They operate like an underground network, with false names, coded language, and organized cells into which new members gain entry only if vouched for by existing ones. In conversations among themselves, they avoid details that would jeopardize the group if one of them is arrested and tortured.
As pro-democracy activists begin their fourth month of protests in Syria, a movement that began in the relative daylight of the Internet is increasingly taking the form of older insurrections, characterized by secrecy and suspicion.
The shift, described to The Daily Beast by two organizers who recently slipped out of Syria, comes in response to the more sophisticated measures the secret police of Bashar al-Assad's government are employing against the movement. They include tracing Internet Protocol addresses to the homes of leading activists and pressuring owners of Internet cafes to name regular customers who might be steering the protests.
The two young men were attending a gathering in Turkey this week of the usually fractious groups that oppose Assad's rule in Syria. Since Assad's regime has barred foreign journalists from entering Syria to cover the protests, their remarks illuminate an aspect of the insurrection that, more than others across the region, has been difficult to follow.
Among other things, they point to a strategy of long-term rebellion by the activists, who drew inspiration from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt but whose own insurrection has been met with brutal force. Human rights groups estimate the number of dead so far in Syria at more than 1,000. When the issue of casualties came up at the conference, some people in attendance pointed to the experience of Algeria in the 1950s and '60s, where more than a million people died in the fight for liberation from France.
Syria's secret police appear particularly rough with protesters from the Alawite sect, the same ethnic group as Assad: "Alawites who are arrested are tortured horribly."
"We have 20 cells across Damascus. We try to minimize contact so that if one person is caught, not all are caught," one of the two young men said in a 90-minute interview in the lobby of a hotel in Antalya, Turkey, where the opposition factions gathered. He gave his name as Mishel, age 24, and said he studies geography at the University of Damascus.
Thin, with shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, Mishel described being arrested at one of the first protests in Damascus. He said plain-clothed members of the mukhabarat, Syria's secret police, dragged him by his hair for more than a city block, then threw him into a bus, where several men jumped him and beat him.
He said the regime had not been dispatching regular policemen to the demonstrations, fearing perhaps that, like soldiers in Egypt's recent revolution, many would side with the protesters. Instead, Assad had tasked the secret police with putting down the rebellion.
In prison, Mishel suffered further beatings, though not as bad as those inflicted on other detainees. He said the mukhabarat appeared to be particularly rough with protesters from the Alawite sect, the same ethnic group as Assad and many senior members of the regime: "Alawites who are arrested are tortured horribly."
Once released, Mishel set about organizing other students into small groups, with each cell member charged with a specific task. His own job is to film the protests with a small video camera and quickly upload the footage to the Internet. He now uses a proxy server to hide his IP address, he said.
On the phone or in email, Mishel said activists use references to mundane matters like the weather or terms specific to a particular profession—say, carpentry—as part of a code for coordinating protests. Still, he said, it is evident that the secret police are getting better at tracking specific activists. A month after his first imprisonment, they showed up at his home and arrested him again.
The details Mishel provided matched the story of the other activist, Diyadeen, who was interviewed separately. A 25-year-old law student in Beirut, Diyadeen helped organize the first protests through the Internet and traveled to Damascus to attend the demonstrations. On his second day there, men from the secret police arrested him and held him for 17 days. He refused food and water for part of the time, he said. Two weeks after his release, he was arrested again and held for more than a month.
During his second imprisonment, Diyadeen said, interrogators showed him a log of the websites he had visited and the entries he made on Facebook. They also knew that his name had been mentioned in a report on Syria issued by a human rights group. He said he believes the attention he got from the rights group caused police to treat him less severely.
Both Mishel and Diyadeen traveled by bus to Lebanon and then by plane to Turkey to attend the conference, along with some 300 other opponents of the Assad regime. The crowd at the hotel included longtime exiles and more recent émigrés, secular Syrians in suits and bearded men in long white dishdashas, Kurds, former communists and Islamists. Several people at the conference speculated that Assad cronies had secretly infiltrated the group in order to report back on the discussions.
Moayad Al Rachid, who left Syria two decades ago and lives in Nigeria, said anyone attending would surely be arrested by Assad. "When you make a decision to come to this conference, you've made up your mind not to go back to Syria," he said.
But Mishel said he was rushing to get back to Damascus—in part to finish his geography exams.
Dan Ephron has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire.