Those following developments in the remaining insurgent-held areas of Idlib and its environs will probably be aware by now of the arrest of the American media guy Bilal Abdul Kareem who lives in those areas and runs the channel On the Ground News. My interactions with Bilal and the interviews we did with each other were always courteous.
However, if one is going to ask me whether I was surprised that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) arrested Bilal, the answer is that I was not surprised. For some time I had a feeling that it was not a question whether Bilal would be arrested but when, even as some were perhaps skeptical of the idea that the arrest could happen given Bilal's American origin.
Yet Bilal's national origin is not the issue here, but what Bilal has done. It was clear to me for a while that Bilal was touching on particularly sensitive issues for HTS, such as highlighting the imprisonment of Abu al-Abd Ashidaa (who was then released) and his channel's media coverage of Abu al-Abd Ashidaa's group Tansiqiyat al-Jihad. He has also been vocal about the arrest of Tauqir Sharif, who is of British origin and was doing some aid work in Idlib and its environs. Indeed already some time prior to his arrest, HTS had banned its fighters and officials from speaking to Bilal (according to his own testimony).
HTS initially put out a brief statement on the arrest of Bilal but it was understandably criticised for its vagueness. A second clarification has now been issued today (which I obtained via Taqi al-Din Omar of HTS) giving a more detailed explanation of his arrest. Unsurprisingly, the reasons it gives for his arrest are the ones I expected would be cited. I translate it below.
'Clarification (2) regarding the detention of 'Bilal Abdul Kareem'
The recent events in the liberated north and the accompanying violations of some of the groups are not hidden to anyone. Nor is hidden what accompanied that from the flowing of repeated rumours and fake news targeting the authorities leading the liberated areas. And the one-called 'Bilal Abdul Kareem' was one of these people in his complete freedom for more than a year to stir up fitnas and going after them.
And among the most prominent of the matters for which 'Bilal' has been detained, according to the case raised against him among the judiciary:
- His work with groups that violate the public security in the liberated areas.
- His incitement against the local authorities without any true basis.
- Insisting on spreading and publishing lies infringing on the judicial foundation and the security foundation without lines of evidence or proofs, among them the accusation of leaking his photos.
- His repeated interviews with persons wanted by the public security apparatus and concocting false claims.
We note that we made efforts with him during the recent time by all means and we accepted all the initiatives put to us, and through a number of mediations, to resolve the disagreement and restore him to his integrity, but all of them are efforts that ended up in failure. The relevant authorities will not permit the continuation of this state of affairs that harms the stability of the area.
Note that the one called Bilal was known for being free for more than a year to stir up problems and he continued on that during the most difficult stages that the area witnessed in the recent military battles.
We await during a few days the issuing of a ruling against him by the judiciary.
Media Relations Office.'
(Update 17 February 2021: Bilal Abdul Kareem was released today. Here is the statement issued by HTS' public relations office):
'Release of 'Bilal Abdul Kareem':
After the issuing of the ruling and its verification by the court stipulating the imprison of 'Bilal Abdul Kareem' for a whole year after the merging of two rulings issued against him (a year for the first case, six months for the second case), the notables of the Atmah region and a number of personalities presented an amnesty plea to the court. And after the judiciary reviewd it, the request was accepted on the basis of compliance with release conditions, which are connected with the public matter and his military activity.
This is so, and the detention of 'Bilal Abdul Kareem' was in August last year, after a number of accusations were directed against him, the most prominent of them being:
Working with groups that violate public security in the liberated areas, and his incitement against the local authorities without justification, and insisting on publishing and spreading lies infringing on the institutions without lines of evidence or proofs, in addition to his repeated interviews with personalities wanted by the judiciary and concoction of false claims.
Media Relations Office'