A Virginia man’s arrest on spying charges could shed light on whether the embattled Syrian government is trying to intimidate dissidents around the world.
FBI agents have arrested Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a 47-year-old resident of Leesburg, Va., on charges of making false statements to federal agents, being an unregistered foreign agent, and making an illegal purchase of firearms. The indictment is the first of its kind against Syrians believed to be involved in a plot to intimidate Syrian-Americans with threats and violence against their families back home.
“Today’s indictment alleges that the defendant acted as an unregistered agent of the Syrian government as part of an effort to collect information on people in this country protesting the Syrian government crack-down,” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement Wednesday.
A grand jury agreed to the five-count indictment on Oct. 5, according to the Justice Department announcement, and Soueid was arrested on Tuesday.
The State Department first accused Syria’s ambassador of overseeing the spying operation on protests on July 8, after numerous Syrian-Americans brought detailed complaints to the department’s head of diplomatic security. “We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador [Imad] Moustapha’s authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States,” the department said at the time.
Moustapha has in press interviews denied any role in spying on Syrian-Americans. The Syrian embassy in Washington released a statement saying that the charges were baseless.
"Neither Mr. Soueid nor any other citizen of the U.S. is an agent of the Syrian Government," the statement said. "The accusation that a U.S. citizen is working with the Syrian Government to intimidate U.S. citizens is absolutely baseless and totally unacceptable. Contrary to the statement of the Department of Justice, Mr. Soueid is not an agent of any Syrian institution; he never worked under directions or control of any Syrian official." The embassy also denied that Mr. Soueid was ever paid by the government of Syria.
Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria and a member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, said: “There are too many instances to count of Syrian-Americans who have seen their families intimidated and in some cases arrested, beaten, and tortured just because in America they are speaking out against Bashar Assad and his regime.” Rifai said he has brought these cases to the attention of the State Department.
One prominent example of this kind of intimidation involved the Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali. In an interview Wednesday, he told The Daily Beast that his parents were beaten and arrested in Damascus after he performed at a demonstration in Washington on July 23.
“I composed a song called 'Watani Ana'—'I Am My Homeland,'” he said. “It was just my way of expressing my solidarity and support with any people seeking freedom and human rights. It was a universal message. On July 23, I performed the song at a protest in front of the White House.”
Jandali continued: “Five days later, on July 28, Syrian security forces attacked and beat both of my parents brutally. My mother had to have stitches; she was bleeding from the eye and her teeth were broken. My father was also beaten, and he had a black eye.”
He added, “They locked them both in the bathroom while ransacking our home. While they were beating my mother, they referenced my participation in the protest in Washington. They mentioned my name, and they told her specifically, ‘That is what you get when your son demonstrates against and mocks the government. This is a lesson to you, to teach you how to raise your child.’”
Jandali’s mother and father arrived at the United States in September on visas that were expedited by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a onetime Middle East adviser to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told The Daily Beast, “This is the tip of the iceberg. There are bound to be more people implicated in this crime of operating a Syrian [intelligence service] on U.S. soil, including perhaps Syrian Embassy personnel who can potentially be deemed persona non grata from the United States.”
Jandali credited the FBI: “I want to thank the authorities for the arrest today and for ensuring our freedom of speech and liberty in America,” he said. “I hope their investigations lead them to the head of the spies, who is the representative of the regime in Washington, Imad Moustapha.”