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Detained in Syria, Bilal Abdul Kareem takes US back to court over 'kill list'

Lawyers for American journalist, being held by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, begin latest round of legal battle to find out if US government is trying to kill him
Bilal Abdul Kareem says well-placed sources told him that he was on US drone strike target list (Screengrab)

An American journalist currently being held by opposition militants in Syria on Monday began the latest round of his court battle to discover whether the US government is trying to kill him.

Bilal Abdul Kareem, a Middle East Eye contributor, who has been based in opposition-held northern Syria since 2014, says that he has been placed on a US government “kill list” as a consequence of his work in Syria and was targeted five times by US strikes in 2016.

Lawyers for Abdul Kareem are launching an appeal in Washington after a district court judge last year dismissed the case on the grounds it could not proceed because the US government had claimed “state secrets privilege” in order to avoid disclosing whether or not it was trying to kill the journalist.

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Abdul Kareem was arrested in Idlib province in August by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the militant group that controls most of the last opposition-held enclave in northwestern Syria, after criticising the group over its alleged torture of other detainees.

His current whereabouts and the reason for his detention are unclear.

But Moazzam Begg, the outreach director of Cage who has called for Abdul Kareem to be released, told Middle East Eye that HTS authorities had recently allowed someone to speak to the journalist for the first time since his detention.

“He is okay. He misses his work and he misses his family. Discussions with HTS are ongoing,” Begg told MEE.

He said Abdul Kareem was aware of ongoing legal proceedings in the US and was keen that the case should continue despite his detention.

“He still feels there is a real threat from the US. He understands that this is an important case that he wants pursued. Whatever situation he is in it's not as bad as potentially being targeted by a drone strike when he comes out.”

Lawyers for Abdul Kareem say that his case raises questions about whether the US government can issue secret death warrants for its own citizens without any process of judicial review, even when an individual who suspects they are a target demands due process in a US court.

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“Our position here is simple. An American citizen who demands due process upon discovering he is a target of lethal action is entitled to notice of the basis for that action and an opportunity to challenge it,” Tara Plochocki, Abdul Kareem's lawyer, told the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Monday morning.

Plochocki said that Abdul Kareem's detention could put him at additional risk because the fact he was in the same place could make it "easier to target him for death".

"The government has the option to say 'We don't intend to kill Mr Kareem' and if it does so this entire case goes away. And its resistance to doing so is what prevents us from abandoning this action," she said.

Bradley Hinshelwood, a lawyer representing the US government, said: "Mr Kareem has not alleged any facts that would actually link not only the US to the specific attacks described in the complaint, but much less that Mr Kareem is the actual target of the attacks."

Hinshelwood said that Abdul Kareem's case amounted to a claim that "anyone with a mobile device in the vicinity of explosions and rebels could plausibly claim that they are being targeted by the United States".

But Hinshelwood maintained that the US government's refusal to say whether Abdul Kareem had been targeted based on the invocation of state secrets was an "absolute privilege" that could not be addressed through the courts but only through Congress.

"When there are allegations of serious issues that can't be addressed as a result of the invocation of the state secrets privilege the correct recourse is to the political branches," Hinshelwood said.

Drone list

Abdul Kareem told MEE in 2017 that well-placed sources had told him that he had been “included on the drone list for flights that take off from the Incirlik airbase”, a base used by US forces in southern Turkey.

The original lawsuit brought in the case suggested that Abdul Kareem may have been targeted as a consequence of a US National Security Agency programme called “SKYNET”, used by US intelligence agencies to determine whether somebody posed a threat based on patterns in their mobile phone communications and associated metadata.

It suggested that Abdul Kareem may have been picked up by the programme's algorithm because of contacts he had with members of militant groups banned in the US with whom he had contacts in his work as a journalist.

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The case comes as Barack Obama, the former American president who left office in 2017, defended the expansion of the US killer drone programme under his leadership which resulted in thousands of deaths.

Jennifer Gibson, the lead on extrajudicial executions work at UK-based rights group Reprieve, which is supporting Abdul Kareem's case, said that the right of due process was “a value which sets America apart from dictatorships”.

“The executive should not be allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner unchecked. In a country founded on the rule of law, Americans must have a right to challenge a secret death sentence.”

US government officials argue that revealing whether someone has been “targeted for lethal action” would permit them to change their behaviour to avoid attacks or capture.