claimed that the NPU's letter, which was written back in February, was never sent to VanDyke.
"Your services are no longer being employed in any capacity," Gevara Zaya, NPU military director, wrote in that letter. "Please refrain from using any image, title, or reference to the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) in any capacity, commercial or otherwise."
According to Fischer, Zaya later stated that both organizations did not sever ties with each other. She also claimed that SOLI and NPU recently completed training in May and that the dispute was "concocted and perpetuated" by the American Mesopotamian Organization.
"The legal issues are being addressed with the US State Department," Fisher wrote.
In a press release issued on Business Wire dated May 20, SOLI accused the AMO of allegedly pressuring the Assyrian Democratic Movement, or ADM, of denying access for training purposes.
"AMO has repeatedly interfered with SOLI's ability to deliver free training and supplies in an effort to preserve their influence over the NPU," VanDyke said. Unfortunately, ADM has allowed the influence of AMO to take precedence over protecting their people."
VanDyke indicated to McLaughlin that he still wants to use his services to help other Christian forces in Iraq. He thought it was "unconscionable" that anyone, particularly the NPU, would be denied access to techniques deployed against ISIS.
"SOLI looks forward to its next mission to support the Christian community of Iraq in their fight against ISIS," VanDyke said.
Correction: June 3, 2015
- The original article incorrectly stated that VanDyke became a Christian after he spent six months in prison during the Libyan Civil War of 2011. Mr. VanDyke was raised a Christian and has identified as a Christian his entire life.
- Additional information about the relationship between SOLI and NPU has been added.