NEW YORK – CBS News reporter Clarissa Ward traveled undercover to Syria to interview two Westerners fighting against the United States for stories airing this week, a risk the network took despite the backdrop of kidnappings and beheadings by Islamic state fighters.
Ward’s stories, about a former Dutch Army fighter and an American who are fighting for rebel groups in Syria, are scheduled to air Tuesday and Wednesday on the “CBS Evening News.”
Ward said she spent only hours in Syria last week for the stories, which she began working on in June upon making online contact with a Dutch jihadist known as Yilmaz. She has been to Syria for reporting 11 times since the civil war began there.
But this is the first time she has gone since Islamic state rebels, operating in Syria and Iraq, beheaded two American journalists and two British aid workers and distributed gruesome videos of the killings to the world.
“I felt comfortable and secure,” Ward said. “While any trip into Syria or Iraq or Gaza entails a certain amount of risk, I did not feel this trip was riskier than many others that journalists have made.”
CBS would not give details of her security arrangements. Ward said she had several discussions with Yilmaz online and talked in person with people who said they knew him. It was Yilmaz who made Ward aware of Ibn Zubair, a Midwesterner in Syria fighting for the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. While both men oppose the United States, they are not members of the Islamic state; Ward said she would not have traveled into Syria to meet with members of that group.
Among the executives approving her trip was Steve Capus, the “CBS Evening News” executive producer who was president of NBC News when that network’s correspondent, Richard Engel, was kidnapped in Syria in 2012.
Capus said it was “a series of gut-check decisions.
“It would not have been right to shut this down completely simply because of (the beheadings),” he said. “If anything, it slowed us down for all the right reasons.”
Executives at competing broadcasts on ABC and NBC News did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether their news divisions would have taken the same chance for the story.
Ward said it will be shocking for many Americans to hear Zubair, who has taken a new name in Syria and would not reveal his American identity to protect family members who remain in the country. He grew up playing sports in high school and enjoying Hollywood movies, yet now speaks of how he considers Osama bin Laden a great man, she said.
“I do think our audience wants to know who we are fighting against … and what their motivations are,” Capus said. “How could they? How could they carry out such atrocities?”
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