U.S. journalist Bilal Abdul-Kareem was recently abducted in Syria along with his driver, Mohammad al-Homsi, by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. (Photo: Twitter, @OGNreports)

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants abduct US journalist Bilal Abdul-Kareem and driver in Syria

New York, August 17, 2020 — The militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham should immediately release reporter Bilal Abdul-Kareem and his driver and stop detaining journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 13, in the northern Syrian town of Atmeh, masked militants with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda offshoot formerly known as Al-Nusra Front, abducted Abdul-Kareem, a U.S. independent journalist and activist who runs the social media-based news agency On the Ground News, according to news reports and social media posts by On the Ground News.

The militants also abducted Mohammad al-Homsi, known as Abu Mohammad, a driver for the outlet, according to those reports. On the Ground News tweeted that the pair’s location is unknown.

“It’s shameful for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to snatch a journalist and his driver in the middle of the street and take them to an unknown location without explaining why,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “We call on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to release Bilal Abdul-Kareem and Mohammad al-Homsi immediately and let journalists do their job freely and without fear of reprisal.”

The day after the abduction, On the Ground News tweeted a video featuring Abdul-Kareem’s step-son Jihad, who said that Abdul-Kareem and al-Homsi had finished praying at a mosque on the outskirts of Atmeh when two cars stopped nearby and armed masked men came out of them.

“Abdul-Kareem tried to flee, but they pointed their guns at him. I ran away and they were unable to arrest me. They beat them severely and handcuffed them,” Jihad said.

The abduction followed On the Ground News’ August 11 publication of an interview Abdul-Kareem conducted with Racquell Hayden-Best, the wife of Idlib-based British aid worker Tauqir Sharif, who was recently abducted and allegedly tortured by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

On the day of his abduction, Abdul-Kareem tweeted a video accusing the militant group of torturing Sharif in a prison in June.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s media relations office said that an arrest warrant had been issued for Abdul-Kareem and “a number of allegations” against him were being investigated, according to the news website Middle East Monitor.

Abdul-Kareem has been injured previously while working in Syria, according to CPJ research. In 2018, he sued the U.S. government, alleging he was on a “kill list” after being targeted by U.S. airstrikes because of his frequent contact with al-Qaeda-linked militants, according to news reports. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2019 after the Trump administration invoked the “state secrets” privilege to withhold sensitive national security information, according to The Washington Post.

After this alert was published, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham representative Abu Ahmed sent a statement to CPJ on Abdul-Kareem’s case. The statement accused Abdul-Kareem of spreading “fabrications concerning the judiciary and security forces,” meeting with people and groups wanted by security forces, and committing incitement against local authorities. 

The statement said that the militant group will issue a decision on his case “in the next few days.”

[Editors’ note: This article has been updated to include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s response to CPJ’s request for comment.]