An American self-described journalist accused of having ties to jihadists has been detained by Al-Qaeda-linked hardliners in northwest Syria, a war monitor said on Thursday.
Bilal Abdul Kareem, 49, was “detained… by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance in the town of Atmeh,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, Abdul Kareem converted to Islam before moving to the Middle East in 2002.
He arrived in Syria in 2012 from Libya, curious about the rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad‘s forces in a conflict which at that point was just a year old.
For the past eight years, he has reported from shrinking rebel territory in Syria’s north, filming the aftermath of airstrikes, interviewing hardline fighters, even meeting Al-Qaeda members.
Bilal Abdul Kareem, a MEE contributor and one of the most prominent foreign journalists covering Syria's civil war, was arrested by HTS forces in the town of Atmeh in northern Idlibhttps://t.co/KdxW5BomK2
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) August 13, 2020
His arrest is linked to the case of Tauqir Sharif, a self-described aid worker stripped of his British nationality who was detained by the powerful jihadist group in Syria in June, the war monitor added.
Abdul Kareem became a target after he published an interview with Racquell Hayden Best, Sharif’s wife, according to the Observatory.
In the video, Hayden Best, who has also been interviewed by AFP, accused HTS of torturing her husband and arresting him arbitrarily. This prompted HTS to arrest Abdul Kareem, the Observatory said.
Working first with major broadcasters including CNN, in 2015 Abdul Kareem founded On the Ground News, which publishes on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
His contacts in the jihadist-led HTS alliance have granted him extensive access at a time when the risk of abduction makes much of Syria too dangerous for journalists from mainstream news outlets.
But it has also prompted allegations that Abdul Kareem is a “jihadist propagandist” and would not have survived in the area had he been an impartial journalist — particularly given HTS’s history of harsh crackdowns against perceived foes.