In his first interview after winning the presidency, Donald Trump hinted that he will shift policy in the Syria conflict from one of support for the moderate opposition to collaboration with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS,” Trump said. As for the rebels that the U.S. has backed fitfully for the past three years, he said: “We have no idea who these people are.”
But the president-elect appears to be ill informed about Assad’s key role in the rise of the so-called Islamic State.
In this three-part series, Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter Roy Gutman documents the Syrian dictator’s sinister contributions to this tale of terrorism and horror.
First, Assad tried to ingratiate himself with Western leaders by portraying the national uprising against him as a terrorist-led revolt. When that failed, he released jailed Islamic extremists who’d fought against U.S. troops in Iraq, then staged phony attacks on government facilities, which he blamed on terrorists. Far from fighting ISIS, Assad looked the other way when it set up a state-within-a-state with its capital in Raqqa, and left it to the U.S. and others to take the battle to the Islamic extremists.
ISTANBUL—When Syria’s national uprising began in March 2011, Gen. Awad al Ali was in charge of criminal investigations in the Syrian capital. One year later, the country’s top police professional was a marked man.
A string of mystery suicide bombings had targeted major security installations in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, starting in late December 2011, and al Ali, fearing he’d be next, took the modest precaution of blocking off a street near his office.
The real threat, he later concluded, was not from “terrorists” that the regime said was behind the suicide bombings—but from the regime itself.
The first sign the regime was behind the bombings was when a top military aide to President Bashar al Assad stopped by al Ali’s office to examine his security arrangements. Gen. Salim al Ali, Assad’s special assistant for Damascus affairs and no relation to Awad al Ali, wasn’t there to urge better precautions. Just the opposite.
On Friday, March 16, Selim Ali telephoned Ali from the Republican Palace, al Assad’s presidential residence. “The street you blocked is to be opened,” Salim Ali told him. “This is an order from President Bashar al Assad.
Awad al Ali kept the barricades in place, and one day later, suicide car bombers attacked two other security installations in Damascus and a third in Tadamon, far from any a security building. He concluded he was the real target.
If he had taken down the barricade, “I and my colleagues would be dead,” al Ali, who has served the opposition coalition as interior minister and acting defense minister, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
Al Ali’s narrow escape convinced him that the Assad regime staged the string of suicide bombings beginning three months earlier to back up its narrative that terrorists threatened the state.
His story adds to the conundrum Western leaders face as they respond to the Islamic State terror group, which claimed credit for downing a Russian passenger plane in October 2015, the deaths of 130 people in Paris in November 2015, the killing of 32 civilians in Brussels in March of this year, and other assaults in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Dhaka Bangladesh since then.
Should western powers collaborate with the Syrian government and Russia in fighting the Syria-based jihadist group?
The series of mystery bombings inside Syria starting at the end of 2011, pieced together from interviews with high-level defectors and other security personnel, suggests the real question is whether the regime is fighting—or promoting—religious extremists.
It should be noted that Awad al Ali’s judgment, while widely endorsed by top-level defectors from the Assad regime, is not shared by the U.S. government, which holds that Al Qaeda terrorists were behind the string of bombings. The CIA declined to comment.
But that may be because U.S. intelligence never debriefed him. In the first 18 months after he defected, U.S. officials invited him in only once, to discuss how to set up a police force in the post-Assad Syria, and never asked him what he knew about the Assad regime. A two-year investigation found that U.S. intelligence ignored many such security defectors. (See part one of this series.)
Hadi al Bahra, the U.S.-educated former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, recommended al Ali to this reporter as a former official with direct knowledge of the Assad regime’s security structure. The interview in an Istanbul cafe, his first, lasted six hours.
According to al Ali, the bombings were timed to coincide with the arrival of one delegation or another—of diplomats, journalists or prominent figures. Each time the regime claimed that terrorists were responsible. And none had been solved because al Ali, whose job it was to investigate them, had been blocked from the crime scene every time.
One reason former regime officials and close observers describe the bombings as inside jobs is that they often came with advance warning, starting with the first blast on Dec. 23, 2011.
“I was in the security sector of the regime army and on Thursday of that week, I got a report,” said the officer, who asked to be identified as Abu Sayf and was interviewed in Deir el Zour, eastern Syria, in July 2013. “I remember the number of the report, it was 3018, and it said: ‘a terrorist will set off an explosion against the regime on Friday or Saturday.’”
He said the message came from the General Intelligence Agency, a key part of Assad’s network, and, as it happens, also, oddly, the target of one of the attacks.
The suicide bombings occurred the next day, hitting two heavily protected security buildings in the Kafarsouseh district, the State Security administration building, where the General Intelligence Agency was housed, and a military security complex. The Interior Minister said 44 people were killed and 166 wounded. Ali, who sent investigators to the scene, said there was only one explosion.
He said that Gen. Ahmad Deeb, the head of the interrogations office in the general administration of the State Security apparatus, barred him from approaching the scene or interviewing witnesses. “This is our case. Please leave it to us,” he recalled him saying. Deeb refused to answer any questions, he said.
Still, al Ali said, his officers managed to learn that the pickup truck used in the explosion had been sold by a member of the security apparatus to an unknown person just days before the attack and that it entered the building through an underground drive used only by lower-ranking employees.
One element in the evidence al Ali cited was a YouTube video shown at the time in which a military defector, identified as Lt. Abdulkader al Khatib, claimed that Syrian state security had requisitioned seven corpses to be brought to the scene of the first explosion.
In the video, Khatib displays a document he says is a requisition for corpses from the Tishrin Military Hospital in Damascus on the day of the explosion. Al Ali, who has not inspected the document, said he believed the video was genuine. Efforts to locate Khatib were unsuccessful.
Another piece of evidence arguing that the bombings were staged, rebel supporters say, was the speed with which state television aired a report blaming al Qaeda for the attack. The first report ran within minutes. Later that day, state television offered a 45-minute special program that contained more than 40 interviews with purported witnesses or “irate” citizens. It also depicted demonstrations all around Syria that same day condemning terrorism and reported that Syrians had donated blood for the wounded.
“There was a pattern that after every explosion you could see it on TV,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat close to the opposition who now lives in Washington and is seeking political asylum. “Syrian TV was there in no time. It was as if they were sitting there, waiting for it.”
The second suicide bombing that hit Damascus on Jan. 6, 2012, took place on the eve of an Arab League meeting. “It got to be a joke between police officers,” Ali said. “Any visit of an Arab or international official or even media delegations meant there must be explosions.”
The government said at least 25 people were killed and 46 wounded in the suicide bomber’s attack on a police bus in the Midan district, an area ringed by regime checkpoints. A Syrian television reporter was at the scene and broadcast reports showing bodies being removed, but police again were not allowed to investigate, according to Ali.
The next major suicide car bombing occurred in Aleppo Feb. 10, inside the military intelligence compound—protected by multiple checkpoints—killing 28 and wounding 235, the Syrian government said.
But the actual numbers were smaller, according to Abdullah Hakawati, an activist who helped organize anti-government protests in Aleppo. He said a government intelligence official had told him that the blast had been staged. Hakawati provided the name of the officer, but he could not be reached to verify the account.
The “terrorists” were in house, said Khaled Shehabuddin, a regime judge in Aleppo at the time who’s now the spokesman for a major moderate rebel group. He said Syrian intelligence officers told me him that they had prepared the explosives in the military intelligence branch. “Those poor soldiers didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
By this time, the U.S. had drawn its conclusions. The first explosion—or explosions—occurred not far from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, and Ambassador Robert Ford sent security personnel to try to determine who was responsible. “The method of operation looked very much like al Qaeda in Iraq,” he concluded. Who in fact was responsible he could not say.
After bombings in Damascus Jan. 6 and Aleppo Feb. 10, 2012, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, told Congress in mid-February that the explosions “had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.” He added: “And so we believe al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”
It was the first time that a top U.S. official publicly had accused al Qaeda in Iraq of involvement in the uprising against Assad. That assessment contradicted claims from opposition leaders that Assad must have been behind the blasts.
Rebel supporters point out that the Nusra Front didn’t even announce its existence until Jan. 23, 2012, a full month after the first bombings, and that another month elapsed before the al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. And while Nusra eventually claimed responsibility for the Feb. 10 blast, al Ali said he found no evidence of a Nusra connection.
Al Ali and a second former senior security official who’s since defected to the rebel side say they’d never heard of Nusra and were sure it was incapable of such operations at the time. “The government said Jabhat al Nusra. I myself had no information about Jabhat al Nusra and was astonished,” he said.
According to the two former officials, the bombings were timed in almost every instance to impress visiting diplomats.
In the first attack, twin bombings in Damascus on Dec. 23, a delegation of top Arab League diplomats was immediately taken to see the damage.
“The regime always announced that al Qaeda was responsible,” said Mohamad Nour Khalouf, who at the time was a major general in the Syrian army serving in the Defense Ministry and who until recently was the acting defense minister in the rebel’s interim government.
In early January 2012, it was an Arab League meeting. And in the March attempt to blue up al Ali’s police headquarters, there was a joint delegation of the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Perhaps the most contentious bombing took place on July 18, targeting members of Assad’s immediate entourage while they were meeting at the heavily guarded National Security building. Those killed included top members of Assad’s Crisis Group: Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, his deputy, Assaf Shawkat, who was Assad’s brother-in-law, and Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister.
An Islamist rebel group, Liwa al Islam, claimed it was responsible, and the Free Syrian Army also claimed credit. But the Free Syrian Army later retracted its claim of responsibility, and Khalouf said he believes Iran was responsible.
Assigned to the Crisis Group in the executive section of the Defense Ministry, Khalouf was not at the scene when the bomb went off, but he said he’s reconstructed the attack based on information available to him at the time.
The group, he said, normally held its meetings in Turkmani’s office, but on that Wednesday, its members were notified that the air conditioning was not working.
The men went to the office of Hisham Ikhtiyar, the intelligence and national security chief and began the meeting. He said Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al Shaar had brought a briefcase with him and put it close to the wall. He went to wash his hands, and the bag exploded, killing or maiming the men around the table.
Khalouf was among those who rushed to the scene to carry wounded to the hospital. “The defense minister died on the spot. Shawkat was dead before he reached the ambulance. Turkmani died of his injuries two days later. Only the secretary of the Baath party escaped serious injury,” he said. Shaar was severely injured and hospitalized.
Khalouf said he was convinced that Iranian advisers had urged Assad to remove several of his top aides who were responsible for international relations—Rajha, a Christian who had lines out to western countries, Shawkat, who had ties to France, and Turkmani, who had links to Turkey.
“They told Assad they were plotting a coup against him,” he told this reporter. “After the explosion, there was no one to trust except Iran.”
Barabandi, the former Syrian diplomat now living in Washington, also blamed Iran. He said the Iranians “hated” Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, because they thought he was responsible for the death of Imad Mughniyah, a major figure in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008 in what is generally believed to have been a joint Israeli-U.S. operation. “They always thought he was involved.”
Barabandi also said the Iranians feared that Assad’s top aides were considering a Turkish proposal to revise the power structure under which Assad would have stepped down as president and become prime minister. “The Iranians thought if they go through with the process, they will lose control of Assad,” Barabandi said.
Another explanation, from within Assad’s entourage, was that members of Assad’s family triggered the assault after the Crisis Group had recommended that Assad take a conciliatory step to defuse the national uprising. Citing a source close to the family in the Republican Palace, Naser, a former high intelligence official in Ras al Ein, northern Syria, said Shawkat and his colleagues urged Assad to go to Dara’a, the scene of the first major incident in the uprising, and apologize for the killing of youthful protesters.
But Assad “consulted his own private security committee,” consisting of his mother, his brother and Ali Mamluk, a top intelligence official and a former confidant of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. “They told him it would be a coup, and he should not sacrifice the prestige of the family,” Naser said. They told him arguing that Assad’s father never did. Naser noted that Mamluk was close to Iran. After Shawkat’s death, Mamluk became head of the entire intelligence apparatus.
Assad aides blocked any investigation of the bombing, according to both Khalouf and al Ali. “I sent two officers from my unit to take part in the investigation,” al Ali said. “They were not allowed to get close.” Instead, the investigation was carried out by the General Directorate of Security, an intelligence agency headed by Hafez Makhlouf, one of Assad’s cousins, al Ali said. No result has ever been released.
Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the bombing remains a mystery. “I don’t think we know how it was done,” he said.
Of all the bombings that occurred on his watch, the only assassination plot on which al Ali could collect and marshal the evidence was the one directed against him.
That night in March 2012 after he ignored the order to take down the barriers in front of his headquarters, al Ali slept in his office. He was still asleep when the three suicide bombs exploded, between 6:40 and 7:30 a.m until he was awakened by a call from the Interior Minister asking what had happened. It soon became clear.
Later that morning, when he went to the Criminal Security headquarters to investigate the explosion there, one of his aides, an Alawite from Assad’s home town of Qardaha, walked up to him and whispered in his ear. The young man’s family was worried after reading a statement on the Internet saying that al Ali’s offices had been destroyed. (The posting was later taken down.)
Also at the Criminal Security headquarters was Gen. Salim Ali, who’d ordered him to unblock the street.
“I asked him sarcastically, ‘do we still need to open the blocked street?’” al Ali recalled.
Salim Ali seemed embarrassed. “That was an order of the President,” he said.
Al Ali concluded that the third suicide bomber, a Palestinian who’d been released from Sednaya prison, had been thwarted by the roadblock near the Criminal Security building and detonated himself instead in Tadamon.
“I think he had orders to go to paradise by blowing himself up,” he said. “Who gave the order, I don’t know. I suppose some sheikh or religious leader who is linked to intelligence.”
—Special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed