EXCLUSIVE: Bilal Abdul Kareem – Life with the Syrian rebels

Bilal Abdul Kareem

Film-maker Bilal Abdul Kareem lived with the Syrian rebels for two years, documenting their political and military developments as they fought to topple Bashar al Assad. In this exclusive two-part interview with Dilly Hussain, the American journalist explains what led him to Syria and his observations on the Islamic sentiment of the revolution.

DH: Bilal tell us a bit about yourself. Where were you born? Do you have siblings? Are you married? Do you have any children? Where are you currently living?

BAK: I was born and raised in New York. I have one brother and a sister. I’m currently living in Doha, Qatar. I have six “babies” who aren’t really babies anymore as they all want iPads and mobile phones now instead of dolls and play dough. Where did the time go!

DH: How far did you get with academia? Did you go to university?

BAK: I went to the State University of New York where I studied creative writing. I also studied studio composition as I was heavy into music at that time.

DH: What were you doing before you became a journalist and film-maker?

BAK: I was the Programming Director for Huda TV based in Cairo. Additionally I did some other work such as translation of religious materials from Arabic to English, and I did lots of sound recording of books. But if you mean what was I doing years ago before I became Muslim, then the answer would be very different. I used to do stand up comedy and some other stuff years ago.

DH: What are your thoughts on the Arab Spring? Has it achieved anything?

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Syria.

BAK: I believe it has achieved a lot. I try to look at these things with a “developer’s mentality”.  The Muslim lands were in such a poor condition for so long that it wasn’t realistic that they would suddenly emerge from such a restrictive and dark time without some of the turmoil we are seeing today.

Have the people of the region seen the fruits of the Arab Spring? Not yet, but just three and a half years from the start of the spring, we can’t expect to see results just yet. I’m focused on seeing all of this as ground work for what we will see in 2016 and 2017 insh’Allah.

DH: Have you covered any other wars besides Syria?

BAK: Syria is my first war coverage. However, I did work in Libya shortly after the fall of Gadaffi.  American journalists running around in Libya was a dangerous business. I admit, I do tell people sometimes I am from Nigeria or Kenya. It helps keep my name off the kidnap lists…sometimes.

DH: What made you go to Syria? Was there something that stood out which made it different to other conflicts in the region?

BAK: Initially I went to Syria to cover the rebels in general. Then I became fascinated with what I was seeing from the foreign fighters. They were a fierce lot to say the least. I met Umar Shishaani (Chechnya) and asked him if I could film one of his fighters and do a story about him. This was before there was an ISIS. He agreed and I started a journey that has taken me to what you see today.

DH: Do you think the uprising in Syria was sectarian to begin with or was it genuinely a political protest against an oppressive dictator?

BAK: I don’t think it was either of the two. Demanding basic rights like the right to contest indefinite detention, the right to not have your sons murdered in cold blood are not political aspirations – these are human aspirations.

The Syrian revolution started in Homs
The Syrian revolution started in Homs

As expected, the regime responded to the Syrian people’s request with more killing to scare off the activists. It didn’t work. At that time the Syrian people were not very religious and didn’t really care who was Sunni, who was Shia and who was Alawi. They all lived together and got along relatively well. However, once the revolution started and the regime started losing ground, they turned to Iran and Hezbollah for help – this made the conflict sectarian. It wasn’t before that.

DH: When did you arrive in Syria and who initially hosted you?

BAK: My first trip to Syria was in the summer of 2012. I was initially hosted by Ahrar al-Sham. They were a very aggressive rebel group whose leadership was made up of many ex-prisoners that were in Assad’s torture chambers.

Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Hassan Abboud was one of the most interesting people I met. When I first arrived in Syria I was waiting for him for a few days at their headquarters. I didn’t know what he looked like. From the way people spoke about him they had great respect for him as a leader and generally didn’t make a move without his approval. I was an American journalist and initially they didn’t trust me. I wondered what his reaction to me would be. When arrived, flanked by members of his group, he asked me: “Bilal, how do I know you don’t work for the CIA?”  It was a conversation I’ll never forget!

DH: Would you say there is a strong Islamic sentiment to the Syrian revolution?

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels

BAK: No less than 75% of the active fighters in this conflict come from an Islamic group. There is no way that this group can be overlooked no matter how much the west may want to try and install some type of puppet democratic government. I have long said that the only way out of this situation is by creating win-win solutions. Cheap media tricks and setting up paper dictators is a ploy that is old and tired. It worked for many years but I think that day is over.

If we are serious about creating a better future for all concerned then that is the way forward. These fighters are 90% Syrian born and bred, so no one can come and say that somehow only the foreigners want “Islamic governance”.

DH: You made contact with numerous rebel factions, who were united upon removing Bashar al Assad but differed in their vision of Syria post-Assad. How did external superpowers and their regional proxies influence this?

BAK: To be honest, and I know this is going to sound strange, but as much as superpowers have tried to influence the rebels I think they have all failed, with exception to ISIS. However, ISIS is not (to my knowledge) the product of an identified state. The US tried really hard to get the Syrian National Council (SNC) to be the power brokers in this conflict but they just don’t have the support of the people.

I would hear all the time of how Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were controlling events on the ground but I never saw it. I slept next to and ate with many of the fighters, both foreign and Syrian, including their commanders and they were struggling for ammunition and money to buy food for their fighters. Most of the weapons were seized from the regime.

I sincerely believe that Saudi Arabia’s influence has been severely overstated. Much of what is happening in Syria is so out of line with Saudi policy it is almost laughable to think they had a hand in creating it. Turkey is a strict secular country, why would they try to fuel an Islamic revolution? The Qataris helped out in a big way on the humanitarian front but I must admit I didn’t see or hear of any shipments of weapons coming in saying “Made in Qatar” on them.

Do I believe that some military assistance was provided to the rebels? Sure I do, but the the Islamic fervour is organically homegrown. This is why most outside players have no real power or sway to control the resistance.

DH: What role do you think the West, namely the US and the UK have played in the Syrian conflict? How has there policy changed since the start of the war?

BAK: Firstly, the UK rarely has its own foreign policy agenda. Whatever America says, the Brits will follow. Both the US and Britain started off by saying they supported the rebels, and they really wanted them to win too! They were hedging their bets that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could take out Assad and they could wave some money and power under their noses and they will have installed a Western-friendly government in Damascus without breaking a sweat. It didn’t happen. Islamic fighters took over the revolution and the west has been reeling ever since to come up with a coherent policy on Syria.

If America and Britain want to play a role in helping the people of Syria grow and prosper then they would have to start with a cessation of treating all Islamic fighters as “terrorists”. There is absolutely no benefit for the American people in this style of policy. It is inaccurate and it actually stokes the fires of hatred in the hearts of those who would not normally be their traditional enemy.

Some of the rebel factions have been infiltrated by the Syrian and American intelligence services.
Some of the rebel factions have been infiltrated by the Syrian intelligence services.

DH: What role has neighbouring Muslim countries played? Namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

BAK: Turkey has been a great help to the Syrian people. Prime Minister Erdogan didn’t try to act like some politician when this crisis started, he acted like a human being. The people were suffering and he responded by helping them – end of story. While I don’t agree with everything he says and does, I can certainly say that I have a lot of respect for him on a level I do not have for other senior officials in the region and I’d like to tell him that one day.

The Qataris have been extremely generous in helping their Muslim brothers and sisters in need as well as spending millions of dollars in aid. I’d love to see the government help people because they need it, and not because it suits their country’s strategic interest only.

As for the Saudi’s, they too have been generous in their provision of humanitarian aid. However, the true help from Saudi Arabia came from the ordinary people – not the government.  In my view, they are the true heroes of the Arabian Peninsula.

DH: What role has Russia, Iran and Hezbollah played in the Syrian conflict?

BAK: I do not see that they have a constructive role to play in this affair. Propping up this murderous regime is a stain that will stay on their respective country’s records. How anyone could think that allowing one who orders barrel bombs to be dropped on innocent men, women, and children to stay in power helps the Syrian people is beyond me. Truly it’s astonishing how these people sleep at night, looking at the death toll and persisting in helping Assad. The best thing they can do is to simply stay out of it.

In part 2 of the interview, Bilal describes how the Syrian people responded to foreign fighters, the numerous rebel factions he met including Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and its splinter group ISIS.

You can follow Bilal Abdul Kareem on Twitter @BilalKareem and Dilly Hussain @DillyHussain88

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