Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, Bilal Abdul Kareem grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, before converting to Islam and moving to Syria as a reporter.
But in 2016, Kareem, a US citizen, said he was targeted in a series of attacks, before he says a source tipped him off that he was on America’s infamous ‘Kill List’, otherwise known as ’Disposition Matrix,’ according to Rolling Stone.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, Bilal Abdul Kareem (pictured) grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, before converting to Islam and moving to Syria as a reporter
Apparently set up under the Obama administration, it was run by a small team of security officials and the president, who met once a week to decide targets around the world who should be captured, interrogated, or assassinated by drone, a 2012 New York Times report stated.
Stunned, Kareem appealed to Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney who founded London-based human rights organization called Reprieve.
Together they filed a complaint in district court in Washington, D.C., on March 30 2017, appealing to the U.S. government to take him off the Kill List. More than a year later, on May 1, 2018, Judge Rosemary Collyer heard the joint case of Kareem and Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan v. Donald J. Trump et al.
Kareem’s co-plaintiff, Zaidan, is a Pakistani-Syrian journalist who also believes he’s on the Kill List after his name came up in NSA documents leaked by whistleblower Ed Snowden. Zaidan, who twice interviewed Osama bin Laden, ‘absolutely’ denies being a member of any terrorist group.
Kareem is now suing the US government, claiming its put him on the drone Kill List (file image)
Drone strikes have been used to target militants in the Middle East since 9/11. Drones can be used for surveillance or more deadly missions. Pictured are the damaged buildings taken with a drone in Deraa, Syria July 13, 2017
Their lawyer Tara Plochocki argued that it was her clients’ constitutional right to be able to argue their case in court before they were sentenced to death.
The governments, represented by Stephen McCoy Elliott, argued that there is no proof that either plaintiff is on the Kill List.
Elliott also tried to claim that Kareem did not have proof that the Hellfire had been fire by the US, although Judge Collyer shot that down, asking if he’d ever heard of any other group using Hellfire missiles.
The case was a difficult one for the judge, who had to either take on the government’s executive branch, which has heavily investing in the drone program, or side with them in an agreement that would have shaken the Constitution to its core.
Incredibly, on June 13 this year, Judge Collyer handed down a ruling which seems like a small but significant victory for Kareem. She ruled that the government cannot assassinate Kareem without giving him his day in court to defend himself.
Growing up as Darrell Phelps in New York, he was like any other all American kid (pictured in 1988 in his Mt Vernon High School yearbook)
‘Due process is not merely an old and dusty procedural obligation required by Robert’s Rules,’ she wrote. ‘Instead, it is a living, breathing concept that protects U.S. persons from overreaching government action even, perhaps, on an occasion of war.’
‘[Kareem’s] interest in avoiding the erroneous deprivation of his life is uniquely compelling.’
Of course, the ruling is merely the beginning of what will likely be a long legal battle for Kareem, one that will have important implications for the drone program and Americans designated enemies of the state in the future.
The use of drones to assassinate targets overseas began in the week after 9/11 when the House and Senate overturned previous executive orders which prohibited government employees from engaging in political assassination, and authorized the president to use ‘all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons’ who ‘planned, authorized, committed, or aided’ the attack.
The first known drone assassination took place that same year in Afghanistan.
By 2012, there were around 16 drone missions per day, mostly for reconnaissance but sometimes for lethal drone attacks, across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Iraq and Yemen.
Today he works as a journalist for his own Islamist TV network On the Ground News
In 2011, New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and suspected Al Qaeda terrorist was killed by drone strike.
Some reports state that drone attacks have increased from Obama under Trump.
The process is also losing the human touch, as former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden said in a public debate in 2014 that the Kill List is based, at least in part, on metadata.
The algorithm can flag someone as a target if they trigger too many checks, such as a military aged man, someone giving orders or showing suspicious behavior in the wrong place.
Kareem believes it’s his pro-Muslim interviews, sometimes with members of terror groups, in his role as a journalist that ended him up on the list.
They include his two-hour sit down with longtime Al Qaeda leader Abu Firas al-Suri, who was reportedly the leader of the Al Nusra Front, in 2013.
‘It’s easy for somebody back in Washington just to say, ‘I can place his cellphone right there with Abu Firas al-Suri,’ he says.
He’s also been accused of being a ‘jihadist propagandist’ for his rosy depictions of Al Queda members, who he has unusually open access to, while journalists Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton have quoted a Syrian rebel as saying Kareem was a full member of Al Nusra.
Kareem filed a complaint in district court in Washington, D.C., on March 30 2017, appealing to the U.S. government to take him off the list of assassination targets
Judge Collyer handed down a ruling which seems like a small but significant victory for Kareem last month. She ruled that the government cannot assassinate Kareem without giving him his day in court to defend himself
Yet growing up as Darrell Phelps in New York, he was like any other all American kid. He enjoyed reading comics with his friends, and later attended college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, where he decided to try stand-up.
A decade later, after converting to Islam, Kareem was working as a TV reporter in the Middle East under his new name.
He said it was his pursuit of Islam, which he believes is wrapped up in the Arabic language that saw him move overseas, first to the Sudan first, then Egypt, working as a reporter for CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera to Sky News.
But he felt increasingly uncomfortable with his assignments which he felt were too negative about the Muslim world, and founded his own Islamist TV network On the Ground News.
It was his network’s offices which were first targeted in the series of five attacks which began in 2016. He had not been in the offices at the time.
In the second attack, he says he was scouting filming locations when a missile hit as he walked down the street. The third happened while they were shooting a story in a remote town in Aleppo. That was when he spotted the US drone.
At first they seemed to be targeting Al Qaeda and Al Nusra members so he says he ‘didn’t pay it much attention.’
But after completing the segment, and he and the crew headed back to the car, he heard it again.
‘That’s when we first felt a little bit alarmed,’ he said, adding that it was hovering overhead for 20 minutes.
After a quick drive the crew parked and waited to meet another interview subject but within moments, a nearby SUV was hit with what he claims was a Hellfile missile – send their car flipping through the air. Thankfully, aside from a broken toe, Kareem and his crew survived unscathed.
It was then he learned from a source he’s been put on a list of targets at Incirlik Air Base – a launching pad for American drones.
The fourth attack saw another bomb hit his office, killing a ten-year-old girl, a woman and elderly man who were inside, but missing Kareem. The fifth came a few weeks later, when he was outside a rebel-held Syrian artillery college.
Now with Judge Collyer’s ruling, Kareem can rest easy for a little while, that he will get the chance to prove he’s not a threat before he sees another drone in the sky.
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