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Freed U.S. fighter vows a return to Libya

By JOSEPH CHRYSDALE   |   Feb. 15, 2012 at 9:00 AM   |   Comments

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TORONTO, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- A Baltimore man who voluntarily fought with Libyan anti-government rebels a year ago, was jailed in solitary confinement, then freed, says he's preparing to go back.

Matthew VanDyke, 32, gained international attention last year when he was captured by the military of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. VanDyke left Baltimore Feb. 26, 2011, was captured March 13 near Brega and jailed in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison for 166 days. When he was freed in August, he said he returned to fighting before heading back to the United States in November.

With the anniversary of his departure approaching, VanDyke told United Press International in a telephone interview and e-mail exchanges that he's working on a book and a documentary about his mission as a rebel fighter, which he has decided isn't complete.

"I will be returning to Libya sometime in 2012," he said via e-mail. "I will be visiting wounded Libya veterans at the hospital in Boston on Feb. 17, the anniversary of the revolution."

VanDyke said he befriended several Libyans in earlier personal travels in the Middle East and feels an affinity for them. Asked if he would be willing to fight in any other Arabic countries still undergoing political upheaval, he said he wouldn't rule it out.

"There are some Libyans who are going to Syria and I would join them," he said. "I'm watching and waiting for the right conditions and the right time."

VanDyke has a master's degree from Georgetown University in political science with a specialty in Middle East security studies.

He spoke haltingly with UPI on the telephone, carefully choosing his words as he alleges media and other organizations misquoted and misrepresented him in the past.

Indeed, reviewing reports on him from U.S. and foreign media, there are inconsistencies, which VanDyke said he would eventually clarify.

One that galls him in particular was a report he entered Libya as a journalist under false pretenses.

"I didn't go into Libya saying I was a journalist and my family knew I wasn't going to do journalism," he said. "They knew I was going to support the revolution; they didn't know that I was necessarily going to be on the front line."

After he was captured, neither his family nor friends knew where he was. In addition to efforts by the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch also joined the search.

"We all worked hard to try and locate him and get him home safe for all those months, and it is a bit tragic to now see him try and join the fight as a rebel," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, told the Baltimore Sun in an e-mail message.

Additionally, the Committee to Protect Journalists took up the cause of locating and freeing him. After VanDyke was liberated from prison in August when rebels overran Tripoli, CPJ member Joel Simon wrote a scathing blog rebuke of VanDyke's activities.

"Pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception," Simon wrote. "It's a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict."

For his part, VanDyke said he has documentation to repudiate Simon's allegations.

"There are several things in that blog post that are just factually inaccurate that can be proven inaccurate through documents, video and audio evidence," he said. "The truth is going to come out sometime in the future and, when it does, anybody who has been repeating their accusations isn't going to look good."

When asked by UPI who had initially asked the committee to help find him, he said it was a former college classmate whose name he couldn't remember.

"They (CPJ) should never have advocated for me," VanDyke said.

Prior to Libya, VanDyke worked as an embedded journalist in Iraq for The Baltimore Examiner, which stopped publication in February 2009, and in Afghanistan for the Iraqi Kurdish Globe newspaper. Asked if he carried weapons during those assignments, VanDyke answered flatly, "No."

He also denied being a "soldier of fortune" or mercenary.

"I haven't accepted any payment," he said. "I don't think anybody housed and clothed and fed me except for my friends.

"I wasn't 'clothed' -- my clothing was stuff that my friend had acquired and, later, stuff that was captured from warehouses that had been abandoned by Gadhafi's people."

VanDyke has spoken openly about having obsessive compulsive disorder, which he says includes frequent hand-washing and being leery of sugar. Asked if the condition had affected his decision to take up arms in a foreign country, he said it hadn't.

"It [OCD] doesn't really have anything to do with what I do in life or my goals or how I achieve them," he said.

However, he said he has had military aspirations related to his study of intelligence issues.

VanDyke said beginning in 2007 he applied to both the CIA and FBI at different times. In both cases, he couldn't pass lie detector tests, which he attributes to his disorder.

"Everything rides on passing this polygraph test, which really only measures the amount of your anxiety and your nerves, not whether you're telling the truth," he said. "I was telling the truth -- I was just so nervous, the machine wouldn't be able to tell that."

Also in 2007, VanDyke said he was "talking to a (U.S.) Marine recruiter and I came quite close to signing a contract" and that he had also considered the U.S. Army's Green Berets.

"They had a program … that fast-tracked people for Special Forces, which I thought my experience in the region thus far and knowing some Arabic would seem like a good fit for me," he said.

He said he decided against both uniformed positions to pursue filmmaking and writing.

As for the stir VanDyke caused among journalists, Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists told UPI in a phone interview new wireless and miniature electronic technology is blurring the lines of traditional journalism.

"Those people who go to what I would say 'do journalism' -- if they go to a place and report images of conflict and interview people and then publish it, then they're 'committing journalism,'" he said. "So what you have is far more freelancers going into areas where they could be putting themselves or others in danger in order to do reporting."

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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