Just 12 miles north of the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, an American filmmaker and self-styled revolutionary is running a boot camp for Christians willing and able to fight for their lives and faith against the murderous Islamic terror organization.
"They need to demonstrate that they can maintain and be responsible for their own security to encourage their people to stay – or else, within a couple of generations, there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq."
- Matthew VanDyke
Matthew VanDyke, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who escaped a Libyan prison after going there to help overthrow Col. Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, is helping to train hundreds of long-persecuted Assyrian Christians in everything from firearms to close quarters combat. VanDyke, who founded the security contracting firm company Sons of Liberty (SOLI), is working with an unnamed U.S. military veteran to get the Christian conscripts who range in age from 18 to 60 or older, ready to take on the ominous black clad army that lies dug in to Iraq's second-largest city just over the horizon. Earlier this week, the first battalion of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) graduated from the boot camp.
“It’s designed to help local sectarian forces in local communities facing threats of terrorism, insurgency or oppressive regimes to be able to defend themselves,” VanDyke told FoxNews.com from a base in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, where he hopes to help train 2,000 men. “It’s the step where the international community has failed or is moving too slow.”
The Assyrians, sometimes called Syriac Christians, belong to a variety of Christian sects and are a stateless ethnic group. One of the oldest civilizations from ancient Mesopotamia, they have their own culture, language and heritage sharply distinct from that of Arabian or Kurdish people. They speak a near-extinct language connected to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and remain stateless – over the years enduring immense persecution and land expropriations.
While the Kurds have proven a worthy adversary of ISIS, with their battle-hardened Peshmerga pushing back the terrorist army in cities and villages throughout northern Iraq and Syria, the Christians and other religious minorities including the Yazidis have been slaughtered, starved and sent fleeing throughout the region since ISIS broke from Al Qaeda and began establishing a so-called caliphate in the region a year ago. Iraq's Christian population, which numbered 1.5 million in 2004, has dwindled in the face of the ISIS onslaught while, VanDyke charges, the world has stood by.
“The international system has failed [Christian] communities around the world in recent years," said VanDyke, a 35-year-old Baltimore native who obtained a master's degree from Georgetown University's vaunted Walsh School of Foreign ServiCe before embarking on a mercurial career that has seen him film and fight throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. "Christianity is about to be wiped out in Iraq.
“They are down to less than 400,000. Many of those who have left will never return," he continued. "They need to demonstrate that they can maintain and be responsible for their own security to encourage their people to stay – or else, within a couple of generations, there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq. This is their last chance.”
In December, the Assyrian Democratic Movement – the primary political party of Assyrians in Iraq – announced the development of the NPU, a militia made up mostly Christian volunteers. VanDyke said the Christians realized they had to fight for themselves when ISIS began a major assault on Christian-held areas of Iraq such as the Nineveh Plains last year and the Peshmerga withdrew without telling them.
“Some people woke up and looked outside and there was ISIS in their backyard, so they don’t trust anyone else but their own defense and nor should they,” VanDyke said. “They’ve had women kidnapped; their homes have been taken from them in the fight with ISIS.”
However, bringing this Christian group together and training them to take up arms has been something of a political challenge. VanDyke said that the minority faction was persistently denied requests by the Iraqi Central Government and Peshmerga to form their own force, so they began training covertly. With a nascent force now established and ready to fight the common enemy, any opposition from the Iraqi or Kurdish governments has dropped.
Klado Ramzi, an Iraqi Christian who serves on the NPU Leadership Committee, told FoxNews.com that the group's goals go beyond just protecting its people and territory from ISIS, but include acquiring the long-term capability of defending itself.
“We have had roots in Iraq for thousands and thousands of years," Ramzi said. "It is very important that we protect our language, our being. We respect all people in Iraq, but we refuse to be part of the fighting between Kurds and Arabs. We want to be independent and we need our own system of security for the NPU area.”
The Assyrian fighters supply their own weapons at the camp, which VanDyke began covertly in December. In addition to basic military training, VanDyke and his associates are helping leaders within the Christian communities forge international diplomatic connections, including with the U.S. State Department. Sons of Liberty bills itself as a full-service military training, consulting, support and security firm that seeks to “enable those abandoned by the international community to take action in defense of themselves and their people.”
In 2013, VanDyke released his first documentary, entitled “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” with his own money and the goal of encouraging international support for Syrian rebels in the ongoing civil war. The film won more than 50 awards and has been shown at educational institutions and events around the world sponsored by organizations such as Amnesty International. His second documentary, “Point and Shoot,” which used footage VanDyke shot from 2007-2011, while motorcycling around the Middle East and North Africa as well as while in Libya.
His latest project, Sons of Liberty, relies on donations to provide training and aid, one reason he is no longer conducting the camp in secret. VanDyke said his goal is to redefine the security contracting industry "by challenging the mercenary model that has dominated it throughout history, by providing services and assistance for free to those in the greatest need of them." In addition to funding, he seeks skilled ex-military operators and security contractors who can donate their skills to help train the Assyrians.
In its violent quest to take over cities and land, ISIS has intentionally persecuted religious minorities – kidnapping, murdering, raping, enslaving and torturing Christians. Just this week, Syrian activists said as many as 200 Christians had been abducted, including women and the elderly, from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria. The U.S. State Department condemned the attacks, and stated that hundreds more are trapped in villages besieged by ISIS operatives.
For now, VanDyke – who fought alongside rebels in Syrian more than a year ago, believes going into Syria is just too dangerous.
“The problem there is the level of betrayal,” he said. “There is a very high likelihood for anyone who goes there of being sold to militants by the very people you’re there to help and protect.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay