The Scientist Under Syria's Microscope

Meet the neurobiologist-turned-weapons inspector who could stop -- or start -- a wider war.

CAIRO -- On Monday morning, a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team left the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Damascus, and prepared to head to the site of what is alleged to be the worst chemical weapons attack in decades. They were led by Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who finds himself transported from his classroom at Umea University into the middle of the worst conflict on the face of the planet.

Sellstrom and his team soon came face-to-face with the dangers of their mission: Snipers opened fire on their convoy as they approached the site, forcing them to turn back briefly. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime blamed the attack on the rebels in the area, while the Syrian opposition blamed militiamen loyal to the regime for opening fire.

Sellstrom, a round-faced Swede in his mid-60s, boasts three decades of experience conducting research into the effects of nerve agents on the human brain, and he previously served in top positions during the U.N. weapons inspection effort in Iraq. He eventually guided his team in Syria to the affected area, and footage filmed by residents showed the inspectors talking with local medical staff and examining those who were stricken by the onslaught. However, the attack meant that the team was unable to inspect a half-dozen key sites and had to condense its planned six-hour trip into 90 minutes. Moreover, the message delivered by the morning ambush was clear: Sellstrom and his team are in the crosshairs -- both politically and literally -- of powerful forces within Syria.

Sellstrom is the one wild card in what appears to be the march toward another U.S.-led military campaign in the Middle East. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear today that he holds the Assad regime responsible for the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs: Kerry referred to the use of such weapons as a "moral obscenity" and described the regime's invitation for inspectors to visit the site as "too late to be credible."

Sellstrom's findings could legitimize to the world a U.S. intervention in Syria -- or they could provide ammunition for Washington's enemies, who argue that the United States may once again be blundering into an Arab country based on scant information about weapons of mass destruction. It is an odd position for a man who is neither a diplomat nor a general, just a little-known scientist with an unusual -- and politically explosive -- specialty.

"I know Ake. He's a great guy, and it's a horrible position he's in," said Charles Duelfer, the former deputy chairman of the U.N. team that inspected Saddam Hussein's Iraq for weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War. "He'll be under enormous pressure. How is he going to characterize what it is he finds? That is extremely difficult."

In much the same way a basketball coach harass referees to gain an advantage for his team, Russia and the United States can be expected to pressure the inspectors to adopt their respective versions of events. Former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, for example, ignored the requests of U.N. weapons inspectors for more time to complete their mission in the run-up to the Iraq war, simply "advising" them to leave the country three days before the invasion started. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, "is more than happy to throw rocks at the inspectors, if it suits his purpose," Duelfer said. "[He] wants to sustain as much ambiguity about [who conducted the attack] as possible."

Navigating such political mine fields is not Sellstrom's specialty. A highly respected scientist in his mid-60s, he holds a doctorate from Sweden's University of Gothenburg, where his thesis was titled "Gamma-aminobutyric acid transport in brain." However, the primary challenges in conducting a successful chemical weapons inspection today are not scientific -- they are political.

Dzenan Sahovic works with Sellstrom at the European CBRNE Center, a small research organization specializing in answering the needs of the European Union and the United Nations when it comes to dealing with chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear, and explosive material. Sahovic said that Sellstrom helped upgrade the U.N. guidelines and procedures for weapons inspections and even organized a 2009 scenario that simulated how an investigation might proceed.

"What we are talking about from our side is basically science--how to do this in a scientifically correct way," Sahovic said. "As many situations clearly show, they're much more politics than science. But that was not part of our work."

Sahovic sees Sellstrom's focus on the science rather than the politics as an advantage rather than a liability. Choosing a diplomat or a political figure as the leader of the U.N. team, he argued, would have subjected the effort to accusations of bias. By choosing an acknowledged expert in the field, it highlights that "this is an independent, scientific investigation."

There remains, however, a looming question of what Sellstrom's team could find that will influence the international debate over Syria. All parties involved now admit that a chemical weapons attack took place in Damascus: Russia and the Syrian regime have suggested that the rebels carried out the attack, while the United States and Britain have accused Assad of being responsible. Under the mandate worked out between the Assad regime and the U.N., moreover, the inspection team has no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack. Can Sellstrom release any information that strengthens or weakens either side's argument?

Many believe the answer is yes. While Sellstrom cannot explicitly say whether the Assad regime or the rebels conducted the attack, he can release information that would strongly implicate one party or the other -- allowing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make the actual accusation.

The Syrian regime has been developing chemical weapons for decades; it has been Damascus's strategy for offsetting the threat posed by the Israeli nuclear program. As a result, Duelfer said, the regime has acquired some extremely sophisticated systems for maintaining its stockpiles -- adding chemical stabilizers to its toxic agents, for example, and creating binary munitions that mix the precursors to create a toxic agent after the rocket or mortar has been fired. "[I]f they find little bits of rockets or artillery shells with that degree of sophistication, it will point toward the Syrian military," Duelfer said.

Meanwhile, if the toxic agent used in Damascus is found not to have included chemical stabilizers and the delivery method is more rudimentary, that may tilt the argument toward the side of Russia and the Assad regime.

Magnus Norell, a senior policy advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy, agrees that it might be possible to unravel the chain of events in this way, but he cautions that there will be no "slam dunk" findings by Sellstrom's team. The fact that the inspection site is an ongoing war zone not only threatens the inspectors' safety, but also could be destroying evidence.  "The artillery bombardments by government forces [in the eastern Damascus suburbs] during the last few days may have destroyed any chance of establishing, beyond reasonable doubt, what happened," Norell said. 

Assad and his allies will seize on any ambiguity, Norell believes, to condemn a military intervention. "The challenge is that, after a military strike -- what then? If Assad stays, as he will, nothing will really have changed, except that the chances for any compromises will be gone," Norell argues. "For a strike to have the effect of really threatening Assad, a much more robust military response will be necessary, and that is hardly an option right now."

For Sellstrom, however, such questions go beyond what he came to Damascus to accomplish. His mission will be a success if he can visit the site of the attack and take the samples that he came to acquire -- and avoid getting shot in the process.



Looking for Hashish in Cairo? Talk to the Police

The hidden power of Egypt's drug-running cops.

In March 1986, a new and more potent form of hashish began to show up on the streets of Cairo. Called "Bye Bye Rushdie" by the drug lords who peddled it, the hashish was named for recently deposed Interior Minister Ahmed Rushdie, a reformer who had launched a nationwide anti-drug crackdown the previous year. Rushdie had not only declared a war on drugs, he had also sacked ministry officials implicated in the trade, including high-level commanders of Egypt's Central Security Forces (CSF) -- the baton- and shotgun-wielding police who are tasked with keeping public order. And he failed. 

On the morning of Feb. 26, thousands of CSF police had stormed the Haram police station and two nearby tourist hotels. The recruits were egged on by their commanders, who had spread a rumor that Rushdie planned to reduce their pay and extend their service. The rebellion spread. Within 24 hours the mutineers had captured most of Giza and loosed a campaign of lawlessness in parts of Cairo. When the CSF captured key installations at Assiut, on the Nile River, police Maj. Gen. Zaki Badr reportedly opened the Assiut channel locks -- drowning nearly 3,000 CSF recruits and their leaders.

Stunned by these events, President Hosni Mubarak ordered the military to intervene to restore public order. Tank units took on the mutineers in street battles in Cairo, while Egyptian soldiers stormed three CSF camps -- at Shubra, Tora, and Hike-Step. While no one knows for sure, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 CSF personnel were slaughtered, after which Rushdie was unceremoniously fired by Mubarak and replaced with Badr, renowned for his friendship with the president as well as his vicious anti-Islamist views. 

Badr ruthlessly culled the CSF of its mutineers, while taking great care to leave in place the CSF's most corrupt officials -- and the drug trade they controlled. So the appearance of "Bye Bye Rushdie," was a kind of celebration -- a way of telling the Cairo drug culture that things had returned to normal.

Understanding the 1986 mutiny is particularly important now, because of what Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's newly installed interim government describes as a lawless campaign in the Sinai launched by a mix of Bedouin tribesman, criminal families, "jihadist terrorists," and "al Qaeda-linked fighters." Western reporters have attempted to get a grip on just who these criminal gangs and jihadists are, but without much luck. "It's anyone's guess because no one can get there," a reporter for a major news daily told me via email last week. 

But while American journalists may be confused about what's happening in the Sinai, a handful of senior officers in the U.S. military have been monitoring the trouble closely. One of them, who serves as an intelligence officer in the Pentagon, told me last week that Sinai troubles are fueled not only by disaffected "Bedouin tribes" but also by "Sinai CSF commanders" intent on guarding the drug and smuggling routes that they continue to control nearly 30 years after Rushdie's attempted crackdown. "What's happening in Sinai is serious, and it's convenient to call it terrorism," this senior officer says. "But the reality is that's there's a little bit more to it. What Sinai shows is that the so-called deep state might not be as deep as we think."

Now, nearly two months after the coup that unseated President Mohamed Morsy, the power of Egypt's "deep state" -- the intricate web of entrenched business interests, high-profile plutocratic families, and a nearly immovable bureaucracy -- is more in evidence than ever. At the heart of this deep state is the Egyptian military, as well as the estimated 350,000-member CSF, a paramilitary organization established in 1969 to provide domestic security -- and crush anti-government dissent. Recruited from Egypt's large underclass of impoverished and illiterate youths, the CSF is the source of tens of millions of dollars in off-the-record profits from the sale of drugs and guns, a percentage of which it shares with its allies in the more staid, and respected, Egyptian military. 

"None of this is all that shocking to me, or to most Egyptians," says Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "I've heard stories about the CSF all the way back into the 1970s. Do they control the drug trade? It's almost a rhetorical question -- it's a veritable tradition with them." Nor, Springborg says, is it a surprise that the security services control the smuggling routes into and out of Sinai: "This is their turf, it's where they operate. Smuggling is a big business for them."

The same testimony was given in a report to European Union officials by a U.S.-based private intelligence company with ties to the Egyptian military, but with this caveat: "The Israelis have to take some responsibility for this," one of the firm's senior consultants said. "The Sinai is flooded with contraband, with a lot of it hooked into the trade with Israeli mafia families. And a lot of that comes right out of CSF pipelines."

Part of the problem, Egypt expert Graeme Bannerman says, is that "the Egyptian security services have been treated atrociously by the military" ever since the CSF were founded. "They were considered the dregs of the dregs for years and years and pushed out in front of crowds to take the blame when things went wrong," says. Egyptians know this well: A joke circulating in Cairo has it that, on their first day in the military, conscripts are asked if they can read and write. "Those of you who can read and write, stand to the left," an officer instructs, "and those of you who can't should stand to the right." After much shuffling, the officer announces: "And you idiots who didn't move -- you're in the security services."

But the treatment of the CSF has changed recently, Bannerman attests, "because the military knows that they just can't continue to mistreat them. And you can see that on the streets. When the CSF cleared the protests after the events of July 3, we saw the military standing shoulder to shoulder with the security services. It's a good sign." Bannerman, who defends the Egyptian military's takeover of the Egyptian government ("the military bridles at the word ‘coup' because they had the people behind them," he says, "and I agree"), confirms that Sisi and his cohorts face "some pretty major problems in the Sinai" and that "they know that, and know they have a job to do." Right now, Bannerman says, "their goal is to bring calm to Cairo and the Nile. But they'll get to the Sinai, you can be certain of that."  

The problems in Sinai are not new. Influential Sinai tribal leader Ibrahim Al-Menei had complained to Morsy about the treatment of Sinai's Bedouins and pleaded that he overhaul Sinai's corrupt security apparatus, which has been firmly in the hands of the Interior Ministry since Egypt's 1979 treaty with Israel. After an August 2012 attack that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead, Morsy did just that: He replaced Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim (a holdover from the Mubarak days), sacked his military-approved chief of staff, appointed a new head of the military's elite Republican Guard, forced the retirement of Egypt's intelligence czar, dismissed the governor of North Sinai, secured Israel's approval to deploy thousands of Egyptian soldiers to the Sinai border area, and launched air raids on "suspected terrorist strongholds" in the region.

Israel responded positively to Morsy's moves: "What we see in Egypt is a strong fury, a determination of the regime and the army to impose order in Sinai because that is their responsibility," Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the former head of the Israeli Defense Ministry's political-security branch, said at the time. Morsy also insisted that the leadership of Hamas more capably patrol its side of the border area separating Egypt from Gaza, bring smuggling under control, and move against Gaza's network of criminal gangs. 

As it turned out, the shifts that Morsy authored in August 2012 did little to sideline the CSF's power. Although Morsy had successfully replaced Ibrahim as the ministry's head, he was forced to make yet another change when anti-government protests were met by CSF officials, who were ordered by the Interior Ministry's security directorate to disperse them using whatever force was necessary.* Morsy and his senior aides began to explore the prospect of a thorough reform of the ministry, which included retraining its powerful CSF contingent. Morsy then quietly directed that senior security officials who were his allies do "a work-around" of the Interior Ministry's security directorate. The message from Morsy to his top advisors was unambiguous: They shouldn't expect the ministry to reform itself.

All of which has given pause to senior U.S. officials and military officers who have been monitoring the lawlessness in Sinai -- and who now question the Sisi government's claim that Morsy and Hamas worked together to destabilize the Egyptian state and supported "jihadists" in Sinai. "It just doesn't make sense," the senior Pentagon officer with whom I spoke says. "The Israelis were actually pleased with what Morsy was doing, and the Interior Ministry was upset. He got it right: The security service is the largest criminal enterprise in Egypt." This explains why there is broad agreement among senior military intelligence officers that what Morsy, and now Sisi, is fighting in the Sinai has less to do with terrorism than with the network of drug dealers and smugglers who want to reassert their control of the region. "There's no al Qaeda in Sinai or anything like that," a Sinai tribal leader told the Los Angeles Times at the end of July. "Maybe fundamentalist ideology exists here, but it was imported to Sinai because of the security vacuum." 

"I look at what has happened in Egypt over the last two months," the senior security executive from the U.S. political intelligence firm concludes, "and I see a tragedy. I think that Morsy really tried to change things, really tried to reform the system, to overhaul it. That included the deeply entrenched CSF." The official pauses for only a moment. "Maybe that was the problem," he says.

Back in Cairo, meanwhile, Ibrahim has pledged that he will restore the kind of security seen in the days of Mubarak. That's bad news for Morsy's supporters, but it's probably good news for Cairo drug kingpins, who now have an opportunity to name the CSF-supplied hashish "Bye Bye Morsy."


*Correction: Originally, this paragraph incorrectly stated that Morsy reinstated Ibrahim as interior minister and misidentified an incident in which 40 Egyptians were killed.