CIA weapons meant for Syrian rebels are swiped in Jordan

Fighting by rebel groups has continued for years in Syria, assisted by efforts from other countries to supply them with arms. In early 2013, rebels from the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra sat on a truck of captured ammunition in Idlib province in northern Syria.
Fighting by rebel groups has continued for years in Syria, assisted by efforts from other countries to supply them with arms. In early 2013, rebels from the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra sat on a truck of captured ammunition in Idlib province in northern Syria. The Associated Press

Weapons shipped into Jordan by the CIA and Saudi Arabia intended for Syrian rebels have been systematically stolen by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold to arms merchants on the black market, according to U.S. and Jordanian officials.

Some of the stolen weapons were used in a November shooting that killed two Americans and three others at a police training facility in Amman, FBI officials believe after months of investigating the attack, according to people familiar with the investigation.

The existence of the weapons theft — which ended only months ago after complaints by the U.S. and Saudi governments — is being reported for the first time after a joint investigation by The New York Times and Al Jazeera.

The theft, involving millions of dollars of weapons, highlights the messy, unplanned consequences of programs to arm and train rebels — the kind of program the CIA and Pentagon have conducted for decades — even after the Obama administration had hoped to keep the training program in Jordan under tight control.

The Jordanian officers who were part of the scheme reaped a windfall from the weapons sales, using the money to buy expensive SUVs, iPhones and other luxury items, Jordanian officials said.

The theft and resale of the arms, including Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, have led to a flood of new weapons available on the black arms market. Investigators do not know what became of most of them, but a disparate collection of groups, including criminal networks and rural Jordanian tribes, use arms bazaars to build their arsenals. Weapons smugglers also buy weapons in the arms bazaars to ship outside the country.

The FBI investigation into the Amman shooting is continuing. But U.S. and Jordanian officials said the investigators think the weapons that a Jordanian police captain, Anwar Abu Zaid, used to gun down two American contractors, two Jordanians and one South African originally had arrived in Jordan intended for the Syrian rebel-training program. (Abu Zaid was killed almost immediately.)

The officials said this finding had come from tracing the serial numbers of the weapons.

However, Mohammad al-Momani, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs, said allegations that Jordanian intelligence officers had been involved in any weapons thefts were “absolutely incorrect.”

“Weapons of our security institutions are concretely tracked, with the highest discipline,” he said.

He called the powerful Jordanian intelligence service, known as the General Intelligence Directorate, “a world-class, reputable institution known for its professional conduct and high degree of cooperation among security agencies.” In Jordan, the head of the intelligence service is considered the second-most important man after the king.

Representatives of the CIA and FBI declined to comment.

The training program, which in 2013 began directly arming the rebels under the code name Timber Sycamore, is run by the CIA and several Arab intelligence services and aimed at building up forces opposing President Bashar Assad of Syria. The United States and Saudi Arabia are the biggest contributors, with the Saudis contributing both weapons and large sums of money, and with CIA paramilitary operatives taking the lead in training the rebels to use Kalashnikovs, mortars, antitank guided missiles and other weapons.

U.S. officials say the CIA has trained thousands of rebels in the past three years, and that the fighters made substantial advances on the battlefield against Syrian government forces until Russian military forces — launched last year in support of Assad — compelled them to retreat.

The training program is based in Jordan because of the country’s proximity to the Syrian battlefields.

The program is separate from one that the Pentagon set up to train rebels to combat Islamic State fighters, rather than the Syrian military. That program was shut down after it managed to train only a handful of Syrian rebels.

News of the weapons theft and eventual crackdown has been circulating for several months. Jordanian officials who described the operation said it had been run by a group of General Intelligence Directorate logistics officers with direct access to the weapons once they reached Jordan. The officers regularly siphoned truckloads of the weapons from the stocks before delivering the rest of the weapons to designated drop-off points.

Word that the weapons intended for the rebels were being bought and sold on the black market leaked into Jordan government circles last year, when arms dealers began bragging to their customers that they had large stocks of U.S.- and Saudi-provided weapons.

After the Americans and Saudis complained about the theft, investigators at the General Intelligence Directorate arrested several dozen officers involved in the scheme, among them a lieutenant colonel running the operation. They were ultimately released from detention and fired from the service, according to Jordanian officials.

Two recent heads of the service have been sent to prison on charges including embezzlement, money laundering and bank fraud.

President Barack Obama authorized the covert arming program in April 2013. The decision was made in part to try to gain control of a chaotic situation in which Arab countries were funneling arms into Syria for various rebel groups with little coordination. By late 2013, the CIA was working directly with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other nations to arm and train small groups of rebels and send them across the border into Syria.