For the last few days, photos of Shamil Tsuneoka, a Japanese freelance journalist covering Syria, have been circulating on social networks. Some of the pictures show him posing with leaders of Syrian jihadist groups, or posing with a rifle in front of one of the black flags used by Al Qaeda. His close relationship with jihadists may allow him unprecedented access, but it has brought up questions about his status as a journalist.
Tsuneoka is not the only Japanese national to have travelled to war-torn Syria. In the first months of the conflict, there were reports of a Japanese truck driver engaging in “war tourism”, a Japanese journalist converted to Islam by the Free Syrian Army, and another journalist who died in Aleppo under unclear circumstances.
However, Tsuneoka is a different case because he is unusually close to the jihadists from the groups Junud al-Sham (“the Soldiers of the Levant”) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS), the latter of which has links to Al Qaeda. These fighters, who are normally very wary of journalists, seem to allow him complete access. Photos that he posted online have fed rumours that he has joined Al Qaeda’s ranks. Tsuneoka claims that he has not in any way joined up with the terrorist group, but that his proximity to jihadists has helped him cover conflicts all over the globe for the last twenty years.
“All the relationships I’ve built up over the years, especially in Chechnya, have been very useful to me in Syria”
My story with jihadist movements started over twenty years ago in Algeria. In 1992, I was a 21-year-old college student. I decided to backpack across northern Africa with a friend. Algeria was in the midst of a civil war between the Algerian government and the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF). Completely by chance, I became friends with an ISF member and was intrigued by their approach, which caused me to become more interested in Islam. In the end, I spent two weeks in Algiers with these people.In 1993, I became interested in Afghanistan, as I wanted to see for myself the creation of an Islamic state, which the Taliban was trying to do at the time. I went there and made many friends during my two-week trip.In 1998, I decided to return to Afghanistan, then largely under Taliban control, for a local Nagasaki television station. I met up with one of my Afghan friends in Jalalabad and realized he had joined the Taliban and become the vice-governor of Mazar-i-Sharif [the country’s fourth-largest city]. I also went into the northern regions and interviewed Commander Massoud. I spent three months in total between Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.In November 1999, I decided to travel to Chechnya. I went through Georgia with Chechen armed groups. I was not the only journalist in Grozny; there were many other Russian and western journalists on the ground, and they, too, were accepted by the rebels. At the time, I worked as a freelance journalist and sold video footage of the conflict to Japanese television networks.“I found myself alone among jihadists for three months”Once I left Chechnya, it was impossible to go back in through Georgia. I had to wait in a Chechen refugee camp run by jihadists. So, from June to October, I found myself among jihadists who were preparing an attack in Abkhazia, with the support of the Georgian authorities. The Georgians abandoned us and we stayed for over three months in a forest, cut off from the world and under attack from the Russian army. I was mostly with Chechen jihadists, but there were also others from Central Asia and Russia. We survived by eating leaves and hunting. Some of these soldiers became real friends, and I lost three of them in the Abkhazian forest. That’s when I converted to Islam.After this experience, I had the opportunity to cover Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and I returned to Afghanistan in 2009.All the networks I’ve built up over the years, especially in Chechnya, have been very useful to me in Syria. The soldiers I knew then are now too old to fight, but we have remained friends. One of them, now a refugee in Georgia, contacted me to tell me that his son was off fighting in Syria and that he would be willing to speak with me if I was interested. I immediately accepted.Last April, I crossed over the Turkish-Syrian border and met Abu al-Walid Muslim the Chechen, the commander of the jihadist group Junud al-Sham, thanks to the son of my friend, who is second in command. I stayed with this group for 18 days, but I was unable to film them for more than 20 minutes. Although many of the soldiers are Chechen or of Chechen origin, many are European citizens or political refugees in Europe, so they prefer to keep their identities a secret.I returned to Syria in October with the help of the Jund al-Sham group. I was then able to get in touch with Sheikh Omar the Syrian, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who accepted me and treated me as a friend. Communication was a bit difficult because I do not speak Arabic and he does not speak English, but we both made efforts to understand each other.Shamil Tsuneoka and Sheikh Omar the Syrian, who belongs to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a jihadist group.“Jihadists are willing to speak to journalists when they have shown they are impartial”During all of my travel in Syria, I was always accompanied by at least one fighter. This was for my security. This second trip put my contacts even more at ease and allowed me to go a little further in my work as a journalist. Jihadists are willing to speak to journalists when they have shown they are impartial.As for those photos with me holding a gun under the Al Qaeda banner, let me assure you that I don’t know how to use firearms and that these pictures have no political intent. They are amusing souvenirs, nothing more. There are no laws in Japan banning this kind of photo. There is also no law forbidding the Japanese from joining up with armed groups abroad; there are Japanese men fighting in the Philippines, in Burma, in Chechnya, and there were even some in Afghanistan, but the authorities didn’t bother any of them.Propaganda from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant insinuating that Shamil Tsuneoka (bottom left) is one of its soldiers. He retweeted the picture, but he says he only did this because it amused him.I don’t see a moral problem with befriending jihadists. If they were Al Qaeda militants, that might be a different story, but these fighters espouse a different ideology; they do not launch attacks that target civilians.I am not a jihadist, not even a salafist. I am simply a Muslim and a journalist. My job is not easy these days—I have a hard time selling my reporting because the Japanese have very little interest in what’s happening in Syria. The last footage I sold dates back to September 1 [to the Japanese television Channel TV Asahi].
“He just goes anywhere he pleases”
His is a unique case. This guy just goes anywhere he pleases in areas where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is present. Certainly, someone always accompanies him, but he is completely free in what he chooses to do and the brothers trust him completely.I think it’s due to the fact that he introduced himself as a Muslim from the outset, but also thanks to his objective coverage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This man has shown that he hasn’t taken sides in his work.The fact that he is Japanese, and therefore from a faraway country that is not involved any wars in the region, also made it easier for him to be accepted.