BEIRUT and AMMAN//On a summer evening five months into the Syrian uprising, a well-dressed man, a little heavy-set but younger looking than his 50 years, sat quietly at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, having a drink and smoking a cigar.
An unremarkable looking figure, similar to any other member of the narrow elite grown rich in Syria’s vigorous, family-run kleptocracy. But this man was set apart by a particular hardness on his face, framed by dark, neatly trimmed stubble along the jawline, and an intense hostility in his eyes.
Most Syrians wouldn’t have known him by sight but they all know his name: Atef Najib, the man who ignited the revolution.
And they would not have been surprised to find him lounging in the dimly lit opulence of the Four Seasons that summer. He was supposedly under investigation by a special committee, headed by an independent judge, over involvement in torture and several killings. But, as a cousin of President Bashar Al Assad, he could enjoy his night out with complete impunity.
Even if the investigating committee was more than a hollow fiction and even if there was such a thing as an independent judge in Syria, neither would dare touch him.
Despite his pivotal role in sparking the Syrian revolt, the public record on Najib is threadbare. He is a first cousin of Assad and was the head of political security in Deraa, a low-rise city of industrious farmers and traders on the border with Jordan, where simmering disaffection burst into the open on March 18, 2011.
There were small protests elsewhere in Syria that Friday, and there had been isolated outbreaks of public dissent over the previous week, but they were handled with a certain deft, constrained ruthlessness. Beatings, arrests and threats but not murder. In Deraa under Najib, it was different – and it exploded.
He had, with characteristic arrogance, already laid the groundwork to set Syria aflame, most notably by insulting a group of local men who had gone to ask that he set free 18 boys, detained for writing “Doctor, your turn next” on a school wall.
The teenagers were tortured for daring to suggest that Assad – an ophthalmologist – was heading the way of other, recently deposed regional dictators.
Najib told the boys’ worried fathers to “forget about them”. There are two versions of what he said after that. One, told by regime sympathisers willing to discuss the incident, grudgingly admits that “two or three” of the young prisoners were physically abused, but holds that Najib told the men their failure to teach their children manners meant the job had fallen to him.
The other account, the one that has entered into Deraa lore, is that Najib told the men go home and have new children and, if they lacked the virility to do so, that they should send their wives to his office and he would ensure they left pregnant. It was all too much for a proud people to take.
In response came the fateful March 18 protests demanding Najib be sacked and punished. His security forces answered by shooting into the crowd of unarmed civilians, killing three people. That day was the start of a grassroots revolution and a bloodletting that, now entering its fourth year and with more than 140,000 dead, shows no sign of abating.
“When it started, you could say it was a revolution against Atef Najib. There were lots of other issues, but he was the reason people went out, he pushed them past the point of no return,” said a member of an influential Deraa family with close ties to the regime. “It became a revolution against Bashar but right at the beginning they just wanted Najib gone. Everyone hated him”.
For his role in those opening acts of violence, Najib was placed on the economic sanctions lists by the EU and US, documents that are notable for their dearth of information. The brief US entry is the most detailed: NAJIB, Atif (aka NAJEEB, Atef; aka NAJIB, Atef); Place of Birth, Jablah, Syria; Brigadier General; Position: Former head of the Syrian Political Security Directorate for Deraa Province.
Some of the most infamous members of the Assad cabal have more or less well-known biographies, their pictures posted online, without their consent perhaps, but they are there, exposed: Rami Makhlouf, Maher Al Assad, Rostom Ghazali, Asef Shawkat, Ali Mamluk.
Najib, like other powerful officers in the secret police fraternity, preferred the shadows. Away from the facade of Syria’s government ministries, courtrooms and state-run television, he was part of the opaque world of the mukhabarat (secret police), Assad family members and ultra-loyalists who really run the country but who, for the sake of a certain decorum, pretend not to. He didn’t like to have his photo taken.
By 1965, Hafez Al Assad, the son of a peasant from Syria’s impoverished Alawite community in the mountain region on the Mediterranean coast, had already moved far beyond his humble origins to lead the country’s air force and hold a place in the Baath party’s ruling National Command.
That year, his second son, Bashar Al Assad, was born. Around the same time – most likely in 1964 or 1965 – Hafez and his wife Anisa, another Alawite from similarly inauspicious origins, had also gained a nephew, Atef Najib.
Anisa’s sister, Fatima Makhlouf, had married Najib Ala’a, a small-time businessman from Jablah, a coastal town 14km from Qurdaha, the Assad family’s ancestral home. He sold petrol by the side of the road, less a garage than a couple of fuel storage drums to serve the few passing motorists.
Najib Ala’a was a Sunni; intermarriage between the sects was common, although not always viewed kindly (“We don’t like our women marrying Sunnis because they bring up the children according to the father’s religion and they’re all extremists in the end,” as an Alawite mukhabarat officer would later put it). Fatima Makhlouf and Najib Ala’a would go on to have five children, two daughters, three sons. All would benefit from the coup d’etat of 1970 that brought their uncle, Hafez Al Assad, “the eternal leader”, to power.
Fatima’s and Anisa’s brother, Mohammad Makhlouf, was the most successful at exploiting the link to his brother-in-law the president, becoming his personal financial adviser and building a vast business empire that would, under his son, Rami Makhlouf, blossom into monopolies worth billions of dollars.
Najib Ala’a, the former petrol seller, also a brother-in law to Hafez, cashed in on the connection as well but not to the same degree and, according to accounts from friends of the family and Syrians familiar with the workings of the regime, his clumsy moneymaking ventures became something of an annoyance and embarrassment to Hafez.
“He would use his family connections to make money in corrupt ways, but not cleverly, and he ended up making trouble for Hafez, there was some friction there, he fell out of favour and may have been put in prison for a month or so, just as a warning,” said a former friend of one of Najib Ala’a’s sons.
The path of Atef Najib, a volatile, aggressive man prone to outbursts of anger, had distinct echoes of that previously trodden by his father.
As a teenager, Atef Najib went to military college and was closer to Bacel Al Assad, Hafez’s eldest son and the man then being groomed to replace him as president, than he was to Bashar, a shy, gawky teenager. Bacel and Atef had similar characters: brash, fearless and feared – they both loved to drive recklessly in fast cars; a crash would kill Bacel in 1994.
Atef Najib joined the intelligence services but ended up at odds with his superiors, and, as his father had, annoying his powerful cousin and uncle. In the early 1990s, he was suspended from his duties.
“Bacel kicked him out of the intelligence services around 1992. He was insulting to people, using very bad words, kidnapping girls, firing off guns. He was so arrogant they couldn’t handle him. Hafez was also angry at Najib’s behaviour,” said a former friend of the Assad family.
For about six years, with his career in the mukhabarat apparently over, Najib languished, “sitting in the house”, according to the former friend, until, with Bashar on the brink of taking over the presidency from his ailing father, Fatima Makhlouf, Atef’s mother, managed to talk the Assads into taking him back. Her errant son, now 34 years old, had matured and was fit for duty, she said. He was reinstated at his old rank, and reassigned to political intelligence in Damascus, working out of their foreboding cement block office in Mezzeh.
The responsibilities of Syria’s myriad intelligence agencies are vague and overlapping, with officers spying on each other as well as the public. At political intelligence in the capital, Atef Najib specialised in monitoring the police and making sure that political parties – all were illegal except those supporting the regime – stayed in line.
Najib would drive around the capital in an invariably new car from his growing collection of BMWs and Jaguars, sometimes meeting the people he sought to control over lunch in expensive restaurants, if they were being cooperative, or summoning them to his office if they needed to be brought into line.
“Sometimes he’d be nice and the next minute terrible, he was up and down, just a very volatile man,” said a Syrian businessman who was questioned by Atef Najib more than once during the period. He also described him as “filthy rich”.
“There are some people in the regime it pays you to meet and have a close relationship with. There is a reasonableness to them, you can work with them. And then there are others who you don’t want to go near because nothing good will come of it – Atef Najib was one of those,” the businessman said.
Najib’s family connections ensured he had power and wealth but his reputation for violent instability meant some regime insiders saw him as more of a liability than an asset.
In 2002, Ghazi Kanaan, a distant relative of Atef Najib, was summoned back from his 20-year stint as Syria’s feared intelligence chief in Lebanon and put in charge of political security in Damascus. He had little time for Najib and sidelined him within the bureau, where his opponents had nicknamed him “the animal”.
“Atef was nothing special, he was conceited, he thought a great deal of himself, more than anyone else did. He was related to the Assads, that was his talent,” said a former mukhabarat officer who knew the Najib family.
“He wasn’t particularly violent or corrupt, just the normal levels for someone in his position.”
Only after Kanaan’s death in 2005 – a self-inflicted gunshot, according to the Syrian authorities – did Najib’s career regain momentum. Within three years he was sent to Deraa to head the governorate’s political security branch.
In Deraa, Najib quickly set about establishing his own fiefdom. “His reputation preceded him. We were told: ‘You’re getting a man there is no talking to, you’re getting a real criminal.’ But the big families in Deraa had good connections to the regime and plenty of money, so they thought they’d be able to bribe him as they bribed any other officer,” said a Deraa resident from one of those influential families.
But instead of simply taking those bribes and an easy living, Najib insisted on control. He muscled in on the territory of other security chiefs in the area, built his own network of spies and spread personnel loyal to him throughout the province.
“He had informants everywhere, there was an atmosphere that his soldiers were listening in on everything, even in the elementary schools. He insisted on being the first to know about any problem that might be developing. Teachers were sending weekly reports up to him about the political convictions of even their young students,” the well-connected Deraa resident said.
“There were security officers in Deraa who were afraid even in their homes,” explained another Deraa resident who was close to the city’s security apparatus and business elite. “One senior officer I was close to told me he was convinced Najib had put cameras in his house so he could spy on him even there. ‘Walls have ears, he’s listening,’ they’d say.”
In the guise of fighting corruption, Najib moved to block established networks for transporting goods, both legal and illegal, replacing them with his own monopoly on the movement of goods across the border, flows of money and information, and exploitation of water rights – crucial in a farming community – according to yet another Deraa resident involved in business in the province.
“It didn’t stop the corruption, it just concentrated it in his hands,” said the relative of a powerful smuggler operating in Deraa at the time. “Smuggling and money-laundering all still happened, it was just all through certain big merchants and that is where Atef Najib got his money from.”
Paranoia infected Najib himself. Even before the revolution, he was rarely seen in public and would move in a high-security motorcade, convinced his enemies wanted to assassinate him. His food was shipped from Damascus because he feared poisoning.
“Things hadn’t been as bad in Deraa since the 1980s, he reintroduced that mentality, we thought that was all in the past but he brought it back – he brought back the iron fist,” said the well-connected Deraa resident, who once met Najib. “He was considered the absolute power in the province, he was in charge of the fate of 1.2 million people,” he said. “Atef Najib used to tell us, ‘In Deraa, I am God’.”
Deraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area. Najib’s imperious reign was instrumental in turning it against the ruling family.
After the killings of March 18, Assad followed a double strategy of mild conciliation and brutal crackdown that would quickly ignite a full-blown rebellion in the country his family had ruled since 1970. He refused to travel to Deraa personally and instead sought to defuse anger there with delegations, which were invariably told that Najib must be punished for the torture of the schoolboys and held responsible for the shootings.
The regime also moved to crush the growing dissent before it could build momentum. On March 23, Faisal Kalthoum, the governor of Deraa, was sacked, supposedly a gesture at reform. The same day, soldiers raided the Omari Mosque in Deraa’s old city, killing nine people. They said it had become a den of plotters involved in a foreign conspiracy against the homeland.
Four days later in parliament, Yousef Abu Rumiah, a Syrian MP from Deraa, took the unprecedented step of demanding that Assad ensure Najib be punished, saying his security forces had “killed people indiscriminately”. Those remarks were edited out of parliamentary footage shown on state TV.
On April 9, with 170 people killed in just 23 days, an unnamed regime “security source” told the media that Najib and Kalthoum had been referred to court for investigation. In June, Judge Mohammed Deeb Al Muqatran, the head of a special judicial committee set up to investigate allegations against security officers, banned Najib from travelling abroad. “No one has immunity, whoever he is,” state media quoted the judge as saying.
In the months after those first Deraa shootings, Assad received visiting delegations, including a group of clerics who pleaded that he take action against Najib, telling the president that transparent justice against a member of his family would send a powerful message and restore confidence in the regime. According to accounts of that meeting, Assad told them he couldn’t arrest his cousin because no formal complaint had ever been made to the police and, therefore, no case had been opened. “I cannot just punish a person,” Assad told them.
“Atef was moved to a different position, but there was no punishment. He was in Deraa as Bashar’s envoy, he was doing exactly the work Bashar sent him there to do. Why would he be punished for that?” said a former senior mukhabarat officer.
Much of Deraa city has been destroyed. In April last year, the stone minaret of the Omari mosque, which dates to the 7th century, was felled in what appears to have been a deliberate act of demolition by regime forces. A video shows it collapsing into rubble as a tank passes. Large parts of the city and surrounding province are now in the hands of rebels but regime forces remain strong in the southern region. Neither side appears close to victory.
“The regime doesn’t regret what he did, regime people don’t think he made mistakes or anything of the sort. They look at him, many people in the regime, and believe he is a hero for what he did,” said a Syrian who knew Najib and who remains in touch with Assad loyalists.
He cited a “very high-level official in Damascus” as saying that they should erect a statue of Najib: “The man is a hero. He really was the first one to discover the conspiracy against Syria, he saw it before the rest of us,” the official said.
In the summer of 2011, supposedly under investigation, Najib was glimpsed in expensive restaurants and the Four Seasons in Damascus. He is believed to still work for the security services in some capacity.
A Syrian who met Najib numerous times may have been speaking of the whole regime when he said: “A mistake people make is to think people like Atef Najib are just ignorant, violent thugs but that underestimates them.
“Atef Najib was smart, he was clever like the devil is clever. When it comes to their business, they get right down to the hard edge of things, when it comes to survival they have amazing instincts. A big mistake people made is to think they are all stupid. They’re not.”
Phil Sands reported from Beirut, Suha Ma’ayeh from Amman and Justin Vela from the UAE.
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