The Syrian secret service: A blackbox

By Hannah El-Hitami

The only thing Hussein Ghrer can think of when he was arrested in October 2011 is the USB stick in a small side pocket of his jeans. Ghrer is sitting with a journalist in the Aroma Café in Damascus when two intelligence officers in civilian clothes approach their table and ask him to come along. They make sure that Ghrer takes his laptop with him, but the Syrian blogger never saved anything on it.

Names, numbers, plans, everything went straight to the stick. “This USB stick could have killed me,” recalls the 41-year-old from Aleppo. “And dozens of people would have been arrested for it.”

The officers take Ghrer to a nearby intelligence department and take him to a large, empty room with only one chair. When the guards leave the room for a moment, Ghrer senses his chance. He pulls the stick with the rounded edges, which he chose especially for this reason, out of his pocket, puts it in his mouth and swallows it. “Now I could take a deep breath,” he says almost ten years later with a mischievous laugh that reveals nothing about the agony he would go through while he was in custody.

One of the most famous bloggers in Syria

In the early summer of 2021, Ghrer is sitting in a light blue sweater in a bistro in the German city of Hannover, smoking a pipe and drinking a beer while talking about his time in Syria. He lives with his wife and two sons near the north German city, which he believes has no character. In Syria he was one of the most famous bloggers and one of the few who dared to write under real names from 2011 onwards. His blog posts focused primarily on the rights of women and the disabled, and he often criticized the mismanagement and undemocratic policies of the Assad regime.

He was detained twice for his activism online and on the streets: first in the Al-Khatib department and then in Adra prison for three years. He left Syria in the summer of 2015 and is now one of the 20 co-plaintiffs in the world’s first trial to deal with crimes against humanity of the Syrian regime in the course of mass protests since 2011.

Two former intelligence officers were charged, of whom the lower-ranking was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity at the end of February. Anwar R., who, as head of the investigative department in Secret Service Department 251 in Damascus, was responsible for 52 deaths, 4,000 cases of torture and several cases of sexual violence, is also charged.

Thousands of opposition activists are said to have been detained, tortured and killed in the prison of the department, also known as Al-Khatib, from 2011 onwards. For many survivors, the so-called Al-Khatib trial is a first step for justice and an opportunity to report their traumatic experiences before a public trial.

At the same time, the procedure offers a unique insight into the workings of the Syrian secret services, called “Mukhabarat” in Arabic, which have played a decisive role in maintaining the Assad family’s power for decades – without their systematic surveillance, threats, spying, infiltration, torture and killing. Many people say that the Assad regime could never have stayed in power that long also how badly the regime was prepared for a movement that organized itself not only on the street but also digitally.

Underground cells without daylight or fresh air

Since the trial at the Koblenz Higher Regional Court began in April 2020, around 70 former prisoners, secret service insiders and experts have testified about the work of the Syrian secret services and the conditions in their prisons, especially the Al-Khatib department.

They reported that the underground cells were far too small and lacking daylight or fresh air, where prisoners were crammed so closely together that they could only sleep in shifts in cells of blood-stained walls that smelled of the sweating, injured bodies of the prisoners, and the incessant screams of the tortured that drove some insane.

The brutal interrogations were often aimed at gaining access to prisoners’ Facebook or email accounts. The interrogators wanted to get the names and activities of other demonstrators. Several witnesses reported that they were tortured and forced to give out their passwords. “They said they would beat me until I remember,” said a witness who pretended to have forgotten his password. “After I entered it, they had access to all information about the demonstrations.”

Blogger Ghrer spent two weeks in captivity during which he was regularly interrogated and tortured. “I always had to kneel during the interrogation,” he reported to the Koblenz court when he gave his testimony in August 2020. “The interrogator sat in front of me and a guard stood behind me. Whenever my answers were not satisfactory, I had to go to him, lay my stomach and lift my feet up. Then I was hit on the soles of my feet or my back with a thick belt or cord.”

Torturers with no knowledge of the Internet

The first thing he was asked for was his Facebook account. Like many political activists of that time, however, he was prepared: “I had two Facebook accounts,” he said at the meeting in Hannover. “In the event of an arrest, my online and offline activism should be completely separated from each other.” Under the code name “Free Man”, he organized demonstrations and networked with opposition groups. “I always used a VPN connection to avoid putting anyone in danger,” said Ghrer.

He showed the other Facebook account, under his real name, to the security forces in prison. “I gave them the password and they said: ‘You are part of the opposition!’ Yes, so what? They couldn’t get any further information from it, other than my personal opinion.”

Although research shows that the Assad regime has been trying to buy surveillance technology – including from European corporations – since the 2000s, statements by survivors during the trial gave the impression that the Syrian secret services were far from targeting digital surveillance in 2011 to be able to use against the protest movement. Rather, their action against digital activism at the time seemed to consist primarily of torturing prisoners until they could reveal their access data to e-mail accounts or social networks.

“I think it was only at this time that they realized how important the Internet is,” suspects blogger Ghrer. But the lead that many activists had over the secret service staff was apparently great. Someone who interrogated him did not once knew the difference between password, username and e-mail address, Ghrer remembers. Another let him open his Skype account to get to other contacts. Ghrer logged in quietly and informed a friend about it in the chat that he was imprisoned in the Al-Khatib department. “Then I gave the interrogators a few contacts from Syrians abroad and logged off again,” recalls Ghrer, amused.

Young Syrians protect themselves from surveillance

“The Syrian secret services are traditionally more muscle associations,” says Uğur Üngör, professor of Holocaust and genocide research at the Dutch NIOD Institute. He heard from colleagues who research on other secret services that the Syrian Mukhabarat members were considered “notorious idiots”. “These people didn’t study IT. Your job is to beat up prisoners,” he added during a phone call at the end of June.

The Syrian secret services were established in the 1960s by Hafiz al-Assad, the then president and father of Bashar al-Assad. They worked closely with the government from the start to suppress any opposition or critical opinion among the population. By infiltrating society and recruiting civilians as informers, they created a climate of fear and distrust.

The four secret services – the Air Force Secret Service, the Military Secret Service, the General Secret Service and the Political Security Office – operate their regionally and thematically specialized departments throughout Syria.

According to a report by the German secret service “BND”, that was read out in the courtroom, a technical intelligence service was added in 2011, responsible for communications and telecommunications surveillance. How far the monitoring of the services extends was exemplified by the diagrams of the structures in department 251, around which the trial revolves: there was a subdivision for students, workers, parties, companies and religion.

The secret services rely on physical violence

Unlike in Europe, the Syrian secret services have their own prisons, the right to arrest people and complete impunity in dealing with them. Therefore, they relied on physical violence, Üngör continues. He has been researching state violence and genocide for many years and has been dealing with the violence of the Syrian regime, its secret services and regime-affiliated militias since 2011.

He observes that the Syrian regime has tried to invest more in digital surveillance since the early 2000s. But especially since the beginning of the mass protests and the civil war in 2011, it has caught up extremely. “We don’t know exactly how far it has developed.”

The regime is a black box, hardly researchable, said Üngör, who relies on statements from former prisoners, deserters and leaked documents for his research. During his interviews, he also found that the young generation in Syria has learned to protect themselves from surveillance. “They know when to throw away your smartphone, what to do with the SIM card and the battery. They have USB sticks that will self-destruct if you enter the wrong password once, and they used Signal long before it became popular.”

The USB stick has disappeared

It’s been 15 years since Ghrer blogged for the first time. In the post entitled “Another Seven Years of Drought,” he wrote about the beginning of Bashar al-Assad’s second term and the disappointed hopes for change that the Damascus Spring had raised.

“The first time I was very scared because I had no idea whether the Mukhabarat could track my IP address,” said Ghrer, who was still using the pseudonym “Free Man” at the time. Today he only has to be careful when it comes to contacts with Syria. He is not friends with his wife’s family, who still live there, on Facebook. Friends in Syria only contact him with VPN and under pseudonyms. “I even forgot the name of one of my best friends once because I’m so careful never to use it,” says Ghrer.

He himself feels safe in Germany and writes whatever he wants online – albeit shorter posts on Facebook and Twitter instead of carefully researched blog posts. Incidentally, the USB stick from back then, says Ghrer, has not reappeared to this day.

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