After Repeated Airstrikes, Reporter Fears He’s Been Put on a ‘Kill List’

September 28th, 2019 - by Areeb Ullah / Middle East Eye & Simon Hooper / Middle East Eye

Bilal Abdul Kareem.

After Surviving Five US Air Strikes, US Court Dismisses Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem’s Lawsuit Over ‘Drone Kill List’

Areeb Ullah / Middle East Eye

 (September 25, 2019) — An American journalist who says he was targeted and injured by US drone strikes continues to fear for his life after the Trump administration used its “state secret” privilege to withhold information that could confirm whether he was indeed placed on a drone kill list.

US-born journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem launched a lawsuit last year after he said he was targeted at least five times by US drone strikes in northwest Syria. 

Kareem believes he was targeted by US air strikes due to his regular contact with members of militant groups operating inside Syria, including al-Qaeda-linked groups, as part of his reporting. 

He was allowed to proceed with the case in June 2018 after US District Judge Rosemary Collyer dismissed the US government’s attempt to have his case thrown out, saying he was exercising his constitutional right to due process in court.  

His case, however, was dismissed by Collyer on Tuesday after the Trump administration used the “state-secret” privilege, a seldom-used power, in order not to confirm his placement on a US drone kill list. 

Responding to the ruling, Kareem described the court’s decision to dismiss his case as a “big blow”, as he continues to live in fear of being targeted by US drone strikes inside Syria. 

“I have no protection if they want to try [to kill me] again next week, next month or six months from now. Do you really trust the Trump administration to handle this responsibly?” Kareem told Middle East Eye from northwest Syria. 

“My feeling right now is that if I myself as an American citizen can’t get the government to admit what we already know — that I am on a kill list – what about non-Americans?”

Jennifer Gibson, Kareem’s co-counsel, described the ruling as tacitly approving the US government’s ability to “wield excessive power” and “hide behind [the] spectre of ‘national security’ to deprive people of their basic rights”.

“Today, a court ruled that the US government could kill an American citizen without due process,” Gibson, who is a staff attorney at Reprieve, said in a statement. 

“In so doing, it allowed the Trump administration to run roughshod over the constitution and tacitly approved the executive’s exercise of unfettered power over its citizens in the name of ‘national security’.”

In a 14page memorandum opinion, Collyer outlined that the court had no choice but to “dismiss” the action due to the US government’s “invocation of the state secret privilege”.

“What constitutional right is more essential than the right to due process before the government may take a life? While the answer may be none, federal courts possess limited authority to resolve questions presented in a lawsuit, even when they are alleged to involve constitutional rights,” Collyer said her judgement.

“This is such a case. Despite the serious nature of plaintiff’s allegations, this court must dismiss the action pursuant to the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege.”

Prosecutors added that disclosing whether Kareem was on the “kill list” would permit him to evade capture or further US action against him and compromise intelligence sources on the ground. 

Commenting on the wider implications of the case, Kareem believes the US government has created “a gross injustice to the American people” by refusing to confirm if he is named on a kill list. 

“It’s easy when a terror attack happens to trumpet it and say that we continue to fight terror. But nobody wants to talk about the steps we have taken to create that environment,” he said.  

“Nobody wants to take the conversation that far and I think that a gross injustice is being done to the American people. They don’t see that the government blocks the avenues to justice and once the avenues of justice are blocked, then it is only natural for people to turn to what? They turn to violence.

“I continue to carry the political fight but I cannot pretend that this isn’t a blow.”

US ‘Kill List’: Five Times Bilal Abdul Kareem Narrowly Escaped Death

Simon Hooper / Middle East Eye

 (April 1, 2017) — Syria-based US journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem on Thursday filed a lawsuit accusing the US government of placing him on an alleged “kill list”.

Abdul Kareem in the lawsuit, which was filed against US President Donald Trump and other senior officials, alleged that the US had tried to kill him five times using air strikes in mid-2016, killing at least three people including a 10-year-old girl in the process.

The lawsuit was also filed in the name of Ahmad Zaidan, a former Islamabad bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic, and states that the pair were “targeted for death” after being identified by a US surveillance program called SKYNET which selects potential targets for drone strikes based on metadata and mobile phone records.

Abdul Kareem, an occasional Middle East Eye contributor, told MEE on Friday that “well-placed sources have informed me that I have been included on the drone list for flights that take off from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey”.

Neither the CIA nor the National Security Agency (NSA) have so far commented on the allegations but officials familiar with the procedure by which the US government selects targets told the New York Times newspaper they were sceptical that either Abdul Kareem or Zaidan was on the kill list. 

The lawsuits state that “While plaintiffs were placed on the Kill List by his predecessor [Barack Obama], on information and belief, defendant Trump has continued to include them on the Kill List and has, in addition, removed certain restrictions and criteria previously employed in the designation of persons to be included on the Kill List”.

The lawsuit includes details of five air strikes in 2016 when Abdul Kareem believes he was targeted by the US, including a drone strike on 26 June when his car was destroyed by a Hellfire missile. Describing the incident to MEE at the time, Abdul Kareem said: “As we are sitting there in the car, all of a sudden everything goes black.

“I thought they had hit the earth and the earth had split and the car was falling into the earth. But what was happening is that when the car was hit, it went airborne, flipped over and it pointed us in the opposite direction on its side.”

The lawsuit states: “Upon information and belief, plaintiffs allege that Abdul Kareem was the specific target of the strikes discussed [below] and that those strikes were carried out as a result of Abdul Kareem’s inclusion by defendants on a US Kill List.”

Abdul Kareem, after surviving one of five drone attacks.

Idlib City, Early June 2016

Abdul Kareem, who had been out filming with an On The Ground News crew, returned to the office. He heard aircraft approaching. With the others who accompanied him, he ran inside. The strike hit the OGN building. The studio is underground and the whole building, including the office, shook.

Hariyataan, Near Aleppo, Early June 2016

Abdul Kareem was with his cameraman standing outside filming in the street. Abdul Kareem asked the cameraman to go a bit further down the street and set up from the other side so he could film Abdul Kareem and the person who he was interviewing talking and walking up the street. He had arranged to interview a local man who owned a supermarket. There were drones buzzing above.

As they started walking up the hill to view destroyed homes a street away, there was a loud explosion. When they returned, the area where they had been standing and filming was a wasteland. There was still fresh smoke in the air and shrapnel all around.

Khantounam, 26 June 2016

The vehicle of Abdul Kareem and his staff was struck and destroyed by a drone-launched Hellfire missile. Abdul Kareem had noticed that a drone had been circling the area where he and his team had been filming. When the strike occurred, Abdul Kareem was sitting in a pick-up truck, parked under a tree, and the others were in an On The Ground News vehicle.

All of a sudden, everything went black. Abdul Kareem had been facing in one direction towards the tree, and suddenly the vehicle was flipped upside down. The vehicle had been hurled into the air by the force of the blast; it turned over and also ended up facing the other way. Abdul Kareem only survived because he was wearing a bulletproof press vest.

Idlib City, 28 June 2016

Abdul Kareem’s office at On The Ground News was targeted. The missile that hit the building killed three civilians – a woman, her 10-year-old daughter, and an elderly man. 

Kulliyatul Midfaiyyah, Mid-August 2016

Abdul Kareem was at the Kulliyatul Midfa’iyyah – the Artillery College. He had gone there to film as the area had recently changed hands from government control to rebel hands. Abdul Kareem and three other people from On The Ground News were driving in Abdul Kareem’s car. They had almost arrived, but were still moving when there was a huge blast only yards away from the car. One person sitting in the back of the car got shrapnel in his ear. Abdul Kareem and the others were all picking glass and steel out of their skin for some time after.

MEE Contributor Describes How He Survived Syria Drone Strike

I thought the earth had split and the car was falling into the earth,’ said journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem after walking away from destroyed vehicle.

Simon Hooper / Middle East Eye

(July 1, 2016) — Bilal Abdul Kareem, a journalist and Middle East Eye contributor working in rebel-held northern Syria, was in a car hit by a drone strike on Sunday. Amazingly, both he and the driver walked away from the mangled vehicle.

Abdul Kareem and his crew had been filming outdoors shortly before and were waiting to interview a fighter with the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front when the attack occurred.

“As we are sitting there in the car, all of a sudden everything goes black,” Abdul Kareem told MEE in an interview conducted via Skype.

“I thought they had hit the earth and the earth had split and the car was falling into the earth. But what was happening is that when the car was hit, it went airborne, flipped over and it pointed us in the opposite direction on its side.”

On Wednesday, a building where Abdul Kareem and his On The Ground News team had been working until a few days previously was hit by a missile strike, killing three people.

Abdul Kareem does not know who was responsible for either incident, but said he and his crew appeared to have been the targets of missile strikes four times in recent weeks and believes journalists are being attacked to prevent them from reporting in rebel-held areas.

Last week, Khaled al-Essa, a cameraman working with Syrian journalist and activist Hadi Abdallah, was killed by an explosive device planted at his home in Aleppo. Abdallah was wounded in the attack.

“Targeting a journalist is a war crime,” said Abdul Kareem. “These are all prominent people involved in bringing the stories that are locked in these territories to the rest of the world… It is natural they would target people who were bringing these stories out.”

Despite the risks, Abdul Kareem told MEE he was determined to continue reporting from Syria: “I don’t have a choice whether to stay or not. I have to do what is right.”

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