It was on Friday, November 23, 2018, at noon when people heard the gunshots during their prayers in Kafr Nabl in Reef Idlib in northwestern Syria. Shortly after a twenty-year-old youth appeared at the door of the grand mosque and shouted: “They killed Raed, they killed Raed and Hammoud.”
Raed was Syrian journalist and activist Raed Fares (46) and Hammoud was his colleague Hammoud Junayd (29). Ali al-Dandoush, a young man in his twenties who was with them in the car, miraculously survived.
Known as the “barrel photographer,” for rushing to the places where the Syrian regime’s fighter jets drop their barrel bombs to take close-ups of places and victims, Junayd was instantly killed. Fares was rushed to a nearby hospital before he breathed his last. He got hit by several bullets. The doctors tried to save his life. In vain.
Two hours after the shooting, the atmosphere in Kafr Nabl had changed. Grief loomed large over the community opposing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. With the burial of the victims, the pages of two of the Syrian revolution’s most influential figures were turned.
While the assassination took only seconds, its planning took much longer. Raed had sensed the danger a week before he got killed. He had told his eldest son Mahmoud (24) about the threats he received, and about the identity of the entity threatening his life.
Known as “the engineer” of Kafr Nabl’s famous and often funny banners, which consisted of drawings and messages in multiple languages, Fares was the founder of Radio Fresh, as well as the manager of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, a group of civil society organizations offering medical services, women empowerment and media training.
“Since our revolution does not rely on the international community, we decided to work on our own to set ourselves free from the continuous murdering committed by Assad against us,” Fares told a Norwegian crowd when visiting Oslo In May 2017. “So, we formed a civil society organization and worked on issues like child education and organizations.”
On November 23, 2018, the killers managed to silence his voice, which rose early to face the increasingly radical regime in his Idlib community and the whole of Syria. He was fully aware of the risks he took, yet did not stop. He brought change to the region and was full of energy to push further the demand for change and an end to Assad’s authority.
According to people close to him, Fares represented the hopes of a new generation of youth that witnessed the waves of change following the start of the Arab Spring in March 2011.
Following the assassination, people in Kafr Nabl continued to demonstrate against Assad, Russia and Iran and condemned the international community’s inaction. This happened without Fares and his colleague, as they were buried underground.
However, they have left a legacy, and an archive of projects and ideas, to promote public freedom, democracy and gender equality, while protecting civilians and the displaced.
In his “resistance” town Kafr Nabl, which for years had faced the many conflicting parties, Fares directed his activities towards education and development. And he was always determined to continue broadcasting, despite the ever growing presence of the Al-Nusra Front.
In January 2017 the latter changed its name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in order to “reinforce its position in the Syrian war and achieve other goals, in the context of its relations with Al-Qaeda.” In May 2018, the United States designated HTS a terrorist organization.
It has been two years since the assassination, since Raed and Hammoud’s blood was shed, without an investigation, a trial, or even just the gathering of evidence to determine the identity of the murderers, who continue to live their lives among their children and relatives, while Raed’s grieving family fled to France, and his fatherless children have no hopes that justice will be served one day.
Although the identities of the murderers were never revealed and no one was ever held accountable, testimonies and evidence gathered by human rights organizations indicates that HTS is behind the assassination. The latter denies.
In this investigation we will reveal the most prominent legal paths that should be taken to one day hold the perpetrators responsible, as well as the basic conditions that should be met for this process to be done properly, according to the experts and human rights activists who have followed the case closely.
Justice for Raed will offer support, and act as a shield, for all other journalists and activists who still work in Idlib and other dangerous areas in Syria, which ranked second in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2020 Global Impunity index, which sheds a light on the countries where journalists are killed while their killers remain free.
In the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Syria ranked 174 out of 180 countries. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the murder of 707 journalists since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, including six women and nine foreign journalists, while 52 were killed under torture. In addition, 1563 journalists suffered injuries of varying degrees at the hands of the conflicting parties.
A total of 551 journalists, including one woman and five foreigners, were killed by regime forces, while Russian air raids claimed the lives of 22. During the same period, 64 journalists were killed by ISIS, four by the Kurdish YPD/ PKK and 33 journalists by armed groups opposing the regime. Attacks by the international coalition against ISIS resulted in the killing of one journalist, while 32 others were killed by unknown gunfire.
The country witnessed at least 1,169 cases of arrest and kidnapping of journalists. Some 422, including three women and 17 foreign journalists are still detained or have disappeared. The Syrian regime still detains 353 journalists.
Threats and Attempted Assassinations
As soon as the Al-Nusra Front consolidated its grip on Kafr Nabl and the rest of Idlib, which it had seized from Syrian regime forces in late 2012, activists and journalists started suffering from threats, harassment and restrictions on press freedom. On December 30, 2014, Nusra militants entered the Radio Fresh headquarters, as others and a big bus cordoned off the area.
Kafr Nabl in the wake of 2011
The Syrian Opposition Forces took control of the city from the Syrian Regime in 2012
The Islamic State seized control of the city in 2013
Al-Nusra Front take back control of the city in 2014
The Free Syrian Army and the Tahrir al-Sham militant group have shared control of the city since 2015
Ali al-Dandoush (23), the witness who survived the assassination, was working at the radio at the time. He was terrified and could not believe what was happening.
“One Nusra fighter, a minor, entered the headquarters with a copy of a newspaper that had published a fictional picture of the Prophet Muhammad, thinking that it was ours,” Dandoush said. “He talked with the other fighters about whether they would kill us all in the headquarters or not. Only after we proved that we had nothing to do with the newspaper that published the cartoons, they left.”
It did not end there. They raided the station again on January 17, 2015. This time the attack was more brutal. There were many workers and officials present. It ended with the arrest of Fares
“It was around 5.30 AM,” said Dandoush. “We were in the office and all of a sudden Al Nusra fighters raided the headquarters and locked Raed, me and another person in a room. We heard them smashing the broadcasting equipment before they opened the door and ordered us to leave except for Raed. They arrested him and released him only after some time.”
There was further trouble on December 10, 2016, when they arrested Fares in the Ma’arrat al-Numan district in southern Idlib. He remained detained for 48 hours, during which he was tortured for six hours in an attempt to force him to unlock his mobile phone. He refused. Only when his relatives found out about his detention and exerted pressure, he was released, his oldest son Mahmoud told us.
The reasons for Fares’ detention included a Facebook post addressing “The Nation of Iqraa,” in which he criticized customs and traditions, and called for adopting the basic principles of science and humanity, which Al-Nusra deemed contrary to Sharia law. This can be read in the agreement for Fares’ release, which was signed by journalist Hadi Al-Abdullah, a friend of Fares, and Abu Khalil, Al Nusra’s Emir in Kafr Nabl.
The pledge between the Al-Nusra Front and the activist Hadi Al-Abdullah to release Fares.
“We knew the raid and arrest took place because the radio aired songs and music, and allowed the voices of women broadcasters,” said Mahmoud. “Demonstrations were staged in the city calling for my father’s release, which happened after Hadi al-Abdullah pledged not to broadcast music ever again.”
Before the “Tahrir al-Sham” took control of Kafr Nabl, ISIS controlled it for a while in 2014, during which ISIS tried to assassinate Raed. One night when he was returning home at midnight, one of the ISIS elements shot him, and he was injured with three bullets in his shoulder and chest and was transferred to the United States to receive his medical treatment.
December 28, 2013 ISIS raided Radio Fresh
January 29, 2014 An assassination attempt committed against Raed Fares by ISIS-affiliated elements
December 30, 2014 Al-Nusra Front arrests Radio Director Raed al-Fares and activist Hamoud Junaid
January 17, 2015 Al-Nusra Front raided Radio Fresh headquarters
January 10, 2016 Al-Nusra Front raided again Radio Fresh and arrests al-Fares and activist Hadi Al-Abdullah
23 November 2018 The assassination of al-Fares and Hamoud Junayd in Kafr Nabl
Fighting on Two Fronts!
Fares tried to cope with the increasing level of restrictions. When the broadcasting of songs was banned he replaced the news bulletin’s music with the chirping of birds. The voices of the women broadcasters were altered with sound mixing techniques.
According to the France-based lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem, a friend of Fares since childhood, the threats came directly from Al-Nusra because of the radio broadcasting songs and the secular orientation Fares had adopted.
Before HTS took full control of Kafr Nabl, ISIS controlled it for a while in 2014 and tried to assassinate Fares. One night, Fares returned home around midnight when an ISIS militant shot him. He was injured with three bullets in his shoulder and chest and was transferred to the United States for medical treatment.
Fares had managed to attract the youth of Kafr Nabl and other cities to participate in the launch of the Radio Fresh. However, with the accelerating pace of events in Syria, the continuous public demonstrations calling for change, and the emergence of Islamic factions, Fares found himself fighting on two fronts.
He was confined between the military raids of Assad’s forces, which he first revolted against, and the growing restrictions imposed by hardline Islamic militant groups, such as ISIS and Al-Nusra/ HTS: the face of al-Qaeda in Syria.
From the start, Fares challenged Bashar al-Assad’s regime through his paintings and his overall ability to influence others. He mocked the international community’s inaction to put an end to the massacres, which he made his first priority in facing the authoritarian regime of Assad and his hardliners.
Fares strengthened his efforts by increasingly taking them onto the streets and squares of his mountain city, while voicing his opinion that the Syrians were living between two faces of terrorism. One of his most famous signs read: “In fact, the Syrians are the victims of two forms of terrorism: the terror of Assad and the terror of ISIS and other extremists.”
Among the other famous signs he wrote in red and held up high, one read: “There are two opposing parties: the people trying to survive and the regime trying to crush them.”
Fares’ peaceful movement was associated with Radio Fresh and this was one of the reasons he received death threats. He had adopted a liberal ideology different from the extremists’ prevailing religious views.
Bassam al-Ahmad, Director of the organization Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), confirmed that Fares was not like other media professionals, who would ‘buy’ the accounts given by the dominant parties and even take their sides.
“He had a different personality and different opinions,” said al-Ahmad. “And he had people and governments supporting his cause, so he was not an easy figure to deal with in the region.”
Fares introduced a different approach allowing for opinions challenging the official account in areas under control of the Salvation Government, which was formed on November 2, 2017, in areas under HTS’ control in Idlib and Reef Halab.
One week later, HTS handed over all service facilities, which confirms the close link between the two organizations. The Salvation Government, however, denies it is the HTS’ civilian branch.
What Happened on the Black Day?
Ali al-Dandoush started working at Radio Fresh in 2014 and quickly developed a good relationship with Fares and the rest of the crew, so much so that they were practically living in the radio headquarters.
“A day before the assassination, Raed was spending the evening with his cousins and friends before going home,” said Dandoush. “At the time, Raed used to go home for a few hours to spend time with his family and then head to the radio headquarters to spend the night there. That night, around 1 AM, he asked me to give him a ride home on my motorcycle, which I did. Three hours later, he called asking me to give him a ride to the office.”
At dawn, they locked the doors and decided to sleep for a few hours. The next day, November 23, they woke up at noon when Hammoud Junaid joined them. They decided to retreat to the Kafr Nabl mountains to dine with friends.
The three of them first drove towards the house of Fares’ cousin, who was to join them on the trip. Around that time, most people were at the Friday prayer, so there was barely any traffic.
“Raed was driving and Hammoud was sitting next to him, while I was in the back seat,” said Dandoush. “We passed the grand mosque on a road leading to Raed’s cousin’s house. A gray Hyundai Starex passed us. Upon reaching the cousin’s house, the car suddenly stopped beside us, to our left. Windows opened and a 5.5 Rifle appeared. The shooters were not masked, yet I could not see their faces.”
“I lowered my head and hid, as we were under fire for a few seconds,” he continued. “When the shooting finally stopped, the car left. I raised my head to find Raed lying on his seat, while Hammoud was not in his place. I thought he had managed to escape, but later found out that he opened the door and tried to escape, but was still shot. Raed took two bullets in his thighs, one in his waist, and another in his underarm, close to his heart. As for me, a bullet penetrated my coat near my head.”
I raised my head to find Raed lying on his seat, while Hammoud was not in his place. I thought he had managed to escape, but later found out that he opened the door and tried to escape, but was still shot. Raed took two bullets in his thighs, one in his waist, and another in his underarm, close to his heart.
All three were taken to hospital. Following the “accident,” HTS members arrived at the scene and talked to Fares’ son. They told him they would start an investigation, yet left without doing anything.
The nearest HTS checkpoint was only a kilometer away from the scene of the assassination. There were other HTS checkpoints situated on Kafr Nabl’s northern and western exits. There were none on the eastern and southern exits, which suggests that the perpetrators took the eastern exit towards downtown.
Published on November 28, 2018, an initial report on the assassination by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), states that “the gunmen retreated immediately after the operation, which was planned to coincide with the Friday prayers, knowing that most residents would be at the mosques, which facilitated the assassins’ movements, and helped them pull off their terrorist act without being identified or recognized by people.”
After the assassination, Radio Fresh’s future was in jeopardy, as financial support was stopped for six months. Broadcasting resumed only later, when the team had changed headquarters and moved to another city.
“Work went on after Raed’s murder, but organizations stopped funding us for six months,” said Mahmoud Raslan, Radio Fresh’s current CEO. “However, despite the difficulties we faced due to losing Raed, we managed to overcome this adversity and move on, fully believing in what Raed used to say: ‘“Radio Fresh is an idea, and ideas never die.’”
Both Dandoush and Fares’ son Mahmoud agreed that the three months preceding the assassination were the “most dangerous,” as during these months Raed sensed a real threat to his life. He had received leaks from HTS people, indicating they wanted him killed. He told Mahmoud about these threats and how serious they were, and emphasized that if ever something were to happen to him, it would be HTS’ doing.
In September 2018, large weekly demonstrations resumed in Kafr Nabl, which were coordinated by a number of townspeople led by Raed. During one of the demonstrations, HTS militants drove through the crowd with two military vehicles and raised black HTS flags, which led to altercations between both sides and the arrest of the lawyer Yasser al-Saleem.
Raed started to sense a real danger and stopped spending nights at home or even at the radio headquarters. Instead, he stayed at a friend’s house in a nearby village.
Evidence the Assassination Was Planned
Our investigation team met with four witnesses, including the only survivor and Fares’ son Mahmoud. The team also examined several human rights reports suspecting HTS’ direct involvement in the assassination.
Mahmoud pointed out a number of incidents that form the foundation for his narrative that HTS is responsible for his father’s death.
“A week before my father was assassinated, I was working at the radio when my father called me and told me to go to the headquarters,” he said. “He told me that he had received direct threats for a week, and that it was worse than ever. He asked me to be careful because the threats were strong, serious and dangerous. He said that if something happened to him, no one but HTS would be responsible.”
He furthermore told Mahmoud that he had confided in two other friends who still reside in Kafr Nabl to this very day. “HTS wants my head,” he told them. “If something bad happens to me, don’t say: ‘he was killed by anonymous people.’ And don’t say: ‘we’re not sure who killed him.’ I don’t have any other enemies within or outside Syria.”
One of Mahmoud’s relatives told him that, the morning after the assassination, an acquaintance had met with an HTS leader in Kafr Nabl and heard him say that Junaid deserved to die because he was with Fares.
Other circumstances backing the son’s theory includes the fact the area was under full control of HTS, while no images were ever found on any of the surveillance cameras installed in the streets, which indicates the assassins knew the roads of Kafr Nabl well, including the location of the cameras.
“The decision to assassinate my father was not taken by just any individual in the organization,” said Mahmoud. “Rather it requires the approval of HTS commander Abu Mohamed al-Joulani himself, as it needs to be planned meticulously.”
Ali al-Dandoush shares Mahmoud’s opinion. “The entire region is under HTS’ control, so wherever the car with the perpetrators went after the assassination, it had to pass the HTS military checkpoints,” he said. “I am sure they assassinated him.”
“What’s more, they never asked me what happened,” he continued. “They never took information about the car from me and never opened an investigation even though all evidence was available at that time.”
“While documenting the assassination, we noticed that whoever executed the assassination must have been comfortably in control of the area,” said Bassam al-Ahmad of Syrians for Truth and Justice, which issued a detailed report about the incident. “The perpetrator was not at all scared of being held accountable and he knew the city well. So, probably he was a resident, not a stranger or visitor, as he was well acquainted with its streets.”
Within days after the accident all clues pointed towards HTS, which issued a statement through its official agency “Ibaa,” stating there were “parties supporting the counter-revolutions trying to get them [HTS] involved in the assassination”.
The statement called “A Crime in a Region Aiming to Involve the Authority” claimed that the murder of Fares and Junaid coincided with “a systematic campaign led by networks with a suspicious purpose and source of funding, as they spread a huge amount of lies to undermine the stability of the liberated north and try to cause a rift between the Mujahideen and their supporters.”
To understand why there was never an official investigation, our team communicated with Abdullah Abdul-Salam, Minister of Justice in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), formed by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF).
“We have no control over the area where the assassination took place,” he said. “We cannot even enter that area because it would cause problems with the Salvation Government, with whom we have no contact.”
Our team also contacted the Salvation Government’s media office. At first, they were responsive, but as soon as they knew our report was about the assassination, they stopped responding to our messages.
Al-Ahmad believes the Salvation Government does not want to carry out an investigation or is under orders from the HTS military wing – which may have been be involved in the killing – not to open an investigation into the case. If there ever was an intention to start one, it would have happened by now.
Where Is The Case Now?
Searching for a possibility to prevent impunity for crimes against journalists in a fair trial or through the formation of a court similar to the one prosecuting war criminals, Fadl Abdel Ghani, director of the Syrian Human Rights Network (SHRN) said: “Achieving justice in the case of Fares through a judicial procedure is essential, although it may take a long time, up to ten years.”
Adding: “But there are other ways to achieve what we call ‘urgent accountability’ for the perpetrators. This is achieved through the societal rejection of those accused of the assassination, as well as those dealing with them. In other words: boycotting the Syrian military factions, their fighters and supporters.”
“Everyone has to boycott the organization, as a result of the criminal act it committed, economically and politically, and try to expose the crime,” he added, emphasizing the important role of the media in talking about the crime and revealing the circumstances in which it took place.
As for international justice, this path is available, yet requires a serious effort to gather evidence and present it to an international prosecution team. A number of extremist factions have been held accountable through universal jurisdiction. However, according to Abdel Ghani, “it is a long path which may result in holding one or two people accountable.”
Based on the analysis of all evidence, testimonies and information available, the SHRN believes HTS was behind the assassination.
Yara Badr heads the Media and Freedoms Unit (FMU) at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), which focuses on the litigation of crimes against journalists. According to her, as no independent investigation was conducted into Fares’ death, and no criminal responsibility was established, judicial steps can be taken.
The FMU mainly focuses on Syria, as well as other dangerous countries for journalists such as Mexico, Iraq and Colombia. It filed a lawsuit in the murder of American journalist Mary Colvin and French photographer Remy Oschlick at the Baba Amr Media Center in Homs in February 2012.
“In partnership with international organizations, including the UN, we work to improve legislation guaranteeing freedom of expression and push for the approval of an international badge for journalists,” said Badr.
“The killers did not leave behind any concrete evidence and the party controlling the region is still the same,” said lawyer Yasser Al-Salim, who was once imprisoned in the notorious Iqab prison in the west of Idlib, which is today used as a prison and a investigative branch by HTS.
“Who will investigate?” asked the man who left Syria in fear of his life. “None of the perpetrators can be prosecuted until the situation stabilizes and the organization’s control over the region ends.”
Bassam al-Ahmad agreed. “In these circumstances, it is impossible to bring the case to justice,” he said. “Even if there is a trial, it will be unfair or incomplete, because there is no independent, impartial judiciary part of HTS and the Salvation Government.
“But inquiry committees and a neutral international investigation should continue to collect information and talk to the victims’ families and witnesses,” he said. “To prepare for a future case.”