Why Is Media Citing Man Accused of Kidnapping Journalists as Credible Source on Syrian Chemical Attack?

With military intervention on the horizon, media outlets cite Shajul Islam, a doctor accused of working with extremists in Syria.

Photo Credit: Screenshot of video by Shajul Islam

Calls for regime change in Syria are once again filling the airwaves, and President Donald Trump has said he is considering further military intervention in the country.

(Update: After this article was published, the U.S. launched a missile attack on a Syrian government airfield, which ISIS subsequently exploited.)

Media outlets have been pouring fuel on the fire of war. One of the key voices calling for Western intervention that is being amplified by corporate news networks is Shajul Islam, a doctor in the al-Qaeda-controlled Syrian province of Idlib.

Islam has accused the Syrian government of carrying out a chemical attack on civilians. Dozens of major media outlets have cited his claims, while conceding that they have not been independently verified.

Meanwhile, these news publications have failed to disclose a crucial detail about the doctor: He was accused in court of kidnapping journalists in Syria.

In October 2012, Shajul Islam was arrested in the UK and charged with kidnapping two photographers, one British and one Dutch. He was accused of providing medical treatment for the Salafi jihadist extremist group in Syria that held the journalists hostage.

The case eventually fell apart and the charges against Islam were dropped because the prosecution was not able to hear evidence from the victims, who were the key witnesses. The attorney said this served "to frustrate the trial from the point of view of the prosecution."

John Cantlie, one of the journalists Islam was accused of kidnapping, was unable to appear at the trial because he was still a hostage. He had been briefly freed in July 2012, but was soon kidnapped again — this time by ISIS. Cantlie was held with James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded on camera by Mohamed Emwazi, an ISIS foreign fighter from London.

Islam's younger brother, Razul, reportedly entered Syria to volunteer as a foreign fighter in the ranks of ISIS.

Sometime in 2016, Shajul Islam smuggled himself back into Syria and is now working in Idlib.

AlterNet previously detailed how Idlib is the "heartland" of al-Qaeda, as even hawkish pundits who have repeatedly called for further Western military intervention in Syria have acknowledged.

None of these facts stopped major news outlets from citing Islam's claims and social media posts in their reports on the alleged Idlib chemical attack, including CBS NewsFox News, McClatchy, the Daily Beast, Voice of America, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, CBC, Politico, the Independent, Vocativ, Bellingcat, Euronews, Middle East Eye, the Mirror, Metro, the Daily Mail, the Sun and UNILAD

NBC News and Middle East Eye published entire profiles on Islam without identifying the past accusations against him.

Even right-wing pro-Trump media outlets that have previously opposed U.S.-led regime change in Syria have suddenly had a change of heart, now that the president is on board. PJ Media and Western Journalism also uncritically cited Shajul Islam without providing any context.

In another report, NBC News said it spoke with Islam, whom it described as "a London surgeon who was volunteering in a hospital just outside Idlib." NBC added that it "was not able to verify either account from the ground."

Most of the publications similarly provide just a sentence of background on Islam, noting he was "trained in the UK and now works in northern Syria." None mentioned the accusations of kidnapping. 

Several media outlets that are now uncritically spreading Islam's unverified claims have previously reported on the fact that he was once charged with working with an extremist group in Syria.

Alleged Chemical Attack

As AlterNet previously reported, Syrian al-Qaeda and other extremist rebel groups have constructed a hyper-repressive regime in Idlib. Salafi jihadists ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic minorities from the area, while banning music and instituting a violent theocratic system in which women accused of adultery are publicly executed. Amnesty International documented Salafi jihadist groups' use of summary killings, torture, abductions and sectarian violence in the province.

On April 4, an alleged chemical attack in Idlib killed dozens of civilians. The details around the incident are murky. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria noted at a press conference after the attack, "We have not yet any official or reliable confirmation."

Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, likewise said, "We also do not have evidence at the moment."

A statement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons did not apportion blame and noted it "is in the process of gathering and analysing information."

However, the U.S. government, which has spent billions over the past several years arming and training rebels committed to overthrowing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, immediately said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, an accusation the Syrian and Russian governments denied.

Media outlets were quick to jump on board and echo the U.S. government's claims. Shajul Islam became a key source for the accusation that the Syrian government had used sarin gas against civilians.

In the frequently cited videos Islam posted to social media, he openly called for more foreign intervention in Syria and reiterated talking points that have for years been echoed by supporters of regime change.

"We urge you to put pressure on your government, put pressure on anyone, to help us," Islam said. "I'm trying to make awareness so that people will support us and support our work and give us the equipment we need to continue saving lives."

Islam also claimed the alleged chemical attack is one of a string of such incidents, insisting, "These gas attacks are continuing every day and no one is doing anything to stop these gas attacks."

He tried to frighten civilians in the West claiming, "Now it's the civilian population of Syria; soon it would be the civilian population of America, in a subway or something." In reality, experts recognize that Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful force among the rebels in the country (in its rebranded forms), poses the actual threat to civilians in the West, not the Syrian government.

Islam's claims have not been independently verified, and he said in a video that because of safety concerns he was not able to share his location.

Misleading Media Reporting

Major news networks have demonstrated a similar lack of skepticism when it comes to reporting on other issues about Syria. Ambiguous "activists" and rebel groups committed to overthrowing the Syrian government, some of them linked to al-Qaeda, are often cited as sources in media reports.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is perhaps the leading source for information, and is frequently described by media outlets as a "monitoring group." Yet even the New York Times, which often draws from SOHR's claims, has acknowledged that it "is virtually a one-man band" run out of the home of a man in a small town in England who has not been to Syria in more than a decade.

Likewise, major news networks like CNN have repeatedly cited Bilal Abdul Kareem, a propagandist for extremist jihadists militias in Syria who has embedded himself with al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, as a supposed independent observer of the war. 

Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

 

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