Haid Haid

Did Jabhat al-Nusra assassinate Syrian activist Khaled al-Issa?

The Al-Qaeda affiliate has become the main suspect behind the killing in Aleppo

Syrian activist Khaled al-Issa. (Facebook)

Prominent Syrian media activist Hadi al-Abdullah and photographer Khaled al-Issa were recently the target of an explosive device planted at their residence in Aleppo’s Shaar neighborhood. The attack occurred just two days after the activists were injured by a barrel bomb while documenting Syrian regime and Russian attacks on Aleppo. Issa died of his wounds Friday night while Abdullah remains in critical but stable condition. The activist’s death prompted an outpouring of condolences as well as speculation about who perpetrated the assassination. There is a general feeling among Syrian activists that Jabhat al-Nusra is the prime suspect. The activists’ residence was located in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, which is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. Abdullah and the now deceased Issa are also affiliated with Radio Fresh, an alternative local radio based in Kafr Nabl in Idlib province, which has been attacked on more than one occasion by Jabhat al-Nusra.


Khaled al-Issa, 25 years old, was born and raised in Kafr Nabl, a small town in the northwestern province of Idlib. He was part of a local group of activists who made the small town famous for its banners and slogans against the Syrian regime, which were widely circulated on social media. Issa later started working as a photojournalist and accompanied the prominent activist Hadi al-Abdullah in covering Syria's civil war and broadcasting images of the aftermath of air strikes on civilian areas. “He grew up as a photojournalist covering the most dangerous areas, challenging a despotic regime, extremist thugs, challenging death. Today, death caught up with him. Today Khaled is a martyr,” Salma Kahale, a Syrian activist, wrote in tribute to Issa.


Although Issa died in the attack, some activists believe that the main target of the assassination attempt was Abdullah. “The explosive device was clearly planted in front of Hadi’s house in order to eliminate him after his increased criticism of Nusra. Khaled was injured because he was sharing accommodation with Hadi in Shaar,” said a media activist in Aleppo, who spoke under condition of anonymity to preserve his safety. Other activists believe that Abdullah and Issa were both targeted because of their reporting. “Journalists reporting in the country face threats from the Syrian government and various factions, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra,” said Ahmed Saleh, a media activist from Aleppo. It is difficult at this point to know who exactly was the target of the attack. However, it is clear that their documenting of what was happening on the ground in Syria was likely a major motive behind the attack.


Some activists have blamed Jabhat al-Nusra for the targeted killing while others argue that the group has no hand in it. Nazir Riyadh, the head of the media department in Syria activist group Al-Modon, wrote that Issa was “documenting violations committed by Nusra against demonstrators in Kafr Nabl last March, despite the fact that he lived in an area which was controlled by Nusra.”


The refusal of the imam in Kafr Nabl, who is imposed on the village by Nusra, to perform a funeral prayer for Khaled caused people to implicitly link the assassination to the militant group. “The sheikh of Kafr Nabl’s mosque reused to perform funeral prayers for the martyr Khaled al-Issa today. Do you know now who killed Khaled?” wrote Assaad al-Achi, a Syrian activist based in Gaziantep.


Hussien Jalabi, the director of the Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms, told the All For Syria website that “it is known that the house that the media activists were living in is located in an area controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s also known that Jabhat al-Nusra, like the rest of the armed groups, did not stop harassing media activists in their areas. We documented many violations committed by Nusra against media centers, which al-Issa and al-Abdullah are working with.”


However, some people argue that Abdullah has good connections with Nusra and therefore the group had no interest in eliminating him. “Hadi was one of only four Syrian journalists who were permitted to interview [Abu Mohammed] al-Jolani, the leader of Nusra, this year. Hadi’s connections with Nusra were also behind the release of Raed Fares, a prominent activist from Kafr Nabl, after he was arrested at the Radio Fresh station in January due to his liberal positions,” said a media activist in ldlib who spoke under condition of anonymity.  


It is worth mentioning that despite Hadi’s reportedly good relations with the militant group, he did publically criticize Nusra and other armed groups in February 2016 for dividing the opposition, saying “Neither Jabhat al-Nusra accepts distancing itself from Al-Qadea for the greater good of the Syrian people and their revolution, nor do the rest of armed groups agree to unite due to their egos … There is no solution until armed groups overcome their love for power.” Nusra has been accused in several other assassinations and if a decision was made to eliminate Hadi, it may not have been made by the central command of the group.


It is important that those who care about Syria channel the enormous sadness and anger caused by the assassination of Issa into an effort to pressure for an investigation of the incident in order to identify the perpetrators.  At this point, even if much of the evidence against Jabhat al-Nusra in the targeted killing of Issa is circumstantial, there are enough reasons to at least consider them the prime suspect and attempt to further verify their involvement in the attack.


Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution and Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22 

Syrian activist Khaled al-Issa. (Facebook)

He grew up as a photojournalist covering the most dangerous areas, challenging a despotic regime, extremist thugs, challenging death. Today, death caught up with him.