Working for Syria's CW Program and Spilling Its Secrets To The CIA: Book Excerpt

Feb 20, 2021

By Joby Warrick, Washington Post

He was known to the CIA's clandestine service as "the chemist," and few at headquarters would ever know his real name. A professor and a gifted scientist, he had been perfectly positioned for spy work, with a job that entitled him to privileges not accorded to ordinary Syrians, including a broad latitude to travel and to meet with foreigners in the crowded souks and smoke-filled cafes of the old city.

He drew little attention to himself as he moved about, a small, clean-shaven man with owlish glasses and gray-flecked hair, in a modest suit that might have belonged to a salesman or bureaucrat. Only when he spoke English was there a hint of something exotic: a distinct American accent. It was the only detectable residue from a youth spent partly in the United States, where he attended school, ate cheeseburgers, played sports, and even joined the Boy Scouts, all before returning to his homeland to become an expert in making chemicals designed to kill human beings.

He was proud of his professional work — so proud, in fact, that analysts suspected at times that his spying was motivated less by hatred of the regime or greed than by a compulsion to boast. His first attempt at establishing contact had occurred at a scientific conference in Europe, where he had asked a friend to pass along a note to an American at the nearest U.S. Embassy. Many months passed before the CIA followed through, yet he seemed unsurprised when a stranger approached him after one of his evening lectures at Damascus University.

“I’ve been expecting you,” he told the visitor, a 20-something CIA case officer who would soon be entrusted with an extraordinary military secret. “Call me Ayman.” The author agreed to withhold the spy’s surname because of the risk of retaliation against surviving family members.

When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, CIA officials were seized with the fear that Damascus might lose control of its vast stores of sarin and other deadly nerve agents. As revealed in this excerpt from the new book “Red Line,” those fears were bolstered by more than 14 years of secret reports fed to the agency by one of Syria’s top military scientists. The CIA knew much of what materials Damascus possessed and where they were hidden — thanks mostly to one agent. The previously untold story of this man, who offered his services to the U.S., is based on interviews with three former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the case as well as a Syrian scientist and defector who was a contemporary of Ayman.

Years passed, and the hilltop laboratory complex steadily grew. By the early 2000s, the network of laboratories and production centers gradually blossomed into a mature manufacturing complex that encompassed some 40 buildings and storage bunkers at two dozen secret locations scattered across the country, from the capital to the northern city of Aleppo. The lab’s researchers still experimented with new products, but by the early 2000s the program had achieved a kind of equilibrium: a steady reserve of 1,300 to 1,500 tons of binary sarin, mustard gas, and VX. With Syria at peace, there was no need to make more.

The meetings in the alleys and cafes also went on, for 14 years, though the faces on the American side changed as new handlers came and went. Over time new methods were devised for communicating, so that Ayman could transmit messages to the CIA simply by passing the U.S. Embassy building. The cash transfers continued as well, and the spy became a wealthy man, with a bank account grown fat with American dollars as well as dinars he received as kickbacks from vendors. The sound system and Western music collection grew larger, and Ayman, approaching 50 now and gray-haired, moved his querulous wives into separate, lavishly appointed households. He was on top of the world professionally: respected by peers and admired by younger scientists. He commanded a large staff and a generous budget, and he led a highly successful military program that was prized by Syria’s leaders, including the president himself.

But something, somewhere, went wrong. The chemist could see it in the faces of the security men who arrived at CERS unannounced one morning in late 2001, looking to speak to him. Could the scientist accompany them to their office for a private meeting?
Ayman felt a tinge of panic. Did these men suspect something? But how?

The interrogation began at the headquarters of Syria’s Mukhabarat intelligence service, where a high-ranking officer — Assef Shawkat, the deputy director of military intelligence and the president’s own brother-in-law — laid out his cards at once.
“You have been betrayed,” Ayman was told.
Shawkat proceeded to explain to the frightened scientist that the government knew all about his secret activities. It would be far better for you, Shawkat said, if you confessed and asked for leniency on account of your years of service to the Republic.

So Ayman confessed — to everything. He told his interrogators about his many years of contact with the CIA. He talked about the meetings with his handlers, the secrets he had passed, and the large sum of money he had amassed in an offshore bank. No one else had been aware of his spying, he said; not his co-workers, or his business associates, or even his wives. He had done it all by himself.
Shawkat and the other security men listened, confused at first, and then fascinated. The intelligence chief had decided to question the scientist after learning of a bribery scheme in which Ayman, in his greed, had demanded payoffs from foreign companies in return for contracts to sell supplies to his institute. That was the entire reason for his arrest.

Of the far more consequential betrayal — the selling of state secrets to the CIA — the intelligence service had known nothing at all.

At that moment, throughout the Middle East, a new era was dawning, and old battles were being refought with new ferocity. Syria’s new president, Bashar al-Assad, had just ended his flirtation with free expression, a brief flowering of dissent that became known as the Damascus Spring following the death of Assad’s father in 2000. Eerily foreshadowing the Arab Spring revolt that would occur a decade later and lead to civil war, Assad firmly cast his lot with the security forces who had kept his father in power for nearly 30 years, giving his police free rein to arrest, torture, and murder until the last tendrils of the fledgling movement had been ripped from the earth.

As other Arab Spring revolts failed, Tunisia showed how democracy might prevail. But its people say they want more.
From hard men such as these, there would be no leniency for an accomplished scientist and poison-maker who had betrayed his own country. Ayman was found guilty of treason, a verdict rendered in a closed proceeding that was kept out of the public eye but described in detail, as a warning to the other scientists at CERS.

Prisoners convicted of capital offenses in Syria are usually executed by hanging, but Ayman, who had been a national hero as well as a traitor, was given special treatment. His two wives and their children were permitted to leave the country to start new lives abroad. Then, on the gray, blustery morning of April 7, 2002, he was awakened in his cell at the country’s infamous Adra Prison and escorted into a courtyard where a firing squad stood waiting. He was blindfolded, tied to a post, and shot to death.

As he died, teams of workers in protective suits were mixing a new batch of the chemist’s binary sarin in an underground factory in the Adra hills, less than five miles from the prison. In a locked chamber beyond the production hall, the finished product sat in gleaming 2,000-liter tanks, arrayed in row after tidy row, waiting for the unthinkable day when they would be put to use.

- Excerpt from 'RED LINE: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World' by Joby Warrick, published by Washington Post on February 19, 2021

Photo: A video image provided by the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) of toddlers being treated by medical workers after a suspected chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma on Sunday April 7, 2018.