Blood Brothers

When Assad's horrific prisons were the CIA's dumping ground.

BEIRUT — As Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his opening remarks at the Syria peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, Jan. 22, he expressed outrage at new revelations of the brutal tactics perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Evidence of the execution of thousands of Syrians in Assad's prisons, Kerry said, represented "an appalling assault, not only on human lives, but on human dignity and on every standard by which the international community tries to organize itself."

Kerry was referring to a report released this week based on the testimony of a defector within the Syrian military police, which seem to provide evidence of the systematic torture of thousands of detainees in Assad's prisons. The defector, known only by the code name Caesar, provided roughly 55,000 images showing dead prisoners bearing the tell-tale signs of strangulation, brutal beatings, and starvation. The Assad regime's enforcers had obsessively photographed the murdered men and kept track of them by reference numbers -- in order, the report claimed, to prove to senior officials that the executions had been carried out.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian telecommunications engineer, hasn't been able to look at these images, or the other pictures and videos streaming out of his native country over the past three years. They brought with them flashbacks from his own experience: In 2002 and 2003, he was Prisoner No. 2 in an underground cell at Syrian military intelligence's Palestine Branch in Damascus, where he was beaten and whipped with two-inch thick electrical cables until he gave into his interrogators' demands and falsely confessed to having been trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.

The only mystery for Arar is why Americans are shocked at reports of torture in Syrian prisons. "What surprises me is the reaction of some people in the West, as if it's news to them," he told Foreign Policy. "As far back as the early 1990s ... the State Department reports on Syria have been very blunt -- the fact is, Syria tortures people."

It's a history that the U.S. government knows all too well -- because, at times, it has exploited the Assad regime's brutality for its own ends. Arar was sent to Assad's prisons by the United States: In September 2002, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detained him during a layover at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. U.S. officials believed, partially on the basis of inaccurate information provided by Canada, that Arar was a member of al Qaeda. After his detention in New York, Arar was flown to Amman, Jordan, where he was driven across the border into Syria.  

"Successive U.S. administrations may not agree with the politics of Bashar al-Assad, but when you have a common enemy called al Qaeda -- that changes everything," Arar said. "[S]ince 9/11, Assad's regime has been used for what the media now calls ‘torture by proxy.'"

In Arar's case, however, he had no actual ties to al Qaeda to confess. He was eventually released in October 2003, and both Syria and Canada admitted that they had no evidence tying him to terrorism. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a former apology to Arar, and announced that the government would pay him a settlement of almost $10 million for his ordeal. Arar currently resides in Canada.

After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA's use of extraordinary rendition -- the practice of sending terrorism suspects to a third country for interrogation, including the use of methods that may be illegal in the United States -- "expanded beyond recognition," journalist Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker. In addition to Syria's prisons, detention facilities in Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan were also key destinations for such subjects, who were flown around the world on private jets registered to dummy American corporations, according to Mayer.

Arar was far from the only detainee that the CIA threw in Assad's prisons. In December 2001, the United States requested that Moroccan authorities arrest Mohammad Haydr Zammar, a German citizen suspected of aiding al Qaeda's Hamburg cell, which was a key player in the 9/11 attacks. Once Zammar was apprehended, according to information obtained by British journalist Stephen Grey, he was interrogated by CIA officers in Morocco and then flown to Damascus, where -- like Arar -- he was held in the Palestine Branch.

The cooperation between the American and Syrian intelligence agencies was close enough that the CIA even offered German intelligence officers the opportunity to put specific questions to Zammar while he was in Assad's prisons, according to Grey's book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program. Nothing is known of Zammar's whereabouts or health since he sent a letter to his family in Germany in 2005.

"Globalizing Torture," a report published by the Open Society Justice Initiative, provides the names of 136 detainees who were subjected to extraordinary rendition or secret detention. Of those detainees, at least eight were sent by the CIA to Assad's jails. They include people who seemingly posed little or no danger -- such as Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager captured with Abu Zubaydah, who the United States initially believed was a top al Qaeda operative but would later admit had never been a member of the terror group. They also include legitimately dangerous figures such as Abu Musab al-Suri, who was released by the Assad regime and subsequently became one of the world's leading jihadist ideologues.

Despite the wide range of disagreements between the Bush administration and Assad, U.S.-Syrian intelligence cooperation in pursuit of al Qaeda represented a détente of sorts between the two governments. When ties soured in 2006, a parliamentarian close to Assad's feared domestic enforcer, Assad Shawkat, told U.S. diplomats that Shawkat "still considered himself a friend of the United States." In February 2010, when U.S. officials were trying to persuade Assad to stem the flow of jihadists into Iraq, intelligence chief Gen. Ali Mamlouk told a U.S. delegation in Damascus: "President Assad wants cooperation, [and] we should take the lead on that cooperation."

The Syrian regime is once again trying to repair its relationship with the United States and Europe by invoking their shared intelligence goals: Before the Syria peace talks began, Assad said that their main objective should be "the fight against terrorism," while top Syrian diplomats have loudly trumpeted visits by Western intelligence officers to Damascus to discuss the fight against Islamist extremists.

But while rendering detainees to Syria is out of the question these days, President Barack Obama's administration has not repudiated the Bush-era practice to the extent that civil rights activists would have liked. The Obama administration announced that it would continue rendition, but promised to ensure that detainees would not be tortured. According to a report published in The Nation, the CIA still funds a Somali-run prison in Mogadishu, where U.S. intelligence officers can interrogate suspected members of al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab terrorist group captured in Somalia or rendered from Kenya.

The U.S. government has also never apologized to Arar for rendering him to Syria, or admitted that he was tortured in Assad's jails. So it's no surprise, perhaps, that Arar believes U.S. officials' surprise at the latest revelation is more than a little hypocritical.  

"Of course, the U.S. government will always ask for assurances for people not to be tortured," he said. "But they know that those assurances are not worth the ink they're written with. They know that once a person gets there -- they know what's going to happen."



The Italian Job

Inside the shadowy $4 million ransom payment to release two kidnapped Europeans in Syria.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — As Italian journalist Domenico Quirico drove away from the destroyed streets of the Syrian city of Qusayr in April, he was confronted by two pickup trucks full of masked gunmen blocking his way. The men pulled him from his car and beat him up; then they imprisoned him in a safe house on the city's outskirts. It was the beginning of a hellish 152-day ordeal. Quirico would later describe being held in tiny rooms, fed scraps of leftovers, and forced to endure mock executions. The journalist for the Italian daily La Stampa would write that he had been "betrayed by a revolution that had lost its way and become the property of fanatics and bandits."

Quirico and Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian teacher who was held with him, had fallen victim to the most dangerous conflict for journalists in modern history. The circumstances of their release, however, set them apart from their imprisoned comrades -- and may have even set a dangerous precedent by rewarding the very Islamist gunmen whom they deplore.

Motaz Shaklab, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who served as a negotiator with the kidnappers, said that Italian "authorities" paid $4 million in ransom to secure the freedom of Quirico and Piccinin. The two men were freed in September.

"I have seen the money with my own eyes," Shaklab said. "And I was present as it was handed over to the kidnappers."

The Italian Embassy in Beirut denied that Italy paid a ransom to free Quirico and Piccinin, but directed all further questions to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome. When contacted, the ministry declined to provide any details on the negotiations that led to the two journalists' release.

Shaklab's account of his work as a negotiator between rebels and Italian officials reads like a thriller. But it also shows how dangerous Syria has become for journalists. According to a recent count by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 30 Western and Syrian journalists are currently being held by kidnappers in Syria.

Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said that kidnappers have made ransom demands for only a "small minority" of the journalists being held in the country. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which is responsible for the bulk of the kidnappings, has made no such demands. While Bouckaert said that paying ransoms could incentivize future kidnappings, he also made the point that outright refusal of paying ransoms could result in execution of hostages.

"I would never advise for or against paying ransom demands," Bouckaert said. "To me, that is a decision for those trying to get their loved one or their employee back, and it can be a life-or-death decision.… At such times, things just aren't black and white."

Shaklab said his involvement in the kidnapping saga began when a friend who was in touch with the Italian authorities asked for his help in locating the two men. Using his extensive network of contacts among opposition fighters, Shaklab discovered that the kidnappers were keeping the duo in the region of Qalamoun, close to the border with Lebanon.

Shaklab said he met the kidnappers in the town of Yabrud, north of Damascus. Although he did not name the group that the kidnappers came from, he said that they were not radical Islamists but belonged to a so-called "moderate" faction of the rebellion. He would meet with the kidnappers five times in the course of the negotiations for Quirico and Piccinin's release.

"They first wanted $10 million for both men," Shaklab said. "I told them kidnapping is wrong and the money they were looking for was way too much. I tried to bring down the amount."

The kidnappers at first tried to justify their act by telling Shaklab that both Europeans were spies. It was only as the negotiations dragged on, Shaklab recalled, that they admitted they kidnapped the pair because their group had financial difficulties.

Shaklab said that he was in almost daily contact with the Italian side, which included Quirico's daughter, the family's lawyer, and officials from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He would meet them in the Turkish city of Antakya, not far from the border with Syria, after conferring with the kidnappers. From the beginning, the negotiations were intended to secure the freedom of both Quirico and Piccinin, though he does not know whether Belgian authorities were involved behind the scenes or contributed some of the ransom money.

Cutting a multimillion-dollar deal with these kidnappers, Shaklab soon discovered, was no easy task. The negotiations dragged on for more than three months, during which Shaklab managed to decrease the ransom demand to $4 million. He successfully arranged to see the hostages during the talks but was not allowed to speak to them. He also noticed that Quirico's health was deteriorating due to his long imprisonment.

"I said to the Italian authorities: The kidnappers are not lowering the amount any further, and the Italian hostage is getting in a bad shape," Shaklab said. "Do you want to make a deal, or shall I stop with the negotiations?"

The Italians told him to cut the deal.

After both sides agreed on the ransom amount, Shaklab flew to Beirut, where he was picked up by an Italian. The pair left the Lebanese capital and drove to a predominantly Sunni town close to the border with Syria. Hidden in their car were two black bags holding $4 million, all in $100 bills.

Shaklab had made his own security arrangements before carrying such a sum into the town, and he used his contacts to meet up with the kidnappers as soon as he arrived. "A masked man checked the money," he said. "He counted every bundle. He also brought some dollars himself. Every time, he compared our dollars with his dollars. He of course wanted to make sure the money was real."

But just as the hostage situation appeared to be nearing its end, Shaklab and his Italian colleague were blindsided by an unexpected change of plans. "While we had taken the money with us, the kidnapper did not bring the two hostages with him," Shaklab said. "This was against the deal."

Instead, the kidnappers told him that Quirico and Piccinin would be released in a different part of Syria. It was the beginning of several nerve-wracking days. Shaklab and the Italian found themselves in a largely lawless part of Lebanon with a huge sum of money, fearing that the kidnappers would rob them and fail to release the hostages. They relied on a Syrian rebel commander as a middleman, handing the money to him and driving back to Beirut before the hostages were released. They authorized the commander to hand the money over to the kidnappers once it was confirmed that the hostages were safely out of Syria.

In the end, the deal did not collapse. Four days after their trip to the town, on Sept. 8, Shaklab received news that Quirico and Piccinin had been dropped off by unknown men close to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, roughly 100 miles to the north of where the middleman was waiting with the money.

"From that moment I knew the deal was done," Shaklab says. "The hostages were released. So we let the kidnappers leave with the $4 million."

Quirico would later write about his ill treatment while imprisoned and describe how the ordeal turned him against the rebellion. Syria, he wrote, "has become the Country of Evil, the land where evil triumphs and thrives like grapes on the vine."

Shaklab, however, says that Quirico's claims are grossly exaggerated. "Of course it is no fun to be kidnapped," he said. "But I know they were not tortured by anybody. They were kept inside an apartment and ate what the kidnappers ate." The two men, the negotiator said, were simply "amateurs who did not know a lot about Syria."

Shaklab claims that he did not receive any money for securing the release of the two men. He did, however, ask the Italian Embassy in Beirut for two things as a reward for his role in the saga. The first request was for a secondhand kidney dialysis machine, which was donated to a Syrian hospital.

The second request was for a Schengen visa. "So I can once visit Italy," he said with a smile.

Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images