Captured by the Free Syrian Army, the spy cut a pitiful figure. Yet a fortnight ago, he almost managed to kill Richard Spencer, who spoke to him in prison.
By Richard Spencer, Aleppo
8:00AM BST 19 Aug 2012
Revolutionaries fear spies and informers more than anything, particularly when taking on the sort of Arab dictators who themselves thrived for decades on paranoia and conspiracy.
In the flesh, the spies that cause so much trepidation are usually more wretched than their reputation.
So it was for Malik Saidi, no James Bond but a nervous, shaven-headed young man of 27 who spoke with head bowed and an apologetic look in his eye.
There was great excitement at the Free Syrian Army headquarters in Aleppo when Saidi was arrested. That afternoon, August 6, the base was attacked by regime fighter jets firing missiles, and though the rebel soldiers had been expecting to be targeted, the explosions sent a shiver of panic through the men sleeping and preparing their weapons there.
“We have caught a spy,” said Lt Abdullah Yassin, an FSA officer, shortly afterwards. “He gave information to the regime for air strikes on our base. He has been handed over to interrogators and has confessed.
“He will be executed. He has been sent to prison, and he will be judged. But I think he will be executed.”
Journalists should not interpose themselves into their stories, but it would be remiss not to declare an interest here. I was standing on the steps of the FSA base when the air strike Saidi called in struck and, if it had not missed, I too would probably be dead.
He was the spy who nearly killed me, then, and it is hard to deny that this added an extra layer of curiosity when, after more than a week of trying, I discovered where Saidi was being held and persuaded his jailors to allow me to meet him.
He was a sorry character. He was wearing the regulation uniform of the rebels’ prisoners, grey sweat-pants and a vest. He said he had been well-treated and he bore no obvious signs of brutality, except for marks around his wrist suggesting he had been shackled tightly for some considerable time.
He walked with head bowed, and spoke in a monotone, but clearly and without contradiction.
He was not a very professional or well-trained spy. Already a member of the Shabiha, the thuggish pro-regime militia recruited to brutalise the opposition by Syria’s security services from the start of the revolution, he had been sent to infiltrate the FSA base by paymasters from what was once the Air Force Intelligence barracks not far away.
He lasted just nine days before, predictably enough, a civilian neighbour of the barracks who knew him as one of its Shabiha spotted him with rebel troops and asked what he was doing there.
“He knew I worked for Air Force Intelligence,” he said. “He and the people with him started to attack me, punching me and hitting me with sticks. Then they handed me over to the FSA.”
It was a well-timed arrest — too well-timed, perhaps, to be entirely credible — but for the families killed in the strike, the Kayalis and the Katabs, not well-timed enough. For he had already triggered the bomb attack that was to obliterate them.
Since he had “joined” the FSA he had regularly phoned in intelligence on what they were doing, and had finally been asked to place a signalling device, he said, in their base. He had put one in one of the unused classrooms of the school the FSA were using that morning, and activated it.
“I was supposed to run away beforehand,” he said. “But then I was captured.” The air strike took place 20 minutes later.
Although it missed the base, his turned out to be no victimless crime. As with so many regime air strikes, it was ordinary Aleppines who paid the price of the inaccuracy of old Russian weaponry, and the Katab and Kayali families who shared the house behind the base were destroyed instantaneously.
Three children, their mother and another woman, and four men had no idea that they were about to be attacked. An hour later, an angry crowd began digging out the bodies: only pieces of bodies, really, piled respectfully on the pavement.
It is hard to know what to make of Saidi’s story. On the one hand, it seems far too convenient that someone arrested so soon before a highly damaging air strike should so easily confess to having “called it in”. On the other hand, the fact of his arrest slipped out accidentally and no-one volunteered him to speak to the media.
On the contrary, it took several days of persuasion to set the interview up.
He was one of a number of Shabiha prisoners introduced to the press over the last two weeks at the prison where they are being held in the town of Mari, north of Aleppo, that is home to the leader of rebel forces fighting in the city, Abdulqadr Saleh al-Hajji.
Whatever the truth of their individual confessions, their background gives some indication of the regime’s methods in recruiting them.
While the core of the Shabiha are said to be smugglers and petty criminals from the Alawi, the Shia offshoot sect to which the Assad regime belongs, many are from a class of poorly-educated, government-dependent Sunnis hired by money and threats.
Saidi worked at a factory dyeing clothes before losing his job and becoming a driving instructor. This brought him into contact with the police who targeted him for the Shabiha when the uprising started, threatening his livelihood and family if he didn’t agree to join and offering money if he did.
He was assigned to a 20-strong squad led by Ahmed Fadel Aswad, whom we met separately. Aswad, 35, said that in his year of service, his men beat and occasionally killed protesters, raped women – including girls seized after protests at Aleppo University – and planted bombs whose destruction could be blamed on “terrorists”.
Again, not all he says is convincing – at least one of the bomb attacks he said he carried out was also claimed by Jubhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group which is certainly now fighting in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. But the thrust of his story was believable and the main details were not as extreme as a propagandist might want to construct.
Another member of the gang, Firaz Hadid, whose story was also consistent with the others’, said he personally had not done anything “really bad” at all – he had neither killed nor raped anyone, just wielded a machete on protesters.
Like the others, Hadid was full of remorse, and said he had only joined up because he ran an illegal fruit and vegetable stall and had been threatened with his livelihood by police. He had been jailed before because of his stall and was frightened to go back.
Contrary to Lt Yassin’s expectations, the rebels are promising that none of the men will be executed. FSA leaders are aware that a recent spate of killings by rebels across northern Syria – most spectacularly, the shooting 20 days ago of four members of a Shabiha family in the playground of the same Aleppo school-cum-FSA base – has alarmed human rights groups and the wider western world.
At a time when they are more hopeful that some sort of western intervention, perhaps a no-fly zone, could be brought into play, they are suddenly keen to demonstrate that they are not a bunch of rogue guerrillas.
In Aleppo, a crude judicial system is being set up. Those arrested in the city, like the three Shabiha, are brought before the FSA’s senior civilian leader, a black-turbaned former businessman who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Suleiman and spent 15 years in Dubai before returning to Syria.
After a preliminary investigation of any accusations, Abu Suleiman decides whether to release them or hold them. Petty criminals are often banged up in the makeshift jail at the base for a brief period – accompanied, in the case of three teenage shoplifters whose arrest was witnessed by The Sunday Telegraph, by a quick whipping with knotted rope.
More serious offenders – mainly Shabiha – are transferred to Mari to await trial.
There, the man responsible for civil affairs on the rebels’ local coordination committee said, they are assured of good treatment and, some time in the future, a court hearing with lawyers.
“We are still working on the details,” the official, Abu Hatem, said. “But there will be no death penalty. We do not believe in capital punishment here. We will not treat them the way they treated us.”
The 250 men in the Mari prison do not look overconfident of their fate, spending most of their days in classroom cells staring at their feet. On their two periods of exercise a day, they run sharply to it when their jailors shout.
In a rebel prison in a neighbouring town, Tal Rifaat, the local sharia council has confirmed to journalists and to a Human Rights Watch team that light beating with hands on the back is an accepted form of punishment, and beating of the feet to extract information.
On the other hand, an unannounced evening visit to Mari found prisoners in nothing worse than a prayer session. Abu Hatem said that in Mari, at least, the court system he was setting up would follow a form of civil law, not Sharia.
Keen to promote his humanitarian credentials further, he also refused permission for photographs to be taken that showed any of the prisoners’ faces, citing the Geneva Convention.
Saidi said he had been told by his bosses that if he was caught by the FSA he would be killed. “But the FSA didn’t kill me, though those neighbours wanted to,” he said. “They have given me medical treatment.”
He said – perhaps inevitably – that he had confessed because he felt “guilty” about what he had done. He did add, though, that he had only started to feel guilty the moment he was arrested.
As for the victims of his spying – not me, of course, but the nine people from two families who were blown to pieces – he offered just a brief, but formal, apology. “I am very sorry,” he said.