A Syrian-born man living outside Washington faces multiple charges connected to spying on dissidents in the United States, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, 47, a resident of Leesburg, Virginia, was making his first court appearance Wednesday, a day after his arrest on charges related to an alleged role in a conspiracy to spy on people demonstrating in the United States against the Syrian government's crackdown on protestors.
Soueid, a naturalized US citizen who also uses the aliases Alex Soueid or Anas Alswaid, was indicted last week by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security, said Soueid was "part of an effort to collect information on people in this country protesting the Syrian government crack-down."
He faces charges of conspiring to act and acting as an unregistered agent of the Syrian government in the United States without notifying the Attorney General as required by law. He was also indicted on two counts of providing false statements on a firearms purchase form and two counts of providing false statements to federal law enforcement.
He was videotaping protesters, with intention "to provide these materials to Syrian intelligence agencies in order to silence, intimidate and potentially harm the protestors".
The indictment states that since March 2011, Soueid acted in the U.S. as an agent of the Syrian intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, without notifying the U.S. authorities of being a foreign agent.
He was allegedly paid by the Syrian government - and in June 2011 during his visit to Syria, had a private conversation with President Assad, in addition to the meetings with Syrian intelligence officials.
In early August, when he was contacted by FBI agents, he lied to them, denying providing the Mukhabarat with contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses, for protestors in the United States. In a handwritten letter sent to his Mukhabarat contact, Soueid expressed his belief that violence against protestors was justified.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a press briefing on Wednesday that this is a "big week for U.S. law enforcement", referring both to Soueid's arrest as well as the successful thwarting of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.
"We had made clear that we had concerns going back to July- August about the Syrian embassy abusing its diplomatic protections to pursue Syrian-Americans and Syrians in the United States and to harass and intimidate them", Nuland said.
The State Department spokeswoman said that these concerns were passed on to the FBI, who investigated the matter.
"You see here the first fruits of the FBI's investigation and their indictment against Mohamad Soueid for actions performed at the direction of and under the control of the Syrian government and its officials to harass and spy on Syrians inside the United States," Nuland said. She added that the United States believes that these links can be traced back to Syrian officials.
“It’s troubling that a U.S. citizen from Leesburg is accused of working with the Syrian government to identify and intimidate those who exercise that right,” said U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride. “Spying for another country is a serious threat to our national security, especially when it threatens the ability of U.S. citizens to engage in political speech within our own borders.”
If convicted, Soueid faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison for the conspiracy and foreign agent charges, 15 years in prison for the firearms purchase charges and 10 years in prison for the false statement charges.
“Our national security is threatened when foreign governments use unregistered agents in an attempt to influence and intimidate those who live here lawfully. Their alleged acts desecrate the values cherished in our fair and open society," FBI Assistant Director in Charge James McJunkin said.
McJunkin added that the FBI can be counted on to "detect and deter" unregistered agents who are attempting to conduct clandestine activities on behalf of a foreign political power, and will bring them to justice.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now