For years, Syria’s activists and journalists have faced the threat of assassination in Turkey. Both agents of the Assad regime and the Islamic State have shot and stabbed their opponents.
On October 10, filmmaker Muhammad Bayazid, who is working on a documentary about a Syrian-American man who spent 20 years in the Assad regime’s Palmyra prison, was stabbed in Istanbul.
Bayazid survived, but in late September, opposition activist Orouba Barakat and her daughter, journalist Hala Barakat, were found stabbed to death in their Istanbul apartment.
At least six Syrian activists and journalists have been slain in Turkey since October 2015, beginning with journalists Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader in a town near the Syrian border in an attack claimed by the Islamic State. In December 2015, prominent anti-ISIS activist and journalist Naji Jerf was shot and killed in downtown Gaziantep.
A local source confirms from Istanbul:
The danger is not just for journalists. The Fatih district is more or less fully inhabited by Syrian refugees, many of the hundreds of thousands in Istanbul. But when walking thru the streets solely populated by Syrians, one won’t spot a single independence flag, no signs of the revolution, not even stickers or anything.
All people with whom I spoke told me there are a reasonable number of regime agents and regime supporters in Istanbul, and that activists disappear frequently. All of them are afraid of Assad’s killers, and that’s why they keep a low profile to stay under the radar.
Syria Direct has spoken with three journalists.
Ahmed Abd al-Qader, the brother of the slain journalist Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, was shot in the head in southeastern Turkey in June 2016 in an ISIS-claimed attack. He now lives in France.
Khaled al-Shami is a citizen journalist from Damascus who coordinated protests in the beginning of the revolution and later worked as a reporter with a rebel faction in Aleppo. He now lives in Istanbul, where he continues to report on Syrian developments.
Najm al-Deen Najm, a journalist from Raqqa currently living in Istanbul, He works for pro-opposition Baladi News.
Abdullah Abd al-Qader: “I am No Longer Afraid”
Q: Can you describe the attempt on your life in June 2016?
It was Ramadan and, as usual, I was heading to the market to go shopping before breaking the fast. [The attacker] was watching me and, just as I got in the car, he shot me in the face.
The feeling of pending death can’t be described. I felt something strange. I was receiving gunshots to the head. Three shots, and I didn’t feel any pain. My eyes were in another place. For a moment, I told myself: This is death. I was trying to see the person who hit me. What I’m sure of is that I felt no pain.
If I wanted to tell you everything in detail—exactly what I felt—it would take an entire day, even though the entire situation took no more than three minutes.
I was also injured previously in my left leg with shrapnel, and another time by a knife in my shoulder, in the assassination attempt that took place [in March 2016] before the last one.
When and why did you travel to France? Do you intend to return to Turkey?
I left for France in October 2016 after being shot in the head. I had two surgeries in Turkey but unfortunately they didn’t fully succeed. I was then offered the opportunity to continue treatment in France, with help from the organization Reporters Without Borders, which stood by me from the first day and until now.
I will definitely return to Turkey, and, God willing, from Turkey to Raqqa. My dream is to return to my family and my people. I don’t want anything to separate me from my land, my dream of a revolution and my children’s future in Syria. I’m finishing treatment and, God willing, will return [to Turkey] after some months.
How have recent assassinations and similar attempts on Syrian activists, including you, affected your work?
I want to be frank with you. On the day I discovered my brother Ibrahim and Fares had been assassinated, it was truly a shock, especially because I was the first one to see their bodies, to see them dead.
I found myself grappling with hesitation [about continuing my work]. I don’t know if it was from fear or shock, but I assure you, in all honesty, yes, I was scared. Maybe the fear wasn’t for my own [safety] —I was afraid of losing another one of my employees, of losing another brother, of losing one of my children.
Daesh [Islamic State] seriously wanted to stop my work somehow. We did a lot of things that shook the Daesh leadership, revealing coordination between Daesh and the regime.
But this was a period that I overcame and I decided to continue.
When there was an attempt on my life and I was injured with three shots to the head, I became stronger. I am no [longer] afraid, reassured that no organization can kill me.
Have investigations been able to determine who killed your brother or who tried to kill you?
To be honest, the [Turkish] investigations have led to nothing. No one has been caught—not those who killed Ibrahim and Fares, nor those who tried to kill me. This is evidence that the criminal is still on the run and can still execute operations. I don’t want to say the Turkish security fell short in its work because, in reality, these situations are very complicated.
In the end, I can’t deny that the assassin is a fellow countryman, acting in exchange for a sum [of money] or reward to be in the regime’s ranks or those of Daesh.
Director Muhammad Bayazid, who is working on a film about regime abuses in Tadmur prison, survived an assassination attempt in Istanbul and is now in stable condition. How did you feel when you heard this news?
For me, when I read the news of the assassination attempt on the director Muhammad Bayazid, I was shocked, because this means that the killer is still present and continues to act, able to reach those who have sacrificed for the revolution.
Since the assassination attempt [that I faced], and after I was injured by three bullets to the head — an injury that I am still recovering from to this day — the situation has been painful and disappointing. I won’t tell you the situation is about heroism and determination and defiance because, as an activist, you only have two choices in front of you: either they’ll murder you and finish you off, or you’ll be injured — and that injury will be a critical one.
Do you feel that the regime and IS succeeded in silencing dissent?
I’d like to point out that when Daesh threatened my brother Ibrahim and me, the regime was threatening us as well. It’s clear that the perpetrator is not only Daesh. The story is bigger than that. There are people planning and assisting Daesh to execute [the attacks] and this matter primarily benefits the Syrian regime.
For me, the regime is the number one enemy because it created the terrorist organizations and offered them support in order to kill the revolution. These terrorist organizations were a poisonous dagger in the revolution’s back.
Khaled al-Shami: “Living in a State of Terror”
What does the news of an assassination or assassination attempt mean to you?
I and everyone I know in Istanbul feel intense worry after what happened. At first, it was the murders and assaults in Gaziantep. Personally, I could understand that, because of the great momentum of activists and politicians and interim government headquarters and so on in Gaziantep. But for the crime to move to Istanbul, this is a major turning point.
Since the assassination of Hala and Orouba Barakat, all of us in Istanbul feel great worry and fear. I can’t describe the situation. I’ve started carrying a light weapon—a knife—in my bag, out of fear of a treacherous move. I walk 50 minutes from my house to work. I started to suspect anyone that approaches me. It’s true that my activism was and is still done in secret, but I have no trust in the Syrian and Turkish governments.
Q: Has justice been served?
There isn’t an inch of Istanbul without security cameras, but still, the Turkish government hasn’t delivered the killers to the judiciary and what happened to [Muhammad Bayazid] has not been clarified at all by the government. Everything is done under what they call “confidentiality of the investigation”. There are people I know who have no relationship to politics whatsoever but are living in a state of terror.
How have events like these affected your work as an activist and your daily life?
I fully believe that there is a dangerous scheme taking place: firstly, to silence any voice outside [Syria], whatever it may be, and, secondly, for assassination operations to reach other countries where Syrian activists are found.
I know the director Muhammad Bayazid and have met him previously. He is a very peaceful person, but because he has an opinion, there was an attempt on his life.
Najm al-Deen Najm: “They Haven’t Received Justice”
What is your reaction to the assassinations and attempts on Syrians in Turkey?
The news of activists and journalists being assassinated was terrifying. I’ve had these feelings a number of times. The assassination of Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader was terrifying, and the time when they asssassinated Naji Jerf in Gaziantep, just before he was about to leave [Turkey].
A series of murder attempts on activists and journalists followed, despite most of them having departed for Europe. The situation is still a nightmare, for me and for many others.
Has justice been served?
In my view, they haven’t received justice and, in the future, I don’t know whether the criminals will be caught and held accountable.
How have events like these affected your work as an activist and your daily life?
It certainly has an impact. Thoughts of assassination or kidnapping are circulating in my mind, especially because I faced threats from here and there. These sudden thoughts are very disturbing.