The Kardashian Look-Alike Trolling for Assad
She thinks that Ebola could be an American military bioweapon. She thinks that the Defense Department’s advanced research arm is covertly intervening in the GamerGate debate about feminism and video games. She’s fond of extremist groups like Hezbollah. She believes the Illuminati are leaving secret clues in, among other places, the viral Kony 2012 video. Oh, and she also says she’s in contact with the Syrian Electronic Army, the hacker group tied to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Meet the Damascus regime’s biggest fangirl on social media—at least in English language social media. Her name is Maram Susli. Or Mimi al-Laham. Or Partisangirl. Or Syrian Girl. Or it would appear, or Syrian Sister. She goes by many handles.
As “Partisangirl,” Susli has emerged from the fever swamps of online conspiracy forums and onto social media to become a darling of truthers and state propaganda channels alike. Whenever there’s unpleasant news about the Syrian military or government, Susli (that’s her surname) seems to be there to interpret the false flag semaphore for her rapt audience. The chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs? The rebels’ fault. The massacre of more than 100 men, women, and children in Houla? Oh, that was British intelligence. The U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria? Just an elaborate show, since American is taking it easy on ISIS. And the ghastly videos featuring the murder of Western aid workers? Many of them are fakes.
“There’s an elite and they’re trying to manipulate people’s minds,” Susli told The Daily Beast. “It’s claimed that we’re living in a free democracy but we’re really not. It’s just an illusion. And the more people know that, the more they distrust what they’re hearing.”
The Internet’s always had a well-populated fringe and Susli’s place in its firmament might not otherwise be noteworthy. But with the help of a distinguished MIT professor—whose work has been cited by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—she’s trying to move beyond the chemtrails crowd. Her YouTube videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. She’s been interviewed uncritically by Vice. A lapsed graduate student in chemistry at the University of Western Australia, she’s been brought into the academy to become a source of expertise on the chemical-weapons attack that brought America to the brink of war in Syria last year.
Eventually, the U.S. pulled back from intervening in Syria—well, at least for a year or so. Susli believes she played a part in that pause. “I’m not saying it’s me that did it,” she said. “But I’d like to think that I helped.”
Now, the U.S. is back in Syria—this time, for real. And with U.S. and allied forces dropping bombs on Syria, the propaganda war surrounding the fighting there is gaining newfound international attention. Americans who previously tuned out the long, bloody civil war are now looking to learn more. Fortunately for them, there’s an eager, English-speaking Syrian just waiting to be their gateway to understanding the conflict.
Susli, born in Damascus and raised in Australia, has been an activist since her teenage years. But when protests in Syria turned to civil war in June 2011, that activism took on a new ferocity.
Susli’s first tweet under the @Partisangirl handle, in June 2011, marked the death of five American soldiers—and hinted at the bilious commentary that would eventually blossom into 20,000-follower Twitter account and hundreds of thousands of views on her YouTube channel.
But it wasn’t until a few months later, when she began appearing on YouTube, that Susli’s popularity would take hold. She made her video debut as “Syrian Girl” on the YouTube channel of 108Morris108, a conspiracy enthusiast convinced of Jewish world domination and a “Jewish goal to mix all the races.” There, she premiered the narrative and style that would gain her fame. With airy, sing-song diction, Susli video warns viewers of the perfidies of America, Israel, their many secrets manifestations and their responsibility for the unrest in Syria.
Where most conspiracy video blogs tended to feature older men looking like they’d switched on a webcam right after rolling off the futon, Susli’s presentation was professional by contrast. She was young, female and clean-cut. Hair and makeup: overdone, but impeccable. In the right light, one could even call her looks Kardashian-esque. Her talking points and telegenic presence caught the attention of conspiracy theory king and InfoWars radio host Alex Jones, kicking off a string of appearances in truther venues and state propaganda channels like Iran’s PressTV and Russia’s RT.
It’s little wonder that Susli found her way into Jones’ orbit as conspiracies lie at the heart of her worldview, if her comments on social media are any indication. According to her, 9/11 was an “inside job.” al Qaeda and ISIS, by her telling, don’t exist in the form they’ve been presented to the global public. First off, they’re one in the same. Second, they’re a CIA front—hence the use of “ALCIAda,” a favorite portmanteau.
Despite her trolling over Assad’s enemies, despite her appearances on Assad-friendly media outlets, and despite her connections to pro-Assad hackers (more on that in a bit), Susli told The Daily Beast that she wasn’t in favor of the Syrian dictator and his Baathist party cronies. The Baathists had confiscated her family’s land; her grandfather was a general before they took over. But she was absolutely convinced that the civil war was really an outsiders’ plot, and that the rebels were nothing more than Islamist radicals.
“Mainly I am just anti-rebellion, because I always thought and I always knew that especially because of the agendas and the foreign influence that it was going to destroy the country,” Susli said. “To me, it’s basically a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.”
The @Partisangirl social-media experience bends current events through the lens of secret societies like the Freemasons and the Illuminati. She apparently sees them—in concert with America, Israel, and NATO—as the ever-present, ever-guiding hand behind current affairs. In one of her more popular videos, she explains that groups like the “New World Order” have targeted Assad’s government, in part because it doesn’t allow genetically modified crops or have “a Rothschild central bank.”
Her rhetorical allegiances can be fickle, however. When WikiLeaks was sharing details of American war efforts, Susli was happy to share the organization’s links. Once the group purportedly dumped the hacked contents of senior Syrian officials’ inboxes, though, Susli’s opinion changed. In a since-deleted video, she dubbed them “NATO’s Final Media Card,” a “cognitive infiltration operation” and a “CIA front group masquerading as a neutral beacon of truth.”
Nothing about Susli’s views would strike anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in the comments section of an article about the Middle East as especially unique. And for a long time, they didn’t. Before then, Susli seems to have labored in misspelled obscurity at a handful online forums, earning not much more attention than the occasional ban from administrators.
Susli appears to have shared her thoughts with the Internet as “Syrian Sister” before her debut as “Syrian Girl” or “Partisangirl.” Dating back to 2005, Syrian Sister posted at ShiaChat, a discussion forum for issues in the Shiite Muslim community, and AboveTopSecret, one of the Internet’s most popular conspiracy theory forums.
“I did definitely post on AboveTopSecret,” she told The Daily Beast, without confirming her use of any particular handle. “Back in the day, those forums were the ways you communicated information.” And as for ShiaChat, “as a younger person I used to waste some of my time arguing with people” there.
There’s no way to say for sure which accounts belonged to Susli—and she has said in the past that she has been misquoted. But the “Syrian Sister” accounts on ShiaChat and AboveTopSecret shared a number of biographical details that line up with Susli’s background. The account-holder purported to be Syrian expats living in Australia, like Susli. Their choice of handle, “Syrian Sister,” echoes Susli’s email address. And their fondness for Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff, expressed in posts praising and linking to his work, mimics Susli’s appreciation for the artist’s work. At ShiaChat, the “Syrian Sister” account later asked readers if they remembered her writings, saying “This is me. I’m the Syrian Girl,” alongside links to video interviews from Susli’s YouTube channel.
AboveTopSecret’s “Syrian Sister” also displayed a similar passion for anti-Israel invective and Middle Eastern politics as Susli has on Twitter and YouTube. In a thread titled “The Nazis Link to the Zionists,” Syrian Sister wondered aloud whether the genocidal Jew-hating Nazi regime were, in fact, secret Zionists. “After all the Zionists and the Nazis had the same agenda, to get the Jews out of Europe.”
It’s a situation that Susli would like to reverse in modern-day Israel. Forget separate Israeli and Palestinian states. “I don’t even believe in a two-state solution,” Susli told The Daily Beast. “I believe in a one-state solution. Muslims and Christians and Jews lived together in Palestine before the Europeans came in 1948. And they didn’t have any problems. So why shouldn’t that be possible again?”
On 4chan, a message board known for spawning Internet memes like “lolcats” and the hacktivist group Anonymous, there was also someone signing posts as “Syrian Sister.” Using a stock image for an avatar, this Syrian Sister wrote that “Though I currently line [sic] in Australia I was raised in Syria.” (The post was archived by the archive.moe 4chan archiving site.)
After deriding 4chan as “controlled by the Freemasons,” this post signed by Syrian Sister read, “I have been blessed to know martyrs before, and they will soon teach you who dwell in Europe and the USA regime a lesson you won’t forget.”
Did Susli post this ominous message herself? Again, there’s no way to know for certain. And again, Susli claims to have been misquoted in the past. Earlier this week, when asked about her activity on 4chan, Susli said at first, “I was never part of 4chan. I never got into 4chan.”
A moment later, however, Susli added, “I may have browsed the forum. I may have posted once. I was never really big into that community.” (A 4chan poster using the handle “SyrianGirlPartisan” also claimed to be AboveTopSecret’s “Syrian Sister.”)
In addition to the basic biographical details, the language in the 4chan message appears remarkably similar to that used earlier by the “Syrian Sister” account on AboveTopSecret. The “Syrian Sister” talking tough on 4chan used sentences and misspellings found almost word for word in posts by AboveTopSecret’s “Syrian Sister” five years earlier. (And someone claiming to have created the AboveTopSecret “Syrian Sister” account also claimed to be Susli.)
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Many of the “Syrian Sister” postings on ShiaChat and AboveTopSecret contain support for groups the U.S. government considers to be terrorists. As Iraq’s insurgency raged, she was a cheerleader for a number of terrorist groups, from both Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities. The Mehdi Army, Asai’b Ahl al Haq, Jaish al-Rashideen—each received praise mixed with occasional criticism for sectarian infighting.
“Syrian Sister” also called for American blood. In February 2007, for example, Shiite militants posted a hostage video of Ahmed Kousay al-Taayie, a U.S. Army reservist and translator who had been born in Iraq and left as a child. On AboveTopSecret, Syrian Sister was impatient for his execution. “Disappointing, i had hoped the resistance would kill this traitor,” she wrote. Asai’b Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed proxy group granted her wish; they executed al-Taayie shortly after his capture.
Outside Iraq, “Syrian Sister” was an evident devotee of Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group backed by Iran, titling posts with headlines like “Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s leader] Is On My Side. This Just in From Manar” and hailing “long live nassrallah.” Facebook later suspended Susli for posting a photo of herself with a Hezbollah flag.
On the surface, Ted Postol seemed like an unlikely ally for Susli. He was an influential professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specializing in missile technology, lionized in the pages of The New York Times and lauded by his peers for his contributions as a public intellectual. But when Postol’s partner of late—Richard Lloyd, a former weapons engineer and independent military technology investigator—found @Partisangirl on Twitter, the pair liked what they saw. She was someone, Postol would later tell an interviewer, “who I knew to be a chemist because I was watching her on Twitter. I could see from her voice—I didn’t know her and still don’t know her—that she was a trained chemist.” They invited Susli to pitch in on his effort to get to the bottom of one of the most important events of the Syria civil war: the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria.
On August 21, rockets struck in the east and west of the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, at the time a rebel stronghold. The rockets delivered a payload of sarin, a nerve agent known to be in Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile at the time. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but reports indicate that the attacks killed hundreds of people, including children. Given the widespread international taboo against the use of chemical weapons and the Obama administration’s threats to intervene in the conflict should the Assad regime deploy them, responsibility for the attack became a pivotal issue. In the days that followed, the Obama administration began preparing to strike Syria.
Postol had spent much of his career as a contrarian, casting doubt on the claims of government officials about matters of military technology. After the first Gulf War, Postol questioned whether the performance of U.S. Patriot missiles had been as effective at knocking Iraqi SCUD missiles out of the sky as proponents claimed. Most recently, he raised doubts about the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.
After the August 21 attacks in Syria, Postol and Lloyd decided to launch an investigation into what happened there. Poring through YouTube videos of the incident’s aftermath, they uncovered a number of items that they believed to be inconsistent with the rapidly growing international consensus about the sarin strikes.
The Obama administration, for instance, claimed that the rockets were fired from more than nine kilometers away—deep in government-controlled territory. Postol and Lloyd concluded that the rockets’ flat-faced design prevented the weapons from flying any further than two kilometers. “That put it squarely in areas that were controlled by rebels,” Postol told The Daily Beast.
“Obviously, there could have been a Syrian government unit that went into the area and launched something. Or it could have been a false-flag attack,” Postol added. “All we pointed out was that the intelligence that was issued by the White House and provided to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee provided by [Secretary of State John] Kerry could not be true.”
Seymour Hersh, the mercurial Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, took Postol’s claims and ran with them, publishing a report in the London Review of Books that accused the Obama administration of “cherry-picking” the intelligence on the sarin attacks.
The article was widely attacked. But no counterstrikes were more furious than the ones from Dan Kaszeta, a U.K.-based chemical-weapons expert, and Eliot Higgins, a blogger and meticulous documenter of the Syrian conflict. Both were convinced that the Syrian military, not its rebels, were behind the deadly sarin barrage. They accused Hersh—and, by extension, Postol and Lloyd—of being amateurish in their analysis of the attacks.
Coming from Kaszeta, a man with little public profile, and Higgins, an amateur himself, it was quite a claim. Postol was enraged.
“It’s not simply that I differ with them, although I do. I also think he [Kaszeta] is a fraud. I’m very clear about that. I use that word,” Postol told The Daily Beast.
The wrestling over the attacks continued, and turned to the chemical composition of the sarin. Kaszeta insisted that the chemical compound hexamine in the sarin residue was a tell-tale sign of Syrian government involvement. Postol and Lloyd were skeptical; hexamine is a common precursor chemical for military-grade explosives.
As the wrangling continued, Lloyd and Postol grew to rely on their new colleague, Susli. She was adamant in her assertions that the attack was carried out by the rebels in a “false flag” attack, designed to prompt American intervention. And she was no fan of Kaszeta and Higgins.
Susli, the one-time chemistry grad student, started helping Lloyd and Postol with research into hexamine. Armed with that research, Postol began emailing Kaszeta with questions about his hexamine analysis. Postol presented his outreach as simple academic curiosity about Kaszeta’s research. There was no mention of Susli’s involvement.
The email exchanges started out as cordial, if cold, but gradually grew more confrontational. Postol argued that the presence of hexamine at the attack site could be explained by the presence of the chemical in explosives of the warhead used to deliver the chemical weapons.
After a few volleys, Postol cc’ed “email@example.com” on a reply to Kaszeta. Things went quickly downhill from there.
After Susli boasted of her knowledge of nerve agents, Kaszeta warned Susli’s school, University of Western Australia, that she might be engaging in potentially dangerous research involving chemical warfare agents.”
And Postol rose to his new compatriot’s defense. “By all professional standards, and by all standards of courtesy, SyrianSister has distinguished herself as a consummate professional,” Postol wrote to Kaszeta. “You, on the other hand, have made an unbroken string of technically false claims.”
Then, Postol wrote to the FBI about Kaszeta, warning of the “potential criminal implications” of his accusations against Susli. “In addition to making a false claim of a terrorist activity… Mr. Kaszeta has also targeted Ms. Susli because she is a descendent of Syria,” Postol continued. “This raises further questions about whether the false report of terrorism also qualifies as a hate crime.”
So far, there’s no public evidence of FBI follow-up. But the letter was nonetheless a notable development. The esteemed MIT professor, whose previous, deeply reported analyses had caused governments to rethink their multibillion-dollar missile defense systems, was now defending a grad student who took it as fact that, as she put it, “the U.S. government has been experimenting on Ebola as a biological weapon.”
To outsiders, it might have seemed like a strange irony, the pairing of the conspiracist and the physicist. But Postol said he wasn’t bothered by Susli’s reputation. “When I got statements from outside people saying she was a Holocaust denier, quite frankly I wasn’t going to ask her,” he told The Daily Beast. “I just don’t think that’s appropriate. I don’t know what she said. I’m not going to go researching it because my interactions with her, she’s been totally professional.”
(For the record, Susli believes that “Jews were ethnically cleansed from Germany… However, if you want to talk about specifics and numbers and events and stuff, I’m going to leave that to the historians. And I think you’d find that there’s historians on both sides.”)
But while Susli may have been professional with him, her interactions with others have not always been quite so buttoned up.
In late 2013, Matthew VanDyke found this out the hard way. An American reporter covering the conflict in Syria, noticed something strange with one of his online accounts. “Someone in Turkey just tried to hack into one of my accounts 30 minutes ago,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
As the uprising in Syria morphed from street protests to full-blown insurgency, a small group of hackers calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army started bringing Bashar al-Assad’s war to the Internet, defacing social media accounts belonging to news organizations and governments with pro-regime propaganda. But the group, widely believed to be acting in concert with the Syrian government, has broadened its activities to include espionage against anti-regime targets, including reporters and government officials.
VanDyke had fought with the rebels trying to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and had sympathy for the ones trying to overthrow Assad. That put him at frequent and public odds with Susli.
His background as a pro-rebel fighter and his early aspirations for a career at the Central Intelligence Agency fed into Susli’s preferred narrative about how the Syrian conflict has unfolded. She’d spent the months leading up to VanDyke’s posting about the strange account activity berating him as a mercenary and CIA tool.
Minutes before that, in mid-November, a message appeared on VanDyke’s Twitter feed, apparently written by SEA. “Mr. VanDyke, Your accounts was hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. #SEA #Syria.” A few minutes later, Susli tweeted, “Famous last words,” attaching a screenshot of VanDyke’s post about the login attempts and cc’ing the Syrian Electronic Army’s Twitter handle.
VanDyke confirmed the attack on his website, writing that SEA had emailed him a blackmail threat. “The hackers have made it clear that if I do not give in to their demands they will find creative ways to destroy my reputation.”
Sure enough, SEA announced that it would soon publish what the group claimed were Facebook messages and emails from VanDyke’s accounts. Susli then chimed in. “A little bird tells me @Matt_VanDyke s emails & msgs will be released within a day or 2 & its a scandalous read, stay tuned.”
Her “little bird” may have been The3Pr0, the nickname for the many cybersecurity experts believe is the founder of SEA. An email signed “Th3Pr0” sent Susli a message—subject line, “funny jokes”—containing a link to the file “facebook-vandykematthew.zip.” From the link, the file appears to be hosted on a mail server associated with SEA.
Evidence for Susli’s correspondence with Th3Pr0 comes from a detailed report (PDF) on SEA published by IntelCrawler, a cyberthreat-intelligence company based in California. In the report, IntelCrawler published a screenshot of an email retrieved from a site used by the group. It was signed “Th3Pr0” and sent a link to the zip file to Susli’s gmail account.
There’s no evidence to suggest that Susli participated in the intrusion. Her tweets on the VanDyke hack and the imminent release of his messages came only after similar statements published on the Syrian Electronic Army’s Twitter accounts. As far as the anyone knew, Susli could’ve simply been lying about her “little bird” by cribbing off their Twitter account.
When others credited her with the exposure, she was quick to distance herself from the breach itself, tweeting that “All credit goes to the Syrian electronic army.”
But in an interview, Susli said she did interact with members of the SEA on social media. “If they would post one of their videos… then I would say, ‘Oh look what they did,’” she told The Daily Beast. “Basically that’s all. Or translate an interview maybe because I do like to translate things. That’s all my connection is.”
And despite what security experts describe as the group’s rudimentary technical abilities, Susli lauds them as “The greatest hackers the world has ever seen” and offers justifications for their intrusions.
The feeling is mutual. Twitter accounts associated with the group promote her YouTube videos, retweet her, and offer praise for pro-Assad commentary.
SEA welcomes Susli back to Twitter after the company briefly suspended her account
Nevertheless, Susli insisted any connections to the pro-Assad hackers were tenuous. She said, “I’ve never heard their names. I’ve never seen their faces. They’re very shadowy. I’m very sure that they’re actually not connected to the government.”
Susli continues to the climb the lower rungs of demi-celebrity. Vice just ran a largely positive interview with her, headlined, “Meet the YouTube Sensation Who Predicts Syria’s Future.” C-list TV star Adam Baldwin threw her GamerGate conspiracy video a much appreciated tweet. When a supposedly moderate Syrian rebel was shown eating the lung of one of his foes, Susli “translated it and I saw that my translation was featured in a lot of the U.S. media,” she said. Views for videos continue to pile up. Slowly, slowly, her influence in the Internet underground is spreading.
In a YouTube interview, Susli rationalized the difference between “good” and “bad” propaganda: “Propaganda does not necessarily mean telling a lie. It just means propagation of an idea. Good propaganda is just someone who propagates an idea well.”
Those are the kinds of words that makes one wonder why people like Postol, who enjoys respect in mainstream policy and academic circles, have uncritically embraced her role in serious debates. Postol may insist that her expertise trumps her problematic statements. But Postol is doing more than enlisting Susli; he’s elevating her. Susli has used Postol’s help to propagate her theories beyond the usual conspiracy fringe and onto the margins of mainstream respectability. By her own definition, that makes her a pretty “good” propagandist.