Article by Ben Norton
CNN’s “moderate” “reporter”
During the final days of rebel control over the eastern areas of Aleppo, the Western media depended almost entirely on a handful of English-speaking, self-described activists to relay news of the situation to a captivated public. These figures served a dual purpose, acting as spokespeople for the beleaguered Syrian opposition while deflecting attention from armed insurgents dominated by extreme Islamists. Nestled among them was an American, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who may be one of the most remarkable characters of the Syrian civil war. The uncritical promotion and reflexive praise this character has received from a variety of U.S. media outlets raises questions about the coverage of a conflict that is often presented as a one-sided slaughter at the hands of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies.
Bilal Abdul Kareem is from New York City and claims to have enjoyed a career as an actor, an anti-AIDS activist and a standup comedian before parachuting into Aleppo. CNN’s Hala Gorani has branded him an “independent journalist” and praised him for his courage. He was named Al Jazeera’s “Personality of the Week” and hailed as a profile in courage by the British human rights activist Clive Stafford Smith. Abdul Kareem has nearly 100,000 likes on Facebook and more than 50,000 followers on Twitter and has been featured in dozens of major media outlets. His slickly produced online video channel, On the Ground News, is widely viewed and sometimes even cited by other news sources.
Abdul Kareem has helped produce a series for CNN, and has also produced reports with the U.K.’s Channel 4, the BBC and Skynews. He has written for Al Jazeera and has been featured in segments on an array of major media outlets. He even participated in a panel discussion at the Brookings Doha Center alongside the extremely hawkish Syria analyst Charles Lister, titled “Syria and Iraq: The Future Prospects of Jihadism.”
Yet what these media outlets and institutions have not disclosed about Abdul Kareem is that he has a long and established record of creating what is essentially propaganda for extremist groups in Syria. Abdul Kareem has conducted dozens of glowing interviews with militants from extremist groups, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate and its hardline allies. Worse, he appears to have expressed support for Anwar Al-Awlaki, the extremist preacher credited with inspiring multiple attacks, including the mass shooting at the Fort Hood military base. (Abdul Kareem did not respond to multiple requests for comment from AlterNet for this article.)
AlterNet reviewed scores of Abdul Kareem’s videos, and in not one did he address the atrocities any of the ultra-sectarian Islamist groups have carried out against civilians, minorities in particular. On the other hand, Abdul Kareem did give a platform to an extremist in which he demonizes Shia Muslims, characterizing them as non-Muslim polytheistic hypocrites, and declaring that the “battle in Sham is based on belief, the fight is between the Sunnis and the Shiites.” In past sermons, this preacher, whom Abdul Kareem recommended to his audience as an expert on “the Shia ideology,” has also called on listeners to “destroy the Alawites.” (Alawites are a minority Shia Muslim group found primarily in Syria.)
Not only has Abdul Kareem consistently facilitated the dissemination of his guests’ extreme views, he even gives them opportunities to call on viewers around the world to join them in their fight in Syria. He opened an interview with the extremist Saudi cleric Abdallah al-Muhaysini with praise for his influence over the rebels and their supporters. Ignoring Muhaysini’s well-documented role in the mass execution of captured Syrian soldiers, Abdul Kareem nodded approvingly as the cleric outlined the reasons why “jihad is obligatory” for Muslims around the world, who he maintains will be rewarded for their fight against Shia in Syria. Abdul Kareem frequently asks al-Muhaysini and other guests leading questions, seemingly coaxing rebel leaders into expressing extreme views that he might not be able to express openly.
Abdul Kareem similarly has portrayed the conflict in Syria as a sectarian religious war, and injects anti-democratic sentiment into his work. In the Q&A section of his personal website, Abdul Kareem makes it clear that he opposes democracy in Syria, claiming such a system is “alien” to the Syrian people whereas “a governing style of Islam is something that is familiar to them.”
Even more troubling than his work in Syria was a 2009 post in which Abdul Kareem endorsed an article by an extremist preacher who called the Fort Hood shooter a “hero” and “a man of conscience.” The gunman, Nidal Hassan, killed 13 people and injured 32 more.
Defending extremist groups
A July report by Amnesty International documented how Syrian rebel groups, including both extremist militias and those often described as “moderate,” have “committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, torture and summary killings.” The human rights group also showed how the Syrian opposition has implemented harsh Sharia law, carrying out brutal punishments, including executions for homosexuality, adultery and apostasy.
These atrocities are not alluded to in Bilal Abdul Kareem’s reporting. In the Q&A section of his website, Abdul Kareem defends the extremist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, one of the militias whose war crimes are documented in the Amnesty International report. On his website, Abdul Kareem laments that the hard-line Islamist group “has been getting a bit of a bad reputation as of late for some of their political stances,” and stresses, “this Islamic revolution would not be where it is today without Ahrar Asham.”
Ahrar al-Sham has collaborated with and fought alongside Syrian al-Qaeda. It has engaged in sectarian attacks on civilians, such as the killing and kidnapping of Alawite women and children in the village of Zara. Amnesty International also documented how Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda have destroyed churches and confiscated the homes and stolen the belongings of Christian Syrians. Christians in the major rebel-held city of Idlib reported being told they must convert or leave.
Another question on Abdul Kareem’s website addressed sectarian crimes carried out by the extremist rebel group Jaish al-Islam (which was essentially created by Saudi Arabia), which put Alawite civilians in cages and wheeled them around in the back of a truck. Abdul Kareem wrote that, while he disagrees with this terrorizing of civilians, “I do understand it.” He added, “While I can’t say I agree with them I can say I know why they did it.”
Both Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam are supported by close Western allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the latter is a member of NATO).
Giving a platform to al-Qaeda
Bilal Abdul Kareem’s video interview program “Face the Truth” has consistently served as a mouthpiece for extremist groups in Syria.
One of the first videos Abdul Kareem released on his Facebook page is an interview with a fighter from Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s arm of al-Qaeda. It was filmed in early August 2015 at the frontline of fighting between the extremist group and secular, leftist Kurdish fighters.
The subsequent video Abdul Kareem published depicted an explosion by the extremist rebel group Jaysh al-Fatah, a coalition that includes Syrian al-Qaeda. This segment was filmed at the rebel offensive at the village Fua, a Shia-majority town on which extremist rebels have imposed a siege for months. (On Dec. 18, al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels attacked and set fire to several buses that had been sent to the besieged town to evacuate injured civilians.)
In another video interview with an al-Nusra fighter, Abdul Kareem excitedly describes how a dust storm gave Syrian al-Qaeda “a golden opportunity” to seize a strategic airbase from the Syrian government.
The first long-form interview Abdul Kareem published to his Facebook page is an August 2015 discussion with Abu Firas al-Suri, a leader of Jabhat al-Nusra. Abu Firas portrayed the war entirely in religious terms, declaring bluntly, “We are not fighting the Syrian government except because they are an obstacle in the face of Islam.” He continued, “We want the infighting to stop so all mujahideen can focus on the regime who replaced the Sharia of Allah and Islam.”
(Note: Most of Abdul Kareem’s interviews are conducted in Arabic. The English quotes used in this article are based on the translations Abdul Kareem provides in the subtitles.)
“Our mission is guiding the people, taking them by the hand and helping them so we all are able to achieve the supremacy of the sharia of Allah on Earth. And our mission in Syria is a part of that mission,” Abu Firas proclaimed. He added, “Our goals are not limited only to Syria, however our current battle is in Syria.”
The only criticisms Abdul Kareem levied at the al-Qaeda leader in his interview were from the perspective of those who were even more radical. “Your group now controls large territories,” Abdul Kareem noted, “but some criticize you saying that you don’t apply the Islamic Sharia.” He pointed out that ISIS imposes very strict Sharia law in areas it controls. Abu Firas countered arguing that hudud, the system of punishments mandated by Sharia, is only one part of the structure of Islamic law, and does not need to be imposed immediately in a time of war. (This is consistent with a 2012 interview, in which an al-Nusra commander said such strict laws “will be introduced gradually.”)
Abdul Kareem also invited Abu Firas to talk about the social services al-Nusra provides to people in Syria. Abu Firas, who associated himself with al-Qaeda in the interview, said they offer medical services, education, road repair, water delivery, houses and electricity.
Although Jabhat al-Nusra is an enemy of ISIS, Abu Firas stressed on Abdul Kareem’s video program, “We didn’t initiate fighting or criticising ISIS.” He continued, “As for fighting them, we’re not keen to fight them; we’re not keen to fight anyone who’s not an obstacle facing Islam.”
“We didn’t choose to oppose ISIS militarily or even politically,” Abu Firas explained. “We used to advise them when they made mistakes.” He went on to describe an incident in which al-Nusra mediated in between the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and ISIS in an attempt to broker an agreement. Independent Islamic scholars from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen also intervened.
Given Abdul Kareem’s ties to al-Qaeda, other prominent journalists who specialize in Syria have balked at the descriptions of him as an “independent journalist.”
Jenan Moussa, a journalist at the Emirati Al Aan TV network, quipped, “If Bilal Abdul Kareem is an independent journalist as CNN says, then I am Queen Victoria.”
Laura Rozen, a reporter at Al-Monitor, asked in response, “who are you saying he is affiliated with?” Moussa replied, “Nusra of course. He’s only one allowed to operate in their areas. Allowed to interview their top emirs.”
Demonizing Shia Muslims
On June 17, Bilal Abdul Kareem published a high-quality animated trailer for an upcoming episode of “Face the Truth” that promised to reveal who Shia Muslims truly are. “The Syrian crisis has quickly become a sectarian war between Sunnis-Shiite-Alawites,” he claimed in his Facebook post. Abdul Kareem implied that Shia might not actually be Muslims, writing, “Are they all just Muslims fighting one another? Or do their beliefs say otherwise?”
Three days later, Abdul Kareem published a lengthy interview with the ultra-sectarian Sunni preacher Abdur Razaaq Mahdi, in a video combatively titled “Sunnis vs Shia’.” Abdul Kareem provided no background context about Mahdi; he simply claimed the imam “specializes in understanding the Shia’ ideology.”
Al-Muhajirun Media, a front for extremist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and others, posted a video in April of a sermon by Mahdi that makes his extreme views clear. In the speech, Mahdi deplores Alawites as “Nusayri” unbelievers. “Oh Allah, destroy the Alawites and those who ally with them from the thugs, the Shia, the Russians, the Iranians!” he proclaims in the video. “Kill them all! Do not leave a single one of them,” Mahdi added. “Oh Allah, help the mujahideen, those fighting in your cause!”
Abdul Kareem chose this extreme figure to explain to his viewers the theological differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Abdul Kareem prefaced the video writing on his Facebook post, “Aren’t we all just Muslims with slightly different beliefs? Can the two groups get along? After watching this 2 part series you should be able to answer for yourself. You can’t look for an end to the Syrian crisis unless you understand WHO is fighting and for WHAT.”
The answers Abdul Kareem wanted the audience to come to are quite clear. In the interview, Mahdi flatly claimed that Shia are non-Muslim polytheist hypocrites. “Their beliefs are contrary to the beliefs of the Sunnis. In their beliefs is blatant disbelief and blatant polytheism,” he said. “This is an important point,” Abdul Kareem replied, before going to a brief break.
“The battle in Sham is based on belief, the fight is between the Sunnis and the Shiites,” Mahdi declared in the interview. And “the Alawites are the greatest in their non-belief,” he added.
The sectarian preacher went on to claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not only not truly Muslim because he is Alawite, but also because, if he were truly Muslim, “He would have imposed prayer, hijab and other things.”
Mahdi likewise claimed that Asma al-Assad, Assad’s wife, is not Muslim because she does not wear a headscarf. “This is non-existent, they all reveal their bodies — may Allah preserve us from such things,” he said.
In the interview, Mahdi went so far as to falsely claim that prayer is banned in the Syrian army. If a soldier tries to pray, “He may be beaten for this, he may be imprisoned and must make an oath never to pray again,” Mahdi said. (In reality, the majority of the Syrian Arab Army consists of Sunnis.)
Abdul Kareem did not challenge Mahdi on any of these points; he simply provided a free platform for his guest to spew extreme, demonstrably false views.
Recruiting foreign fighters
Abdul Kareem’s interview with the Syria-based Saudi warlord Abdallah al-Muhaysini might be the most disturbing instance of promoting violent extremism. Muhaysini has served as a kind of spiritual guide to extremist groups in Syria for years, even dispatching foreign teenage suicide bombers to attack government-controlled areas of Aleppo. In the Facebook post for the interview, Abdul Kareem said al-Muhaysini informed viewers that Muhaysini would provide an answer to the question, “Is Jihad in Syria obligatory?”
Al-Muhaysini made his response abundantly clear: “We need the young men of the ummah from everywhere,” he said. “Either we stop the Shia attack, or we cry and regret it, as we did for Iraq, Lebanon, then tomorrow Syria.”
Abdul Kareem continued egging him on, pushing the sectarian angle. Al-Muhaysini continued claiming, “The war in Syria or jihad in Syria, today we’re in jihad against Shia, Alawites and Khawarij.”
Once again, Abdul Kareem followed up with a leading question. “Someone somewhere may say: I want to come, but it’s a problem,” he coaxed. “Does that mean I should leave my family and everything I studied at university?” Naturally, al-Muhaysini replied in the affirmative, insisting it is a true believer’s duty, and they will be rewarded for it.
“Read the six rewards Allah gives to the martyr and you will forget everything,” al-Muhaysini countered. “We must say to the young Syrian men that jihad is obligatory on them. They must start and fear Allah. Those in Turkey must return. Any excuses you are putting forward are not accepted.”
“I’m telling those outside of Syria to present your papers at 3 a.m. praying to Allah and sell your soul to Allah,” al-Muhaysini added. “Be honest with Allah and you’ll find many brothers through Twitter, Facebook coordinating the way in.”
Abdul Kareem concluded the interview saying, “May Allah reward you, doctor.”
In his interviews with another Saudi, a Briton and an Australian who joined the opposition in Syria, Abdul Kareem asks similar leading questions. Similarly, in an article on his website, Abdul Kareem lamented that foreign fighters had a negative stigma, while acknowledging that it felt like the presence of foreign fighters in the Syrian opposition “was more like 50%.”
In another recent video, Abdul Kareem even more openly stepped outside of his role as a journalist and called for people around the world to “demand” that their governments intervene in Aleppo. He stressed that Turkish citizens in particular should “demand” that the Turkish army come into Aleppo to fight the Syrian government.
Bilal Abdul Kareem’s career as a host of video programs did not begin in Syria. Before traveling to Syria, he made a film in Libya, whose government was overthrown in a 2011 NATO bombing campaign. In Libya, Abdul Kareem wrote on his website, “I met many respectable Islamic fighters calling for Islamic law. I was curious as to what kind of fighter I would find in Syria. So I decided to go and document it.”
Before Libya, Abdul Kareem also hosted programs on Huda TV, an Islamic-themed outlet launched by a Saudi TV company. And a 2006 episode Abdul Kareem posted to an old personal YouTube channel showed him in Doha, Qatar.
Abdul Kareem’s website is not the only place where he airs open anti-democratic sentiments and calls for a theocratic form of government. In his discussion with the hawkish Syria analyst Charles Lister at the Brookings Doha Center, Abdul Kareem called for more support for Islamist rebels in Syria, declaring, “there needs to be an Islamic solution to this issue or it will fail.”
In an interview posted in May, Abdul Kareem gave an Islamist rebel a platform to condemn democracy and instead argue for the importance of creating a theocratic society in Syria.
“Jihad is our way and pride,” Abu Osama al-Shawkani insisted in the video. “Democracy is ungratefulness.” He added, “Secularism is not our way.”
Abdul Kareem’s guest argued that experiments at implementing democracy in Algeria and Egypt “just failed.” He even went out of his way to pit Islam, the religion of 1.7 billion people, against such a form of governance.
They “will never accept applying Islam through democracy, and the one who says that he wants democracy doesn’t understand,” al-Shawkani insisted. Democracy “is a method against Allah’s method.” Abdul Kareem concluded the interview telling al-Shawkani, “May Allah reward you, brother.”
Abdul Kareem does not hide this extreme sectarianism and opposition to democracy; these views pervade his videos and are visible on his Facebook page. But in their apparent zeal to cultivate a pro-rebel narrative, major media outlets have consistently failed to acknowledge this fact.
Despite his ties to extremist groups, a vast array of influential media outlets have relied on Bilal Abdul Kareem’s reporting from Aleppo, and have treated it as reputable.
CNN, for which Abdul Kareem helped produce a series of reports alongside the international correspondent Clarissa Ward, interviewed Abdul Kareem on Dec. 13 for a segment on the Syrian government’s recapture of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. CNN’s Hala Gorani described him simply as an “independent journalist,” without any other background information or context.
Abdul Kareem told Gorani, “I don’t think that anybody here is happy with the way things have turned out.” He also claimed civilians do not want to go to government-held western Aleppo. In reality, many interviews with former residents of eastern Aleppo who escaped to the government-controlled western side revealed that rebels shot at them. The U.N. has also said rebels obstructed civilians from leaving. Moreover, when eastern Aleppo was retaken by the government, residents found massive stockpiles of food and humanitarian aid at abandoned depots that had been hoarded by rebels.
During the Syrian government’s recapture, numerous media outlets featured a video message Abdul Kareem posted to Facebook on Dec. 12, with the caption, “Perhaps my final message from E. Aleppo. Regime forces are closing in and bunker busters are raining down.” The video, which he posted twice, got nearly 800,000 views, rounding out a series of viral “last messages” from other Aleppo-based activists and raising questions about outside coordination.
Middle East Eye, a website Abdul Kareem has contributed to, published an article on the “US journalist trapped in eastern Aleppo” dramatically posting what could be “his final message.” It similarly describes him as an “independent journalist,” but unlike other outlets, includes one sentence of context: “Critics accuse him of being too close to some of the rebel factions controlling some of the territory where he was able to operate, which include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.”
Even left-leaning websites that traditionally criticize corporate media outlets for toeing the party line have been derelict. Truthout ran an article that cited Abdul Kareem’s castigation of Turkey and Gulf regimes, simply identifying him as a “journalist.”
The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain likewise gave a substantial platform to Abdul Kareem back in June, applauding him for providing “a unique perspective on the conflict in Syria.” Abdul Kareem told Hussain he was being targeted by airstrikes and believed a foreign government, possibly the U.S., was trying to kill him.
Hussain mentioned “Face the Truth,” and acknowledged that the program featured interviews with “leaders of the armed uprising,” but Hussain did not once mention that many of those leaders hail from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda.
While writing that Abdul Kareem’s “reporting today stands as one of the only independent sources of information about life in rebel-held areas of the country,” Hussain said nothing of Abdul Kareem’s nakedly sectarian and anti-democratic coverage.
On the Ground News and helpers
In 2015, Abdul Kareem supplemented his interview program “Face the Truth” by launching On the Ground News, an outlet that features more traditional journalistic reports from inside rebel-held areas in Syria.
On the Ground News saw a marked increase in production quality, with videos accompanied by slick animations and graphic design. In some, Abdul Kareem could be seen seated in front of a green screen, declaring that he was broadcasting from “our studios.” Where On the Ground News gets its funding from is not clear and, as mentioned, Abdul Kareem did not respond to AlterNet’s requests.
It is at the very least clear that On the Ground News, unlike much of Abdul Kareem’s earlier work, is more than just a one-man operation. Not all of the videos are hosted by Abdul Kareem; videos in the city of Hama are hosted by a man named Shadi al-Shami, and another man, Muhammad al-Ghazi, also is in front of the camera. Some of the videos hosted by Abdul Kareem have a moving cameraman.
On the Ground News also has a polished website, created by web developer Sufyan bin Uzayr. Many of Abdul Kareem’s earlier videos appear to have been his personal projects. Yet there are signs others could have been involved. One of the more telling signs with with translations. Although Abdul Kareem was born and raised in the U.S., some of the translations used for subtitles in his videos are written with British spelling, such as with the words “criticising” or “organised.” Moreover, the grammar of the translations sometimes sounds unnatural, like they were written by a non-native English speaker. These incongruities suggest others may have been involved in helping to produce Abdul Kareem’s videos.
Applauding the Fort Hood shooter
In 2009, two years before the Syrian civil war erupted, Abdul Kareem composed a post in a Google group for expats in Dubai that endorsed an article by an extremist preacher who heroized the gunman who had just carried out a mass shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas.
Abdul Kareem posted in the group using his email from AIM Films, his production studio at the time (the studio’s website was previously AIMFilms.net, and some of its work is still archived at his old YouTube channel).
He shared an article by the extremist preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki titled “Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing.” “Below is a post on Shaykh Anwar Al-Awlaki’s website,” Abdul Kareem wrote, using an honorific to refer to al-Awlaki. “May Allaah bless him,” he added.
The article lionizes Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 people and injured 32 more, as a “hero” and “man of conscience.” Hassan had previously been in touch with al-Awlaki, and had written to him, “I can’t wait to join you [in the afterlife].”
Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was assassinated without charge or trial in a U.S. drone attack. His teenage son, who had no ties to al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups, was also later killed in a U.S. drone strike, in what may have been a war crime.
In response to Abdul Kareem’s post, a member of the Google group wrote in shock, “Did I actually just read that???”
Since 2009, Abdul Kareem’s views appear to have changed. The U.S., after all, has spent billions of dollars arming and training rebels in hopes of toppling the Syrian government. On his website, Abdul Kareem stresses that “there is much common ground” between “mujahideen fighters” and the U.S. government, and he encourages the U.S. to further increase its support for Islamist militants. As his long, strange trip across rebel-held Syria continues after the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, mainstream media outlets have refused to exercise the caution urged by one member of his former Google group: “Word of advice, keep away from these … nutters!”