Alaa Basatneh’s illusion of safety shattered when the 19-year-old anti-Syrian protester near Chicago opened a Facebook message in August.
“These words are directed at you, you agent, you traitor. Your messages have come to us. There is nothing that can be hidden from us, ‘Chicago girl,’ ” read the message, which was sent through the account of a friend who had recently been detained in Syria.
She kept the message secret for a week, thinking there was nothing U.S. law enforcement could do to the Syrian intelligence agent who sent the message from thousands of miles away. Finding out she was now on the Syrian government’s watch list may have been an intimidating shock, but what could they do to her in the United States?
But a recent indictment of a Syrian American allegedly working for Syrian intelligence agencies in the Washington area indicates that dissidents like Basatneh had reason to be afraid, even in the U.S.
Syrian-born U.S. citizen Mohamad “Alex” Soueid, 47, had been filming protesters since at least March, after the start of an uprising in Syria in which more than 3,000 protesters have died, authorities said. Soueid also met privately with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus during a June trip paid for by the Syrian government, according to the indictment, which indicates Soueid had a least one confederate.
Though no one has reported being physically harmed by a Syrian agent in the United States, some U.S. residents supporting the Syrian opposition say their relatives and friends in Syria have been punished.
That’s what Malek Jandali, 38, said happened four days after he left home in Atlanta to play an original freedom-themed piano composition at an anti-Assad rally in front of the White House. Three agents went to his parents’ home in Syria and beat them severely, he said.
“While they were beating my mother, she kept on asking, ‘Why? Why are you beating me?’ ” Jandali said. “And she said they kept mentioning my name and referring to my song — telling her that she didn’t raise her son right.”
No one knows for sure who was targeting Jandali through his parents, but Washington protesters like Mohammad Al-Abdallah have known Soueid’s name and face for months as an outsider filming them at recurring protests in front of the White House. Earlier this year, Soueid was accused in a lawsuit against the Syrian Embassy of participating in threats sent to an anti-Assad activist in Alexandria, Va., who received hostile messages after having family kidnapped and killed in Syria.
But Al-Abdallah said Soueid was just one of many spies monitoring and threatening the anti-Assad community worldwide. A recent Amnesty International report supports that, saying that more than 30 expatriate activists have been threatened in seven countries, including Canada, Chile, Britain, France, Spain, Germany and Sweden.
“I don’t think [the agents] thought they would get noticed. They do this all the time in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon without ever worrying they’ll be caught,” said Al-Abdallah, who was jailed twice in Syria for speaking negatively in public about the Assad regime before the United States granted him asylum in 2009.
Basatneh, who lives in Des Plaines, Ill., while attending Wilbur Wright College, said Soueid’s arrest was a great relief for her and her friends because it showed the U.S. government cared about protecting protesters.
The possibility that there could be more spies in the U.S. hasn’t stopped Basatneh from working her shift on the Syrian Days of Rage page on Facebook, an online hub where protesters in Syria and abroad share on-the-ground protest updates, social media communication strategies and translation help.
“I’m stubborn,” Basatneh said. “And my life isn’t more valuable than all my friends who are protesting under gunfire in Syria.”