An American journalist and documentary filmmaker reporting from Syrian rebel-controlled territory near Aleppo says he was nearly killed in what he suspects was a drone strike last Sunday. Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American citizen originally from New York, was sitting in a car with his driver outside the village of Khan Touman, he reports, when a missile struck nearby the vehicle.
“We heard some drones traveling overhead about half an hour before, which is not uncommon, but there were none of the screams that you normally hear before an airstrike,” Abdul Kareem told The Intercept. “We were sitting in the car, and then all of a sudden, everything went black. It felt like the earth had split open and we’d fallen into it. In reality, the explosion had sent the car into the air.”
A video Abdul Kareem posted after the bombing on his YouTube channel showed the damage to the vehicle, as well as his camera equipment. He says this is the fourth airstrike that has nearly hit him in the past month. Given the frequency of the near-misses, Abdul Kareem believes he is being targeted. “Locals had told me that I was being targeted by someone, but I hadn’t believed it before,” he says. “I just chalked it up to being in a war zone — bad things happen — but now it seems clear that someone is targeting me.”
Abdul Kareem is one of the last Western journalists covering the conflict in Syria from rebel-controlled territory. Earlier this year, he helped produce a series of exclusive CNN reports from Syria with journalist Clarissa Ward. His reporting has also been featured on the British outlets Channel 4 and Sky News.
Reporting from Syria has become prohibitively dangerous for most Western journalists, and even Syrians. Last week, Syrian photojournalist Khalid Eesa was killed in an IED attack against a home in Aleppo, after barely escaping an airstrike just days before. Hadi al-Abdalla, one of the most prominent citizen journalists still working in Syria today, was critically wounded in the same bombing that killed Eesa.
Abdul Kareem says he does not know who would be targeting him, but he blames the United States for creating the precedent for drone assassinations. “There are four parties using drones in this area: the U.S., U.K., Russia, and the Iranian groups. It could have been any one of them,” he says. “I can’t say that these were Americans that launched that drone strike, but I can tell you that the Americans started and then propagated this culture of drone strike activity. Once that culture got started, it was inevitable that the Russians and the Iranians would say this is a good idea and start doing it too.”
Abdul Kareem’s reporting, much of it broadcast on his independent YouTube program Face the Truth, provides a unique perspective on the conflict in Syria. Episodes of the program have featured interviews with Syrian civilians living under government bombardment, leaders of the armed uprising, and even Western foreign fighters who have joined the conflict from abroad. At great personal risk to himself, Abdul Kareem’s reporting today stands as one of the only independent sources of information about life in rebel-held areas of the country.
But the nature of his reports, which often entail meeting with armed groups, puts him at special risk.
“You feel afraid when filming an interview with an armed faction, because if its a group that Western powers don’t like they, they might take an opportunity to kill you then — knowing that people wouldn’t take up your case afterwards,” he says. “Targeting journalists is a war crime, but when you have these unmanned drones in the skies, there is no level of accountability. People can do whatever they want.”
Since the outbreak of the war, the Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently ranked Syria as one of the deadliest countries in the world to be a journalist. Despite his brushes with death over the past few weeks, Abdul Kareem says he will continue to report from the country.
“The lack of journalists is really giving a skewed perspective of what’s going on in Syria. People outside these territories have been led to believe that the situation is a choice between Assad and ISIS, pick your poison, but nothing could be further from the truth,” he says.
“Being the only Western journalist here, to walk away now because of fear or because I’ve had enough, I feel that it would be the wrong thing to do.”