DETROIT — American journalist and foreign correspondent Serena Shim documented Turkey’s role in the Syrian insurgency from the conflict’s earliest days, reporting firsthand on the presence of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL in the West) and other al Qaida-affiliated militant groups operating freely along the Turkey-Syria border. She knew about the weapons transfers, the non-governmental organization trucks being driven into Syria by the militants themselves.
“I go to do reports at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing,” the young American reporter explained in early 2013, “and I don’t have to ask Turkish security for permission — I have to ask the militants for permission.”
It is a testament to Shim’s journalistic prescience that her life’s work has only grown more relevant since her untimely death in October 2014 at the age of 29. Along with the horrors of war in Syria and Iraq, her video reports and investigations likewise foreshadowed Turkey’s current political turmoil years in advance of last month’s failed military coup attempt.
Far from supplemental, Shim’s own story is bookended by the very work that she sacrificed so much of her life for. The Detroit native died while covering the ongoing siege by Daesh militants of the Syrian-Kurdish border city of Kobani for Iran’s PressTV. She was the lone fatality following a suspicious car crash in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province.
A suspicious death
Turkish media initially reported that a “heavy vehicle” triggered the collision, but the story later evolved to allege that a “concrete mixer” collided head-on with Shim’s rental car as it was exiting a highway off-ramp. Shim’s cousin — the 16-year-old driving the vehicle at the time of the crash — survived with only a broken nose. Shim, on the other hand, reportedly died of heart failure a half-hour after arriving at the hospital. (Earlier reports alleged that she had died at the scene of the collision.)
The local gendarmerie in Turkey wrote in their official crash report that Shim’s cousin was the “sole culprit in the accident,” while, that December, Today’s Zaman reported that prosecutors were seeking six years in prison for the operator of the concrete mixer instead, accusing the driver of causing “death through negligence.” The trial, allegedly set for March 2015, never occurred.
Without any official inquiry ever being issued or carried out, let alone any verifiable autopsy report, news coverage from the suppressed and increasingly government-controlled Turkish media has made up the crux of what information the family has received. Adding to the cumulative affront was a brief statement two weeks later by the U.S. State Department, which claimed that it “does not conduct investigations into deaths overseas.”
As a result, Shim’s death has been ignored almost unanimously by the mainstream media and by US officials and has instead been mostly exclusionary to the independent, alternative news sectors of the Internet. For their part, factions of the hacker collective Anonymous have been effective with their Operation Serena Shim (or OpSerenaShim) campaign to raise awareness of the family’s plight.
Forty-eight hours prior to her death, news had spread that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was actively inquiring about Shim’s location.
Having traversed through some of the most volatile regions in the world as a war reporter, Shim was well accustomed to most machinations of press intimidation. But for her to be targeted by a national intelligence agency was simply unprecedented.
In the interest of her own personal welfare, she was advised by her employer, PressTV, to go public immediately and disclose the entire disconcerting affair during a live telecast.
Understanding the profundity of Shim’s final five-minute broadcast is an essential first step toward analyzing the mystery surrounding her death. As such, it may also someday prove to be the road map to a geopolitical future that has already been foretold.
The Turkey-Syria border
She phoned her sister before deciding.
“She asked me, ‘Do I go on live or do I leave?’” Fatmeh Shim said. “I told her to go on live.”
The feeling was mutual.
Once on the air, Serena Shim sharply repudiated the accusations that were being surreptitiously cast against her. Quickly citing a Reporters Without Borders report labelling Turkey “the largest prison for journalists,” she heralded her candid, albeit tactical approach from the outset, acknowledging that she was “a bit frightened” at what the MIT might use against her.
Watch “Turkey accuses PressTV correspondent of spying” from PressTV News Videos:
Her defensive communique then took an emphatic turn as she began to ruminate on the possible motivations behind the vitriol. She supposed that her past reportage probably had something to do with it, particularly her own firsthand disclosures over Turkish interference with regard to its neighbor state Syria. She explained in the interview:
“We were some of the first people on the ground, if not the first people on the ground, to get that story of those Takfiri militants going in through the Turkish border — the Bab al-Hawa border — being sent in. I’ve got images of them in World Food Organization trucks. It was very apparent that they were Takfiri militants by their beards and by the clothes that they wore. And they were going in there with NGO trucks.”
This valued commentary, though highly significant, is also commonly misconstrued as revelatory, when in actuality, Shim was referencing a story she broke an entire two years earlier. When questioned more directly on the issue, she again doubled down on her thesis and alluded to how she had even obtained photographs of the passport stamps that the militants used as they openly exported arms from Turkey into Syria.
Her reports from 2012 featured footage of endless caravans of semi-trucks waiting to cross the rebel-controlled Bab al-Hawa border to be emptied out by militants on the other side, along with additional proof of training camps guarded by the Turkish military setup along the Turkey-Syria border.
Foreign-backed militants interviewed off-camera told her that their largest financial backers were Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which was reconfirmed by another journalist, who added that the actual weapons themselves came from Libya.
Shim also cited the American-built Incerlik Air Base as being of strategic importance to the transfer of weapons into Syria and various refugee camps.
Shim’s mother, Judith Poe, alleges that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who was prime minister at the time — became incensed with a question posed to him by Shim during a press conference that same year, causing her to be forcibly removed from the room. Poe claims that Erdogan shouted something at her daughter as she continued her line of questioning while being whisked away, but further details of the heated exchange have not yet been confirmed.
It is also significant to note that prior to her arrival in Turkey that October, it had been almost a year since she last worked inside the country, having spent the majority of 2014 in Iraq and Ukraine.
“I think they want to know why I’m back,” she ominously remarked in the latter half of the interview, alluding to the Turkish authorities. She continued:
“I wonder if they think that I’m going to, you know, focus on a different area and that I’m using the umbrella of Kobani and I’m actually getting in here to do some type of investigative journalism. Because I don’t see it just being specifically in that area. And it just gives me the feeling that something is boiling and something is brewing that they think that I’m here to catch.”
Shim even fast-tracked her analysis under the assumption that she would likely be taken in for questioning. “I’ve even thought of actually approaching Turkish intelligence because I have nothing to hide,” she stated at the very beginning of the broadcast. Later, she not only affirmed that she had a lawyer on hand, but also insinuated a desire toward taking legal action on her own behalf.
“I was never concerned,” she clarified in a voice message to her mother the day after the interview aired. “They’ll pick me up or they’ll do whatever. They might take me somewhere—but it doesn’t matter. No, I wasn’t really worried, Mom.”
“You know what scares me? Baghdad. Syria. Being killed is scary, Mom. Going to jail is not scary. It sucks, but it’s not scary.”
She would be dead in less than 24 hours.
A warning to others?
Shim’s message had essentially come full circle by the end of the broadcast: defending herself against allegations that she was somehow “working for the Turkish opposition” — which put her squarely in the crosshairs of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — as well as further expounding on Turkey’s chilling utilization of press intimidation tactics.
“It’s known that Turkey has this clampdown on journalists,” she reiterated. “I think that they’re definitely trying to get the word out to journalists to be careful so much as to what they say.”
Though the objective of what has come to be known as her final broadcast was initially rooted in concerns for her own safety, such quotes are also indicative of her own self-identification: Shim long fashioned herself as a “citizen of the world” ever since moving to Lebanon at the age of 18.
She was selfless until the very end.
The essence of her steely, strategic response to an otherwise emotionally daunting set of circumstances is perhaps best conveyed allegorically, courtesy of a life lesson passed down to Shim and her sister by their Lebanese father.
“My father taught us something,” Fatmeh Shim said. “He always said, ‘If you’re being attacked, scream.’ Because if you don’t scream, you die for any reason. But when you do scream, people are going to find out why you died.
“If she didn’t go on air, my sister would have been killed in a car accident.”