Free Syrian Army: How to Not Help

An OC refugee thought he had found a way to end his country's civil war. Then the FBI found his laptop computer

After centuries of Ottoman rule, Syria was administered as a French colony after World War I. In the decades that followed, the Alawites gradually insinuated themselves into the colonial administration and armed forces. In 1970, when Hafez al-Assad (father of Syria's current dictator) seized the reins of government, Alawites began moving from the hills and into Murad's hometown. "After they seized power, they laid off all the Sunni officials and monopolized everything," Murad says. "They did a lot of massacres in the 1980s."

As a teenager in the 1990s, however, Murad didn't care about the religious conflict that would soon engulf his country. In fact, he considered himself an atheist; moreover, Murad actually found himself attracted to some of his Alawite neighbors. Starting when he was about 16 and until he left Syria four years later, he engaged in a series of secret homosexual relationships with various Alawite men his own age. "Being an atheist and a bisexual in Syria isn't easy," he says. "It is completely forbidden. You cannot brag or even talk about it."

In 2005, when he was 20 years old, Murad left Syria for Egypt to study marine engineering. There, free from the constraints of parental guidance, he smoked marijuana for the first time and had to be rushed to the emergency room. "I felt my heart racing, and thought I was having a heart attack," he recalls. Instead, he discovered he had a pre-existing heart condition exacerbated by acute anxiety; the doctor prescribed Xanax. Murad quickly became addicted to the pills. "I became very detached from my friends," he says. "I hated myself."

Murad’s notes
Murad’s notes
Murad’s research
Murad’s research

After several months of study, Murad returned to Syria, but because Xanax was available from any street-corner pharmacy without a prescription, and because he was determined to quit popping pills, he took a flight to London. There, completely isolated from family and friends, he endured weeks of withdrawal in a cheap East End motel room. "The symptoms were very intense," says Murad. "Sometimes I couldn't even order my food on the telephone."

It was during this period that Murad began speaking by telephone, Skype and instant messenger with Andrea (not her real name), a young Orange County woman who was dating a Syrian friend of his who was attending college in Southern California. "Their relationship was disintegrating," Murad says. "We were talking six hours a night. I started to feel something toward her at that time that meant love to me."

Upon kicking his Xanax habit, Murad returned to Egypt and completed his undergraduate work, specializing in numerical methods and fluid dynamics, principles used for the engineering of everything from turbine engines to airplanes and boats. He planned to continue his studies at an American institute that had a campus in Dubai. But three days after he enrolled, Murad learned that he could not obtain the degree without applying for a student visa because he was Syrian. Instead, while he waited for the visa to arrive, Murad took classes at an American university in Sharjah, a city in neighboring Dubai, and waited.

In the spring of 2011, after a semester of study, the Syrian revolution began. "At the time, it was just peaceful demonstrations," Murad recalls. "Nobody was talking about carrying weapons, and nobody envisioned the idea that Syria would descend into a civil war. But I knew it would be ugly. The Alawites are down for anything. They will not give power back to the Sunnis because they know the Sunnis will retaliate."

To prepare for what he was certain would be an armed conflict against an implacable foe, Murad and some of his friends established an ad hoc group called the Armed Syrian Front, which distributed manuals on weapons and warfare via the Free Net Project, an Internet platform created in 2000 by Irish hacker Ian Clark. The project allows users to communicate anonymously and free of censorship across the world, but it can also be abused to transmit everything from terrorist handbooks to child pornography.

Although he was determined to help topple al-Assad, Murad says, he only translated a few documents into Arabic before beginning to feel uncomfortable about sharing information online with complete strangers. His fear was that those asking for help might have designs on carrying out attacks that didn't just involve al-Assad, but rather a nuclear-armed state such as Israel, a pursuit Murad had no desire to aid. "I stopped talking to these guys," he says. "I felt I didn't know them. They started to ask me about stuff like nuclear weapons, which the Syrian regime doesn't even have. I didn't trust them anymore."

That caution didn't apply to Murad's virtual romance with Andrea, however. As soon as he received his American student visa, he flew to Orange County to marry her. Upon arriving, he moved in with her now-ex-boyfriend, without telling his friend of his real intentions. Murad's friend had already begun dating someone else, and he served as best man when his friend married the girl. Just two months after Murad touched ground in the U.S., he and Andrea went to the Old Courthouse in Santa Ana and wed in a civil ceremony, with one of her friends as their only witness.

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