An American journalist who alleges he has been targeted for assassination for his reporting on Syria’s civil war will challenge his apparent inclusion on the U.S. “kill list” in federal court next week.
Bilal Abdul Kareem, a Peabody Award-winning war reporter from Westchester County, New York who has worked for major international media outlets including CNN, Sky News, and the BBC, will ask a federal court in Washington, D.C. on Monday whether U.S. intelligence marked him for death because of his coverage of the nine-year conflict in Syria. As part of his work, Kareem conducted interviews with members of various armed groups, including militants targeted as the enemy by the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Syria in 2014.
Kareem narrowly escaped being killed in five separate U.S. airstrikes in 2016, including an attack on his office and two strikes on vehicles in which he was traveling. Kareem was also wounded when he and his crew came under fire from a Syrian army tank while reporting for Sky News in Idlib last year.
A lower court initially upheld Kareem’s right to bring the case, however it dismissed it after the government claimed the proceedings would require disclosure of “state secrets.” Now on appeal, the central question before the court is whether the government can secretly authorize the assassination of American citizens without judicial review.
“I have always believed part of being an American meant if you were accused of doing something, you would be given the opportunity to plead your case in court,” said Kareem. “But now, here I am, standing at the courthouse doors and the U.S. government is trying to deny me that opportunity. In Syria, in one of the most violent wars the world has seen, I try to champion the American ideals of justice, transparency, and accountability.”
“I hope the court will see fit to uphold those same rights—my rights—here at home,” he said.
Jennifer Gibson, an attorney who works on cases involving extrajudicial assassination for the U.K.-based international human rights advocacy group Reprieve and who is representing Kareem, accused the Trump administration of “asking the courts to jettison the right to due process, a value which sets America apart from dictatorships.”
“The executive should not be allowed to act as judge, jury, and executioner unchecked,” Gibson asserted. “In a country founded on the rule of law, Americans must have a right to challenge a secret death sentence.”
Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer who also represents Kareem, said that “this case presents one of the most profound issues of human rights in our lifetime.”
“Even George Orwell could not have imagined a lawyer from the ‘Department of Justice’ standing up in court to say the U.S. president may order the CIA to execute an American journalist in total secrecy, without any judicial oversight,” he added.
In 2018, journalist Matt Taibbi, then working for Rolling Stone, offered this profile of Kareem, including a look at the possibility he was placed on the U.S. government’s targeted assassination list:
Although Kareem projects a sense of humor—”Most of my drama revolves around having a big mouth; I got it from my mother,” he said in a recent interview—he has no illusions about the forces he is up against.
“You take a Black guy who’s a Muslim and he’s on a kill list he’s trying to get himself off. What are the chances of that? I don’t really have a lot of optimism,” he told Syria Directin July. “At the end of the day, it would be a long and messy court battle for them to have to prove anything. But why should they even go through all of that when they can just cross state secrets and finish me?”
In May 2012, the New York Times revealed the existence of a secret Obama administration “kill list”—formally known as the disposition matrix—that included an unspecified number of U.S. citizens deemed mortal enemies in the so-called War on Terror. One of the men on the list, U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was assassinated in a joint CIA and military drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. His son, 16-year-old Colorado native Abdulrahman al-Awkal, was killed in a similar strike the following month.
When pressed on why an innocent American teenager had been killed, a senior Obama adviser said the boy should have “had a more responsible father.”
“Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” Obama once boasted, according to the 2013 Mark Halperin and John Heilemann book Double Down. “Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
President Donald Trump has his own assassination list, as the January 2020 drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani reminded the world. In the first major atrocity of his administration, U.S. and UAE special forces raided the village of Yakla in Yemen in January 2017— killing 23 civilians including 10 children, among them Anwar al-Awlaki’s daughter (and Abdulrahman’s little sister), 8-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, who died slowly and painfully after being shot through the neck.