When Khaled Mahjoub talks, he doesn't take his eyes off you. He is, in this sense, an interrogator (of which more later) but he is also a man who has great influence with Bashar al-Assad. He went to school with his brother Basel, he knows the family well, and today he communicates directly with the President of Syria. He may not be his "right hand" – that might be the role of Asma, the President's wife – but I suspect he would like to be. He talks passionately of environmentally sustainable houses and a new economy for the world, yet he adulates Bashar al-Assad. Mr Mahjoub, I can only conclude, is a weird mixture of Gordon Brown and Albert Speer.
He puffs on one of his massive cigars (he has a factory that makes them in Latakia and the cigars are also eco-friendly) and he doesn't stop talking. He wants a "Marshall Plan" for the rebuilding of Syria – the invocation of the US rebuilding of postwar Europe is merely symbolic, I am relieved to hear – and he talks, on and on and on, about the "Salafi-Wahhabi petrodollar". Syria is now fighting this very threat, the same awful combination that sent 19 hijackers to attack America on 11 September 2001.
There may be truth in some of this. But many believe cynically – and their contention also bears the merit of truth – that Mr Mahjoub is President Assad's point man in the West, his role to persuade its leaders and journalists that the Syrian regime is the only secular government left in the Middle East and that its enemies will strike at Europe if they win in Syria. It's no disadvantage that the 57-year-old has been a US citizen since 1993.
"There is something that's forgotten since the Salafi-Wahhabi petrodollar attack on the US on 9/11 – the dimension of ideology versus ideology," he says. "You need to have Syria's moderate Sufi ideology – you need to have Syria on your side to fight the Salafi-Wahhabi mosques in Europe. This is not a luxury, it's a necessity. It's a must. The only one to have this idea is Syria, which is working within UN Security Council Resolution 1373."
I'm not entirely sure that Syria is locked into Sufism, the ascetic, gentle, almost mystical Muslim sect which is so opposed to the Islamist ideology. But we must note that the 28 September 2001 UN Security Council resolution calls on all states "to refrain from organising, instigating, assisting or participating in terrorist acts in another state".
This is shrewd stuff. Who has been arming and encouraging the armed uprising against the Assad regime? Why, Turkey, Qatar and Salafist Saudi Arabia, of course. And are they not, in the words of 1373, "knowingly financing, planning and inciting terrorist acts"? Yet, there is another side to the President's friend that suddenly emerged at a dinner in Damascus which I joined with one of his close friends, a lawyer whom I know personally. It was one of those moments that was as revealing as it was frightening.
"Earlier this year, you interviewed some prisoners in the military prison and one of them was a French-Algerian who was caught fighting for the rebels," Mr Mahjoub said. "He told you he was confused, that he regretted coming here. But he was lying to you. I went to see him. He was lying. He is an out-and-out Islamist. He is a terrorist." And then Mr Mahjoub described exactly where I was sitting during the interview – which appeared in The Independent on Sunday earlier this year – and knew exactly the moment when I asked the prison governor to leave the room before questioning the bearded inmate. Mr Mahjoub had been to see this prisoner, to cross-question him about what he told me.
So he must also – and he must forgive me if my suspicions naturally lead me to this conclusion – be a prison interrogator, reporting back directly to the President of Syria. That was the moment it occurred to me that Mr Mahjoub could be a very dangerous man. I tried to reason with him, to tell him that the prisoner's divorced wife in Marseilles wants him home with her and their children, that she wrote me a most beautiful and moving letter asking for help. "Wrong!" boomed Mr Mahjoub. No, he was wrong, I said. And he shook his head with impatience.
But let's return to his Marshall Plan. "Everybody promises money after destruction," he says. "Everyone promised Haiti, they promised to rebuild Iraq. But the promise wasn't fulfilled to Haiti. Iraq did not rebuild. It was a lie. Waiting for the donors is not going to help. Rebuilding requires coherent multi- programmes. It's not sufficient just to reconstruct buildings. You have to start with the human being before you start rebuilding walls. When I talk about the Marshall Plan, I'm not talking about rebuilding. That's a failure – like the 'war on terror'. What will make Syria different is a different Marshall Plan.
"So who's going to pay? By law, and respecting and enforcing international law, there are three countries which did not respect UNSC 1373: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These countries – which were supporting, directly or indirectly, al-Qa'ida and its affiliates to come to Syria and destroy the socioeconomic fabric of Syria – they have to pay for what they have destroyed.
"The last thing they will pay for is the infrastructure. They must pay for the rebuilding of the socioeconomic fabric which is the immune system of Syrian moderate Sufism. The Emir of Qatar, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey are going to be the General Marshalls. They will pay because the law must be imposed on them."
And Khaled Mahjoub is off again on his favourite subject. Why don't the Muslims in Europe integrate with the countries they live in? How come that even in the most generous and humane country in Europe – Sweden – they have problems with their Muslims? Europe doesn't understand that subsidies will not create an integrated Muslim society. Muslims in the West should be given loans. "There is in these countries no fundamental equilibrium between rights and duties. People don't recognise the 'duty' bit. President Assad is the best 'change agent'. He is the only one who can keep Syria as a state and not be systematised" – I think Mr Mahjoub meant "sectarianised" – "like Iraq. The army and the old government institutions must be kept in place."
The Syrian tragedy, he says, may last another two years, but the "war with terror" will take decades. "We're going to have to adapt to a new situation where the big cities will be saved but there will be continuous attacks and war in the suburbs." Once more, I am troubled by Mr Mahjoub. The elite will be safe in the city centre, it seems, but the poor will be traumatised in the wreckage around it. He talks about "the new urbanism", which I find rather frightening.
Then he turns to the 21 August sarin gas attack. What about the rebels who were caught by the Turks carrying sarin gas weapons, he asks. "They captured three or four of 11 men involved, one was a Syrian, another a Turk, a third a Libyan. Why don't you look up the indictment of the attorney general for Adana? They captured two kilos of sarin grenades. The indictment talks of the sarin coming from Libya."
I promise to try to obtain a copy of the Adana indictment, if it exists in printed form, but Mr Mahjoub is talking now of the "environmentally sustainable houses" he builds – and which he will build, I suppose, in an environmentally sustainable Syria with all that Turkish, Qatari and Saudi cash. After which, I guess, Syria will purge the fundamentalism from Europe's mosques and emerge as the West's best secular friend in the Middle East, led – no doubt – by his close friend Bashar al-Assad.
Khaled Mahjoub has written a response to this article, which you can read hereReuse content