Abu al-Hamza, known as “Software” by his friends, was killed while interviewing an opposition fighter on November 6, 2015 when a mortar shell fired by government forces hit their location, his colleagues told CPJ.
Muhamad Hoeesh, a correspondent for the local SMART News Agency, said Abu al-Hamza was filming a report for the agency on opposition fighters who had taken Tel Sukayk, a strategic hilltop about 20 miles north of the city of Hama. Mohamed Saleh, a member of the pro-opposition Hama Media Center, confirmed Abu al-Hamza was filming for SMART, adding that he also worked for the media center.
Saleh said he was accompanying Abu al-Hamza, Mustafa Abu Arab, who is also part of the Hama Media Center, and Ali Abu Farouk, a correspondent for the local pro-opposition Step News Agency, on the day Abu al-Hamza was killed. Pictures posted by the journalists show the four of them riding motorcycles and carrying their cameras on their way to Tel Sukayk. Abu al-Hamza appears in the pictures in jeans, black shirt, and brown jacket, camera in hand.
Once reaching the hilltop, Abu Farouk began interviewing an opposition fighter for Step News Agency. Saleh told CPJ the fighter was a member of Ajnad al-Sham, a group fighting as part of the broad Islamist coalition, Jaish al-Fateh.
In a graphic video posted by Abu Arab to his YouTube page the following day, the same Ajnad al-Sham fighter is seen speaking to Abu al-Hamza about the offense as the faint sound of a mortar firing can be heard in the distance. As the fighter looks up, a mortar shell hits in front of the camera. The camera was propelled to the ground by the blast but continued to record the sound of those who had been injured.
The journalist’s colleagues told CPJ Abu al-Hamza and the Ajnad al-Sham fighter were killed. Saleh, Abu Arab, and Abu Farouk were injured in the explosion and an Ajnad al-Sham fighter needed his hand amputated, Saleh said.
The SMART News correspondent Hoeesh told CPJ that Abu al-Hamza joined the agency two months earlier and was still in his probationary period when he died.
During his probationary period with SMART, Abu al-Hamza posted numerous SMART videos to his Facebook page, which he claimed to have filmed in the Hama countryside and which showed opposition forces fighting or government aircraft bombing. SMART News Agency typically does not add bylines to its videos. In the week before his death, the agency published several photos under his byline of opposition forces shelling government positions and ruins in the wake of government bombing.
Both Saleh and Hoeesh told CPJ Abu al-Hamza also worked for the media office of a local branch of Ahrar al-Sham, another rebel group belonging to the Jaish al-Fateh coalition. Several of Ahrar al-Sham’s founders had ties to al-Qaeda and, at the time of Abu al-Hamza’s death, the Jaish al-Fateh coalition included al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.
Saleh, who also was a member of the Ahrar al-Sham’s local media office until he quit after Abu al-Hamza’s death, said that Abu al-Hamza joined the group as a fighter but became involved only in media work nearly two years ago. Saleh explained how a crew from the media office would join fighters on the battlefield, each of them focusing on filming different kinds of weaponry to get the full picture of the battle.
Abu al-Hamza’s Facebook shows his apparent support for Ahrar al-Sham, with his banner picture featuring the group’s logo and frequent posts about the group’s fighters and leaders who had been killed. In what appear to be posts related to his role as part of the group’s media office, he shared pictures and messages of support for fighters. In May 2015, he posted a picture of what he said were two Ahrar al-Sham fighters detaining a “supporter of the Assad gangs.” A few days later, he posted a picture purportedly distributed by Islamic State of the heads of beheaded opposition fighters in a truck bed. Two weeks later, in an apparent response, he posted pictures of rebels, including one he said was a member of Ahrar al-Sham, holding the heads of beheaded Islamic State fighters.