The Central Intelligence Agency and Syria share a dirty little secret. It flows from a special relationship that has masked knowledge and possible involvement with individuals directly associated with the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.
Those individuals were members of al Qaeda, living in Hamburg, Germany. The startling thing is that these al Qaeda members also belonged to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members escaped to Hamburg, Germany, and other destinations throughout Europe after the late Syrian President Hafez Assad murdered some 20,000 of them in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.
After September 11, the CIA had praised Syria for its help in the war on terror. There is some indication, however, that Syria conned CIA into thinking it was sincere on the war on terror by purposely training al Qaeda members only to turn them over to the United States.
Nevertheless, the CIA jealously covets its direct ties through the Syrian intelligence service that may reach to Bashar Assad’s brother Maher who regards Bashar as weak.
Maher was closely allied with other Syrian elements who opposed Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Through Maher, who represents the Old Guard opposed to any reforms in Syria, the CIA maintains ties with Syrian intelligence elements still in Lebanon. This helps maintain CIA influence on events in Lebanon and keeps open its links into Syria itself.
After ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in March 2003, the CIA and Syrian relationship had begun to sour following charges Syria harbored Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and fleeing Iraqi officials. This prompted former CIA Director George Tenet in October 2003 to pay a secret visit to Syria in an effort to mend fences.
Despite Bush administration pressure on Syria to stop insurgents from heading to Iraq to battle U.S. forces, a quiet relationship between Syria and the CIA continues. This also is manifested through the U.S. Embassy in Jordan and known contract workers and consultants who have since retired from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. They not only travel frequently to Syria and Lebanon. They also maintain contacts with individuals associated with the Lebanese Embassy in Washington.
In Hamburg, Germany, where the September 11 hijackers planned their attack on the United States, the CIA had a history of contacts with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the Syrian regime. Such ties began as early as 1986. Former CIA operative Bob Baer refers to this initiative in his book “Sleeping With the Devil.”
However, German investigators believe Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Hamburg actually may have acted as double-agents for the Syrian intelligence service.
At least one Hamburg area company is believed to have been a front for the Syrian intelligence service, notwithstanding its Syrian Muslim Brotherhood connection. This concern is strengthened by the fact a former director of the Syrian intelligence service is a shareholder of the Hamburg company owned by a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood member.
German officials also believe Syrian intelligence tried to control the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Hamburg, including those who would become the September 11 hijackers.
Prior to September 11, a known CIA operative obtained information from federal German counterterrorism officials monitoring the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members. Such information had been coming into CIA since before 1999. The information collected also involved activities at the Hamburg apartment where the would-be hijackers lived.
At the same time, the CIA operative was in contact with Hamburg’s counterintelligence officials who also were observing the same individuals. Without the knowledge of German counterintelligence officials, the CIA tried to recruit some of these Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members who also belonged to al Qaeda. This development created a strain between German officials and the CIA.
From 1999 to 2001, the CIA operative’s reports based on interviews with German counterterrorism and counterintelligence officials were relayed to CIA headquarters. Defense Department policymakers never were made aware of these reports’ contents prior to or after September 11.
It is apparent the CIA and the Syrians know more than what has been revealed to date. It will be imperative to learn what they knew and when they knew it, including possible attack plans.
F. Michael Maloof is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Defense Secretary.