After the gas attack in Syria that reportedly killed more than 70 people early Tuesday morning, a Syrian doctor with a British accent was widely quoted and featured by U.S. news organizations, describing the horror of the attack and the injuries, and claiming a hospital treating the victims was bombed by the Syrian government the day after the attack.
But in none of the reports was it mentioned that the doctor, a British citizen named Shajul Islam, was charged in 2012 with kidnapping and torturing two journalists in Syria — one British and the other Dutch — and is reportedly thought by British intelligence to be an acquaintance of Jihadi John, the terrorist with the British accent who cut off the head of American journalist James Foley in Syria in 2014.
“Those bastards constantly threatened us with death.”
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British journalist John Cantlie told the British newspaper The Guardian in August of 2012 that Shajul Islam had kidnapped him and Dutch journalist Jeroen Oerlemans, and that they were beaten and tortured before being released by the Free Syria Army. Cantlie was shot in the arm while he was fleeing.
“Those bastards constantly threatened us with death,” he said. “Always cocking their weapons, getting us to stand as though we were being led out for execution, sharpening knives for a jihadist beheading, and generally playing with our minds.”
Shajul Islam was charged by a British court and held in prison pending a court date. But in 2013, the case was dropped because Cantlie had returned to Syria in the fall of 2012, had been re-captured by ISIS, and as such could not appear in court in Britain to testify. He has still not been freed and remains a captive in Syria.
Shajul Islam, meanwhile, was released in 2013 and quickly returned to northern Syria, to Idlib province, where his brother is believed by British intelligence to be fighting with ISIS. In July 2016 he surfaced as a war doctor in Syria with an interest in media production, appearing in a YouTube video in green scrubs, bearded and with a stethoscope around his neck, being interviewed by a bearded black man who identified himself as a reporter with an independent media organization. (Islam had studied medicine in England, but had lost his license to practice there.) He appeared again in another video in August of 2016 that begins with Middle Eastern music, and shows dramatic footage of him treating and transporting bombing victims, while narrating and often looking into the camera.
This week, following reports of a gas attack, he became a major source for the American media, describing the gas attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun, which is under the control of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, and pinning the blame on the blame on the Syrian government.
An April 5 report on NBC News prominently featured Shajul Islam’s face, voice and words with the headline, “For Syrian Doctor, Gas Attacks Are ‘Chilling Reality.'” The video appears to have been professionally edited by an outside organization, with background music, scenes of destruction, and a video clip of a father riding in a car with two small dead children — the same picture that was used by several other U.S. news organizations with stories on the gas attack. Then Shajul Islam’s face appears as he says, looking into the camera, “These gas attacks are continuing every day, and no one is doing anything to stop these attacks.”
Words appear on the screen, over a scene of destruction: “The Syrian government denies using chemical warfare, but Islam says there’s ‘no doubt’ nerve agents were used.”
Shajul Islam is then shown talking to the camera as he says a hospital that was treating victims of the gas attack was targeted in a second bombing on Wednesday.
The video montage also shows Shajul Islam in a hospital that he says is overwhelmed with victims from Tuesday’s gas attack, though he is wearing a black jacket, not scrubs, and does not appear to be treating patients himself.
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The two-minute-long video does not provide viewers with any information on Shajul Islam’s arrest and imprisonment in England for kidnapping and torturing journalists, or give any indication of Islam’s affiliation with any group or side in Syria, presenting him only as a doctor who is fighting to save the lives of innocents in Syria.
Shajul Islam was also featured on CNN and other cable networks, where he is described only as a “medical doctor,” and in reports on the websites of many other news organizations following the gas attack.
On Thursday, the Turkish government, which is allied with many of the rebels and jihadists fighting in Syria to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the result of one autopsy seemed to indicate that the gas used in the attack was the nerve agent sarin. Turkish clinics near the Syrian border had treated several victims of the attack, including three who had died.
On Thursday evening, in response to the gas attack, the United States launched 59 missiles at an airbase in Syria. The Syrian government’s news agency, Sana, reported that nine civilians in two nearby villages, including four children, were killed in the airstrikes, and that there was widespread damage to many homes.