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.
via After Surviving 5 Drone Strikes, Citizen Sues US Government To Be Taken Off Of ‘Kill List’