On June 16, an American media activist living in rebel-held Syrian territory sat down before a camera to vent his frustration with a former employer. Bilal Abdul Kareem described how he and his online outlet, On the Ground News, had been contracted by CNN to film the documentary Undercover in Syria.
“This was with CNN and their correspondent Clarissa Ward, which I have big-time respect for, big-time respect as a journalist, as a person,” Abdul Kareem remarked.
With a sardonic grin, Abdul Kareem described how he was slighted: “This Undercover in Syria, you can Google it — it won the prestigious Peabody Award, and it won the prestigious Overseas Press Club Award, which are basically the highest awards in journalism for international reporting. Now, [CNN] barely mentioned my name! I’m telling you, somehow CNN must have forgotten that I was the one that filmed it, I guess they forgot that.”
Indeed, Abdul Kareem’s name was a mere footnote in the Peabody Awards press release on its honoring of CNN. The organization praised Clarissa Ward for “[going] undercover into northern Syria to document Russian influence on the fighting and to navigate the ongoing devastation,” but credited Abdul Kareem only in small print, despite the fact that he was responsible for providing CNN with its on-the-ground footage.
At the April 2017 ceremony where the network’s Undercover in Syria won the Overseas Press Club Award, CNN president Jeff Zucker was on hand to deliver the keynote address. CNN later touted the award in a press release that celebrated the access Ward was granted to eastern Aleppo by the Islamist insurgents that had controlled it. The network noted that her work resulted in her being invited to testify before the United Nations Security Council. But CNN made no mention of Abdul Kareem’s role in the special.
Contrary to Abdul Kareem’s claim that CNN had simply “forgotten” him, the network may have had reason to airbrush him out of its public relations material. The man Ward contracted to take her into rebel-controlled territory was well established as one of the top English-language propagandists for al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, along with other extremist groups fighting the Syrian government.
In fact, the Saudi Arabian news outlet Al Arabiya reported on June 7 that Abdul Kareem officially joined al-Nusra in 2012.
Abdul Kareem denied this accusation in a Facebook video response. “I am not, nor have I ever been, nor do I need to be a part of al-Qaeda. I don’t have any need for that,” he said, noting that he is considering legal action against Al Arabiya for its report.
However, one of Abdul Kareem’s closest colleagues has also been accused of membership in Syria’s al-Qaeda franchise. Akif Razaq, an employee of Abdul Kareem’s online media group, On the Ground News, was recently stripped of British citizenship for his alleged involvement with al-Nusra. A notice presented by British authorities to Razaq’s family in Birmingham accused him of being “aligned with an al-Qaeda-aligned group” and declared that he “presents a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom.”
During Abdul Kareem’s Facebook video response to the Al Arabiya report, he was seated beside Razap. Razaq has also co-hosted On the Ground News segments with him.
While Abdul Kareem insisted there was “no proof” of his membership in the Salafi-jihadist organization, rebels inside Syria tell a different story.
Journalist or jihadist videographer?
AlterNet contacted Abdullah Abu Azzam, an activist affiliated with the rebel group Kataib Thawar al-Sham. Abu Azzam, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation by al-Nusra, is one of many opposition activists who have come into contact with Abdul Kareem and his colleagues. Speaking to AlterNet by Whatsapp, he said Abdul Kareem was not only a propagandist for al-Nusra, but well known as a member of the group.
Fighters in Thawar al-Sham, according to Abu Azzam, refer to Abdul Kareem as the “American mujahid” (mujahid is Arabic for jihadist).
Abu Azzam claimed Abdul Kareem had applied his videography skills to make a series of YouTube videos for the official account of Jaish al-Fatah, the Salafi-jihadist fighting coalition led by al-Nusra. He added that Abdul Kareem worked directly with the late public relations director for Jaish al-Fateh, Ammar Abu al-Majid. For these videos, he said Abdul Kareem used the alias, Abu Osama.
According to Abu Azzam, Abdul Kareem collaborated directly with Salafi cleric Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, a key ideological leader of extremist rebels in Syria. Al-Mahdi, one of the most popular guests on Abdul Kareem’s programs, was a co-founder of Syrian al-Qaeda’s most recent rebranding as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. He later defected to the competing Salafist militia Ahrar al-Sham.
One of the videos Abdul Kareem made, Abu Azzam said, was a segment for the Salafi-jihadist propaganda channel Knowledge Is Key, titled “Islamic Fatwas from the Scholars of Syria.” The video featured Ammar Abu al-Majid as its host.
When asked how he knows Abdul Kareem made the video, Abu Azzam replied, “I was in photography with Ammar.”
AlterNet contacted the senior press manager for CNN International, along with CNN’s Middle East press officer and public relations coordinator, to request comment on Abdul Kareem’s relationship to the network. We asked for details about Abdul Kareem’s contractual obligations with CNN and whether the network felt his well-documented relationship with al-Qaeda compromised the reporting it carried out in Syria.
CNN did not respond.
‘An American in Syria who is with the rebels and mujahideen’
Bilal Abdul Kareem is one of the most remarkable characters to emerge from Syria’s six-year civil war. An erstwhile comedian and theater actor from New York City, he has softened his image with a self-effacing charm and friendly temperament that recalls the style of a children’s television show host.
Abdul Kareem arrived in Syria in 2012 after a stint promoting the NATO-backed Islamist rebels in Libya. With his On the Ground News, he quickly established himself as the leading English-language reporter on Salafi groups in Syria, and the only American media figure welcomed as a long-term resident in al-Nusra-controlled territory.
Dozens of other journalists have been kidnapped and even killed in these extremist-held areas. When asked why he had not faced the same dangers from al-Qaeda, Abdul Kareem said in his Facebook video response to Al Arabiya, “I don’t feel threatened by them because I think there’s a mutual respect.”
Abdul Kareem demonstrated his influence—and mutual respect—when a British woman named Shukee Begum traveled to ISIS-controlled territory to reunite with her jihadist husband, Jamal al-Harith, who had been released from Guantanamo Bay after intensive lobbying by the British government. When Begum decided she wanted to escape from ISIS, Abdul Kareem stepped in to facilitate her release to al Qaeda-controlled territory in northern Syria.
Last December, AlterNet’s Grayzone Project exposed Bilal Abdul Kareem’s involvement with some of Syria’s most notorious jihadist figures and his open propagation of their sectarian ideology. Most prominent among the clerics granted a friendly audience by Abdul Kareem was Abdullah al-Muhaysini, the Saudi Arabian hate preacher and warlord praised by Abdul Kareem as “probably the most loved cleric in the Syrian territories today.”
Muhaysini is indeed popular among the Al Qaeda-allied rebels of Syria, and holds considerable sway over the entire region of Idlib. He has appeared in refugee camps to recruit child soldiers, raised millions of dollars for jihadist offensives and granted his blessing to the mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers on the grounds that the captives were kuffar, or blasphemers. The cleric’s goal, like that of ISIS, has been to establish an exclusively Sunni state purged of Shia, Druze and Christian citizens of Syria, and run according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
This June, Abdul Kareem appeared as a guest on a special Ramadan program on Muhaysini’s Jihad’s Callers Center. Introduced by co-host Khattab al-Otaibi as “an American in Syria who is with the rebels and mujahideen,” Abdul Kareem was welcomed by Muhaysini. “Greetings to our media man, the great innovator, Bilal Abdul Kareem!” the rotund cleric said with a grin.
Clearly pleased with the promotion he was granted, Muhaysini has promoted his interviews with Abdul Kareem to followers of his WhatsApp channel.
Today, Salafi-jihadist leaders refer to Abdul Kareem as their “media man.” But there also was a time when Abdul Kareem was CNN’s media man, as well. It was when Clarissa Ward, the network’s Middle East correspondent, contracted Abdul Kareem to help lead her and her crew into eastern Aleppo and Idlib, both areas under the control of al-Nusra and extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham that have been responsible for well-documented atrocities. She was on her way to meet the rebels she would later describe as “heroes on the ground.”
Promoting the armed opposition
When Ward first entered Syria, it was the early stage of the revolt against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. She had posed as a tourist to enter the country.
“Then, I sort of slipped off into an alleyway in the old city, put a headscarf on, and went and lived with some activists for a week,” Ward recalled. She returned from her journey into rebel-held territory with what amounted to a commercial for the Free Syrian Army, a now-defunct collection of CIA-backed militias, who in her words, “pledge to defend the Syrian people against the Assad regime.”
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with the Syrian opposition as it evolved into an armed insurgency led by al-Qaeda’s local franchise.
Ward had been aware of Abdul Kareem’s presence in the rebel bases of power since at least 2014, soon after he emerged seemingly out of the blue through On the Ground News. Ward promoted Bilal Abdul Kareem’s “must read” work on her Twitter account and praised him for “extraordinary brave reporting.”
She was hardly alone among her colleagues in paying tribute to Abdul Kareem, as AlterNet previously documented. Besides working with CNN, he has produced reports in cooperation with the U.K.‘s Channel 4, the BBC and Sky News. He has been praised by CNN’s Hala Gorani, who branded him as an “independent journalist,” and was named Al Jazeera’s “Personality of the Week.”
The New York Times’ Ben Hubbard published a sympathetic profile of Abdul Kareem, summarizing him euphemistically as “an American with a point of view and a message.” For an accompanying photo, the Times chose a screenshot from a video in which Abdul Kareem rationalized suicide bombing. The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain likewise offered a similarly fawning portrait of Abdul Kareem, complimenting him for providing “a unique perspective on the conflict in Syria” and portraying him as a target of U.S.-led coalition drones.
It remains unclear if members of the foreign press were apprised of Abdul Kareem’s close affiliation with al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, or if they even cared. After all, Abdul Kareem was a valuable asset: an American embedded in the heart of rebel-controlled areas who was eager to assist a cast of Western correspondents parachuting in to ingratiate themselves with the armed opposition.
Abdul Kareem never attempted to conceal his sectarian agenda. As AlterNet documented, he once praised the late al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and openly questioned whether Shia are actually Muslim. In his friendly sit-down with Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Abdul Kareem introduced the extremist preacher who has called for the genocide of Syria’s minority sects as a religious expert who “specializes in understanding the Shia ideology.”
Special guest of al-Nusra
Ward’s coverage for the Undercover in Syria CNN special took place in rebel-held eastern Aleppo and Idlib. In these areas, she appeared in a full black niqab to comport with the dress code imposed by al-Nusra, whose legal apparatus had forbidden the wearing of colorful hijab and even outlawed smoking cigarettes and playing music.
Working alongside Abdul Kareem, Ward documented the aftermath of bombings by the Syrian and Russian militaries and the cruelty they visited on the civilian population. She framed the Syrian government’s battle to oust the jihadist-led rebels from eastern Aleppo as “a war on normalcy.”
At the time, Ward was possibly the only Western reporter welcomed into al-Nusra-controlled territory. Kidnappings and the gruesome killing of journalists like James Foley had become the order of the day in areas of Syria controlled by rebel militias and ISIS. Lindsey Snell, one of the last Western journalists to report from Idlib, reported on her kidnapping by al-Nusra. “The group fully acknowledged that I’d been granted permission to report,” Snell wrote, “but said they suspected me of being a spy, an accusation they’ve made against every journalist they’ve kidnapped in Syria.”
Ward had no such problems in the area, and that may have been thanks to Abdul Kareem and the cozy relationship he enjoyed with the Salafi-jihadist militias that dominated eastern Aleppo and Idlib.
Her safety was also ensured by “Abu Youssef,” the bodyguard CNN hired to protect Ward and her producer. It is unclear if he was from a rebel group.
Ward closed an Undercover in Syria report with a bittersweet reflection on her bodyguard:
We hand over a bag full of British chocolates to our security guards. Abu Youssef thanks us and quietly hands each of us a folded piece of white paper with our initials on it.
“Promise me you won’t read these until you get back home to London,” he says.
Two flights and 72 hours later, we open the letters.
“I hope you have a good idea of us,” they read. “Please tell the world the truth about Syria.”
The “heroes on the ground…are the Islamist factions”
Six months later, in August 2016, Ward appeared at the United Nations Security Council to testify to her version of the truth. She was there as a guest of then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who was described by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as “the most dispositionally interventionist among Obama’s senior advisers.” The U.N. session Power arranged appeared to be consistent with her interventionist crusade.
Besides Ward, Power had solicited testimony from Zaher Sahloul and Samer Attar, the directors of the Syrian American Medical Society. SAMS assistance coordination units have set up hospitals in refugee camps and within Syrian territories exclusively held by Syria’s rebels, including in al-Qaeda-run Idlib. From 2013 to 2015, SAMS received over $5.8 million in support for its activities from the U.S. Agency for Aid and International Development (USAID). In 2015, according to the Washington Post, Chase Bank closed SAMS’ bank account without explanation.
Sahloul, for his part, is the American ringleader of the Syrian opposition. After unsuccessfully lobbying Barack Obama for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over opposition-held areas of Syria, Sahloul accused the president of having “allowed a genocide in Syria.”
On Sept. 20, 2016, Sahloul was a participant in a rally in New York dedicated to ramping up conflict with Iran. The rally was organized by the exiled Iranian People’s MEK, a militant cult of personality dedicated to regime change in Iran that has paid handsome fees to prominent former U.S. officials to shill on its behalf. After the rally, the neoconservative columnist Eli Lake hailed Sahloul and his colleagues as “Syrian-Americans who stood up to Iran.”
At the U.N., Ward was seated beside Sahloul and Attar, and repeatedly heaped praise on the two opposition activists. She lashed out at the “international community” for “wringing their hands on the sidelines while homes, hospitals and bakeries and schools were bombed,” an apparent plea for military intervention against the Syrian government.
Her jeremiad might have been straightforward advocacy, but its content was well in line with her network’s editorial agenda, which has encouraged primetime personalities like Jake Tapper and Arwa Damon to also make the case for attacking Syria.
Ward’s speech crested with a tribute to Salafi-jihadist insurgent groups like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
“The only ones who have emerged as heroes on the ground, along with brave doctors like Dr. Sahloul and Dr. Attar, alongside the White Helmets,” Ward declared, “are the Islamist factions — even to those who hate fundamentalists. Even to those who see that the rebels themselves are carrying out atrocities, and not because the people there are all terrorists, but because the Islamists are the ones who have stepped in to fill the void.”