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 March 21, 2014  Add comments
Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian in Syria (© MEMRI)

Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian in Syria (© MEMRI)

A video of two LA gang members, ‘Wino’ and ‘Creeper’, wielding Kalashnikovs near a dilapidated structure in Syria, caused a surge of controversial interpretations often marred with anti-Armenian defamation in U.S. mainstream media in early March 2014. The video was disseminated by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

U.S. authorities eventually succeeded in identifying Wino as Nerses Kilajian and Creeper as Sarou Madarian, both of whom are Syrian nationals of Armenian descent. It was also confirmed that Kilajian was deported from the United States to Syria in 2012, and Madarian in 2010, on the grounds of their criminal history. In the video they identified themselves as ‘Wino’ from the Westside Armenian Power gang, and ‘Creeper’ from the Sun Valley GW-13 gang.

On March 4, 2014, ABC News and Fox News, two U.S. mainstream media corporations, rushed to label Kilajian and Madarian as terrorists (ABC News) and mercenaries (Fox News) without providing any solid evidence. “Gang Terror Warning” was the headline of the CBS News’ TV report about the video.

In “LA Gang Members in Syria: Organized Crime, Terrorism ‘Converge’” of ABC News, the only statement in which the two individuals are called de facto terrorists is as follows: “We predicted this would happen — the [organized crime and terrorism] convergence.” This is a statement by Mike Downing, Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief for Counterterrorism, whom investigative journalists James Gordon Meek and Lee Ferran chose as the chief source of information for the said article. Instead of providing solid evidence about their being terrorists, Downing tried to fit the two LA gang members into a pre-existing simple formula: the convergence of organized crime and terrorism.

Journalists Meek and Ferran of ABC News did not question the counterterrorism official’s sweeping generalization, which was based on an unfinished investigation. Moreover, they treated this assumption as an established fact and featured it in the title of their article as such.

Like the ABC News journalists, Joshua Rhett Miller of Fox News also preferred to cover only one side of the story, choosing Rafael Green, researcher at MEMRI, as the chief source for his story, “Los Angeles gangbangers surface in Syria to join Assad forces in fighting.” Without any hard evidence to back the likelihood, Miller quotes Green as, effectively, labeling the two subjects in the video mercenaries fighting for Bashar al-Assad: “The men are likely being paid well for their services.”

In “Video Shows Alleged LA Gangsters in Syria” (March 4, 2014), KPFA reported that the translation of the video isn’t accurate. “In one scene, Creeper says he wants to give a shout-out to his homies, MEMRI TV interpreted that as ‘Inshallah,’ God-willing in Arabic, a phrase often associated with Muslims fighting for Jihad. MEMRI is run by Yigal Carmon. Its critics say it aims to demonize and discredit the Arab and Muslim world through the production and dissemination of inaccurate translations.” MEMRI is a pro-Israeli organization monitoring the media in the Middle East.

The reader is left to guess that Kilajian and Madarian automatically become terrorists and mercenaries by sole virtue of fighting alongside forces loyal to the Syrian government.

It appears that none of the ABC News or Fox News journalists did their homework to research the possibility of alternative motives behind Kilajian and Madarian’s decision to fight alongside the government forces. In contrast, Alice Speri of Vice News provided a glimpse to the other side of the story in “LA Gang ‘Homies’ Claim to Be Fighting in Syria” (March 4, 2014). An acquaintance of Wino’s, who asked not to be named, said that “Kilajyan was born in Syria and has been back there for at least two or three years.” He added that Kilajyan is in Syria to protect his fellow Armenians there.

The video was also featured in a KCAL 9 News (CBS) broadcast on March 4, 2014. “LA gang members who have gone overseas to fight in Syria,” says the anchor as an introduction to a video prepared by KCAL’s Kara Finnstrom. Ironically, in that video, Charlie Beck, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, clearly announces that Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian were deported to Syria. This drastic difference of the circumstances tells a different story, offering a different set of possible motives for their involvement in the conflict, such as self-defense. The fact of their deportation considerably minimizes any threat that the two gang members might pose for the U.S. But the possible conclusions to be drawn from the police chief’s clue were utterly ignored in the predisposed report.

Following his announcement about their deportation, however, Beck himself makes a statement that defies logic: “I believe, based on that same video, that they’ve joined the foreign fighters in Syria.” What does ‘foreign fighters’ mean with regard to foreign nationals, particularly Syrian nationals? Foreign to whom?

CBS correspondent Kara Finnstrom picked to get the opinion of a noticeably biased Middle East expert Joshua Lockman, who was quoted as speaking only about the atrocities committed by the current regime in Syria. However, he mentioned neither any violence committed by the rebels nor the fact that Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups fight alongside them. Instead, Lockman indirectly labeled Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian terrorists in a logically faulty statement: “It’s unclear at this point what their ideology or the agenda is. But what is clear is that this could represent counter-terrorism concern.” Mere self-defense is a simple example of an ‘agenda’ that might have motivated the two to be involved. After all, there are reports that the Turkish government offers anti-governmental mercenaries $5,000 for every Armenian killed in Syria. Ironically, most of the Syrian Armenians are Armenian Genocide survivors’ descendants, who sought refuge in Syria during and following the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which was perpetrated by the Turkish leaders of that time.

The bias of the U.S. mainstream media corporations becomes obvious when their coverage of the gang members’ involvement in the Syrian conflict is juxtaposed with their treatment of people on the opposite side of the frontline, the rebels. Eric Haroun, a former U.S. serviceman, was arrested in March, 2013, for his links to Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda-linked group, and sentenced to life in prison. He was released on a three-year probation six months later under a secret plea deal. Even though the allegations of using a weapon of mass destruction and his link to the terrorist group had been proved as a result of months-long intensive interrogation and investigation, Fox News anchor, nevertheless, dared to question the FBI’s sensibility of considering him a terrorist: “This is ridiculous! He’s not a terrorist!” And the headline at the bottom of the screen read: “The American Rebel Fighter: Army Vet Accused of Fighting alongside Al Qaeda”.

In their report, no FBI officials were interviewed; only people sympathetic to Eric Harroun were given air time. This is in stark contrast with the other U.S. mainstream media outlet’s coverage of Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian fighting for the Syrian government; their headline lifted a mere supposition to the level of a fact: “Gang Terror Warning.” The interviewees included a police chief, an FBI official and a biased Middle East expert. Although most of their statements were based on mere conjectures, almost all the individuals interviewed expressed a counter-terrorism concern.

Matthew VanDyke, another filibuster who, too, has fought against the Syrian government, has also enjoyed largely positive coverage in the U.S. mainstream media. But VanDyke has had better luck than Harroun – he hasn’t been arrested. Unlike Harroun, VanDyke’s  involvement in the Syrian conflict appears to be in line with the U.S. policy – support the Free Syrian Army and dissociate yourself from the terrorist groups fighting alongside it.

At a Q&A session after the screening of his “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” in Los Angeles, CA, on September 28, 2013, when asked what his feelings were regarding the al-Qaeda forces infiltrating the Syrian Army, Matthew VanDyke responded: “As long as they shoot in the right direction, [at] Assad’s forces, I don’t care at this point” (See Eyewitness Syria – Matthew VanDyke).

No major media corporation is known to have expressed ‘counter-terrorist concern’ on the East Coast with regard to VanDyke, even though he has not only been fighting alongside mercenaries, terrorists and jihadists who have infiltrated en massé the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, but also encouraging their involvement. Unlike the two deported gang members, VanDyke does have uninhibited access to the U.S.

LA Times stood out with a rather balanced coverage of the story a day later in “Two men in video say they’re from L.A. and ‘gangbanging’ in Syria” by Raja Abdulrahim and Richard Winton. Unfortunately, they prominently featured the prejudiced CBS News story, preceding the article. The Burbank Leader republished both the balanced LA Times article and the one-sided CBS video.

The torrent of new and more reliable information about the two Syrian citizens and their circumstances, eventually forced CBS to revisit the story a week later and revise it considerably, smoothing the jagged edges of prejudice, stereotyping and generalizations.

“But beyond the novelty of “L.A. gangbangers in Syria,” the story highlights the nuances of a bloody ethno-sectarian civil war now entering its fourth year, and the ambiguous fate of Christian Armenians and other Syrian minorities caught between a regime which claims to protect them, and a factitious array of rebel groups which includes many Islamic militants, among them a powerful group linked to al Qaeda,” writes Alexander Trowbridge in “L.A. Gang Members in Syria: Why they fight for Assad,” a well-balanced story published by CBS on March 11, 2014. He later adds: “Armenian Christians in Syria, just like the rest of the nation’s small Christian minority, will have felt the threat of encroaching radicalized Sunni Muslim rebels, and their fears are not unwarranted.”

The increase of the presence of the al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian civil war, however, has failed to shift the rhetoric of the U.S. government continuously threatening the Syrian government with use of force.

What started as peaceful protests of the Syrian people demanding regime change for better democracy, eventually evolved into a jihadist movement with the influx of foreign mercenaries and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists who commit sectarian violence against Syria’s Shia Muslims and Christian minorities, including Armenians. Mother Agnes-Mariam, Mother Superior of the St. James the Mutilated, Qara, Syria, nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring peace to Syria, described the ongoing Syrian conflict as a proxy war, in a presentation in Glendale, CA, on November 10, 2013.

An Armenian Church after bombing (© Vatican Insider)

An Armenian Church after bombing (© Vatican Insider)

Since the eruption of the conflict, tens of thousands of Syrian-Armenians have fled their homes; a few dozens were killed; families have been forced to convert to Islam (also see At least one Armenian man was reportedly killed by the members of al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in an Aleppo prison, for rejecting to be converted to Islam. Others have chosen to take up arms for self-defence. Kilajian and Madarian are among the latter who have had to ally with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose secular government has always protected Christian minorities.

Were the ABC News and Fox News in a hurry to be among the first to break the news or were they simply eager to present Armenians as terrorists and mercenaries? The latter appears to be closer to the truth. The answer is in the otherwise out-of-place last sentence of the penultimate paragraph of the ABC News article: “Armenia and Iran enjoy close diplomatic ties, over U.S. objections.” What does the Republic of Armenia have to do with the two Syrian citizens’ involvement in the Syrian conflict? Now that Kilajian and Madarian’s citizenship has been established, this statement shows that ABC News won’t stop short of using unconfirmed premises to build desirable conclusions.

ABC News uses Armenia’s ties with Iran to further defame Armenians as tacit opponents of U.S. interests and incite hatred toward them. When Meek and Ferran of ABC News say ‘over U.S. objections,’ did they know that the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, Turkey along with Azerbaijan have been blockading Armenia since early 1990s over U.S. objections. Blockaded by two of its only four neighbors, land-locked Armenia has had no choice but to build ties with the remaining two countries, Georgia and Iran, for a chance of economic survival.

A group of activists representing a segment of the Armenian community in the U.S. have started an online petition to protest the defamatory reporting of ABC News and Fox News:

We, the undersigned, demand that KCAL 9 (CBS), ABC News, Fox News, as well as journalists Kara Finnstrom, James Gordon Meek, Lee Ferran and Joshua Rhett Miller to apologize in a written form to the Armenian-American community for defaming it, in “FBI Investigating Local Gang Members Fighting With Terrorist Group In Syria” (KCAL 9, CBS) “LA Gang Members in Syria: Organized Crime, Terrorism ‘Converge’” (ABC News) and “Los Angeles gangbangers surface in Syria to join Assad forces in fighting” (FOX News), by promoting and disseminating unconfirmed information which implicates, Nerses Kilajian and Sarou Madarian, former U.S. residents, Syrian nationals of Armenian descent, as terrorists (KCAL 9 (CBS) and ABC News) and mercenaries (Fox News). The journalists in question have manifested bias by failing to give the other side a fair chance to offer insight. We also urge LA Times and The Burbank Leader to remove “FBI Investigating Local Gang Members Fighting With Terrorist Group In Syria,” the biased CBS video from their article (For more details see ‘The Bias in Labelling People Terrorists’).

We also urge Mike Downing, Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief for Counterterrorism, to apologize to the Armenian community for rushing to label the two of its former members terrorists before that conjecture was substantiated with any evidence by the ongoing investigation. Such hasty and insensitive public statements based on mere speculations are capable of causing a surge of groundless panic in California and hatred towards its sizeable Armenian population. Thus, we demand that Mike Downing make a retraction, particularly, with regard to this statement:

“My organized crime and gang investigators found it online and on Facebook,” Downing said. “We’re kind of concerned about their recruitment and whatever other associates they have here… We predicted this would happen — the [organized crime and terrorism] convergence. What we’re worried about is the ones we don’t know about here or coming back to the U.S.” (“LA Gang Members in Syria: Organized Crime, Terrorism ‘Converge’”)

Please sign this petition.