Hunted by the Islamic State and wanted by the regime, prominent south Damascus activist trapped after assassination attempt

Last month, 27-year-old Palestinian-Syrian human rights activist Abdullah Jamal al-Khateeb was standing at his front door in the southern Damascus town of Yalda when two men approached on a motorcycle. One of them opened fire.

“He fired five shots, but only one hit me, wounding me in the chest,” al-Khateeb tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

Al-Khateeb, 27, is originally from the Yarmouk camp. He is a writer, photographer, activist, director and youth advocate. He is also a marked man: wanted by the regime and hunted by the Islamic State in southern Damascus.

“I’m wanted because of what I do,” he says. Al-Khateeb is one of the founders of the Palestinian League for Human Rights, registered in Sweden, which documents human rights violations by all parties.

“Our work has exposed us to extreme danger and harassment,” he says. “We worked to convey the truth of what is going on in Yarmouk.”

 Abdullah al-Khateeb (right) in July, two weeks before surviving an assassination attempt. Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Khateeb.

Al-Khateeb stayed when the Islamic State entered the camp in early 2015, but moved to nearby Yalda, an FSA-held town immediately to the south, after two attempts by IS to abduct him from his home.

The activist says he knows he has little chance of surviving this war. 

"Unfortunately, I’m in a small, encircled area,” he says.

“I can’t protect myself.”

Q: Why are you wanted by both the regime and IS?

I’m wanted because of what I do, as a coordinator of the Yarmouk Local Coordination Committee, and as a person responsible for an aid organization. I work in a training center and as a photographer, writer, human rights defender and member of a human rights association. I write reports that support the revolution against the regime.

These are sufficient reasons for me to be wanted by the regime.

I have also faced danger and abduction attempts in Yarmouk by the Islamic State.

[Ed.: In March and April 2015, Abdullah escaped two kidnapping attempts at his home in Yarmouk camp. In February of that same year, his close friend and fellow PLHR member, Firas al-Naji, was shot and killed at his home in Yarmouk.]

On July 23, 2016 I survived an assassination attempt in Yalda, south of Damascus. I was standing at my front door when two men approached on a motorcycle. The passenger opened fire with a Russian-made machine gun. He fired five shots, but only one hit me, wounding me in the chest.

The Islamic State emir in south Damascus, Abu Sayyah Tayyara, [nicknamed “The Shredder,” or al-faramah,] claimed responsibility for the attack from the group’s diwan in al-Hajjar al-Aswad.

I was targeted following a systematic campaign of incitement against me, launched by IS through the mosques in al-Hajjar al-Aswad and Yarmouk camp.

I’m accused of running ‘secular, godless projects’ as they said in the mosque address.

[Ed.: Abdullah heard about the sermons calling for his death from activist friends in al-Hajjar al-Aswad.]

 Abdullah al-Khateeb in southern Damascus this past March. Photo courtesy of Abdullah al-Khateeb.

Q: How is your health following the shooting? Were you able to receive treatment?

I’m stable right now. My wound was treated at the Yalda field hospital. My health is good, but the security threat remains. And threatens me.

A week after I was injured, when I felt better, I went back to work.

Q: Describe what it’s like to be a journalist in a blockaded area.

The greatest difficulties are connected to the constant security threat from IS sleeper cells in Yalda. They tried to assassinate me [three weeks ago] with a bullet to the chest. There’s also the threat of regime security cells.

Even though all I have are the simple tools available (pictures, videos, writing, the laptop hard drive of my friend, who died), I’ve been able to pose a danger to the regime and IS.

Q: You’ve now faced three attempts to kidnap or assassinate you. What steps are you taking to protect yourself?

Unfortunately, I’m in a very small, encircled area. Other than not staying late outside my home, I can’t protect myself.

I expected to be targeted, because it wasn’t the first time. I can’t do anything, because the Islamic State in al-Hajjar al-Aswad and Yarmouk called from the mosque pulpits, accusing me of running secular, godless projects.

Q: Before the uprising and war, what kind of work did you do?

Before everything happened, I worked for two years as an activity and volunteer coordinator for SOS Children’s Villages in Syria. I also worked at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), as a coordinator for an EU-funded center supporting youth in Yarmouk camp.

I volunteered for many international and local organizations, including the Palestinian Red Cross and UNICEF, training adolescents in basic life skills. I was also a trainer in the field of youth involvement and development.

Q: And during the revolution?

After the revolution began, a group of Palestinian and Syrian youth and I founded the Basmeh Social Foundation, which worked in the relief and development field. The foundation carried out dozens of projects in a number of parts of Syria, and primarily the Yarmouk camp. They included projects in the fields of aid, agriculture, medicine, water and the environment in order to lessen civilians’ suffering due to the ongoing war in Syria.

We collaborated with many international organizations, including the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Doctors Without Borders. We also worked with local organizations.

Later, we founded the Palestinian League for Human Rights, which is licensed in Sweden, for the purpose of documenting human rights violations by all parties. As a result, our work has exposed us to extreme danger and harassment. We’ve issued many reports on the humanitarian situation of Palestinians inside Syria.

We worked with PAX [an international peace organization] to train activists in citizenship and human rights.

We have worked to convey the truth of what is going on in Yarmouk, through pictures, video, news reports and other media. I was a witness in more than 300 reports by different Arabic and international media sources about the humanitarian situation inside the camp.

I also helped direct and film a number of short films on the reality in the camp with the Bidayyat organization: “Blue” (directed by Abu Ghabi), “Testimony of Loyalty” (directed by Hassan Tanji), “Siege” (directed by a number of friends and myself), as well as an artistic rap video “After the Nakbah.”

Q: Do you see a future for the revolution? Will you continue your work? Are you afraid for your life?

Since I joined the Syrian revolution, I knew that death could be my fate. On that basis, I’d be happy if death was my fate. I no longer have any other choice. We’ve lost everything—our lives, our families, our friends. There’s nothing left to live for.

The revolution continues, and we will prevail, despite the presence of IS and the regime. In the end, only the will of the people will triumph.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.