Syria Conflict: Atef Najib, the man who sparked the uprising

A shadowy intelligence officer and cousin of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad dramatically altered the course of history when he met the demands of the people with violence.

One of the first pictures documenting the Syrian conflict taken on March 23, 2011 shows anti-government protesters gesturing on the streets of Deraa, 100 kilometres south of the capital Damascus. Syria's civil war enters a fourth year on March 15, 2014, with at least 146,000 people dead and millions more homeless, cities and historical treasures in ruins, the economy devastated and no end in sight. Anwar Amro / AFP Photo
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BEIRUT and AMMAN // If one person can be said to have ignited the Syrian revolution, it is Atef Najib.
When the people of Deraa took to the streets in protest on March 18, 2011 - three years ago today - it was not to call for the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad but, instead, to demand accountability for one of his lesser known cousins, Atef Najib, the loathed chief mukhabarat officer in Syria's southernmost province.
There were other protests in different parts of the country that fateful day yet only in Deraa did they turn deadly, with security forces fatally shooting three unarmed civilians. Those killings, the first of many, catalysed an uprising that had, until then, been simmering with small, isolated protests in Damascus over previous weeks, but had failed to explode.
"When it started, you could say it was a revolution against Atef Najib. There were lots of other issues, but he was the reason people went out, he pushed them past the point of no return," said a member of an influential Deraa family with close ties to the regime. "It became a revolution against Bashar but right at the beginning they just wanted Najib gone, everyone hated him".
In the weeks before those first protests, security forces in Deraa had arrested 18 school children for writing political graffiti on a wall. The boys were tortured and, when their families went to Atef Najib to ask for their freedom, he insulted them and told them to "forget" their sons.
Although his name is well known, few Syrians would recognise Atef Najib and remarkably little information about him exists in any public records. There are no known photographs and even US and EU sanctions listings are skeletal.
Like other members of the shadowy secret police apparatus that controls Syria, he stayed out of the limelight.
Friends of Atef Najib's family, former mukhabarat officers, businessmen and prisoners who have had dealings with him, describe him as a clever, manipulative, dangerous man with a violent temper.
He would drive with reckless speed in powerful BMW and Jaguar cars, and had a preference for expensive Italian shoes and leather jackets.
Atef Najib is thought to have been born around 1964, the son of Najib Ala'a, a roadside petrol salesman and a Sunni, and Fatima Makhlouf, an Alawite, whose sister Anisa was married to Hafez Al Assad.
Using that connection, the family would rise with the Assads, from poverty to a position of wealth and power. Atef Najib, one of five children, was brash, feared and fearless, and was close to his cousin Bacel Al Assad, a man of similar character who was being groomed for power by his father, Hafez, but whose death - in a high-speed car crash in 1994 - saw the mantle being handed to Bashar.
But Atef Najib's volatile nature was too much even for the Assads at times and he was suspended from his job in the secret police.
"Bacel kicked him out of the intelligence services around 1992, he was insulting to people, using very bad words, kidnapping girls, firing off guns. He was so arrogant they couldn't handle him. Hafez was also angry at Najib's behaviour," said a former friend of the Assad family.
After years out of favour, he was brought back and, with Bashar Al Assad in the presidency, was given a senior role at political security in Damascus, working out of their imposing offices in Mezzeh, where he burnished a fearsome reputation.
"These people are dangerous, you don't want to play with that. Atef Najib was too dangerous. It's like playing with fire, you might get away with it once or twice but in the end you will get burned," said a Syrian businessman who was questioned by him more than once during that period.
Between mid-2008 and early 2009, Atef Najib was transferred to Deraa as head of political security, and quickly set about establishing an unrivalled dominance, ruling with what residents said was an "iron fist".
"He was considered the absolute power in the province, he was in charge of the fate of 1.2 million people," said a member of an influential Deraa family. "Atef Najib used to tell us 'In Deraa, I am God'."
Deraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area. Atef Najib's imperious two-year reign there was instrumental in turning it against the ruling family.
President Al Assad promised in the early months of the revolt to hold security officers to account for any wrongdoing. Atef Najib was moved from his post in Deraa and, supposedly, placed under investigation.
But he was never punished and is still believed to be working in the security apparatus.
In fact, regime supporters, who insist they have always faced a foreign conspiracy despite the peaceful domestic roots of the uprising, now lionise Atef Najib for his actions three years ago.
"The man is a hero. He really was the first one to discover the conspiracy against Syria, he saw it before the rest of us," a high-ranking Syrian official in Damascus said recently.
Phil Sands reported from Beirut, Suha Maayeh from Amman, Justin Vela from the UAE
The full story of how Atef Najib ignited the Syrian conflict will appear in Review on Saturday 22 March.