CNN is trying to distance itself from an al-Qaeda propagandist who helped the network create a documentary about the Syrian conflict. The man’s ties to the network are just the latest in a series of scandals that have dealt a blow to the network’s already tenuous grasp on credibility.
CNN has had a difficult few weeks, with scandals ranging from false reporting in order to boost ratings to blackmailing a private citizen who created a meme lampooning the network. As a result, CNN has seen a massive drop in its prime-time ratings, suggesting that its viewership is shrinking amid the controversy.
Now, yet another controversy for the embattled network has come to light in the making of its award-winning “Undercover in Syria” documentary.
The documentary revolves around CNN reporter Clarissa Ward’s “undercover” trip to extremist-held portions of Aleppo that pushed for Western intervention in Syria last year and placed the blame for the city’s suffering on the Russian, Syrian and Iranian governments. After the documentary aired, Ward was invited by then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to testify on her experiences in “rebel”-held Aleppo.
However, CNN hired a known member of the terror group al-Qaeda, Bilal Abdul Kareem, in order to obtain the on-the-ground footage used in the documentary and to assist Ward in gaining access to “rebel” territories, a feat that claimed the lives of other journalists. In addition, the network has recently sought to distance itself from its key source on the ground after the documentary started picking up awards.
Kareem, however, did not plan to have his key role in the making of the documentary go unnoticed. In June, he took to Twitter, writing that the “piece I filmed w/ CNN (Undercover in Syria) won Overseas Press Club & Peabody awards but CNN ‘forgot’ to mention me. But I’m smiling!”
Piece I filmed w/CNN (Undercover in Syria) won Overseas Press Club & Peabody awards but CNN "forgot" to mention me. But I'm smiling! pic.twitter.com/Mh6SIileoJ
— Bilal Abdul Kareem (@BilalKareem) June 16, 2017
Included in the tweet was a video of Kareem venting his frustration at the network in which he stated: “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.”
Given Kareem’s key role in filming the documentary, the fact that he was hardly mentioned in the Peabody Awards press release is certainly unusual. However, CNN likely didn’t “forget” Kareem, but instead intentionally chose to exclude his name once the documentary gained fame, as Kareem is a known English-language propagandist for Jabhat al-Nusra, otherwise known as the al-Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
Kareem, the “American mujahid”
Kareem was not always an al-Qaeda propagandist. An American citizen from Mount Vernon, New York who later moved to Egypt, Kareem has a background in comedy and theater that proved useful following his hire by Saudi-funded Huda TV and the later creation of his own media group “On The Ground News,” which has focused on the Syrian conflict.
Kareem has been actively involved in the Syrian conflict for years. Middle Eastern news outlets, such as Al Arabiya, have stated that Kareem officially joined al-Nusra in 2012 and is known as “the extremists’ publicist.” According to reports, Kareem has stated that fighting in Syria is a religious duty, that anti-Assad forces in Syria are the “first line of defense” in fighting Shiites and that the desire of anti-Assad extremist groups in Syria is the formation of an Islamic state. Kareem has also interviewed Abdullah al-Muhaysini, the Saudi cleric recognized as al-Nusra’s “religious leader,” whom he praised as “probably the most loved cleric in the Syrian territories today.”
In addition, rebels in Syria who spoke to Max Blumenthal of Alternet confirmed that Kareem was a well-known member of al-Nusra and was commonly referred to as the “American mujahid.” A member of Kataib Thawar al-Sham told Blumenthal that Kareem had made several videos for the official YouTube channel of Jaish al-Fatah, the extremist coalition led by al-Nusra, and stated that Kareem used the alias “Abu Osama” for that work.
The militia member, who chose to use an alias in his interview with Blumenthal, stated that he himself had aided Kareem in making videos for the al-Nusra-affiliated YouTube channel Knowledge is Key. The videos frequently feature Salafi cleric Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, an ideological leader of extremists in Syria and a co-founder of al-Nusra’s rebranding into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
While Kareem has denied being affiliated with al-Qaeda, stating in a Facebook video that “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,” Kareem’s privileged access to al-Nusra members and territory suggests the opposite. Indeed, in the same video where he denies ties to al-Qaeda, Kareem states that the reason he has not faced the same dangers as other journalists in al-Nusra territory is because “mutual respect” exists between him and the terror group.
Then, last month, Kareem appeared on a special program on al-Muhaysini’s Jihad’s Callers Center, where he was introduced as “an American in Syria who is with the rebels and mujahideen.” Al-Muhaysini personally welcomed him onto the program, stating: “Greetings to our media man, the great innovator, Bilal Abdul Kareem!”
With Kareem having been praised by al-Nusra’s religious leader as “our media man” just last month, his denial of ties to the group seems disingenuous at best. Kareem’s extensive ties to the terror group, more than the failing memories of CNN producers, is likely to blame for CNN’s decision to largely omit his name from mention regarding the “Undercover in Syria” documentary.
CNN’s confirmed ties with Kareem will only add to the network’s growing list of problems in providing the American people with honest journalism.