An American who fought alongside Libyan rebels, and who was detained in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison for six months before returning home to Baltimore in late 2011, has turned up on the frontline of the uprising in Syria.
Matthew VanDyke said that he was in Aleppo to film a documentary alongside the Syrian rebel army. But he claims he is also advising the rebels on weaponry based on his experience in Libya.
“I go to sleep and wake up to the sound of artillery shells, and Assad’s jets flying overhead and bombing the city,” VanDyke, 33, wrote in the first of a series of emails with the Guardian. “Most of these booms signal the death of more civilians in Aleppo.”
VanDyke claims to be a journalist-turned-freedom-fighter-turned documentarian, but others accuse him of being a misguided thrillseeker who repeatedly puts himself at risk.
He insisted that he understood the dangers of being in Syria but said the viral potential of the documentary made it worth the risk.
VanDyke has an acute interest in using social media to promote his project – in fact, one of his first check-ins after arriving in Syria on 17 October was with friends on Facebook.
“You see a baby without a head brought to the hospital in Aleppo, and you want to put down the camera and take a gun to the front line,” VanDyke posted, just hours after arriving in Syria with the help of a Washington-based Syrian support group.
He claimed that he had already been asked to fight on behalf of the Free Syrian Army, but said he had promised himself and others that he was only there to film until “next time”.
He said he was also offering advice on weaponry, including the anti-aircraft Dushka machine guns he used while fighting in Libya, though that claim has been questioned by people who know him and who have spent time on the ground in Syria.
VanDyke said he was hoping the finished documentary would go viral, and compares the payoff of risking his life to what could happen if the video receives the same sort of attention that the Kony 2012 Invisible Children documentary did. That video, which called for justice for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, logged over 91 million views by summer 2012, despite the fact that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army had been pushed out of the country by Ugandan forces years earlier.
VanDyke hints that the media attention around his disappearance and Libya will bring his project into the spotlight.
“I am friends with many journalists; the media likes me,” VanDyke wrote. “I can bring a unique angle to the 19-month-old Syria story that will attract a whole new audience of people to care about Syria and donate money to the rebels – and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure it goes viral and gets those men on the front lines in Syria the weapons and ammo they need.”
VanDyke says he feels that a project like his is needed, because the US hasn’t done enough to bring attention to what is happening.
“Syrians feel abandoned by America, and cannot understand why they aren’t being helped like the Libyans,” VanDyke wrote.
Besides Facebook and blogging on his website, there are few social media channels VanDyke hasn’t tried in order to get the word out about his project.
His Kickstarter page promoting the documentary, entitled ‘This is your chance to become part of the Arab Spring,’ offered autographed 8×10 photos for supporters who pledged $50 more. In the end, the Kickstarter project drew 60 backers and logged $15,135 of its $19,500 goal before it was suspended by the site in August. Kickstarter never gave a specific reason for the suspension, but the site’s terms of service includes suspending pages that support a charity or are associated with high-risk activity. Still he has pressed on. His teaser for the documentary, posted on YouTube, shows VanDyke walking around the cell in Abu Salim prison, where he was, unbeknownst to friends, relatives and the human rights agencies who searched for him, as well as firing weapons alongside Libyan rebels and dancing while holding a machine guns, shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
The Georgetown graduate and self-described former “spoiled brat” says the deepest friendships he made and maintained were with people in Libya. In 2011, he said couldn’t sit and watch as rebel forces bloodily clashed with forces loyal to former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. So he went.
Days after arriving, VanDyke was captured and imprisoned. He was only able to escape six months later when Tripoli was liberated by rebels.
Along with the US State Department and Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which was concerned that a reporter may have been captured while carrying out his work, tried to confirm VanDyke’s whereabouts while he was missing.
“Pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception,” Joel Simon, the organization’s executive director, wrote about VanDyke in November 2011. “It’s a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict.”
The US State Department did not respond to a request from The Guardian for comment about his appearance in Syria.
VanDyke said he never called himself a journalist, and if his documentary teaser is any indication, he had never maintained any journalistic distance between himself and the rebels.
“‘Journalist’ was a label created by the press to describe me when I was missing in a Libyan prison,” VanDye wrote, “and I have been arguing with the media ever since to stop using that word to describe me.”
VanDyke added that he was clearly marking himself as a member of the rebel army this time, a move he says was done to protect journalists.
“If I am captured I will be tortured and imprisoned for life, or quietly executed.”
For now, VanDyke will wake up to the sound of artillery shells striking Aleppo, a scene he describes as a strange mix of slaughter and destruction. He says he understands the dangers associated with his time in Syria. To him, the viral potential of his project trumps the risk.
“Syria is by far the most dangerous place I have ever filmed. I wouldn’t be here just making a film this time if I wasn’t certain that the film was needed and had the potential to make a tangible impact on the war.”
• This article was amended on 25 January 2013 to remove a sentence that said “some people who searched for VanDyke in Libya said that he claimed to be a journalist in order to save his own life”. In addition the following sentence has been edited to make clear the CPJ wanted to establish his whereabouts because the organisation was concerned that a journalist had gone missing.