WASHINGTON (CN) – A bureau chief at Al Jazeera and an American freelancer claim in a federal complaint that they are being targeted for death because a flawed algorithm put their names on the U.S. government’s kill list.
Filing suit Thursday in Washington, Bilal Abdul Kareem and Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan say that the kill list, also known as the disposition matrix, is what the United States uses to target individuals for lethal drone strikes, among other weapons.
Kareem, a U.S. citizen, notes that he is one of the only Western journalists to have covered the Syrian civil war from rebel-held territory by forces opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Already the subject of intense criticism for his coverage of al-Qaida affiliated groups, Kareem has survived five airstrikes while reporting in Syria.
He says he believes he was the specific target of each of the strikes because of his inclusion on the U.S. kill list.
The freelancer’s co-plaintiff is citizen of Syria and Pakistan who learned from media reports that he is on the kill list.
Jeffrey Robinson, an attorney for the journalists with Washington-based Lewis Bach, noted in an interview that Zaidan saw a document, as reported by The Intercept in 2015, that shows the U.S. designated him as a member of al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently placed him on a terror watch list.
The document was part of a National Security Agency Power Point presentation leaked by Edward Snowden.
While Zaidan has not dodged drone strikes like Kareem, he fled his longtime post in Islamabad, Pakistan, for Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar.
Zaidan “can leave Qatar to continue his work as a journalist only at his peril,” according to the complaint.
Along with Kareem, Zaidan staunchly denies any involvement with terror groups or planning of terror attacks.
“Plaintiffs’ inclusion on the Kill List is the result of arbitrary and capricious agency action, accomplished without due process, and in violation of the United States Constitution and U.S. and international law,” the complaint states.
Named as defendants are President Donald Trump, CIA Director Michael Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Adviser Raymond McMaster, along with their respective agencies. None offered any comment on the lawsuit despite several inquiries.
Zaidan is credited as one of only two journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11. He says his decades-long career has led him to travel “extensively in countries and regions in which terrorists are active.”
Among his other interview subjects is Al Nusra front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.
Both Kareem and Zaidan regularly interview extremist leaders in terror hot spots in the course of their work, drawing the attention of an intelligence program called Skynet.
In the sci-fi classic “Terminator,” Skynet is the autonomous defense network that tries to eradicate the human race. The Intercept’s article showed that the National Security Agency has a program with the same name that uses cellphone tracking and metadata to identify potential terrorists.
“Skynet ‘applies complex combinations of geospatial, geotemporal, pattern-of-life, and travel analytics to bulk DNR data to identify patterns of suspect activity,” the lawsuit states, abbreviating dial number recognition.
“But, as is evident here,” the complaint continues, “Skynet may target persons solely because they frequently interact with so-called ‘militants,’ even if for innocent reasons like journalists interviewing sources.”
Asked if the men believe they are being targeted because of their work and not in spite of it, Robinson said: “I think that the public evidence to date supports the conclusion that at minimum, what they do and the nature of their work has led to them being on [the kill list].
Kate Higham, who heads the assassination project at human rights organization Reprieve, said a lack of human input in parsing the metadata compounds the program’s flaws.
“The majority of the basis of it is flawed intelligence,” she said in a phone interview, “and flawed analysis of that intelligence.”
Hingham suspects that a human analyst would be better equipped than an algorithm to explore alternative explanations for the mens’ travel, social-media content and interactions.
She noted that the program has other problems, including its propensity to designate people for assassination without identifying them.
As noted in the complaint, former NSA director Michael Hayden has publicly stated: “We kill people based on metadata.”
“Agencies need not identify a target by name,” the complaint states. “The PPG requires agencies conducting lethal action only to ’employ all reasonably available resources to ascertain the identity of the target so that action can be taken.”
PPG is short for Presidential Policy Guidance, an outline of procedures for direct action against terror targets.
Higham notes that signature strikes are one component of the U.S. assassination program. These are drone strikes that she said are “taken against targets who are perhaps not identified with their name or who they are, but simply based on pattern of life analysis,” which includes places they have traveled and people they have spoken to.
“It’s clear that you can see that there’s a real lack of human intelligence and analysis being done in some of these, or in large numbers of the targeting that is taking place,” Higham said.
Though Kareem has not seen documentary proof about his inclusion on the kill list, he says the five airstrikes are strong evidence.
“He hasn’t seen a specific report, but all the circumstances and conduct suggest that, which is why it’s alleged on information and belief,” attorney Robinson said.
The latest strike occurred in mid-August 2016. Bilal says he was traveling in a car with three colleagues to an area in Syria recently overtaken by rebels when a huge blast struck close to the car.
“One person sitting in the back of the car got shrapnel in his ear,” the complaint says. “Kareem and the others were all picking glass and steel out of their skin for some time after.”
Kareem, a native New Yorker and convert to Islam, currently works for On the Ground Network. He has reported for Skynews, the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, including the latter’s series “The Truth About Syria: Undercover Behind Rebel Lines.”
While covering anti-Assad rebels in Syria, “Kareem interacts with local ‘militants’ during interviews, frequently using a variety of recording equipment and radio devices — including cellphones, satellite phones, and handheld transceivers — when interacting with them,” the complaint states.
The complaint notes that there is no administrative process for the two journalists to challenge their inclusion on the kill list. Kareem and Zaidan have never professed any desire to harm America, Robinson said.
Not giving them an opportunity to challenge their alleged inclusion on the kill list “makes no sense,” he added.
“We think it’s really important that whatever one’s view on the use of drones and the way which the United States has chose to fight terrorism – we think it’s really important in upholding American values that we get it right,” Robinson said.
The two journalists seek a declaration that their inclusion on the kill list is unlawful, an injunction removing their names from the list and ceasing of all efforts to target them for death.