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Who are Syria's secret security forces?

Roaming gangs of black-clothed thugs turn peaceful protests into deadly chaos.

Begun in the 1970s, when Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, took power, the shabeha are nothing new to many Syrians but remain largely unknown to those outside the country.

With easy access to arms through their close ties to Syria’s military and security forces, the shabeha, according to a number of experts on Syria, hail from the mountain stronghold of Qardaha, which overlooks Lattakia, and answer to the orders of local Assad family elders.

The gang’s wealth, according to experts, comes from distributing goods imported tax-free through Lattakia’s port, which they control.

“Syrian security has used the shabeha in Lattakia and armed them to spread fear in the city and say to the Syrian people that the freedom you wish for will bring sectarianism,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University. “They are the sons and brothers of the Assad family.”

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, who has been gathering reporting on Syria, said he had also heard eyewitness accounts of the shabeha being used in Lattakia.

“People we have spoken to in Lattakia said the shabeha had been responsible for shooting at demonstrators and had even injured police who were trying to intercede between the shabeha and the protesters,” Houry said.

Local activists have documented the killing by security forces of at least 173 Syrians during the violent crackdown against the unprecedented protest movement, which last Friday saw tens of thousands demonstrating in major cities across the country.

But if the shabeha are seeking to divide, the protesters appear fully aware of the dangers.

“One, one, one!” chanted hundreds of worshippers trapped inside Damascus’ Al-Rifai mosque on Friday, after security forces refused to let them leave following prayers, fearing mass demonstrations.

“People of Syria are one!” they cried.

A second GlobalPost reporter, who cannot be named for security reasons, contributed to this article from Damascus and Lattakia.