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Amman, Jordan – Weapons shipped into Jordan by the Central Intelligence Agency 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 American and Jordanian officials.
Some of the stolen weapons were used in a shooting in November 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 US and Saudi governments, is being reported for the first time following a joint investigation by Al Jazeera and The New York Times.
The theft, involving millions of dollars of weapons, highlights the messy, unplanned consequences of programmes to arm and train rebels – the kind of programme the CIA and Pentagon have conducted for decades – even after the Obama administration had hoped to keep the training programme 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 the 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, run by the bureau’s Washington field office, is continuing.
But American and Jordanian officials said the investigators believed that the weapons that a Jordanian police captain, Anwar Abu Zaid, used to gun down two Jordanians, two American contractors and one South African had originally arrived in Jordan intended for the Syrian rebel-training programme.
The officials said this finding had come from tracing the serial numbers of the weapons.
Mohammad H 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, or GID, “a world-class, reputable institution known for its professional conduct and high degree of cooperation among security agencies”. In Jordan, the head of the GID is considered the second most important man after the king.
Representatives of the CIA and FBI declined to comment.
The US State Department did not address the allegations directly, but a spokesman said that the US’ relationship with Jordan remained solid.
“The United States deeply values the long history of cooperation and friendship with Jordan,” said John Kirby, the spokesman. “We are committed to the security of Jordan and to partnering closely with Jordan to meet common security challenges.”
The training programme, 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 al-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.
The existence of the programme is classified, as are all details about its budget. US officials say that 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 programme is based in Jordan because of the country’s proximity to the Syrian battlefields. From the beginning, the CIA and the Arab intelligence agencies relied on Jordanian security services to transport the weapons, many bought in bulk in the Balkans and elsewhere around Eastern Europe.
The programme is separate from one that the Pentagon set up to train rebels to combat fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), rather than the Syrian military. That programme was shut down after it managed to train only a handful of Syrian rebels.
Jordanian and American officials described the weapons theft and subsequent investigation on the condition of anonymity because the Syrian rebel training is classified in the United States and a government secret in Jordan.
News of the weapons theft and eventual crackdown has been circulating inside Jordan’s government for several months.
Husam Abdallat, a senior aide to several past Jordanian prime ministers, said that he had heard about the scheme from current Jordanian officials. The GID has some corrupt officers in its ranks, Abdallat said, but added that the institution as a whole was not corrupt.
“The majority of its officers are patriotic and proud Jordanians who are the country’s first line of defence,” he said.
Jordanian officials who described the operation said it had been run by a group of GID logistics officers with direct access to the weapons once they reached Jordan. The officers regularly siphoned lorryloads of the weapons from the stocks, before delivering the rest of the weapons to designated drop-off points.
Then the officers sold the weapons at several large arms markets in Jordan. The main arms bazaars in Jordan are in Ma’an, in the southern part of the country; in Sahab, outside Amman; and in the Jordan Valley.
It is unclear whether the current head of the GID, General Faisal al-Shoubaki, had knowledge of the theft of the CIA and Saudi weapons. But several Jordanian intelligence officials said senior officers inside the service had knowledge of the weapons scheme and provided cover for the lower-ranking officers.
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 US and Saudi-provided weapons.
Jordanian intelligence operatives monitoring the arms market – operatives not involved in the weapons-diversion scheme – began sending reports to headquarters about a proliferation of weapons in the market and of the boasts of the arms dealers.
After the Americans and Saudis complained about the theft, investigators at the GID 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, but were allowed to keep their pensions and money they gained from the scheme, according to Jordanian officials.
Jordan’s decision to host the CIA-led training programme is the latest episode in a long partnership.
Beginning in the Eisenhower administration, the CIA made large payments to King Hussein, who ruled Jordan from 1952 until his death in 1999, in exchange for permission to run numerous intelligence operations on Jordanian soil.
CIA money and expertise also helped the king establish the GID and put down internal and external threats to his government.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States has flooded Jordan with money for various counterterrorism programmes. American and Jordanian spies have run a joint counterterrorism centre outside Amman, and a secret prison in Jordan housed prisoners the CIA captured in the region.
In his 2006 book, State of Denial, the journalist Bob Woodward recounted a 2003 conversation in which George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, told Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser: “We created the Jordanian intelligence service, and now we own it.”
It is a relationship of mutual dependence, but Jordan has particular leverage because of its location in the heart of the Middle East and its general tolerance to be used as a base of US military and intelligence operations.
Jordan’s security services also have a long history of trying to infiltrate armed groups, efforts that have yielded both success and failure.
In 2009, a Jordanian doctor – brought to the CIA by a GID officer after the doctor said he had penetrated al-Qaeda’s leadership – turned out to be a double agent and blew himself up at a remote base in Afghanistan. Seven CIA employees, as well as the GID officer, were killed in the attack.
Two recent heads of the service, also known as the Mukhabarat, have been sent to prison on charges including embezzlement, money laundering and bank fraud.
One of them, General Samih Battikhi, ran the GID from 1995 to 2000 and was convicted of being part of scheme to obtain bank loans of around $600m for fake government contracts and pocketing about $25m. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, but the sentence was eventually reduced to four years that were served in his villa in the seaside town of Aqaba.
General Mohammad al-Dahabi, who ran the service from 2005 to 2008, was later convicted of stealing millions of dollars that GID officers had seized from Iraqi citizens crossing into Jordan in the years after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
His trial showed that he had also arranged for money to be smuggled in private cars from Iraq into Jordan and had been involved in selling Jordanian citizenship to Iraqi businessmen. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison and fined tens of millions of dollars.
President Barack Obama authorised the covert arming programme in April 2013, after more than a year of debate inside the administration about the wisdom of using the CIA to train rebels trying to oust Assad.
The decision was made in part to try to gain control of a chaotic situation in which Arab countries were funnelling arms into Syria for various rebel groups with little coordination.
The Qataris had paid to smuggle shipments of Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired weapons over the border from Turkey, and Saudi Arabia sent thousands of Kalashnikovs and millions of rounds of ammunition it had bought, sometimes with the CIA’s help.
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.
The specific motives behind the November shooting at the Amman police training facility remain uncertain, and it is unclear when the FBI will officially conclude its investigation.
This year, the widows of the Americans killed in the attack sued Twitter, alleging that it knowingly permitted ISIL to use its social media platform to spread the group’s violent message, recruiting and raising funds.
Captain Abu Zaid, the gunman, was killed almost immediately. His brother, Fadi Abu Zaid, said in an interview that he still believed his brother was innocent and that he had given no indications he was planning to carry out the shooting.
The Jordanian government, he said, has denied him any answers about the shooting, and has refused to release his brother’s autopsy report.
Ali Younes reported from Amman, Washington and Doha, and Mark Mazzetti reported from Amman and Washington.