- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) - An American journalist, living in northwestern Syria for nearly a decade, has been released, six months after he was captured by an al-Qaida-linked militant group, Syrian opposition media reported.

Bilal Abdul Kareem, a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., has been living in the rebel-held Syrian northwest since 2012, reporting on the Syrian government military campaigns against areas in opposition hands.

He had been detained last August, following a report he did about torture in the prisons of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaida-linked group that dominates the area. Local prominent figures had appealed to the militants to release him.

Abdul Kareem had reported and collaborated with Western news outlets, which had largely stayed out of the war-torn country after a spate of kidnapping. He later set up his own news network, On The Ground News.

The U.S. State Department designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham a terrorist groups in 2018 despite its move to publicly disassociate itself from al-Qaida the previous year. Rights groups and the U.N.-backed Commission of Inquiry have accused the group of detaining and torturing civilians and those who documented the group’s abuse of Syrian protesters, journalists and women.

Syrian opposition news outlets and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Abdul Kareem’s release on Wednesday. The Observatory said local mediation secured his release after a tribunal set up and run by the al-Qaida-linked group had sentenced him.

Abdul Kareem could not immediately be reached for comment. A statement by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham confirmed he was released because of mediation and said Abdul Kareem had been detained because of spreading false news, working with groups that undermine security and incite against authorities in the opposition-controlled areas.

Photographs of Abdul Kareem were shared online after his release, in which he appeared to have lost some weight. His wife gave birth to a daughter in January while he was held by the militant group. He was allowed to see his family twice during his six months in captivity.

Abdul Kareem has spent years covering the Middle East. Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, he converted to Islam, studied Arabic in Egypt and traveled to Libya to cover the conflict there. He arrived in Syria in 2012. He had interviewed Syrian rebels and jihadi groups, developing a reputation as a sympathizer.

He survived a number of airstrikes in Syria, prompting him to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government, demanding to know whether he was on a “kill list.” In January, a federal court dismissed his case on the grounds that he did not have standing to bring the claim.

Reprieve, the U.K.-based legal rights group that represented him in the U.S. case, also reported his release.

“Bilal’s release is welcome news, and his quest for justice in the U.S. courts continues,” said Jennifer Gibson, who leads Reprieve’s work on the case.

In 2019, he was wounded by shrapnel when he and a Sky News crew came under fire from a Syrian government tank shell, an incident that was caught on camera.

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