CNN hired top al-Qaeda propagandist for award-winning Syria documentary and wants to cover its tracks
(This piece was co-written with Max Blumenthal.)
On June 16, an American media activist living in rebel-held Syrian territory sat down before a camera to vent his frustration with a former employer. Bilal Abdul Kareem described how he and his online outlet, On the Ground News, had been contracted by CNN to film the documentary Undercover in Syria.
“This was with CNN and their correspondent Clarissa Ward, which I have big-time respect for, big-time respect as a journalist, as a person,” Abdul Kareem remarked.
With a sardonic grin, Abdul Kareem described how he was slighted: “This Undercover in Syria, you can Google it — it won the prestigious Peabody Award, and it won the prestigious Overseas Press Club Award, which are basically the highest awards in journalism for international reporting. Now, [CNN] barely mentioned my name! I’m telling you, somehow CNN must have forgotten that I was the one that filmed it, I guess they forgot that.”
Indeed, Abdul Kareem’s name was a mere footnote in the Peabody Awards press release on its honoring of CNN. The organization praised Clarissa Ward for “[going] undercover into northern Syria to document Russian influence on the fighting and to navigate the ongoing devastation,” but credited Abdul Kareem only in small print, despite the fact that he was responsible for providing CNN with its on-the-ground footage.
At the April 2017 ceremony where the network’s Undercover in Syria won the Overseas Press Club Award, CNN president Jeff Zucker was on hand to deliver the keynote address. CNN later touted the award in a press release that celebrated the access Ward was granted to eastern Aleppo by the Islamist insurgents that had controlled it. The network noted that her work resulted in her being invited to testify before the United Nations Security Council. But CNN made no mention of Abdul Kareem’s role in the special.
Contrary to Abdul Kareem’s claim that CNN had simply “forgotten” him, the network may have had reason to airbrush him out of its public relations material. The man Ward contracted to take her into rebel-controlled territory was well established as one of the top English-language propagandists for al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, along with other extremist groups fighting the Syrian government.
In fact, the Saudi Arabian news outlet Al Arabiya reported on June 7 that Abdul Kareem officially joined al-Nusra in 2012.
Abdul Kareem denied this accusation in a Facebook video response. “I am not, nor have I ever been, nor do I need to be a part of al-Qaeda. I don’t have any need for that,” he said, noting that he is considering legal action against Al Arabiya for its report.
However, one of Abdul Kareem’s closest colleagues has also been accused of membership in Syria’s al-Qaeda franchise. Akif Razaq, an employee of Abdul Kareem’s online media group, On the Ground News, was recently stripped of British citizenship for his alleged involvement with al-Nusra. A notice presented by British authorities to Razaq’s family in Birmingham accused him of being “aligned with an al-Qaeda affiliated group” and declared that he “presents a threat to the national security of the United Kingdom.”
Razaq sat next to Abdul Kareem in his Facebook video response to the Al Arabiya report. Razaq also co-hosts On the Ground News segments with Abdul Kareem.
While Abdul Kareem insisted there was “no proof” of his membership in the Salafi-jihadist organization, rebels inside Syria tell a different story.