Bilal Abdul Kareem is an American citizen, a former stand-up comedian, a Muslim, a war correspondent and, on several occasions, a target of the U.S. assassination program.
Last updated: 14th April 2022
In 2012, Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American citizen and former comedian, entered Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, and began documenting the war as an independent journalist, gaining a unique insight from deep inside rebel held areas.
Bilal describes what he does as
“spreading awareness and giving those who have no voice an opportunity to speak so others can judge.”
Bilal’s efforts have gained him awards but they’ve come at a cost. He has gun-shot wounds, a broken toe, dislocated shoulder and shrapnel lodged in his back. Most seriously, though, he became a target of the US Security Agencies, surviving at least five assassination attempts.
It seems his efforts as a journalist to “deliver accurate English language news to a Western audience regarding the Syrian crisis” did not go down so well with Western governments. His name is strongly suspected to be held on the US ‘Disposition Matrix’, otherwise known as the ‘Kill List’, a secret database of individuals identified for targeted killing, or death penalty without trial.
In 2016, working with D.C. based pro bono law firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss, Clive brought litigation against the US intelligence agencies to establish the truth about the attempts on Bilal’s life, and secure him the right to due process as a US citizen. However, the US government invoked grounds of national security to defend their right to secrecy, rendering the courts powerless.
Bilal is now working with his ‘On the Ground News Network’ (OGN), to improve prisoner rights in Syria.
Who is Bilal Abdul Kareem?
There are some who have labelled Bilal as a “jihadist propagandist” even though he despises ISIS as much as he does President Assad. In his owns words, he is just a “Black guy from New York with a bald head, big nose, … uniquely shaped half black, half white beard”, and “a big mouth.”
For many, the answer depends on where they sit on the geopolitical spectrum. But Bilal’s life didn’t begin in Syria in 2012. As he says, “I was Darrell La’mont Phelps long before I became Bilal Abdul Kareem”, only changing his name following his conversion to Islam.
Born Darrell Phelps, as a kid, his relationship with his siblings was a familiar story; he idolised his effortlessly cool older brother Keith, while his youngest sister, Tonia, got away with anything. He shared a particularly close bond with Sheila, his older sister, the two of them never far from mischief.
The four siblings lived with their tough and determined single Mom, in a small one-bedroom apartment in Mount Vernon. Living in a vibrant multicultural area, young Darrell realised he “loved people and loved to get to know them”
Without their father present each member of the family did what they could to support one another. From a young age Darrell was juggling school, delivering newspapers, and keeping on top of his homework. He also managed to find time to have fun, dancing to Michael Jackson or playing basketball with friends
My name is Darrell and I’d like to become a Muslim
Charismatic and creative Darrell suited the world of performative arts, developing a love for theatre and comedy. Through stand-up he found he could connect with people, and his philosophy was “Whatever happens next, Darrell, just have fun.”
But it wasn’t all fun and laughter. Tragically, Sheila was murdered by her husband and the loss of his lifelong ally shook Darrell deeply. Processing his reflection of the events into a stage play called “Victims”, he realised that something in his life needed to change.
Darrell’s journey to discovering Islam was shaped by the people he met. Whilst working on the set of the Spike Lee movie ‘Crooklyn’, he observed some of his Muslim colleagues as they prayed. He admired their generosity, kindness and inclusivity.
Malcolm X also provided him with a new perspective on tackling social injustice.
“There is nothing in our book, the Qur’an, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent.”
Darrell saw echoes of Malcolm’s life in his own, most notably his resilience and relentlessness in the face of adversity.
On entering a mosque for the first time and being embraced by the Muslim community, Darrell accepted Islam, became Bilal, and never looked back.
“It was 1996, I was 26 years old, and it was literally the first day of the rest of my life”.
Bilal the journalist
Determined to learn more about Islam, Bilal left America, travelling first to Sudan and then Egypt. Starting as a freelance translator and then working for Saudi owned Huda TV, Bilal felt he could use his skills in a more impactful way. He travelled to Rwanda to document the role that Muslims played in sheltering the victims of the genocide in 1994. Bilal recalls this moment in his online biography: “There was so much the world needed to know about Muslims and it was either not being reported or it was grossly misrepresented.”
After witnessing the events of the Arab Spring uprisings, Bilal set his sights on Syria and travelled there for the first time in 2012, where he was horrified by what he saw. “So many buildings had been levelled to the ground by barrel bombs.”
Committed to providing a voice for the Syrian people from all sides of the conflict – except ‘Mad’ Assad and ISIS – Bilal discovered his purpose.
“My heart is in Syria. I can help the oppressed by doing my reporting. I think this is what Allah would want me to do.”
While he did contribute to international news outlets including CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera and Channel 4, and won awards for his work, the mainstream media was unsure what to make of Bilal’s efforts to listen to all sides of Syrian opposition. Yet Bilal believes that unless we understand them all, there is no chance of reconciliation.
Bilal set up his own network ‘On the Ground News’ (OGN). Unapologetically honest, and with dignity and integrity, the network reports from the heart of the conflict, as it happens.
— On the Ground News (@OGNreports) March 23, 2022
Bilal the target
Almost 14 million Syrians have been displaced, half of them fleeing the country to find safety elsewhere. It is a staggering statistic that brings home the horror of life for those who remain, awaiting the next attack. Bilal knows this feeling only too well. In the summer of 2016, he was targeted for assassination more than five times.
The rumour that his name was on the infamous US ‘kill list’ was supported by attempts on his life that included two missile attacks on OGN’s headquarters. There were two strikes on his vehicle, one from a hellfire missile fired by a US Predator drone, which he only survived because he was wearing a bullet proof vest. The US were the only actors with weaponised drones in the area at that time, adding weight to the conclusion that Bilal was being targeted by his own government, in direct contravention of his constitutional rights.
Bilal’s attempt to uncover the truth behind his place on the kill list was thwarted at the end of 2021, when his petition to the US Supreme Court was denied. He continues to live in a state of anxiety and fear, never knowing when the next attack might come.
Bilal the prisoner
Bilal never forgot his mother’s motto, “If you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything.” It grounded him but also marked him out, particularly when he spoke out publicly against the use of torture by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni Muslim opposition group whose name means ‘The Liberation of the Levant.’
HTS developed from Jabhat al-Nursa, and were originally affiliated with Al Qaeda. Bilal was critical of their corruption and abuse of power and he discovered that challenging the group came with consequences.
One day, whilst exiting a Mosque, Bilal was arrested by a group of armed masked men. The grounds for his arrest included incitement against the authorities and defamation of the judiciary and security sectors. He was later found guilty. On hearing this, he laughed and told his captors, “I’m laughing because I used to do stand-up comedy, but I can’t write jokes like you guys.” But spending six months in solitary confinement was no joke. Clive negotiated with HTS for his release, and pointed out the irony that they were imprisoning someone their supposed enemies were trying to kill. HTS was so spooked at the notion that the US would try to kill Bilal with a drone that they moved him to another prison.
Bilal the human rights campaigner
Bilal himself was not tortured, but he was exposed to the torture of others during his own incarceration, hearing the screams of his fellow prisoners. OGN have recreated demonstrations of some of the torture techniques known to be used.
The increased awareness surrounding the treatment of prisoners is supported by an active campaign to promote the Prisoners Covenant. Some of the main issues the covenant wants to tackle are the removal of indefinite detention, access to a fair and transparent judicial process, and a ban on torture.
Bilal, alongside Tauqir Sharif, an aid worker who was tortured by HTS, has launched a project called Istiqama to assist the campaign. Istiqama is an Islamic concept, encouraging steadfastness in the pursuit of goals, and literally means, ‘go straight into the right direction, acting rightly, allowing no deviation’, ensuring that we remain self-accountable, reflective and strive for improvements.
Bilal frequently hosts Q&A sessions where he engages with both his supporters and critics.