AMMAN — “Most of my drama revolves around having a big mouth; I got it from my mother,” Bilal Abdulkareem said, laughing.
Abdulkareem, a New-York born, US journalist who has been covering the Syrian revolution since 2011, spoke to Syria Direct from northwest Syria. The “drama” that Abdulkareem is referencing is his alleged placement on a US government kill list, and his belief that the US government is trying to assassinate him.
The kill list, officially named the Disposition Matrix, is an Obama-era creation meant to streamline the targeting of suspected terrorists, who are then designated for capture, interrogation or assassination. The exact criteria for targeting are unknown, but cell phone location-tracking data is often used to place suspects on the list.
Though he does not know the exact reason why he would have been placed on the list, Abdulkareem suspects that it is due to his extensive coverage and contact with fighters in Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
“What my position has always been is that I’m not asking anybody to like any Islamic fighters, but let [your opinion] be based upon what they say and do. I wanted to give everybody an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m about,” Bilal Abdulkareem said.
He pointed to an interview he did with Abu Firas al-Suri, a senior leader in the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front—now known as HTS—as an example of the type of dialogue he tries to facilitate. An excerpt from the interview was later used by al-Qaeda as part of a promotional video.
“He was of the opinion that America is a democratic country and therefore the citizens are all accountable for their governments, and I said: ‘Listen, the biggest demonstration in the world against the war in Iraq was in London, do you really believe that all of those people should have been killed because of their government? He said, you know what? I didn’t look at some of those things like that,” Abdulkareem said.
“He was droned a couple years ago,” he added.
Abdulkareem first began to suspect he was being targeted by the US government after narrowly surviving five separate drone strikes in 2016. He was also told by a source working on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey—where US drones often take off for missions in Syria—that his name had been placed on a list of targets.
In order to get his name off the list, Abdulkareem decided to sue the US federal government.
Be honest, are you trying to kill me?
In 2017, Abdukareem filed a case against the US government, asking them to clarify whether or not he is on the kill list and, if so, to give him his day in court rather than execute him in Syria.
At first, in 2018, the Washington, D.C. district court sided with Abdulkareem, agreeing that he had presented credible evidence that he had been placed on a kill list. If indeed he had been placed on such a list, the court ruled, the US government had to give him due process rights.
However, Washington again asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that it could not be heard in court without exposing national security secrets. The judge granted the government’s request and moved to dismiss the case. Abdulkareem quickly appealed the decision.
On June 29, the US government filed its brief, asserting that the court should again dismiss Abdulkareem’s court case as “even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome the claim of privilege if the court is ultimately satisfied that military secrets are at stake.”
Further, the brief argues that without “access to the privileged information,” Abdulkareem cannot prove that he has been targeted by the US government, and the government will not allow him access to such information because it is classified.
Such a claim privileges military secrets over a journalist’s “right to life,” Clive Stafford Smith, Abdulkareem’s lawyer and the founder of the UK-based legal advocacy group Reprieve, told Syria Direct.
The government also said that disclosing that Abdulkareem is on the kill list would cause him to “alter his behavior” to “evade capture or further detection by the United States.” Conversely, telling Abdulkareem that he is not on the kill list would allow him to “operate more freely,” according to the government brief.
In addition to the obvious consequences for Abdulkareem, the case has wide-reaching implications for the US’s targeted assassination program and could help define the limits of the executive branch’s “state secrets privilege” which underpins so much of the US’s War on Terror.
According to the government brief, the key issues of the case are: “Whether the District Court correctly concluded that the state secrets privilege precludes litigation of the plaintiff’s suit” and “Whether plaintiff’s claim, which asks the district court to prescribe and supervise procedures the Executive Branch must follow before launching a strike abroad, presents a nonjusticiable position.”
Thus, if the District Appeals Court rules against the US government and agrees that there is a “justiciable” position, a precedent could be created in which the targeted assassination program of the executive branch would be eligible to be subject to judicial review. Further, the limits to which state secrets protect the federal government from judicial scrutiny could be better defined.
Though the roots of the targeted assassination program—mostly conducted via drone strike—can be found in the Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the pace of the program has accelerated through both the Obama and Trump administrations.
“There has been significantly less transparency about how the [program] operates under the Trump administration,” Andrew Prasow, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, told Syria Direct.
Previously, the Obama administration published a set of guidelines governing the use of drones for assassinations and requirements to ensure some level of transparency. The Trump administration, however, has reportedly rolled back some of these regulations, though to what degree is unclear as the new guidelines have not been released publicly.
While the legality of assassination via drone comes into greater question when it targets US citizens—given the extrajudicial nature of their execution—any sort of assassination operation which does not disclose targeting criteria, nor the resulting casualties from strikes, could be illegal under international law.
“One of the requirements of international law is transparency, and one of the requirements for being a democracy is that you disclose this type of information to the public so they can engage with it and make decisions about policy; by keeping it a secret you prevent the public from being able to do that,” Prasow said.
If the US District Court decides that the state security privilege is not sufficient for Abdulkareem’s case, the US federal government could be prompted to make changes to the way it conducts its targeted assassination program overseas, including transparency requirements in targeting and civilian casualties.
Threats from above, threats from below
Though Abdulkareem has not returned to the US since he left 18 years ago in 2002 and could possibly be an enemy of the state, there are moments where his American roots shine through.
Recently, he has been active in protesting the arrest of British aid worker, Tauqir Sharif, and has worked with a group of Muslim scholars to create a sort of Bill of Rights for prisoners in Idlib, bemoaning the lack of accountability for detainees arrested by HTS.
His activism and coverage have earned him no friends within the leadership of HTS, and he has faced threats after some of his coverage has cast doubt on the revolutionary credentials of the group.
“You can see how much fun I’m having these days. You have to watch out for what's in the sky. You’ve got to look under the car for the bombs. That’s just life in the big city, you know?” he said.
It seems unlikely that Abdulkareem will be able to relax anytime soon, as HTS deepens its crackdown against local activists and journalists and the US government shows little sign of backing down in court. Abdulkareem consequently does not have high hopes for the success of his court case.
“You take a black guy who's a Muslim and he's on a kill list he's trying to get himself off. What are the chances of that? I don't really have a lot of optimism. At the end of the day, it would be a long and messy court battle for them to have to prove anything. But why should they even go through all of that when they can just cross state secrets and finish me?”