Courting controversy: Contentious issues intertwined with task force

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh in a series of articles detailing the efforts and involvement of two Lakeside High School graduates in the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which advocates for the safety and well-being of Syrian civilians during the country's ongoing civil war.

Jay Bell

The Sentinel-Record

Questions and concerns about allegiances and agendas have dogged the Syrian Emergency Task Force since its inception.

The organization was founded in 2012 by Lakeside High School alum Mouaz Moustafa and Syrian American activists. Moustafa was born as a Palestinian refugee in Syria and his family moved to Arkansas when he was a child.

The SETF began as a political advocacy group acting on behalf of civilians and rebels against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The nonprofit organization, with an office less than a block from the White House, also packaged and presented information to federal agencies and members of Congress.

Moustafa returned to Conway, where he graduated from the University of Central Arkansas, last year for a TEDx Talk. He displayed his picture and detailed the many ways he can and has been described based on a single image.

"It is sort of part of the job," Moustafa said. "I don't care what my reputation is. I cared about what we could deliver for people that literally had nothing. And I knew, at the end of the day, the record would be set straight."

Moustafa speaks Arabic and previously advocated on behalf of civilians in Egypt and Libya after their uprisings during the Arab Spring in 2010-2011. He transitioned in political advocacy for the people of Syria and the organization expanded its outreach efforts.

Natalie Larrison, who also graduated from Lakeside and UCA, joined the SETF more than a year ago and heads two of the group's newest humanitarian components. The SETF has operated the Wisdom House Project school in the Idlib Governorate province for the past eight months. A new Letters of Hope program allows Americans to write letters of support to be delivered to students at the school.

A 2014 documentary film "Red Lines" chronicled the efforts of Moustafa and SETF field director Razan Shalab-al-Sham to aid civilians affected by the Syrian Civil War. Filmmaker Andrea Kalin compiled about 400 hours of footage during a period of almost three and a half years.

"I think that sets the record straight if someone digs deep enough," Moustafa said. "If people want to get lost in the conspiracy theories, that's also an option."

The political advocacy, humanitarian and legal services the SETF provides are funded by donations, mostly from Americans. Aid for the Wisdom House has mostly been provided by volunteers from Conway who reached out to Moustafa after his TEDx presentation.

The group's civil implementation efforts are funded by agencies such as the United States Department of State and the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The task force helps refugees leave Syria, provide training and organize new civil services in areas affected by the conflict.

Questions have been asked about potential overlap in the organization's informational and advocacy efforts. The State Department has often relied on the SETF to provide information about events inside Syria.

The Washington Post journalist Joby Warrick interviewed Moustafa for his 2016 book, "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS." The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Moustafa and the SETF gained notoriety in 2013 when they helped Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sneak into Syria to learn more about the conflict firsthand. The trip was organized by Moustafa and former SETF political director Elizabeth O'Bagy, who became embroiled in a scandal of her own.

O'Bagy graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor's degree in Arabic in 2009 before she lived in Cairo, Egypt, for two years. She returned to Washington, D.C., to seek her master's and doctorate degrees in Arabic Studies at Georgetown.

The Institute for the Study of War hired O'Bagy as an intern at the end of 2011. She was hired several months later as a research analyst.

The Institute approved O'Bagy's relationship with the SETF as she cited its humanitarian efforts in Syria. She received her master's degree from Georgetown in May 2013 and claimed she was working on the dissertation for her doctorate, but she had never been accepted into the university's doctorate program.

O'Bagy became a popular analyst for television shows, appearing on networks such as BBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR and PBS. She was sought out by programs due to her firsthand knowledge from inside Syria. She claimed she successfully defended her dissertation to earn a doctoral degree and was listed with a Ph.D. in her appearances.

Her research increasingly favored the Syrian rebels as she met them and studied the civil war. O'Bagy said her research and work with the SETF were separate, but admitted joint meetings with lawmakers provided her with greater access inside the country.

McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry publicly cited O'Bagy's Op-Ed, "On the Front Lines of Syria's Civil War," published Aug. 30, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal. Scrutiny of the article and O'Bagy revealed she did not have a doctorate.

The Institute fired O'Bagy on Sept. 10 and she resigned from the SETF less than a week later. Both organizations stood by her work.

O'Bagy was registered as Democrat, but McCain hired her less than three weeks later as a legislative assistant. She is still listed as one of the highest-paid members of McCain's staff.

Local on 03/30/2017

Upcoming Events