Bilal Abdul Kareem, a black American citizen who had been living for years in Syria, where he ran a small news organization, happened to find himself in Aleppo during the waning days of the battle for the city, in a room full of desperate Free Syrian Army rebels, when one of the group half-seriously raised the subject of kidnapping him for ransom.
“I was understandably nervous,” he remembers. “I was the only American inside of this very small area that was besieged.”
The talk in the room turned ominous.
“One of the guys said, ‘You know what? I heard you get $20,000 for kidnapping an American.'”
Kareem pauses as he recalls the scene. He would have stood out in that crowd, as he does everywhere in the Middle East: a black New Yorker with a loud belly laugh.
“You’ve got these nanoseconds to come up with some kind of response,” he explains. “You don’t want them to see you sweat.”
All the eyes in the room turned toward Kareem. Would this American fetch $20,000?
“Nah, man,” he said to his audience. “That’s just for the white ones.”
The room roared with laughter.
“I was like, ‘Phew,'” Kareem says. Then, slipping out: “‘All right, guys, I gotta go.'”
And that’s not the only time Kareem, born Darrell Lamont Phelps in Mt. Vernon, New York, has come close to dying in recent years.
According to a profile by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, Kareem has survived five attempted dronings after winding up on the US government’s infamous “kill list” – the same “kill list” that was first introduced to the public via the New York Times just months before Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Obama was elected.
Obama, the paper explained, had masterminded the list in the early days of his presidency, placing himself at the head of a committee that would effectively decide whether terror targets – some of whom might be innocent bystanders or even US citizens – should be unilaterally murdered by US drones. The Times presented the list as a “test of Obama’s principles” in a headline, glossing over the fact that Obama himself had ordered its creation.
Kareem told Taibbi that after narrowly escaping death five times (more than one time, the missile seemingly meant for him accidentally killed an innocent bystander), he learned from a former source that he was on the US’s “disposition Matrix”, bureaucratic speak for the “kill list”, at Incirlik, the Turkish air base where the US launches many of its attacks in Syria. Instead of waiting for his home country to murder him, Kareem got in touch with a nonprofit based in the UK and is now suing the US to try and have his name taken off the list. That was a year ago. Soon, the court will render a decision, and whatever it decides will have impact more people than ever before: Trump promised during the campaign that he would increase US dronings in the Middle East and elsewhere (warning that “you need to take out the families”) and he’s done just that.
Kareem described the first time he realized that the US was after him. It was right before his third brush with death.
It was in the third incident, he says, when he first saw an American drone overhead. He and his crew were shooting a story in a remote town in the Aleppo countryside.
“They were picking off Al Qaeda and Al Nusra members,” he says. “I didn’t pay it much attention. I thought, ‘It’s not the first time I’ve heard a drone.'”
But after he’d completed the segment and begun heading back to the car with his crew, he still heard the drone.
“That’s when we first felt a little bit alarmed,” he remembers, speaking by Skype. “For 20 minutes to be hovering over us, that wasn’t normal. Usually they come and then they go.”
His crew got into the car and drove a mile or two, then parked to wait for an interview subject. Suddenly, a nearby SUV exploded.
“I thought the Earth had split” Kareem says. “Our car was flipping into the air. I thought the car had fallen off something into the Earth.”
As Taibbi points out in his reporting, the decision has serious implications for US case law:
It’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the most important lawsuits to ever cross the desk of a federal judge. The core of the Bill of Rights is in play, and a wrong result could formalize a slide into authoritarianism that began long ago, but accelerated after 9/11.
Since that day, we have given presidents enormous power – to make war, to torture, to detain indefinitely – and our entire legal system has been transformed on a variety of fronts, placing huge questions about illegal searches, warrantless arrest, indefinite detention, torture and other matters behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, outside the reach of courts.
But while the NYT and a handful of other US news organizations covered Kareem’s decision to file the lawsuit – burying the coverage on their websites and in their papers – few, if any, are still paying attention.
And yet, nobody is paying attention. While America obsesses over Russia, Stormy Daniels and Kim Jong-Un, almost no one is covering Kareem’s trial. His race-against-time effort to escape the American killing machine is too surreal, even in the Trump era. But it’s also a potentially devastating last-straw moment in the history of America’s recent dystopian slide, with the executive branch asking for the ultimate in dictatorial powers: the right to kill even its own citizens without having to explain itself.
While first explicitly outlawed via executive order by President Gerald Ford, DOJ memoranda and the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force have made clear that a US president is perfectly within his powers to order the assassination of a suspected terrorist. The first known US drone attacks took place in Afghanistan in 2001. By 2012, the US was flying 16 drone missions a day in the Middle East. It has killed people with drones in six countries from a ring of airstrips across the region. An important line was crossed back in 2011 when the Obama administration decided to drone-bomb Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected terrorist and US citizen. All of this is why Kareem’s lawsuit is so important.
Kareem is joined in the lawsuit by another journalist named Ahmad Zaidan, a former Pakistani bureau chief for Al Jazeera, who also ended up on the kill list. Both men first tried writing President Trump begging for mercy. Zaidan’s name even appeared in materials leaked by Edward Snowden on a PowerPoint slide identifying him as a member of Al Qaeda. Zaidan says he’s never been a member of any terror network.
Kareem’s co-plaintiff, Ahmad Zaidan, is a Pakistani-Syrian journalist who, like Kareem, came to believe he was on the Kill List. His hunch came when his name turned up in materials leaked by whistleblower Ed Snowden. Zaidan found what appeared to be an NSA PowerPoint slide, identifying him as a member of both Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, and showing him with a terror-watch-list ID number.
A onetime Pakistan bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, Zaidan twice interviewed Osama bin Laden. In an interview with the Intercept three years ago, Zaidan “absolutely” denied being a member of any terrorist group. (Zaidan was not reached for this story).
Kareem says he and Zaidan have neither met nor spoken, though they share Reprieve’s representation. Independently of each other, they both first tried writing a letter to Trump begging for mercy. Neither man got an answer. What will the courts say now?
“OK, everybody,” Judge Collyer says. “We’re here for this really, really interesting case. Who’s going to argue for the plaintiff?”
The question before Collyer would challenge the most gifted legal mind. At issue is the fact that America, in the wake of 9/11, has become two countries.
One is a democracy, visible to the population and governed by the lofty laws and rules and constitutional principles we learned about in Schoolhouse Rock.
The second nation is an authoritarian state-within-a-state, governed exclusively by the executive branch. In this parallel world, all rights redound to a bureaucracy that may kill anyone it pleases at any time, restrained only by the inclinations of the executive.
But their lawsuit is facing an uphill battle for the simple reason that all of the case law (aside from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) supports the theory that the executive does have the power to make this determination – effectively allowing it the unilateral power to decide who lives and who dies – as long as it is in the national security interest. Here’s what happened during one recent hearing for Kareem’s case while the judge was arguing with a government lawyer.
Elliott’s argument doesn’t advance much beyond this point. Collyer, sometime later, summarizes the government’s position:
“So [your] argument is that if, A, we didn’t have anything to do with it… but if we did, we did so only because of a determination that – and I’ll talk about Mr. Kareem, because he’s the one with constitutional rights – that Mr. Kareem was a grave threat to national security and the executive gets to make that determination, not a court.”
The next words out of Collyer’s mouth will reveal the plot twist to what until now has seemed like a parody of legal colloquy. She looks down to Elliott:
“Every case agrees with you on that,” she concedes.
Sometimes, when the US accidentally kills a civilian – or even, as it did in one case, an activist who had preached against local youths joining Al Qaeda – authorities covertly offer payment to the families as compensation. Taibbi called it “our Beavis and Butthead” version of an apology.
In July 2014, two years after the Jabers were killed, an official from the Yemeni National Security Bureau met with a member of Faisal’s family and handed over a plastic bag with $100,000 in cash, saying it came from the U.S. (though the security official later denied U.S. involvement).
“Condolence or other ex gratia payments … may be available for those injured and the families of those killed,” a White House National Security Official told Reuters in 2014. This is our Beavis and Butt-head version of an apology for killing innocents: Here’s, like, some money and stuff.
Of course, Kareem’s reputation is controversial. While he once worked for US news networks, he’s been running his own news organization for years, and his interviews with Chechen warlords and Al Qaeda members has earned him a reputation for being a jihadi propagandist. His involvement with a Peabody Award-winning CNN Undercover in Syria program led to intense criticism of the network by two US journalists. He has denied any affiliation with terrorist groups, though he has declined to name the financiers of his network.
But he’s still a US citizen, and the idea that the US can order that one of its citizens be incinerated with a Hellfire missile on foreign soil without at least being arrested or indicted is antithetical to our most basic rights.
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Author: Tyler Durden