U.S. national Matthew VanDyke holds his gun at the eastern front… (AFPGetty Images )
Matthew VanDyke, the self-styled "Arab Spring Freedom Fighter" from Baltimore, was a friend of the two American journalists who were beheaded by Islamic State militants.
VanDyke met James Foley and Steven Sotloff during his travels in Libya, and it was Foley to whom he first confided what we all later came to learn — that VanDyke was neither a journalist nor a filmmaker when he was captured and held in a Libyan prison for six months in 2011. Instead, he had gone there to fight with the rebels who eventually overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Few of us in VanDyke's hometown understood this at the time. When word first reached Baltimore that the young man was missing in Libya, initial reports identified him as a freelance journalist; some described him as a documentary filmmaker. While the latter description is accurate today — VanDyke has made two films about Libya and Syria — it was not so at the time.
In fact, VanDyke had made friends during earlier travels in the Middle East. Some of them supported the revolution in Libya; VanDyke wanted to help. He took up arms with the rebels; he was traveling with them when he was captured.
Foley was a freelance journalist. By the time he and VanDyke met at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, they realized they had something in common.
"We had both been guests of Colonel Gaddafi's prison system," VanDyke said Wednesday from New York, where he now lives. "When I met James, he had just been freed and he was preparing to go back to the front lines, as was I. The rebel army had set me up with a hotel room, and I invited James to stay with me. Most of the journalists had to sleep in the lobby. We both had the shared experience of having been imprisoned and we both had a passion for what we did. Sharing a room, talking to him — that was integral to my integration back to human interaction [after prison].
"I guess because of that, I confided with him that I was a freedom fighter," VanDyke added. "I think he was the first to know. I was a fighter; he was a journalist."
According to VanDyke, Foley traveled with him and the Libyan rebels, and images of the journalist are in "Point and Shoot," VanDyke's film about the uprising. "I took him in our vehicle," he said. "He's in 'Point and Shoot.' You see him running across a street to avoid sniper fire. We shot video of each other. I think I have some of the last photos and video of James."
Foley went into Syria in 2012. He was abducted that November at a time, VanDyke points out, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now known just as the Islamic State, did not exist. The war correspondent was beheaded last month in an unknown location by a masked IS fighter.
Sotloff died in the same horrific way.
VanDyke recalled Wednesday his first encounter with the American journalist: It was after the fall of Gaddafi, and after VanDyke had ventured into Syria to follow the rebels in their war against the Assad regime. VanDyke ended up in a dispute with a Libyan musician who wrote songs of revolution; the man was upset that VanDyke had made the trip without him.
"And Steven [Sotloff] was there and he mediated that mess," VanDyke said. "It was a misunderstanding, but the three of us sat down and Steven helped us work it out." VanDyke and Sotloff became friends.
Last summer, they met in Washington for dinner. Among other things, they discussed the missing James Foley.
That was the last time they were together. Sotloff, who had worked for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and the Christian Science Monitor, returned to cover the war in Syria. He was kidnapped near Aleppo in August 2013.
After Sotloff's death this week, President Barack Obama pledged to punish the militants with a U.S.-led coalition against IS.
"IS is a whole different level of barbarity and medieval mentality," VanDyke said. "They don't even follow the strictures of their own faith. It's something we've never seen before."
IS, VanDyke says, has sources of revenue to finance its regional ambitions in Iraq and Syria, and it might have achieved some of its goals had it not been for the beheadings.
"It had ambitions of statehood," he said. "And now it's going to draw the ire of the most powerful nation in the world, as it should. This is a level of evil not seen since — I hate to draw the Nazi comparison, everyone does — but it's a level of cruelty we have not seen before."
VanDyke mourns his two friends, Foley and Sotloff. But he's not sitting still. He's helped raise $12,000 for Iraqi Christians who were forced by IS to flee their homes. He plans to travel to Iraq in a couple of weeks to help with refugee relief.