BEIRUT — Al Qaida-linked rebels in northern Syria killed an Iraqi freelance journalist at a checkpoint Wednesday, highlighting the deteriorating security situation for foreign aid workers and journalists in rebel-held areas.
Yasser Faisal al Jumaili, a freelance cameraman, had been stopped outside the village of Saraqeb by foreign fighters who were members of the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The observatory’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, who’s based in Great Britain but directs an extensive network of researchers in Syria, said Jumaili was taken from his car and executed almost immediately. A Twitter account associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria released pictures of what it described as the killing. There was no way to verify the veracity of the photos.
Jumaili’s death was confirmed by Reporters Without Borders and by his family in a statement from Iraq.
It was unknown what nationality Jumaili’s killers were. In addition to Iraqis and Syrians, the al Qaida-linked group includes fighters from many other countries.
Jumaili is from Fallujah, an Iraqi city that gained fame during the U.S. occupation there as a hotbed of radical Islamist activity, and it isn’t uncommon to find fighters among the Syrian rebels who also fought U.S. forces at Fallujah.
Although both sides have slain dozens of Syrian journalists during the nearly 3-year-old civil war, Jumaili’s death is the first documented instance of rebels intentionally killing a foreign media worker. It came, however, against a backdrop of growing hostility in northern Syria toward journalists and media workers.
At least 55 news workers, the vast majority of them Syrian, have been killed in what the Committee to Protect Journalists calls the world’s most dangerous conflict for journalists.
At least another 30 foreign and Syrian journalists and aid workers have gone missing while traveling in rebel-held areas. About 20 of those are foreigners – American, British, French, Spanish and Swedish – and most are thought to be held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or other rebel factions, though it’s difficult to know for certain because, with rare exceptions, the disappearances are kept secret for fear that publicity will make it harder to win the hostages’ release.
“The news blackouts help the effort to get a single person released but in many cases fail to warn other journalists, particularly freelancers, of the danger,” said a former European intelligence official who consults on security issues in Syria. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the clandestine nature of his work.
The official noted that the lack of publicity makes the size of the problem difficult to gauge. “Even as I started working on behalf of a client, I would find new people that were missing that I didn’t realize were gone,” he said. The problem is made worse, he said, because neither the rebels nor the Syrian government acknowledges holding people, a situation the former official said was almost unprecedented.
“For the first time, it feels like none of these groups or the regime will even admit to holding people, let alone make a demand for their release. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said.
Two missing Americans offer examples of the problem. Austin Tice, a McClatchy contributor, vanished 16 months ago south of Damascus and is thought to be in government hands. But the government hasn’t acknowledged that he’s being held. James Foley, a freelancer who disappeared in northern Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, is thought to have been taken by a rebel faction, but there’s been no claim from any group that he’s being held.
The most recent kidnappings of Western journalists to be announced were those of two Swedish newspaper reporters taken by unknown factions at the end of November. France announced in early October that two French journalists were missing, but they’d disappeared in June, according to that country’s Foreign Ministry.
“The number of journalists currently missing in Syria is nothing short of shocking,” Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a recent statement.
Adding to the difficulty of aiding missing journalists is the inability of investigators in the cases to gain access to the area or even reach out to kidnappers.
“I’m stuck like (journalists) at this point: I have to work from Skype from (a foreign country) because me or my team would be kidnapped as well,” the former intelligence official said.
“It’s nearly impossible to determine what happened to someone or negotiate for their life from a Skype call,” he said, referring to the Internet communications service. “And I can’t rely on international news sources for much real information from the ground, because none of you go inside, either.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.