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Matthew VanDyke

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How Osama bin Laden Changed My Life

Posted: 05/ 1/2012 3:36 pm

I didn't learn that Osama bin Laden was dead until August 24, 2011, nearly four months after he was killed. I had just escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya a few hours earlier and was talking to my girlfriend on the phone for the first time in nearly six months.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: I plan to stay until Libya is free.
Girlfriend: You mean until Gaddafi is captured? That could take months!
Me: No, just until all the country is free. They might never find Gaddafi. They never got bin Laden.
Girlfriend: Huh? Oh yeah, you don't know about that. They did get bin Laden. And they found pornography in his house.

It was a good day.

Soon after this conversation I returned to the frontlines, enlisted in the National Liberation Army of Libya and resumed fighting against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi until Gaddafi was killed and the war ended. I didn't think much about Osama bin Laden again until now, the one year anniversary of his death when I reflect on my experiences, and the experiences of my country, during the bin Laden decade.

I now realize with the benefit of hindsight that the course of my life was altered dramatically by Osama bin Laden in ways that I had never considered. Specifically, the response by my country to bin Laden's attack on 9/11 changed my fate and exposed me to a world and experiences that would lead me down a very strange path.

My life during the bin Laden decade:

September 11, 2001. It is my last year of college. I have been taking courses about the Middle East in hopes of working for the CIA. On 9/11 that life plan suddenly seems very fortuitous. I believe I will one day be working for the CIA, serving my country by hunting bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

2002. For some strange reason it appears America is now preparing for war with Iraq. During my first semester as a graduate student at Georgetown University I interview for an analyst position with the CIA. A couple of hours after the interview I attend my first anti-war protest against the Iraq War.

2003. The CIA offers me a summer analyst position. I visit CIA headquarters at Langley and meet some of my future co-workers. But I get nervous during my polygraph exam and the results aren't satisfactory on the first attempt. The exam is rescheduled for another try. A blizzard forces another rescheduling, a deadline appears to pass, and I am told to apply for the analyst position again in a year.

2004. I don't apply to the CIA again. I am now active in the anti-war movement at Georgetown University and believe, based on my education on the Arab world and national security issues, that the War in Iraq is a major foreign policy mistake for the United States. I want Saddam Hussein removed through the arming of an insurgency to enable Iraqis to liberate themselves, possibly with air support by the United States. This is several years before the Arab Spring and I'm in the minority that believe change is possible in the Middle East without putting U.S. boots on the ground. I will not apply again to work for the CIA because my educational background virtually ensures I'll be assigned to the Iraq War.

2005. I make a radical decision. I will travel alone by motorcycle throughout the Arab world, living and working among the people in several countries and learning their ways, their thoughts, and everything I can about the region. And I will write a book and make a documentary film about my experiences.

2006. I get sidetracked in Spain for a year when I meet my girlfriend (I couldn't resist her).

2007. I begin again and arrive in the Arab world for the first time, driving my motorcycle off the ferry into Tangier, Morocco. I am afraid to leave the hotel room and know nothing of the culture, not even how to use their squat toilets. Georgetown University did not prepare me for any of this. Within a few months I am tougher and more experienced, trying to buy illicit African passports to cross borders more easily and buying and smuggling cars in West Africa.

March 2008. I pay a bribe to get a visa for Libya and become the first American to ever cross Muammar Gaddafi's Libya by motorcycle. I make many good friends and last six weeks before the Gaddafi regime kicks me out of the country.

May 2008. I drive my motorcycle from Libya to Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, and finally into Iraq. After seeing the freedom and optimism of a surprising number of Iraqis my views on the war change and I now support the Iraq War.

2009. I become a war correspondent and embedded journalist covering the Iraq War that I had once so passionately opposed. I also explore Iraq by motorcycle, getting arrested or detained many times by the Iraqi police and am nearly killed on a few occasions. I am accused by Iraqi security forces of being a member of al Qaeda or the CIA (sometimes both in the same day.) Once, when the U.S. Army gets me released from Iraqi police custody they bring an Army medic and tell me it is because they assume I had already been tortured. I wonder how we have been there for six years and didn't manage to break the Iraqi habit of torturing prisoners. But I am still optimistic about Iraq's future.

Summer 2010. An American photographer and I drive motorcycles from Iraq to Afghanistan, through Iran to make a documentary and embed as journalists with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. In Iraq we are arrested by Iraqi police, accused of being al Qaeda terrorists and then blindfolded, beaten and thrown in prison. The State Department doesn't find us for two days. The U.S. has been in Iraq for seven years and American journalists are being arrested and beaten by Iraqi security forces. Something has clearly gone terribly wrong in Iraq and I begin to question my support of the war once again.

Fall 2010. The Iranian press reports our arrest in Iraq as two Jewish American spies captured during an espionage mission. Neither of us are Jewish and we aren't spies. Iraq is beginning to look like a puppet state of Iran. My friend and I take a significant risk and proceed to cross Iran by motorcycle as planned.

Fall/Winter 2010. In Afghanistan we dodge armed bandits and kidnappers and are arrested by the Afghan police a few times. It is extremely dangerous in Afghanistan and we survive by traveling undercover as Afghans on motorcycles with concealed sawed-off shotguns for protection. The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and the security situation is abysmal, with most parts of the country so dangerous to travel that it would be suicidal to try. But we try anyway, and somehow (barely) survive it. Before leaving the country I take an embed assignment with the U.S. Army to report on the war. I realize that the Afghan security forces will never be capable of securing the country on their own, but they sure are good at harassing, punching, stealing from, and imprisoning American journalists on motorcycles. The prospects for success in Afghanistan look quite dim.

Before I leave Afghanistan I sneak into Osama bin Laden's destroyed house in Jalalabad and plant an American flag in the ruins to honor all the Americans who gave their lives fighting bin Laden and his followers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

journalist matthew vandyke putting a flag in osama bin laden house in jalalabad afghanistan


March 2011. Soon after I return to the U.S. the Arab Spring is underway and my good friends in Libya need help. I go to Libya and join the revolution as a freedom fighter. I am captured on a reconnaissance mission and spend the next 165 days as a POW in solitary confinement in two of Libya's most notorious prisons. In the eyes of the Gaddafi regime I am a terrorist, and as I sit in prison cut-off from the outside, the world's worst terrorist -- Osama bin Laden -- is killed by my country.

August 2011. I escape from prison and return to the frontlines as a soldier in the Libyan rebel army.

October 2011. Muammar Gaddafi suffers a more brutal fate than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Many Americans are disturbed by the video of Gaddafi's torture and death; strange for a nation that has been at war for a decade. Gaddafi was among the world's worst state sponsors of terrorism in history and responsible for the deaths of many Americans, yet many are quick to criticize the Libyan rebels fighting for their own freedom only a decade after you couldn't walk down a street in America without seeing symbols of freedom and war -- flags and yellow ribbons -- everywhere.

2012. My views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- our response to bin Laden -- have changed numerous times over the decade. I greatly admire and respect all of the U.S. servicemen and women who fought for their country against bin Laden. What they did was noble and their sacrifices are appreciated not only by Americans, but by many people in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The U.S. military overthrew authoritarian regimes and attempted to bring democracy to the region, a historic endeavor that produced many positive results. Iraq and Afghanistan are better off now than they were 10 years ago, but given the costs compared to the results and the uncertainty of what lays ahead one cannot help but question if these wars really were the best possible response to Osama bin Laden. Many Americans are now having doubts.

The pundits and policymakers who supported the Iraq War don't like to talk about it and some of them have retreated quietly from public view. Nearly everyone supported the War in Afghanistan and nearly everyone now supports ending it. My nation is war weary and even the hawks of the bin Laden decade have taken the wrong lessons from it. They aren't only opposed to military action in support of the Arab Spring, but even seem opposed to the very idea of overthrowing the sort of regimes we just spent over $1 trillion, thousands of lives, and ten years to get rid of in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for myself, perhaps I'm as confused as they are. I started the bin Laden decade wanting to work for the CIA. Now I wouldn't want to, but some people are convinced I work for them already. Oh the irony.

In 2007 I went to the Arab world to observe, film, and learn. Four years later I was fighting in an Arab civil war.

The bin Laden decade sure was strange.

 

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