Syrian opposition journalist on assassination fears in Turkey: ‘You can see the operatives everywhere’

Syrian filmmaker Muhammad Bayazid was stabbed in Istanbul in a suspected assassination attempt last week. Bayazid, known for tackling human rights and humanitarian issues, was working on a film about a Syrian-American man who spent 20 years in the regime’s Palmyra prison.

Bayazid survived the attempt on his life, the latest in a series of attacks targeting Syrian opposition activists and journalists living and working in Turkey.

Last week’s attack was the second of its kind in less than a month. In late September, Syrian opposition activist Orouba Barakat and her daughter, journalist Hala Barakat, were found stabbed to death in their Istanbul apartment.

The New York-based non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the killing of at least six Syrian activists and journalists in Turkey since October 2015, when journalists Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader were murdered in a town near the Syrian border in the first attack. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility in a video posted to social media.

Both Hamadi and Abd al-Qader were early members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group known for its covert reporting on Raqqa city—quite possibly the most dangerous journalistic beat in the world. They also worked for opposition news outlet and radio station Eye on Homeland, another source covering IS atrocities in Syria.

It was Abd al-Qader’s brother, Ahmad Abd al-Qader, who found the two dead journalists. In the aftermath, Ahmad tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou that he questioned everything: his desire to work, the purpose of his life and how much he was willing to risk.

An undated photo of Ahmad Abd al-Qader, courtesy of Eye on Homeland.

Ahmad Abd al-Qader kept working. He became the director of Eye on Homeland. For his efforts, he was shot in the head in southeastern Turkey in an attack claimed by IS. He survived, and though the incident occurred in June 2016, is still recovering in France.

In this interview series below, Abd al-Qader and two other Turkey-based Syrian opposition journalists describe a feeling of constant insecurity and a sense that both Syrian regime and Islamic State agents walk freely in Turkey.

“The killer is still present and continues to act, able to reach those who have sacrificed for the revolution,” says Ahmad Abd al-Qader.

Ahmad Abd al-Qader is the director of opposition outlet Eye on Homeland. He is from Raqqa and currently resides in France, where he is receiving treatment for his gunshot wounds.

Q: Can you describe the attempt on your life in June 2016?

It was Ramadan and, as usual, I was heading to the market to go shopping before breaking the fast. [The attacker] was watching me and, just as I got in the car, he shot me in the face.

The feeling of pending death can’t be described. I felt something strange. I was receiving gunshots to the head. Three shots, and I didn’t feel any pain. My eyes were in another place. For a moment, I told myself: This is death. I was trying to see the person who hit me. What I’m sure of is that I felt no pain.

If I wanted to tell you everything in detail—exactly what I felt—it would take an entire day, even though the entire situation took no more than three minutes.

I was also injured previously in my left leg with shrapnel, and another time by a knife in my shoulder, in the assassination attempt that took place before the last one.

[Ed.: Abd al-Qader was ambushed by two men outside his home in southeastern Turkey in March 2016. He escaped with minor injuries.] 

Q: When and why did you travel to France? Do you intend to return to Turkey?

I left for France in October 2016 after being shot in the head. I had two surgeries in Turkey but unfortunately they didn’t fully succeed. I was then offered the opportunity to continue treatment in France, with help from the organization Reporters Without Borders, which stood by me from the first day and until now.

I will definitely return to Turkey, and, God willing, from Turkey to Raqqa. My dream is to return to my family and my people. I don’t want anything to separate me from my land, my dream of a revolution and my children’s future in Syria. I’m finishing treatment and, God willing, will return [to Turkey] after some months.   

Q: How have recent assassinations and similar attempts on Syrian activists, including you, affected your work?

I want to be frank with you. On the day I discovered my brother Ibrahim and Fares had been assassinated, it was truly a shock, especially because I was the first one to see their bodies, to see them dead.

I found myself grappling with hesitation [about continuing my work]. I don’t know if it was from fear or shock, but I assure you, in all honesty, yes, I was scared. Maybe the fear wasn’t for my own [safety]—I was afraid of losing another one of my employees, of losing another brother, of losing one of my children.

Daesh seriously wanted to stop my work somehow. We did a lot of things that shook the Daesh leadership, revealing coordination between Daesh and the regime.

[Ed.: “Daesh” is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.]

But this was a period that I overcame and I decided to continue [with my work].

When there was an attempt on my life and I was injured with three shots to the head, I became stronger. I am no [longer] afraid, reassured that no organization can kill me.

Q: Have investigations been able to determine who killed your brother or who tried to kill you?

To be honest, the [Turkish government’s] investigations have led to nothing. No one has been caught—not those who killed Ibrahim and Fares, nor those who tried to kill me. This is evidence that the criminal is still on the run and can still execute operations. I don’t want to say the Turkish security fell short in its work because, in reality, these situations are very complicated.

In the end, I can’t deny that the assassin is a fellow countryman, acting in exchange for a sum [of money] or reward to be in the regime’s ranks or those of Daesh.

Q: Last week, director Muhammad Bayazid, who is working on a film about regime abuses in Tadmur prison, survived an assassination attempt in Istanbul and is now in stable condition. How did you feel when you heard this news?

For me, when I read the news of the assassination attempt on the director Muhammad Bayazid, I was shocked, because this means that the killer is still present and continues to act, able to reach those who have sacrificed for the revolution.

Since the assassination attempt [that I faced], and after I was injured by three bullets to the head—an injury that I am still recovering from to this day—the situation has been painful and disappointing. I won’t tell you the situation is about heroism and determination and defiance because, as an activist, you only have two choices in front of you: either they’ll murder you and finish you off, or you’ll be injured—and that injury will be a critical one.

Q: Do you feel that the regime and IS succeeded in silencing dissent?

I’d like to point out that when Daesh threatened my brother Ibrahim and me, the regime was threatening us as well. It’s clear that the perpetrator is not only Daesh. The story is bigger than that. There are people planning and assisting Daesh to execute [the attacks] and this matter primarily benefits the Syrian regime.

For me, the regime is the number one enemy because it created the terrorist organizations and offered them support in order to kill the revolution. These terrorist organizations were a poisonous dagger in the revolution’s back.

Q: Do you have a message for Turkey and other nations?

The people or the activists who have been subject to assassination operations or attempts are people who trusted in Turkey, people who are working and who are paying with their lives for the sake of their country. They must be protected and by protection I don’t mean someone accompanying them. There needs to be a security crackdown on regime and Daesh operatives.

The truth is you can see the operatives everywhere in Turkey, at the cafe where you sit, in the street where you walk. You find them clearly supporting Daesh and the regime and still, they’re roaming free. These [operatives] are tools in the assassination operations—if not as part of the execution, then as part of the planning.

As for the rest of the countries in Europe—even though people consider European countries better than Turkey, I’ll confirm that to this day I face threats.

The last threat was about five days ago: “Don’t think that IS is finished,” and “The next time will be the last one. Don’t think that in Europe you’re far from us. We know everything about you, where you are.” The simple fact is that I get them a lot.

I’m living here in France with fear and anxiety—more so than in Turkey. In Turkey I would lock the door to my house and go to sleep reassured. Now, I’m in Europe, living in a shared residence. The government knows about my story and the threats and the assassination attempts, but they do nothing. Believe me, I don’t sleep until the sun comes up because I live with people I don’t know and I was subject to assassination attempts, so I can’t trust anyone.

My final message is to all of the activists and journalists and sons of the Syrian revolution in Turkey and in Europe and anywhere in the world: No one will protect us. No one will give us anything, even if we are killed or injured, other than some words on social media pages. Don’t trust anyone and try to conduct your work in safe areas. This phase in particular will be the most dangerous one. Daesh needs any assassination operation to make a scene and the regime is in dire need to suppress or kill any voice calling for the truth and exposing its actions.

Q: Can governments in Turkey and Europe protect Syrian activists and journalists? If so, how?  

With regard to Turkey, if it tightens the borders, the people [inside Syria] will be choked. If they open the borders, the terrorists will enter. This doesn’t mean that Turkey or European countries haven’t fallen short with regard to protecting opposition journalists, especially Syrians. It’s the same thing here in Europe. Tomorrow or the next day, you very well might hear that I was the target of another attempt [on my life].   

**

Khaled al-Shami is a citizen journalist from Damascus. He coordinated protests in the beginning of the revolution and later worked as a reporter with a rebel faction in Aleppo. He now lives in Istanbul, where he continues to report on military developments in Syria.

Q: What does the news of an assassination or assassination attempt mean to you?

I and everyone I know in Istanbul feel intense worry after what happened. At first, it was the murders and assaults in Gaziantep. Personally, I could understand that, because of the great momentum of activists and politicians and interim government headquarters and so on in Gaziantep. But for the crime to move to Istanbul, this is a major turning point.

[Ed.: A number of Syrian activists have been killed in southeastern Turkey since 2015, among them prominent anti-IS activist and journalist Naji Jerf, who was shot and killed in downtown Gaziantep in December of that year.]

Since the assassination of Hala and Orouba Barakat, all of us in Istanbul feel great worry and fear. I can’t describe the situation. I’ve started carrying a light weapon—a knife—in my bag, out of fear of a treacherous move. I walk 50 minutes from my house to work. I started to suspect anyone that approaches me. It’s true that my activism was and is still done in secret, but I have no trust in the Syrian and Turkish governments.

Q: Has justice been served?

There isn’t an inch of Istanbul without security cameras, but still, the Turkish government hasn’t delivered the killers to the judiciary and what happened to [Muhammad Bayazid] has not been clarified at all by the government. Everything is done under what they call “confidentiality of the investigation.” There are people I know who have no relationship to politics whatsoever but are living in a state of terror.

Q: How have events like these affected your work as an activist and your daily life?

I fully believe that there is a dangerous scheme taking place: firstly, to silence any voice outside [Syria], whatever it may be, and, secondly, for assassination operations to reach other countries where Syrian activists are found.

I know the director Muhammad Bayazid and have met him previously. He is a very peaceful person, but because he has an opinion, there was an attempt on his life.

**

Najm al-Deen Najm is a journalist from Raqqa currently living in Istanbul. He works for pro-opposition Baladi News.

Q: What is your reaction to the assassinations and attempts on Syrians in Turkey?

The news of activists and journalists being assassinated was terrifying. I’ve had these feelings a number of times. The assassination of Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader [Ed.: referring to the brother and colleague of Ahmad Abd al-Qader, interviewed above] was terrifying, and the time when they asssassinated Naji Jerf in Gaziantep, just before he was about to leave [Turkey].

A series of murder attempts on activists and journalists followed, despite most of them having departed for Europe. The situation is still a nightmare, for me and for many others.

Q: Has justice been served?

In my view, they haven’t received justice and, in the future, I don’t know whether the criminals will be caught and held accountable.

Q: How have events like these affected your work as an activist and your daily life?

It certainly has an impact. Thoughts of assassination or kidnapping are circulating in my mind, especially because I faced threats from here and there. These sudden thoughts are very disturbing.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.