When a U.S. citizen heard he was on his own country’s drone target list, he wasn’t sure he believed it. After five near-misses, he does.
By Matt Taibbi and cross-posted from Rolling Stone
Bilal Abdul Kareem is an expert in staying alive.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, he grew up just north of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, New York. He did what lots of kids in his neighborhood were doing in the late Seventies and Eighties: He spent his time rolling on the floor laughing to comics like Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor.
Later, after college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, he decided to try stand-up himself. Hecklers were a problem.
In upscale white clubs where he sometimes performed, audiences would clap politely if his jokes missed. Not so much in the Brooklyn clubs he worked. The mostly black audiences there let him have it when he was off.
Black folks always want to get involved in the act, you know what I’m saying?” he recalls, laughing. “Then you gotta respond with some ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes just to get them to sit down and shut up.”
Over a decade later, after some major life changes – he’d converted to Islam and found himself working as a TV reporter in the Middle East under his new name, Bilal Abdul Kareem – he again drew upon his stand-up experience to stay alive. Only he wasn’t worried about dying on stage this time. This time it was more serious.
In the waning days of the Battle of Aleppo, as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces closed in on the city, Kareem found himself in a room full of desperate Free Syrian Army rebels.
“I was understandably nervous,” he remembers. “I was the only American inside of this very small area that was besieged.”
The talk in the room turned ominous.
“One of the guys said, ‘You know what? I heard you get $20,000 for kidnapping an American.’”
Kareem pauses as he recalls the scene. He would have stood out in that crowd, as he does everywhere in the Middle East: a black New Yorker with a loud belly laugh.
“You’ve got these nanoseconds to come up with some kind of response,” he explains. “You don’t want them to see you sweat.”
All the eyes in the room turned toward Kareem. Would this American fetch $20,000?
“Nah, man,” he said to his audience. “That’s just for the white ones.”
The room roared with laughter.
“I was like, ‘Phew,’” Kareem says. Then, slipping out: “‘All right, guys, I gotta go.’”
Soon, he was forced to cheat death again.
According to Kareem, in the summer of 2016, things began to explode around him with suspicious frequency. In the space of a few months, he survived five different attacks.
In the first, the Syrian office of the controversial Islamist TV network he founded, On the Ground News, was hit by a missile.
In the second, a stretch of road where he was setting up a film location became a sizzling crater moments after he walked up the street to look for a better view.
It was in the third incident, he says, when he first saw an American drone overhead…