'Punish the war criminals': Journalist Tareq Ayyoub's Iraq killing 20 years on

6 min read
10 April, 2023

Lives can change in the blink of an eye – something late Al Jazeera journalist Tareq Ayyoub's family knows only too well.

The beloved 35-year-old husband and father was killed 20 years ago on 8 April 2003, a casualty of the war in Iraq.

He was atop the roof of Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau when a US warplane struck, claiming his life and wounding cameraman Zouhair Nadhim, his colleague at the pan-Arab broadcaster.

"Simple and direct, punish the war criminals who killed my father. No other answer, no other way," his 21-year-old daughter Fatima Tareq Ayyoub, who lost her father aged one, told The New Arab.

"The beloved 35-year-old husband and father was killed 20 years ago on 8 April 2003, a casualty of the war in Iraq"

"There has been no declared guilt of any sort on behalf of the war criminals – and why have we not received it yet? Well, the US has a long history of getting away with murder."

The US, which had previously struck the same media outlet's Kabul office in 2001, at the time called the incident a "grave mistake" and said "significant enemy fire" came from the building, though Al Jazeera journalists contested this allegation.

"This was a total lie," said Tareq's widow, 46-year-old former Jordanian MP Dima Tahboub. "This was a false alibi just to justify… the intentional bombing of Al Jazeera. They wanted to silence all the voices of truth, because this was followed by a second action… the bombing of [the] Palestine Hotel."

The hotel, which then was housing dozens of journalists, was hit by a US tank later the same day. It led to the deaths of two cameramen – Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian working for the Reuters news agency, and José Couso of Spanish broadcaster Telecinco.

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The Americans in 2003 said US-led coalition forces had come under attack and returned fire, but witness accounts contradicted this.

A US probe that year found a tank "properly fired upon a suspected enemy hunter/killer team in a proportionate and justifiably measured response". However, a Committee to Project Journalists investigation deemed the incident "not deliberate" but "avoidable".

It seemingly wasn't always clear 8 April 2003 would be so deadly, based on an earlier television appearance by Palestinian Jordanian Tareq, who was in Iraq for mere days before being killed.

"He went on TV and he said everything was quiet. This was… a unique night where there's no bombing. You can hear everything, you know, very quiet," said Tahboub.

Friends and colleagues carry a photograph of Jordanian journalist Tareq Naim Ayyoub with "Don't Kill Journalists" written on it during what they called a funeral procession for journalism on 9 April 2003 in Amman, Jordan. [Getty]

"I was reassured and I went to sleep for about an hour, only to wake… at the crying of my mother and we just witnessed everything on TV like everyone else. Then we had the phone [call] from [Al Jazeera] HQ in Doha and they informed us of… the horrible news."

What happened was a "very extreme shock" for Tahboub, who had encouraged her husband to go to Iraq having seen other journalists from the same network going and coming back from other wars, including in Afghanistan.

"So, I thought, you know, why not Tareq? Reporters are supposed to be protected and no one harms them and they're objective… and they are protected by… international law and so on," she continued, noting Al Jazeera had sent the US its office's coordinates weeks earlier.

"Simple and direct, punish the war criminals who killed my father. No other answer, no other way"

Tareq was remembered as being "very passionate about journalism" and "always courageous" by media consultant Yasser Abu Hilala, who served as Al Jazeera's director-general from 2014 to 2018.

"I knew Tareq as we started as colleagues. I was working for the Jordanian Alrai daily newspaper and he was working with The Jordan Times, its sister daily in English," said Abu Hilala, adding they became friends.

"When I was detained for a report I filed to Al Jazeera, he was amongst the first to visit to express solidarity."

For the late journalist's family, the pain of his death has been long-lasting. "The loss of my father is something very personal to me," said Fatima. "When I was young, I didn't want people to know and view me with a sympathetic eye. As I grew up, I was more impacted by the loss of my father at every stage in my life and his absence became more painful and visible to me."

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Fatima is currently studying for a bachelor's degree in film, photography, and media at the University of Leeds in the UK. Her dissertation focuses on her dad and has a working title of 'Finding my father'.

"I wanted to revive and preserve his memory on a personal level," she said. "This was my own tribute to him and my way of connecting with him and bridging the gap of absence and delving into all his life stages and the details of the family archives we have." Fatima is making use of materials including photos, videos, articles, and stories from family and friends.

Tareq's killing is an "open-ended wound" for Tahboub, who added people reach out every year to express love and support around the anniversary.

"We cannot have our heart… rest, unless punishment and justice is done [for] us," she said, calling for accountability in three forms. These are an apology, financial compensation and – first and foremost – the trial of those in the US military who were responsible.

"This is the 'A'… request for me, for them to be punished for killing my husband. Anything else comes… after that," Tahboub said, adding she thinks justice would've happened long ago if it were coming.

"What's happening also all over the world [is that] people working in the media, in the press… are being also subjected to similar things that happened to Tareq and… the perpetrators were not punished."

The journalist's widow mentioned the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American reporter for Al Jazeera who was killed by Israeli forces as she covered a raid in the occupied West Bank last year. "All the emotions, all the memories came to us all over again," Tahboub said.

She told The New Arab she sent a letter to US President Joe Biden in March 2021 calling for Washington to admit responsibility for killing her husband but received no reply.

"What's happening also all over the world [is that] people working in the media, in the press… are being also subjected to similar things that happened to Tareq and… the perpetrators were not punished"

There have also been a number of attempts to pursue legal action, she said, including a lawsuit filed in Belgium that came to an "unfortunate end".

Despite the impasse on the legal front, Fatima said she won't lose hope. "As I get more experienced in my field, I will always look for avenues and raise my voice calling for justice for my father; his case will not be closed until the criminals are punished," she added.

"It is only then that our hearts will come to some rest and find some kind of peace. It is then when I will be able to hold my father's picture and tell him: I didn't accept the catastrophe with tears and weakness, I fought for your right."

The New Arab has contacted the US Department of Defense and the White House for comment.

Nick McAlpin is a journalist who has worked at The New Arab since March 2021. He holds a master's degree in social anthropology and a BA in French and Arabic. He lived in Jordan for a year during his undergraduate studies. Nick started his journalism career as a freelancer in 2019.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin