A Mysterious Assassination in Syria

By Bilal Y. Saab – I just saw a story in Arabic by SANA (link here in English), the Syrian state news agency, that an “armed terrorist group” assassinated Dr. Ahlam Imad (a female), a Professor at Petrochemical Engineering Faculty at al-Baath University in Homs. They attacked the house of Dr. Imad at al-Hossn town, Homs countryside, and killed her and family members (mother, father and three children of her sister). Neighborhood folks informed the Syrian army (or security services) who intervened and clashed with the terrorists. This resulted in the killing of 10 “terrorists.”

A quick note about SANA, which I am sure Syria watchers know already: It is the Syrian government. Therefore, their credibility as a news agency is zilch. So whenever you see the word “terrorist group,” you can substitute it with “rebels or Free Syrian Army.” There is a risk, of course, with this approach because sometimes it may well be terrorists, and it’s a boy who cried wolf situation. Let’s face it, nobody knows a damn thing about who is operating on the ground in Syria.

Why am I mentioning this story?

As we try to assess the risk of chemical weapons proliferation (or usage) in Syria (my first effort culminated in an article that appeared on Foreign Policy called Assad’s Toxic Assets, which I re-posted on this site), any piece of information on that extremely sensitive and opaque topic is worth scrutinizing. I also suspect that this story will slip under the radar of the Western press, so there is value in making it available on this blog to specialists, journalists and general public.

We don’t have more details on the story. Indeed, it is rather thin. We don’t know why the killers targeted the professor and killed her and almost her entire family. I presume she is Alawi (she may not be), and sectarian killings are rampant today in the conflict in Syria. But even if she is not, her profession is interesting, and has led me to these questions:

1- Did the killers approach the professor because of her expertise? If yes, did they seek knowledge about chemical agents/weapons and she refused to cooperate, hence her murder?

2- Or did she cooperate but they killed her afterwards anyway? In this case, should we assume that the rebels have possession of sensitive information on the regime’s chemical arsenal? I realize she specializes in petro-chemicals (oil industry) but she is a professor and there is a good chance her expertise covers chemical agents including gas. There must be high-ranking, defected soldiers in the Syrian army who know something about the arsenal, but did they instruct their colleagues to gather as much information as possible and target people with expertise like the professor?

3- What if it is al-Qaeda and not the rebels? Do they have possession of CW knowledge now? Assume everything.

It must be Mr. Plum with a dagger in the kitchen, then. This murder is definitely intriguing, and I intend to keep watching it very closely and reach out to my sources inside and outside Syria to try to inquire into what really happened (not sure they will know, either). I am not saying this is breaking news, it could be nothing and it might have been a coincidence that she was a professor of petrochemical engineering, but I doubt it. There is something fishy about this story, and I am not willing to let it go, yet.

PS: I just looked up Prof. Imad on al Baath University’s Petrochemical Engineering Faculty and was able to find out more information about her (link here, however it is in Arabic, sorry for those who can’t read Arabic). She joined the university in 2005, she has a Ph.D. (1991) in technical sciences from the Moscow Institute for Oil and Gas. Her specialty is refinery engineering (in Arabic handasat takrir), so not on chemical agents.