American journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem released by Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

US citizen was held by the group since August 2020

US soldiers on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) wave to children on the side of the road during a patrol in the Suwaydiyah oil fields in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on February 13, 2021.  / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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A rebel group that controls territory in north-west Syria released an American citizen.

Bilal Abdul Kareem, born Darrell Lamont Phelps in Mount Vernon, New York, had been living in Syria and filing reports on the decade-long civil war since 2012.

In August 2020, he was taken by the Hayat Tahrir Al Shams group in Idlib province after reporting that the militants had tortured detainees.

Abdul Kareem has been held by the group since then, despite pleas from various organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Hayat Tahrir Al Shams, formed after Al Nusra Front merged with other militant groups, had initially sentenced him to 18 months in prison.

“We welcome the release, even though it has taken so long, but we are still concerned," said Ignacio Delgado Culebras, the Middle East and North Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"We need to find out if there are any charges pending against him and we would also like [Hayat Tahrir Al Shams] to allow journalists to do their job freely without arresting them at random, and allow more press freedom in the area under their control."

A US State Department official said: “The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the [department].

"We are aware of these reports but have nothing additional to offer at this time.”

Abdul Kareem is a self-styled journalist and has filed hundreds of reports from Syria.

He rose to some prominence as one of the only western media figures to cover the final days of the battle of Aleppo in 2016 and the siege of Idlib in 2019.

Abdul Kareem is the founder of On the Ground News, a social media account that reports on the war. But some consider him an extremist propagandist and a sympathiser.

“We regard him as a journalist," Mr Culebras said. "He produces content, journalistic content, consistently. His views are his own. We are not here to make any ethical call."

Abdul Kareem claimed he was on a US kill list that contained information on suspected enemies of the country.

In 2017, he filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia claiming the US government had tried to assassinate him.

A judge dismissed the case in 2019. Abdul Kareem appealed against that decision while being detained by Hayat Tahrir Al Shams.

Reports say he is married with five children. His wife gave birth to a daughter while he was detained.