In the last few years, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the Sunni jihadi group which has controlled the province of Idlib, Syria since 2017, has promoted itself to the world as the moderate face of Islamist militancy in opposition stronghold Idlib and as a group which supports freedom of the press and encourages rebel journalists to report the truth and support the revolution.
In recent months, HTS leader Abu Muhammad Al-Julani, who has been designated as a global terrorist since May 2013, appeared on foreign media outlets to highlight the group's position on restricting jihad to the Syrian regime and to refute accusations that HTS violates human rights, for example, by arbitrarily arresting scores of residents and reporters in areas under its control in the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates.
In February 2021, in his first interview with an American journalist, Al-Julani told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith that HTS does not pose a threat to the West and denied that his group tortures prisoners and opponents He invited human rights organizations to visit Idlib and inspect HTS prisons.
On May 4, 2021, HTS celebrated World Press Freedom Day and issued a statement reminding its critics that there was no room at all for free opinion under Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad, while the Syrian revolution had brought liberty and security to Syrians, allowing "the voice of truth to rise and triumph over oppression and aggression."
Boasting about the "large" number of Western reporters who are flocking to Idlib, the statement stressed that "the message of the media is a noble message based on accuracy, investigation, and conveying the truth" and asserted that "one of the most important principles of our revolution and jihad is liberty, honor, and ensuring a free voice." It added that this refers to "the voice of truth which helps the oppressed, defends the cause, and conveys the criminality of the occupying invaders to the entire world."
Various HTS opponents, including supporters of Al-Qaeda and of non-jihadi rebel groups, accused HTS of curtailing freedom of the press and restricting journalists from criticizing the group or reporting news that presents it in a bad light.
Furthermore, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said it documented HTS human rights violations, including the arrest and torture of journalists and activists.
The HTS crackdown on perceived opposition to its rule mirrors some of the tactics used by the Syrian government and discredits its efforts to overhaul its image, hang on to power, and gain international legitimacy.
This report will examine the case of American jihadi reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, who was captured by HTS and released seven months later, as an example of the group's crackdowns against perceived foes.
Who Is Bilal Abdul Kareem?
According to his own website, Abdul Kareem was born in 1970 as Darrell Lamont Phelps in New York. He attended Mount Vernon High School, then studied creative writing at SUNY College - Purchase before going on to work in standup comedy.
He converted to Islam in 1997 and travelled to Egypt to study Arabic, where he later obtained a presenting role with the Saudi-funded Huda TV. He then travelled to Rwanda and Libya to film documentaries before arriving in Syria in 2012, where he was first hosted by Syria-based jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham.
In Syria in 2016 he helped found "On The Ground News" (OGN), a news agency that covers the Syrian civil war in Arabic and English from a jihadi perspective from within opposition-held territory. He often publishes posts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube about his life as a jihadi reporter in Idlib and posts that document his interviews with jihadi leaders in Syria.
Abdul Kareem Position On HTS
On social media, Abdul Kareem has stated clearly that he does not oppose HTS. In fact, he has praised it on multiple occasions while also pointing out its shortcomings.
For instance, in a video posted on OGN's YouTube channel on July 7, 2020, Abdul Kareem specifically talked about his position on HTS.
He said: "I first of all applaud the brothers and thank them for the good work that they do on the battlefronts and in a lot of other areas. They do some seriously good work here in Syria and no one can deny that." He then pointed to his disagreement with HTS, noting that he has "problems with HTS regarding their justice system and their Justice Department... for example, if someone gets arrested and they are subject to interrogation, number one the first question is: how long you can investigate a person and keep him in prison. Right now, we don't know because there is nothing written down. Nothing that has been presented to the Syrian people. If someone is charged with something, how long can it be before he visits a judge? In the video, Abdul Kareem clearly mentioned that he had no intention to bring HTS down, saying: "No, that’s not the case at all. You might have a beef with your wife. You might say honey look you are putting too much salt in the food or too much sugar in the coffee and you need to fix up. That doesn't mean you want to divorce her. The point of the matter here is this: look guys, governance is not easy and sometimes you have to raise your voice to get the authorities to listen to what is that they need to listen to."
Why Was Abdul Kareem Captured By HTS?
On August 13, 2020, masked HTS militants abducted Abdul-Kareem in the northern Syrian town of Atmeh.
The day after the abduction, OGN tweeted a video featuring Abdul-Kareem’s stepson, Jihad, who said that Abdul-Kareem had finished praying at a mosque on the outskirts of Atmeh when two cars stopped nearby and masked armed men came out of them.
The abduction followed the publication on August 11 of an OGN interview by Abdul-Kareem of Racquell Hayden-Best, wife of Idlib-based British aid worker Tauqir Sharif, who was recently abducted and allegedly tortured by HTS. On the day of his abduction, Abdul-Kareem tweeted a video accusing HTS of torturing Sharif in a prison in June.
HTS Agrees To Abdul Kareem's Conditional Release
On February 17, 2021, seven months after Abdul Kareem's abduction, HTS released him. The group issued a statement, signed by Taqi Al-Din Omar, head of the HTS Media Relations Bureau, saying that Abdul Kareem was sentenced to jail on two separate charges and was released following a plea for mercy by local elders from the Atmeh area.
“After the court sentenced Bilal Abdul Kareem to a year in prison and affirmed this judgment, and after combining two sentences in two cases concerning him (a year for the first case, six months for the second case), the elders of the Atmeh region and a number of prominent personalities submitted to the court a plea for mercy. After a review by the judges, the plea was accepted, subject to adherence to the conditions of the release, which have to do with public affairs and his military activities. Bilal Abdul Kareem’s arrest occurred in August of last year, after several charges were submitted against him, including most prominently:
"Working with groups that harm general security in the liberated area [the region of Idlib under HTS control], groundless incitement against the local authorities, persistence in spreading and disseminating lies harming institutions without proof or evidence, meeting repeatedly with men sought by the authorities, and making false claims.”
HTS Bans Abdul Kareem From Covering Syrian War
On February 24, 2021, OGN shared an announcement on its Telegram channel explaining why its founder, Abdul Kareem, had not made any appearances since his release from HTS prison.
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According to the announcement, the agreement with HTS that secured Abdul Kareem's conditional early release from his one-year prison term states that he is banned from appearing on social media platforms for six months. The announcement added that the deal also bans OGN from covering "Syrian affairs" for three months.
Abdul Kareem Breaches HTS Ban, Accuses It Of Torturing Prisoners
On June 7, 2021, Abdul Kareem posted a link on his Telegram channel to an 18-minute YouTube video of an interview he gave to the Middle East Eye media outlet. This was the first time he had spoken publicly since his conditional release from prison.
During the interview, Kareem claimed that torture is common in HTS prisons, adding that the group's leader, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, is "unfit to rule."
He claimed that HTS detained him because he reported on their wrongdoing in Idlib, adding that HTS perceived him as a threat after he exposed their practice of torturing prisoners. Kareem nevertheless said that while he does not support HTS or Al-Julani, he also does not view the group as a terrorist organization.
Pro-Hay'at HTS Article: Abdul Kareem's Western Origin, Ignorance Of Shari'a Confused His Judgment
In response to Kareem's interview, a pro-HTS channel on Telegram published an article discrediting him. The three-page article, written by Omar Zaidelddin, claimed that Abdul Kareem is a member of Ethbeto Operation Room, which consists of five factions that split from HTS, including Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, Huras Al-Din.
The article also claimed that Abdul Kareem was involved in supporting abductions of HTS members by the Ethbeto Operation Room and in striking residential areas in Idlib, adding that he was detained with other individuals responsible for these "crimes."
According to the article, a court found Abdul Kareem guilty of collaborating with anti-HTS groups which "had conducted no military activity against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad."
It further said that he acted as a media front for these groups, conducting campaigns aimed at destabilizing security in Idlib during a critical time when HTS was fighting against military offensives launched by the Syrian regime.
Elaborating on his conditional release, the article claimed that following a petition submitted by local leaders in Idlib, HTS agreed to the release and met with Kareem to discuss his future as an Idlib-based journalist: "We met with him to discuss the future and what can we do to ensure his return to the ranks of the Syrian revolution and to the path for which he left his country, and to ensure that his efforts will return to the right path, thereby granting him the right to criticize and identify mistakes."
The article concluded by saying that Abdul Kareem and HTS agreed to form a committee of clerics who will examine the issue of the imprisonment of "criminals" in light of shari'a law. However, said the article, Kareem ultimately left Idlib, in breach of the conditions of his release.
Abdul Kareem's Response
Responding to that article, Abdul Kareem published a video on June 9, 2021, in which he requested that three independent scholars mediate and rule on whether the torture of prisoners in HTS-run prisons is permissible in Islam. He also promised that "if these three non-HTS-affiliated scholars say that the torture that HTS carries out in its prisons is permissible" he would "never speak about this topic in the media again." Kareem also stated that HTS leader Al-Julani and his group "have to immediately stop torturing prisoners in their prisons if these scholars say that it is not at all permissible."
Local Reactions To HTS Crackdown On Reporters
Following each incident of arrest or mistreatment of a reporter by HTS, activists, media figures, and jihadi clerics voice their condemnation and denounce HTS, usually by publishing posts on their Telegram channels. For example, when reporter Ahmad Rahhal was arrested, former military commander Asif 'Abd Al-Rahman, Saudi jihadi cleric Abdallah Al-Muhaysini, and Bilal Abdul Kareem all condemned the incident.
Shortly after Abdul Kareem's arrest, prominent pro-Al-Qaeda jihadi clerics such as Jordanian jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, Canada-based cleric Tariq Abdelhaleem, former HTS commander Abu Al-'Abd Ashidda', Syria-based Egyptian jihadi cleric Abu Shu'ayb Al-Masri, pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram user Jallad Al-Murj'iah, and others began publishing and sharing posts on Telegram condemning HTS and accusing it of being disrespectful of pro-jihadi foreigners and treating secular media with a kindness not afforded to pro-Islamic media.
Independent clerics and reporters also called on HTS to resolve the case of Abdul Kareem and other imprisoned individuals.
On December 1, 2020, Syrian jihadi cleric Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Mahdi published a post on his Telegram channel calling on HTS to resolve the case of Abdul Kareem, saying he had been in detention for a long time.
On August 22, 2020, Idlib-based reporter Ahmad Rahhal accused HTS of arresting Abdul Kareem for his media activities and urged the group to be objective in its assessment of the case against him.
On January 26, 2021, the media office of the pro-Syrian revolution Ashayer Observatory published a poster saying that Abdul Kareem had been in prison for six months and calling for his release.
HTS efforts to silence reporters and activists who are exposing its human rights violations and challenging its authority did not deter locals from voicing their condemnation and raising the issue of imprisoned individuals and the unlawful practices of the HTS security department against the residents of Idlib.
On April 4, 2021, Abu Muhammad Al-Mu'tirmah, the father of imprisoned independent fighter Hassan Al-Sheikh, published a video urging HTS security officials, clerics, and judges to inform him about his son's crime, reveal his son's location, and allow him and Al-Sheikh's mother to visit their son.
On March 31, 2021, the family of imprisoned former HTS fighter Youssouf Al-Rahhal released a statement accusing HTS of obtaining a confession after torturing their son, who had been in prison for over two years, during which the family was not allowed to attend any of the hearings or appoint a lawyer to represent him. The family stressed that because it does not trust the HTS judicial system, it was demanding that a joint committee be formed with any other jihadi faction to question and try Al-Rahhal's case. On March 16, 2021, a group of women organized a rally in Idlib condemning HTS and its security apparatus for arresting and imprisoning their relatives.
Tension between HTS and local reporters has also attracted the attention of human rights organizations, which have issued statements calling on HTS to respect freedom of the press and free the arrested reporters. One of the leading organizations that has documented dozens of HTS human rights violations against journalists is the Syrian Journalists Association. In its annual report of 2020, the association noted that it has documented 21 incidents, most of which concern journalists operating in areas under the control of HTS who were arrested or kidnapped.
HTS Crackdown On Other Idlib-Based Reporters
In September 2019, HTS arrested local reporter Ahmad Rahhal for publishing a video released by then HTS commander Abu Al-'Abd Al-Ashidda' in which he strongly denounced HTS for corruption and mismanagement of jihad in Syria.
On May 3, 2021, Idlib-based journalist Omar Haj Kadour, a reporter and photographer for Agence France-Presse, posted an image of himself on Facebook wearing a vest marked "press" and holding a camera as he was manhandled by HTS security operatives several months earlier. In the May 3 post, Kadour claimed that after publishing the previous post he was summoned by the Salvation Government's General Media Directorate, which punched a hole in his press card "as a preliminary punishment."
In response to widespread condemnation of its treatment of Kadour, the Salvation Government General Media Directorate issued a statement accusing him of repeated "violations" involving "publishing false reports and misleading allegations" and claimed that he defamed the Idlib region by "describing it in a manner devoid of truth whose falsehood is clear to all."
While the harsh HTS crackdown on radical clerics and Al-Qaeda fighters could help the group promote an image globally of an organization seeking to limit jihad to fighting the Assad regime, its human rights violations against reporters and activists will likely shatter its efforts to present itself as a viable option to the regime.
Such violations have been condemned, not only by HTS opponents, but also by independent clerics, pro-revolution activists, and human rights organizations, some of whom have been utilizing these violations in the media campaign to discredit Al-Julani.
Ultimately, such abuses could lead to rifts among the senior members of HTS as a result of the ongoing social media campaign to discredit Al-Julani
*Mansour Al-Hadj is a Research Fellow At MEMRI.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Interview Between Syrian Jihadi Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Leader Al-Joulani, U.S. Journalist Sparks Conflicting Reactions: 'Hypocrite And Liar' Vs 'Revolutionary Leader,' June 8, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM report, On World Press Freedom Day, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Opponents Accuse Group Of Curtailing Freedom Of The Press, Supporters Urge Rebel Journalists Not To 'Lie' Or Defame The Revolution, May 7, 2021.
 Hrw.org/news/2019/01/28/syria-arrests-torture-armed-group, January 28, 2019.
 Bilalabdulkareem.com/biography/, June 17, 2021.
 YouTube.com, July 7, 2020
 Twitter.com, OGNreport, August 14, 2020.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=woVyOUIoG1o, August 11, 2020.
 Twitter.com, OGNreports, August 13, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Issues Statement About Its Release Of American Reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, February 18, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Pro-Jihadi Syria-Based U.S.-Born Bilal Abdul Kareem 'Banned By Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) From Appearing On Social Media For Six Months,' February 25, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Pro-Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Article: U.S. Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem Is Affiliated With HTS's Rivals; His Western Background, Ignorance Of Shari'a Confused His Judgment, June 7, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Syria-Based U.S. Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem Calls For Ruling By Independent Scholars On The Permissibility Of Torture In HTS-Run Prisons, June 10, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report On Telegram, Jihadi Clerics And Pro-Al-Qaeda Users Condemn HTS For Arresting American Jihadi Reporter Bilal Abdul Kareem, August 14, 2020.
 Telegram.me/abedalrazzak, Telegram 1, 2020.
 Telegram.me/pressrahhal, August 22, 2022.
 Telegram.me/sbktnbjasaor, January 26, 2021.
 Telegram.me/abohasnalarjani12, April 4, 2021.
 Telegram.me/abohasnalarjani12, March 31, 2021.
 Telegram.me/abohasnalarjani12, March 16, 2021.
 Syja.org, March 15, 2021.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report Syria-Based Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Arrests Commander For Accusing Group's Leadership Of Corruption And Journalist For Posting Video Of Remarks Online, September 12, 2019.
 See MEMRI JTTM Report On World Press Freedom Day, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Opponents Accuse Group Of Curtailing Freedom Of The Press, Supporters Urge Rebel Journalists Not To 'Lie' Or Defame The Revolution, May 7, 2021.