The Syrian regime is unleashing shadowy, mafia-style gunmen to carry out some of the most brutal attacks on dissent as the country's 10-week uprising threatens President Bashar Assad's once-unshakable grip on power.
The gunmen belong to a pro-Assad militia called "shabiha," which runs protection rackets, smuggling rings and other criminal enterprises while providing muscle for the regime.
Recruited from the ranks of Assad's Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the drive-by shootings, bloody executions and waves of intimidation and robbery that have made Syria's revolt one of the deadliest of the Arab Spring.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown in Syria, many of them at the hands of the shabiha, human rights activists say. As the uprising has gained momentum in recent weeks, the gunmen appear to have taken on a more central role.
Syrians who have encountered the shabiha say they flaunt weapons, clutch rolls of cash and whiz through checkpoints with guns sticking out of their car windows.
"They always, always get what they want," a 38-year-old Syrian man told The Associated Press in an interview after he fled the besieged town of Banias and crossed into Lebanon.
"If they like your car, it's theirs. If they want your apartment, it's theirs. It's shameful to say it, but if they like a girl, she is also theirs," he said.
He, like all witnesses, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against relatives still inside Syria.
In many ways, witnesses say, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen, they say, are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad's opponents.
The origin of the word shabiha is murky, although some have speculated it comes from "shabah," the Arabic word for ghost. But Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said it signifies someone with a "long reach" _ or, someone who can "pillage with impunity."
Syria is not the first country to use gunmen to carry out its dirty work. During Egypt's revolution, pro-regime gangs enjoyed at least tacit approval from the state, or elements of it, disbanding as quickly as they formed.
But shabiha fighters have a tighter link to the Syrian regime than patriotism or protecting the privileges they enjoy under Assad's rule.
Most shabiha fighters belong to the minority Alawite sect, to which the Assad family and the ruling elite belong. This ensures the gunmen's loyalty to the regime, built on fears they will be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand.
An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawite sect represents about 11 percent of the population in Syria. The sect's longtime dominance has bred seething resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria.
But now, Assad is relying heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the uprising, particularly amid rumors that Sunni army conscripts have been refusing to fire on civilians.
He has tried to dampen enthusiasm for the uprising by blaming the unrest on "armed gangs" and a foreign plot to sow sectarian strife. The shabiha's unofficial status offers the regime a useful tool to put down the protests while maintaining "plausible deniability," Badran said.
The opposition has rejected the government's claim of armed gangs and foreign conspiracies behind the violence. "The only armed gangs in our beloved country are the gangs of security agencies and shabiha, who are loyal to the regime," read a message posted on the Syria Revolution 2011 page on Facebook.
Shabiha gunmen have been spotted in the flashpoint towns and cities where protesters have been out in force despite the near-certainty they will face gunfire.
In Talkalakh, near the Lebanese border, residents said shabiha were among the soldiers and security forces who moved in earlier this month to crush any rumblings of dissent.
Witnesses recognized the shabiha gunmen by their black clothes and red arm bands, worn so they can recognize each other in the confusion of an attack.
Four residents independently told the AP that shabiha militiamen killed a man named Adnan al-Kurdi along with his wife, five daughters and a son in their home _ a harrowing story that could not be independently verified. None of those interviewed knew why the family was killed.
But, speaking from the Lebanese side of the border, they all said the killings motivated them to leave.
Talkalakh is a Sunni city, surrounded by 12 Alawite villages.
Badran said the shabiha have a decades-long history, dating back to Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, who ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000.
Under Hafez Assad, shabiha gangs were armed through the military units commanded by Hafez's brother, Rifat. Today, the shabiha know they must serve the larger interests of the regime _ as paramilitary mercenaries _ if they want to maintain their privileges, Badran said.
"The shabiha are Alawite thugs who work for members of the extended Assad clan, as their personal armed crew and enforcers," he told the AP.
Their criminal exploits include racketeering, theft, blackmail and armed robbery. They also operate extensive smuggling rings, ferrying weapons, drugs, electronics _ even cigarettes _ to neighboring states, including Lebanon and Cyprus, Badran said.
In part due to the shabiha's role in the crackdown, Syria's sectarian tensions have been laid bare for the first time in decades _ a taboo subject because of the Assad family's dynasty of minority rule. Assad's father crushed a Sunni uprising in 1982, shelling the town of Hama and killing tens of thousands in a massacre that is seared into the minds of Syrians.
Fear of sectarian warfare has, in the past, been a serious deterrent to dissent. Syria is home to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Iraq, who serve as a clear testament to the dangers of regime collapse and fracture in a religiously divided society. They also see the seemingly intractable sectarian tensions in Lebanon as a cautionary tale.
But the opposition movement in Syria, still struggling to find a unified voice, has been careful to paint their movement as free of any sectarian overtones. Several opposition members have expressed frustration that the regime is trying to play off of sectarian fears _ all the while using an Alawite gang to terrify protesters into submission.
Hamzeh Ghadban, an anchor at Barada TV, a London-based satellite channel that broadcasts anti-government news into Syria, said he hears reports about the shabiha almost daily.
"The shabiha are doing a really horrible job against the Syrian people," he said. "Killing, raping _ everything you can imagine."
AP writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.