August 19, 2020

US presenter of social media channel held by Jihadis in Idlib province

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the Jihadi group that controls northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, to release Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US citizen based in the province who presents an information channel on Facebook, Twitter and Telegram called On the Ground News (OGN).

HTS has been holding Kareem since 13 August for “inciting against HTS,” according to OGN, which quotes his step-son as saying the Jihadi group abducted Kareem and his driver, Mohammad Al-Homsi, in Atmeh, a town 50 km north of the city of Idlib, and took them to an unknown location.


A few hours before his abduction, Kareem referred in a video to the case of Tauqir Tox Sharif, a humanitarian worker abducted by HTS who was reportedly tortured. Kareem mentioned the many accounts of HTS detainees or former detainees being mistreated, and asked: “Do they allow torture in their prisons?”


A US citizen who converted to Islam many years ago, Kareem has been based in Syria since 2012. He says he has survived many murder attempts by US drones and believes he is on a US “kill list.”


After occasionally working with international media such as CNN and the BBC, Kareem says he founded OGN with the aim of “delivering accurate English-language news to a Western audience regarding the Syrian crisis.”


He has never hidden his opposition to the Assad government or his good relations with the administration established by HTS in Idlib province. As his reporting has usually been seen as favourable to the Jihadis, he has had access to difficult places and has been a source of information in a region from which most foreign media are excluded.


However, he appears to have crossed a red line and alienated HTS by raising the issue of torture in its prisons.


“Bilal Abdul Kareem and his driver must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “HTS will be held responsible for their fate. Trying to openly tackle a subject of growing concern, torture in HTS jails, should not lead to imprisonment in one of these jails. HTS must accept that all information, even the most compromising kind, can be shared within the rebel enclave.”


Although HTS always denied it, the Jihadi group was widely regarded by local sources as responsible for the abduction of Shiraaz Mohamed, a South African photo-journalist who was finally released in December 2019 after being held for nearly three years in northern Syria.


Abducted by HTS in August 2019, Step Feed News website reporter Fateh Aslan was released two months in later on condition that he would not resume working for the site, regarded by HTS as “opposed to the revolution.”


Syria is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.