Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem files lawsuit over alleged US 'kill list'

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Lawyers for Syria-based reporter and former Al Jazeera bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan say pair have been 'targeted for death' by US government

Bilal Abdul Kareem has been reporting from rebel-held northern Syria since 2012 (Twitter)
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Friday 31 March 2017 20:58 UTC
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Lawyers acting for a US journalist based in rebel-held northern Syria and a former Al Jazeera bureau chief have filed a lawsuit against US President Donald Trump and other senior officials who they say have placed them on an alleged "kill list".

Human rights group Reprieve and law firm Lewis Baach filed the case on behalf of Bilal Abdul Kareem and Ahmad Zaidan, a former Islamabad bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic, in the US District Court in Washington on Thursday.

The lawsuit states that the defendants placed the pair on a "kill list" which has "resulted in their being targeted for death".

Abdul Kareem, an occasional Middle East Eye contributor, told MEE on Friday that "well-placed sources have informed me that I have been included on the drone list for flights that take off from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey".

Incirlik is used by US forces carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group and other Syria-based armed groups. 

Abdul Kareem and Zaidan contend that they were erroneously placed on the list by the previous administration of former president Barack Obama.

But their lawyers said they believed Trump's administration not only planned to pursue existing names on the list but had also “removed certain restrictions and criteria previously employed in the designation of persons to be included on the Kill List".

The lawsuit states: "Neither Zaidan nor [Abdul] Kareem pose a continuing, imminent threat to US persons or national security. Neither Zaidan nor [Abdul] Kareem is a member or supporter of any terrorist group. Inclusion of Zaidan and [Abdul] Kareem on the kill list under these circumstance was arbitrary and capricious, and an abuse of discretion."

Abdul Kareem last year described to MEE how he had walked away from a suspected drone strike which destroyed the vehicle in which he was travelling.

He said he and his crew had been filming outdoors shortly before and were waiting to interview a fighter with the then-al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front when the attack occurred in June 2016.

"As we are sitting there in the car, all of a sudden everything goes black," Abdul Kareem told MEE in an interview conducted via Skype.

"I thought they had hit the earth and the earth had split and the car was falling into the earth. But what was happening is that when the car was hit, it went airborne, flipped over and it pointed us in the opposite direction on its side."

According to the lawsuit filed on Thursday, Abdul Kareem has "narrowly avoided being killed by five separate air strikes, at least one of which was carried out by a drone" in the past year.

Ahmed Zaidan, who is Syrian and based in Qatar, is one of Al Jazeera Arabic's most prominent journalists. His reporting has focused on the Taliban and al-Qaeda and he has conducted a number of high-profile interviews including with Osama Bin Laden, the former al-Qaeda leader who was killed by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011.

Zaidan was included in a top-secret National Security Agency presentation about a programme called "SKYNET", details of which were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 and reported on by The Intercept website in 2015. It lists Zaidan as a member of both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, allegations that Zaidan denies.

In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera in 2015, Zaidan said he believed that the allegation that he was a member of al-Qaeda originated with the Syrian government, which had levelled the same accusation on state television when he reported on rebel groups in Idlib 

"This was an attempt to assassinate my professionalism, as a precursor to a political assassination. It seems to be driven by Syrian intelligence deception. I must ask, therefore, is the national security of the Assad regime more important than the national security of the United States and the American people?" he wrote.

"I reserve the right to take legal action based on the NSA document. It is a document that is unfair to America, journalism, Al Jazeera, and me personally."

'I don’t see a lot of other journalists around'

SKYNET uses a complex computer algorithm to calculate the threat of certain individuals by looking out for visits to places of interest and regular swapping of phone simcards.

But the lawsuit alleges that its reliance on metadata and mobile phone tracking to identify patterns of suspect activity meant that SKYNET "may target persons solely because they frequently interact with so-called 'militants,' even if for innocent reasons like journalists interviewing sources."

Abdul Kareem has reported from Syria since 2012 and gained widespread recognition for his reporting in December from rebel-held eastern Aleppo as it came under assault from pro-Syrian government forces.

His work has been featured by media networks including CNN, the UK's Channel 4 News, and the BBC, as well as by his own On The Ground News online news channel. Last month he was the subject of a profile in the New York Times newspaper.

His critics accuse him of being too close to Islamist rebel groups that control the areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces where he regularly interviews fighters and military commanders.

Abdul Kareem has said: "I don’t care if you like Nusra, Assad or Obama. I only bring you the news so you can make an informed decision. I don’t see a lot of other journalists around. I plan to continue doing the work we are doing. I’m not going to roll over and play dead for anybody.” 

Kate Higham, head of the Assassinations Project at Reprieve, said: “It is an affront to US values that journalists are living in fear of being killed by US drones, simply for doing their jobs. The inclusion of reporters on a US ‘kill list’ on the basis of their metadata makes a mockery of due process, and will do nothing to make Americans safer. President Trump must urgently review the entire targeting program, before any reporters are killed on his watch.”

'It is a basic principle of the rule of law that innocent people should not be targeted and killed'
- Jeffrey Robinson, attorney

Jeffrey Robinson, attorney at Lewis Baach, said: "It is a basic principle of the rule of law that innocent people should not be targeted and killed. This is especially the case with courageous journalists performing an essential function of keeping the public informed."

Moazzam Begg, a director at human rights group Cage and a former Guantanamo detainee, said that Abdul Kareem had provided valuable insight into the war in Syria.

“The killing of an American journalist in the course of his work by its own government would be an unprecedented act in the War on Terror. It would send a deplorable message about the state of independent reporting in the US, which would resonate across nations,” said Begg.

“In a week when the US has accepted responsibility for hundreds of deaths [in Mosul] caused by air strikes on civilians, it comes, unfortunately, as no surprise that it would be prepared to target one of its own nationals.

“Cage calls for Abdul Kareem’s name to be removed from all ‘kill lists’ with immediate effect. In keeping with the rule of law, countries which provide launch-pads for extra-judicial killings risk being complicit in illegal assassinations.”

Little is known in the public domain about the US government's alleged secret kill list, although media reports suggest it is known in counter-terrorism circles as the "Disposition Matrix".

A Washington Post article in 2012 reported that the list had first been drawn up in 2010 and consisted of a database of information for tracking, capturing, rendering or killing suspected enemies of the US.

The database is meant to provide a variety of options for ensnaring suspects wherever they are in the world.

“If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” a former counter-terrorism official told the Washington Post. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”

Names for the list are reported to be nominated at a weekly meeting known as "Terror Tuesday” with the president himself agreeing the final schedule of names.