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"Everybody has a fear that (a stranger) might be Mukhabarat … even over here in the U.S.A."

– Ramah Rabah, Syrian-American living in California

A PBS NewsHour special report   |   Jan. 12, 2012

Are Syrian Spies on U.S. Soil?

Children with poster and flag

Syrian children hold up a picture of President Bashar al-Assad and the national flag during a rally in support of the president in the Old City of Damascus on March 25, 2011. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

By P.J. Tobia

After our story, "Syrian Spies Operating in the U.S." was broadcast on Jan. 3, we received several responses to our Public Insight Network request for the personal stories of Syrian- Americans who felt that they had been spied on by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The responses reflect the wide spectrum of beliefs and affiliations that make up the Syrian-American community. Most were from ordinary people who decided to take up some small part of the growing opposition abroad, usually through social media. A few responses supported Assad, or at least denounced what they perceived as violence brought on by the protestors in Syria.

But the common thread that wove through most of the responses was the feeling of being watched, of a climate of surveillance within the Syrian-American community. After Friday prayers at the mosque, "you cannot talk politics if there is anyone present who you don't know," said one respondent. "Everybody has a fear that (a stranger) might be Mukhabarat ...even over here in the USA." Most chilling, this culture of surveillance, of worrying if a casual acquaintance might be an informant for the government back home, has been a part of the Syrian-American experience for some time, long-predating even the current turmoil that began in March, 2011.What follows is compilation of the stories of those Syrian-Americans who reached out to NewsHour, told in video, sound, words and pictures.

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    Marah Bukai

    Writer,
    Northern Virginia

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    Hazem Hallak

    Philadelphia

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    Nour

    Ann Arbor, Michigan

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    Ramah Rabah

    California

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    Hamdi Rafai

    Lawyer,
    New Jersey

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    Mohamad Hishmeh

    Houston, Texas

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    Syrian Embassy

    Washington, DC

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Long Arm of Mukhabarat Reaches U.S. Shores

Marah Bukai, is a writer living in Northern Virginia.

In 2003, she started a Syrian-American organization based on opposing the Assad regime. Last year she and other Syrian-Americans met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After the meeting, she began receiving threats, warning her of rape, or worse, if she kept up her anti-Assad activities:

Marah Bukai also had her Facebook page hacked:

No one knows for sure who launched these attacks, but there is an organization known as the Syrian Electronic Army, a group that defends the Assad regime by hacking into or spamming the websites and social media accounts of opposition members and groups (we reported on the Syrian Electronic Army in Oct.)

Long Arm of Mukhabarat Reaches U.S. Shores

Hazem Hallak lives in suburban Philadelphia. His brother Sakher, who ran Syria's only clinic for eating disorders, visited Hazem in May 2011 while en route to a conference in Miami. Hazem said that the Syrian government kept tabs on the brothers' online conversations. But the worst would come when Sakher returned home:

As he explains in a Google Hangout; multi-person video conversation, including Hari Sreenivasan from The PBS NewsHour and Syrian-Americans who feel they have been spied on by the Syrian government here in the U.S.

Long Arm of Mukhabarat Reaches U.S. Shores

Nour--who prefers we don't use her last name so that her family in Syria isn't put in danger--is a pediatrician and mother of two in Ann Arbor Michigan. She'd never really used Twitter very much before last summer, but thought it might be a good way to support the protestors in Syria. "I just couldn't believe what was happening on the ground," she said in an interview. "Here's these people risking their lives, getting shot and killed and murdered and tortured, the least I could do is tweet about it."

Then, shortly after she began her Twitter campaign, she received a chilling threat:

Surveillance of Syrian Americans Nothing New

In 2004, Ramah Rabah decided to speak out against what he viewed as a repressive government back home, a home he'd left nearly twenty-five years before. He contacted the editor of a small-circulation Arab language newspaper in the Sacramento area where he lives and began a weekly column addressing what he saw as the ills and illegitimacy of the Assad government. After a few columns, Rabah said he "started receiving calls from people I didn't know." People "with restricted numbers...talking to me about how I have to stop writing against the government." He said that at least one of the callers repeatedly identified himself as an "embassy security officer in Washington, D.C." 

He continued his column for another month, telling the threatening callers "Hey, I live in the United States now, we have these freedoms."

"Maybe you left Syria," Rabah said they replied, "but your family is still living there."

After a few more columns he received another call. "Why don't you phone your family in Syria," they said. "Check on them."

He called his sister in Syria, she was in tears when she answered, and with good reason:

Rabah Gets Terrible News by PBSNewsHour

Long Arm of Mukhabarat Reaches U.S. Shores

Hamdi Rafai is a Syrian American lawyer, living in New Jersey. Rafai said that he went to the very first protest against the Assad regime, held in front of the Syrian embassy in Washington last spring.

A week after the rally, he received the following note to his Facebook account, in Arabic, from a  group called "The Shami Family Expatriates," which he and others say is an arm of the Syrian Interior Ministry:

English Translation:

Syrians are brothers to the heroes. To ensure the safety of our dear country and your own safety we call upon you the following:

1: Do not relay any information unless attributed to an official statement from government agencies.

2: not to accept canned food and bread from whatever point they are distributed for free because of the dissemination of toxic substances

3: Obligation to instructions of the Ministry of Interior has been an absolute, either by Syrian television or radio.

4: stop the marches, according to the decision of the Ministry of the Interior, to miss an opportunity to infiltrators and saboteurs of fomenting chaos

5: Please report immediately all Another matter of even the slightest suspicion immediately and any information about him to the security of((112) (f) (159))

Hand in hand we protect Syria precious of all conspiracies being hatched against him and lined up together and behind his wise leadership.

Pro-Assad Syrian-Americans Scared For a Different Reason

Syrians who do not agree with the protests in their homeland also responded to our Public Insight Network request. But, like the pro-Assad Syrian-Americans we spoke with for our broadcast story, they declined to be filmed or have their voices recorded. They too were worried that their families back home would be punished--this time by anti-Assad groups--for what they said here in the U.S. One man was also concerned about what people in his community would say. “It’s not about the Mukhabarat I’m worried about,” Mohamad Hishmeh of Houston told NewsHour in an interview. “It’s more about the feelings of my fellow Syrian-Houstonians.”

He supports change in Syria, and went to a few meetings and rallies when the upheaval began. He also thinks that Assad should be given a chance to make reforms.

Hishmeh, who’s live in Houston for 28 years said that he isn’t so much pro-Assad as he is anti-violence. He said that the level of vitriol shown by anti-Assad protestors in the U.S. “is frightening…I went to a meeting once and one person said ‘We need to start taking names of those who do not support the revolution.’”

He feels that the protestors in Syria are doing more harm than good and insists that “the Syrian government has no presence here in the U.S.”

Syrian Embassy Declines to Comment

The Syrian embassy in Washington declined repeated requests for comment on this story and also declined to make any embassy official available for a sit-down, on-camera interview. The only response we received to our repeated interview and information requests was the following document:

Syrian Embassy Response