The Syria Trials/
S1E8: Ghosts


There are many men who carry out the Assad regime's bidding - from soldiers in the army to the intelligence officers of the mukhabarat. But there's also another group, who do much of the regime’s dirty work, but who are only unofficially tied to the Assads. These men are known as the shabiha - which translates roughly from the Arabic to mean “ghosts”. But who exactly are these ghosts? Where did they come from and what crimes are they responsible for?

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff. It was produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. The voice over was provided by Ahmad Al Muhammad. Translation was by Alaa Hassan. This episode was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

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Episode Transcript

Ammar Daba: I believe that the term and the actual visibility of shabiha just slid very smoothly into our conscious and into our lives. We always saw people who were oppressive and they did whatever they wanted and they were above the law. Even if they are dressed like every other civilian. So we have seen these things. There was no law. It was like the jungle. So when we started to see the shabiha, we see oh, this is becoming visible, we can see that now. It wasn't very strange. We were like, okay, now we have this on top of everything else. Well, okay. 

Fritz Streiff: The Assad regime has a vast coercive apparatus, meaning that it has numerous tools at its disposal that it uses to instil fear and inflict violence. We've heard about some of these tools already, as well as the cases being built around them. For example, the tool of the army and its use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. The tool of the Mukhabarat, and its systematic use of torture and enforced disappearance. But there's another tool that the Syrian regime uses, one that has gone largely under the radar and more easily evades the reach of international legal systems. This tool is also a group of men who carry out violence for the regime, but their ties with the regime are unofficial, opaque and tricky to establish. This group is many things at the same time. In fact, maybe the best way of describing them is a phenomenon. This phenomenon is called the shabiha, which can be translated from the Arabic to mean ghosts. Who are these ghosts? Who really are the shabiha? This is The Syria Trials. Episode Eight. Ghosts. 

Ammar: I am Ammar Daba, and I'm a comedian, writer, screenwriter and podcaster. I was born in Damascus in 1978, and Damascus and Syria were a very strange place because we lived under the rule of Hafez al-Assad. Who was the father of Bashar al-Assad. And it wasn't very nice. It wasn't nice at all, to be honest. I left the country in 2005. Yeah. Five years of Bashar al-Assad was enough for me.

I started hearing about shabiha from my friend in school. His mother was from Latakia and he used to tell me what he used to see when they go to Latakia. And he was telling me about this huge gangs headed by the cousins of the president. Their names were Fawaz al-Assad and Hilal al-Assad and those guys that worked in smuggling and running guns and running drugs and everything. So those gangs used to fight in Latakia, in the city, and they will fight. There will be shooting and it's just crazy. 

Fritz: The Assad family have their roots in Latakia, a coastal area in the west of Syria. They are from the village of Al Kurdaha, in the mountainous region of Latakia. 

Tarek Azizeh VO: My name is Tarek Azizeh and I am an author and a researcher from Syria. I was born in Latakia in 1982. I studied law at the University of Damascus and graduated in 2006. I shifted towards journalism, then to academic writing. I had to leave my home country towards the end of 2014 because of my political stance. I have been living in Germany for a few years now. 

I remember from childhood that this word shabiha was the name given to the thugs who worked for some members of the Assad family, specifically to those who were notorious in Latakia for doing illegal business, like smuggling. These men were outside the reach of the law because of their connections to the Assads. 

Young men in the area saw an opportunity for a job, if you can call it a job. The coast was one of the most impoverished regions, with few job opportunities and low-income averages. There were also people who wanted to be close to the power of the Assads, so they started working as a driver or a bodyguard, and later they might become in charge of some smuggling operation or even commit crime like murder. 

Ammar: We didn't see that in Damascus. But then, along the years, we started to see more and more of this, and it wasn't something that is totally foreign to us. Because we've seen people dressed like everybody else, they are not in uniform, holding guns, holding AK47s and walking in a street. 

Tarek VO: They moved around like the gangs you see in the movies with bodyguards, fancy cars, black attire and dark glasses. They used a Mercedes car, which was nicknamed the Ghost back then. 

Ammar: Shabiha, it came from “shabah”, which is the nickname we used to call the Mercedes 500 SEL. This big, fancy car, because those guys, the corrupt guys, those bosses used to roam around in these cars, followed by three or four more Mercedes. 

Fritz: So in the eighties and nineties, the term shabiha was associated with corrupt men, mafia men almost, and the thugs who worked for them. All of these men were linked to the Assads in ways that were opaque. Like any other gang or mafia organisation, they did not wear uniforms or insignia. They did not have any official ties with the regime. So how did regular civilians know who was a shabiha and who wasn't? Were there other ways to identify and recognise these shadowy figures? 

Ammar: Well, puffed up guys with guns. I can't think they can be mistaken easily. They’re just there, big people… Me growing up, tattoos were not a thing. And if you had a tattoo, you're definitely a badass. Now, those guys are like… they had tattoos and they had tattoos of in some cases, most of the cases this is what I saw, symbols of the Alawite sect. So you will have the sword of Ali, who's like this religious figure symbol, etc. So, yeah, they're hard to miss. They're there. 

Tarek: That people who are shabiha for the Assads came from different sects. Of course, since they depended mainly on the people of their region, there's a higher percentage of the Alawite sect. But within the close trusted circles of the Assads, were well-known people who were not Alawites. 

Ammar: I don't believe. And that's my personal, personal view. It's my personal opinion. I don't believe they came from a specific town or a specific part of the country. There is this reputation that they all came from the coastal parts of Syria, which I genuinely disagree with, because I believe that the shabiha phenomena became a culture, became part of the culture, became a big concept. And this concept is based on maintaining fear, based on preventing people from expressing or showing any kind of resistance. So I don't believe they came from a specific part of the country. Anyone who had the tendency to ride that wave, they will. 

Ugur Ungor: The shabiha, first of all, if you look at the membership or if you look at the their makeup, it's incredibly varied group. There are people from all walks of life that joined them. But there are two important distinctions we need to make when we look at it. On the one hand, we see the Assad family. A lot of these men in the leadership positions of shabiha, they are in one way or the other related to the Assads, either by marriage or by blood, and who basically have promised, you know, explicitly or maybe implicitly to support the regime with weapons when the need arises. 

Fritz: Ugur Ungor is a historian and sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, whose main area of interest is the historical sociology of mass violence and nationalism. 

Ugur: And on the other hand, you have the second, let's say, profile of the shabiha, are those people who join the shabiha on their own volition, kind of as vigilantes. And then they try to really ingratiate themselves to the regime by committing violence for the regime. And that can be for various reasons. I mean, they can actually believe in the regime. They can actually love Assad and want to commit violence for him so that he stays in power. But they can also be people who are opportunistic because they want to be close to the centres of power, who basically think the regime needs people to help it stay afloat. 

Fritz: There are perhaps many ways we could describe the shabiha and how the phenomenon has developed over time. We could describe them as a gang of thugs or as mercenaries, as mafia henchmen, or as an armed civilian militia. Ugur Ungor believes that the shabiha fall under the definition of a paramilitary group. 

Ugur: So, a paramilitary group is an armed group that does not fall under the official apparatus of coercion of a state, such as the army or the police, but that yet commits violence for that state. So, these are often groups that are semi-official that have intricate, indirect and sometimes imperceptible ties with political leaders. And the whole point of these ties being imperceptible or surreptitious is exactly for the uninformed observer or bystander, the violence that they commit can't be directly traced back to the state. And these paramilitaries, whenever there's a crisis or whenever the regime is challenged, these paramilitaries, they basically crawl out of the woodwork. They are armed and they are given carte blanche to commit violence against the adversaries of the regime and to repress or to stop the threat or, you know, repress the uprising. 

Fritz: Which is exactly what happened when the regime faced the most recent and greatest threat to its power for decades. The 2011 revolution. From 2011 onwards, what it meant to be a shabiha changed. 

Tarek VO: After the Syrian Revolution started in mid-March 2011, the regime mobilised all of its official and unofficial forces to confront the challenge. From the early days, Latakia was part of the Revolution, which was surprising, since Latakia was always described as the stronghold of the regime. This drove the regime absolutely crazy. 

The intelligence started to spread rumours between neighbourhoods, warning that one neighbourhood is about to attack another. Every neighbourhood had someone that was connected with the regime. The person that was sent there was usually a member of the security forces or even a retired member of the security apparatus. They began to form what was called popular committees and justified them as protection for the neighbourhood. We didn't know what they were protecting us from. 

The regime didn't want people to go to the streets and protest, or even leave their homes out of curiosity to see what was happening. So, what is the best way to keep people in their homes? It's to scare them. The shabiha of the Assads took to the streets and went around the city shooting bullets randomly in the air. People didn't dare to leave the house. 

Ugur: When the uprising, when it began and especially when it spread and escalated in the country in the spring of 2011. One could ask the question, a regime that has recourse to so many different violence agencies like the intelligence and the army and the police and the Special Forces. You know, why do they rely on a bunch of amateurs like the shabiha? They're not trained in subduing crowds. They're not trained in police work or in army work, in military work. And there are a number of reasons for that. I mean, first of all, of course, the regular army didn't want to do a bunch of this work. The regular Syrian army, the standing army, is a cross-section of Syrian society. And these men, they didn't want to shoot at the demonstrations. So as the number of conscripts in the army and the power, the influence in the army dwindled, the regime had to rely on another force, and especially a force that was loyal and would do the things that it demanded. And that was the shabiha. 

Tarek: The security apparatus was not equipped to control the popular momentum. The regular forces were not enough. So, we saw the regime starting to bring in militias like Hezbollah or other Iraqi or Iranian militias. 

So those people invested in the phenomenon known as “popular committees”. They started to train them, them and finance them. It was organised under a framework known as the National Defence Forces. The name shabiha was cast on all those forces who are not official state forces, but who would fight for the regime. Unregulated militia were later named paramilitary forces. On many occasions, Bashar al-Assad thanked the army and the paramilitary as well as his friends, by which he meant his sponsors, the Russians and the Iranians. 

A member of the shabiha now entailed something else. And so, the phenomenon of the name shabiha does not mean the same thing anymore. But the general framework remained. That is, there is an entity unofficially connected to the regime, but that does its dirty work, committing illegal actions and violations that support its interests. So, the core is the same. The principle is the same. 

Ugur: Second important reason why the regime relied on the shabiha is that shabiha gave them a facade of popular support. You know, when Assad was criticised that he sent his shabiha to repress the demonstrations, then he simply said, you know, I also don't like this idea, but they, you know, they love me and the people, they want to defend me. And I do have popular support because just as there are demonstrations against me, so too there are these vigilantes who maybe they get a bit emotional and they kind of get carried away, but who are supportive of me. And the third reason, the very important reason is the notion of plausible deniability. So, the regime could always say and it did say a couple of times, that they had nothing to do with the shabiha violence. So when reports came out in city of Homs, for example, in April, May, June 2011, of shootings, beatings, stabbing, mass killings, torture, sexual violence of the shabiha. And every Syrian knew, of course, that the state was behind the shabiha, that the regime was behind the shabiha. The only reason these groups, these armed young men, armed to the teeth, highly masculine, often sectarian. The only reason they could go into these neighbourhoods and kill people is because the regime's official organs - the army, the police, the Mukhabarat - allowed them to do this. The type of violence that was expected of the shabiha could not have been committed by the regular organs of the regime, because then that violence could have been traced back up the chain of command, right back to Assad himself. 

Fritz: This lack of a chain of command, of official organisation and hierarchy, makes it comparatively difficult for civil society organisations, police and prosecutors to build cases around crimes committed by the shabiha. 

Ugur: In many ways, you could argue that paramilitarism works, that it's successful certainly for the Assad regime. The shabiha phenomenon has been very, very effective because as of today there are no examples of shabiha members who were arrested and tried in Europe or elsewhere. They all went free. And that's exactly also one of the reasons why Syrians and I have to join them, are cynical about the prospects of justice. 

Fritz: International criminal justice is a complex field of law. It tries to define and then establish at a trial the criminal responsibility of those participating in atrocity crimes like genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This can be pretty straightforward when there's a classic war between two states, like the war of aggression that Russia is fighting in Ukraine right now. Or when a violent suppression of a popular uprising turns into a civil war between a regime and armed groups, that identify themselves pretty clearly with uniforms, emblems, a flag and so on. But as the war in Syria has shown, it is not always that simple. And the law struggles when things become more complicated. To an extent, it can keep up with some of these complexities. Non-State groups, like formalised militias can be fairly straightforward to prosecute. And this is already happening in the justice and accountability for Syria space. For example, there is a trial currently ongoing in Berlin, Germany, in which the defendant is suspected of being a member of the Free Palestine Movement, an armed militia fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime. The man known as Mouafak al D. is accused of having fired a grenade into a crowd of civilians in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, killing seven and heavily injuring three others. Another case against a member of a pro-regime militia, Liwa Al-Quds, is being prepared and is likely going to trial in The Netherlands in the first half of 2023. But as soon as these armed groups become more opaque, with unclear identity, leadership and backing exactly like the shabiha, the difficulties of investigating them and taking them to trial grow exponentially. Even if members are now living in Europe and are within the grasp of European legal systems. 

Ugur: There’s nothing more than just eyewitness testimony. And very often not even enough eyewitness testimony because there's no paper trail, because obviously the regime, you know, didn't write on a piece of paper anywhere “we are now authorising the shabiha to go and kill people”. Such a document doesn't exist, most likely. It was also exceptionally difficult for prosecutors to make the case. One case that I know for sure was a shabiha member who was active in Damascus and then he fled to The Netherlands. Then he was recognised in the refugee camp. The police came and arrested him, took him to an investigative judge and the investigative judge then threw out the case because she said the pictures of that man and the videos of that man with an AK 47 at a checkpoint in Damascus, plus the eyewitness testimonies are not enough because first and foremost, the militiamen doesn't wear any military patches. So he's unrecognisable. You know, he doesn't fall under one or another organisation. And that's really interesting because that was the whole point of shabiha to actually create distance, to create obfuscation and organisational confusion as to which, under which command these groups fell. And so the shabiha phenomenon came full circle. It was set up not to be detected, not to be traced back to the regime. Then they committed a lot of violence. Then even they fled to Europe. And even with the European legal system, which has incredible resources and capacity, even they couldn't tie it to the regime. And the guy went free and he's still free. 

Fritz: This also raises the question, why are these men leaving Syria? 

Ugur: I don't have a very clear answer that covers all of the cases, but I can give you some examples of individuals who overall left because they felt that the conflict militarised too much. Because, you know, hanging out in your neighbourhood with some AK 47s, driving around in a Mercedes and feeling powerful, terrorising neighbourhood residents, asking for ID cards. All of that was fun. According to a lot of these people. But the moment that the shabiha were, for example, also called to do some work to fight at the front, with battle hardened armed opposition rebel groups. That's when many of them gave up because they said, well, why would I go to the front, to the east of the country, in the desert, and die in the desert? If I can just stay, you know, hang out here in Damascus and just have a good life. Now, of course, for a lot of the Syrians who suffered the shabiha’s violence, this is profoundly shocking. I mean, I've spoken to a number of Syrians in Europe who said that they saw, their shabiha tortures, or at least people who they met at the checkpoints and who were real tough guys at these checkpoints and who were bullying, terrorising, threatening them at those checkpoints. Now, all of a sudden, they would see the same person in some supermarket in Amsterdam. Which is, of course, deeply shocking and deeply also undermining really to the process of asylum and certainly justice. 

Tarek VO: The most important point is that the shabiha had a role in committing war crimes, or were members of forces that committed massacres and violations. They are present in Europe and when they get recognised by other Syrians, then an effort  should be made towards official procedures so that they can be put on trial and held accountable. We are starting to see this nowadays, and I think that this is one of the most important things that Syrians who are concerned with justice for Syria can do now. They shouldn't save any effort to push for that. When there is a member of the shabiha and someone recognises him, or if there was a witness to some violation or a crime he committed, one should not hesitate to get in contact with the authorities working on the legal cases. 

Fritz: Although eyewitness testimonies haven't yet worked to successfully send a shabiha case to trial, they are hugely important in international criminal case building. They're perhaps the most fundamental part of a case when international investigators do not have access to the crime scene, which has been a major challenge in the Syrian context. Contextual information and so-called crime-based evidence like verified videos, photos and reports or even samples, can all be extremely important as a basis for a case. But without direct eyewitness testimony about the crime and possibly the perpetrator, the case might fall flat. Witnesses are the lifeblood of trials like these. Legal proceedings can be really difficult for witnesses. They're questioned, repeatedly, asked to go over and over the details of what is often one of the most traumatic events of their lives. Witnesses then have to repeat their story again in a courtroom, in front of an audience, this time to try and convince lawyers, judges and possibly a jury that what they're saying is the truth, which is especially hard if the event in question happened years ago. It is a very tough process and one with an unknown outcome. Witnesses can go through all of that and still, at the end of this highly emotional and taxing experience, the accused can get away. Next time, in Episode Nine of The Syria Trials, we examine this fundamental role of witnesses. I'm Fritz Streiff, thank you for listening. And if you found this podcast interesting, informative or useful in any way, please do leave us a review.