Fritz Streiff: In Spring 2013, Khaled al-Halabi left behind his life as the head of General Intelligence Branch 335 in the city of Raqqa. We know that with the help of his connections in Raqqa, as well as certain members of armed opposition forces, Halabi was smuggled out of the city.
Abdallah: They took him to Turkey. Then he went to other places.
Fritz Streiff: But where did he go next?
This is The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. I'm your host Fritz Streiff, and this is Episode Five - Destination Europe.
Steve Kostas is a lawyer at the NGO, the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Steve Kostas: I don't know from our own investigations what he did, but I've seen reporting that he then travelled at some point to Jordan and from Jordan to France, and that's where our engagement picks up.
Fritz Streiff: The reporting suggests that Halabi made it from Turkey to Jordan, thanks to a helping hand from the Lebanese politician and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Then, in February 2014, nearly a year after he had first left Syria, Halabi received a single-use travel document and visa from the French Embassy in Amman, the capital of Jordan. According to the entry stamp, he landed in Paris on February 27th, 2014. But Halabi had been a high ranking official for a regime that had been widely admonished in countries like the one he had just landed in, for its violent crackdown on peaceful protests, as well as the brutal conflict that had ensued. And the war was getting even more ferocious by the day. So how had he been allowed to enter France? Director at CIJA, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Bill Wiley.
Bill Wiley: It's in the public domain that al-Halabi was moved initially to Paris by one of the French security services. It was common practice early in the conflict of the French to move higher ranking regime defectors to France to debrief them. Sometimes they would debrief them in the region, Turkey or Jordan in particular. For whatever reason, al-Halabi was one of the ones moved to France. So that aspect was and is not unusual.
Fritz Streiff: So it was the French intelligence services, the DGSI, who had arranged for Halabi to travel from Jordan to France. The DGSI would have no doubt been aware of how the Syrian security services were run. Not least because in January 2014, a month before Halabi landed in France, photographic evidence smuggled out of Syria by a regime defector codenamed Caesar, had been released. These photos documented the killing of 11,000 detainees in Syrian regime custody, and were later and continue to be used as evidence in criminal cases being built by European prosecutors, including the French. So it was not despite of but because of his status as a high ranking official within the Syrian regime, that the French intelligence seemed to have been willing to help Halabi. They apparently considered him someone who could be useful. Perhaps he could reveal more about the inner workings of the Syrian intelligence services. But was Halabi truly someone who had given up the regime and switched sides? Was he truly a defector?
Steve Kostas: Defections I think should be really scrutinised. I mean, if the defection happened on the day that the town was liberated or the day before, it's not really a defection in my view.
Fritz Streiff: And Halabi had left his position as Head of State Security in Raqqa at the same time that opposition forces seized the city from regime control. Working with defectors can be tricky territory, especially if there is reason to believe that they were involved with criminality and question marks over whether, like Halabi, they truly defected or had other motives. Opinions are divided. And however, the French intelligence planned on working with or using Halabi is different to how legal NGOs like the Open Society Justice Initiative and CIJA approach the issue of including defectors in legal cases.
Steve Kostas: I think the answer is different for law enforcement than it is for a civil society organisation like ours. So for us, for NGOs, we should always be extremely cautious about involving a defector witness, particularly if there are concerns about their possible wrongdoing or possible criminality. Generally speaking, with defectors, our approach has been, if we think that they were involved in criminal conduct, then we don't have contact with them. If we think that they were part of the Syrian government but defected without having been involved in criminal conduct, then we have in some occasions relied on them as sources and have involved them as witnesses in cases with their consent. But generally speaking, we're very cautious about engaging with defectors.
Fritz Streiff: Whether his defector status was of concern to the French intelligence or not, there was also another reason Halabi could have been seen as potentially useful to them. The anticipation that the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, was going to lose the war.
Bill Wiley: There's debriefing defectors and then there's also identifying guys to take over at different levels in the event that the regime falls. It's important to keep in mind that the Syrian regime militarily was losing the war until September 2015. But until that point, it appeared that the regime was going to be defeated militarily by the opposition. So it's natural that states with a strategic interest in Syria would engage in all manner of activities designed to protect their interests. If the Assad regime collapsed, somebody has to be in charge. It's the same when Germany was smashed and Japan in 1945. There wasn't tremendous changes, save at the highest reaches of the political structure because you need to keep the countries functioning.
Fritz Streiff: Writer and journalist Kenan Khadaj agrees with Bill.
Kenan Khadaj: If you want to have a new government in Syria, you would use elements from the old regime. A lot of analysts talked about the huge mistake that the USA did in Iraq, that they didn't use any elements from the old regime which made the whole country collapse. You can't build a whole system from scratch. And it looks like he knew how to play his cards.
Fritz Streiff: Whatever usefulness Halabi might have held, the preferential treatment he seems to have received from the French intelligence is pretty disquieting. This man, allegedly responsible for serious crimes against humanity, was flown to France and given a visa, when at the same time, millions of Syrians who had been displaced by persecution from their own regime had had to endure much harsher journeys to places of safety. The word that keeps coming to my mind is unjust. Look at Aleppo, for example. Syria’s second largest city in the north of the country. More and more people were fleeing Aleppo as the city was shelled by the regime, who were trying to oust the rebels from the parts they were occupying, Like East Aleppo. Diana Khayyata was there. It was October 2012 and her children had already fled Syria a month earlier with her ex-husband. Diana decided it was time for her to leave too. She made it to a relative's house, where she called her brother. He came to pick her up. They hailed a taxi to take them to the border with Turkey.
Diana Khayyata: The checkpoint that was bab al-hawa. It was completely ruined. It was like a battlefield. It was shelled and burned. So it was literally like all black and fire and rebels. And it was so weird. It was like a movie, literally. And then he just checked my brother's ID and he said, Yeah, God be with you. And we just crossed. And then literally, you are shifting like you're in a time zone kind of tube, shifting out from something super weird to natural life. It's normal life. Everything is normal. Like crowded because it was Eid or something. I don't remember what it was, it was an occasion in Turkey and everything was filled. You cannot find a spot in any bus. It’s a normal life.
Fritz Streiff: Diana didn't stop in southern Turkey, but continued on with her journey.
Diana Khayyata: And then I took a bus to Adana. And from Adana I took another bus to Istanbul and then immediately to the airport I took an aeroplane to Egypt, Cairo.
Fritz Streiff: 48 hours after leaving Aleppo, Diana was with her parents in Cairo, where they had fled to a few months earlier. The family soon decided to move to Turkey to try and find more opportunities to work. They crossed by ship in February 2013, a month before Halabi himself arrived in Turkey.
Diana Khayyata: I had many struggles with my family personally, and after two months of staying with them, I have decided to actually leave. And I cannot describe this day because it was a mess. I really had to fight my way out of my family, in order for me to be able to be independent, live on my own, start building up a career. But I didn't leave until I secured a job in Gaziantep.
Fritz Streiff: Gaziantep is a major city in the south of Turkey, not far from the border with Syria. As more and more Syrians fled there, the city became a central location for numerous international and Syrian NGOs. Diana found a job with one of them and moved to Gaziantep on her own.
Diana Khayyata: I remember, I was crying every night the first week. I had a small room like a studio, but it's a very tiny room. Everything in it. Like if you want to reach to your towel, it's there, your soap is there, it's all there. Your food is there. You just like one hand away. I was so scared because I needed to prove myself because I fought my way out of my family. I needed to succeed, there is no other option but succeeding.
Fritz Streiff: Despite having come so far, Diana felt a huge part of herself was missing. She was still separated from her children.
Diana Khayyata: In my career, I was succeeding. A lot of people were saying, You are living the dream life. But I wasn't happy. No. I am from day one, a mother. I am very tired of the idea of that I am am on-hold mother. I want to be reunited with my children.
Fritz Streiff: As Diana was taking the first steps to an independent life, Kenan Khadaj also decided to leave Syria.
Kenan Khadaj: I left Syria at around 2014. By that time, the conflict was escalating and I have been already like two years wanted by the regime. I was living for the last two years, like in a very, very small circle, not leaving certain areas. And if I have to leave these areas, I have to go through a lot of planning. It was very dangerous to move. I felt like at the end I was like just trapped.
Fritz Streiff: In mid 2014, Kenan moved to Lebanon. After just seven months there, he felt he needed to be closer to Syria. He decided to move to Gaziantep, the same city Diana was living in. Many Syrians have now fled to the city as the war inside the country escalated by the day.
Kenan Khadaj: When I came to Lebanon, I had all my things in a suitcase. But I've never unpacked in Lebanon because I knew like I had a couple of months in my passport and the regime will never give me another passport. And if I unpacked… Lebanon is a very small country. To have the idea that my passport will run out and I will stay the rest of my life in Lebanon was a big nightmare. So I never unpacked. But by the time I came to Turkey, I didn't speak any Turkish, and it was bigger than I imagined in my mind. It's like a huge country. But was very beautiful. I unpacked and I thought, I'm going to stay. I thought I'm not so far from Syria. And I thought, like I would say, at least until the conflict is over. Which like for the naive young person thought like it would be like a couple of months. A year.
Fritz Streiff: The opposition fighting the Assad regime had made major gains by this point of the war. But the conflict had also splintered. With the entry of foreign militias and extreme Islamist groups like ISIS, the war wasn't just between the Syrian regime and the armed opposition. And life under ISIS was turning out to be just as violent and dangerous as life under the Assad regime. Activist Abdallah was there.
Abdallah: I noticed that they would kill everybody against them. I hide. I didn't sleep at my apartment. They tried to kidnap me multiple times. Then we took the decision with my friends to leave together. To Turkey. So I think on a 18 of January 2014, I moved to Turkey.
Fritz Streiff: How did you move to Turkey?
Abdallah: It's a long story, but we succeed to go. I think ISIS, they knows that we are leaving and they send the guy to go with us to Turkey to give him the cover.
Fritz Streiff: At the time, Abdallah and his friends did not know that this guy was a member of ISIS. They thought he was like them, another activist. Abdallah thinks that the reason ISIS even allowed them to go to Turkey without any problems in the first place was, in fact, to provide cover for this person.
Abdallah: He was responsible for receiving the Mujahideen, the fighters and the foreign fighters to Turkey to receive them, then send them, helping them to enter Syria. This guy was responsible for the three girls who came from UK. This guy called Mohammad Rasheed.
Fritz Streiff: One of these girls was Shamima Begum, one of the three East London schoolgirls who famously travelled to Syria in 2015 to support ISIS.
So they guaranteed your security if you give the cover to this guy so he can go recruit in Turkey to bring back the Mujahideen?
Abdallah: Yeah, kind of. But they also they sent this other guy with us.
Fritz Streiff: Abdallah and his friends were unaware that this other guy was also a member of ISIS.
Abdallah: He rent apartment. Exactly in the same building where I rent. So they know everything about us. And so he keep eye on us. At that time, they can kill anybody everywhere. And they killed many activists in Ufur and in Gaziantep, our friends.
Fritz Streiff: It's safe to say Abdallah, Kenan and Diana all had a very different escape out of Syria compared to Halabi’s. Although they had made it out of Syria and were with hundreds of thousands of other Syrians in Gaziantep, they couldn't let their guard down. Southern Turkey was busy with militants coming and going between Syria and Turkey, and the reach of the Assad regime even extended across the border. Kenan didn't feel safe, so he decided to continue his journey.
Kenan Khadaj: And at that moment, I don't know if this hysteria of the war, or if it’s PTSD or just being panicked. I just didn't think about it. I knew that there is no way back. But where I want to go, I didn't know which country. I gave some clothes away, sold my laptop, I had all my belongings in my backpack.
Fritz Streiff: Kenan and some friends left Gaziantep on foot.
Kenan Khadaj: I crossed with the boat to Greece, and then I walked the Balkans.
Fritz Streiff: A couple of months after leaving Turkey, they arrived in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Kenan Khadaj: And we found somebody to take us to Bavaria. Like a smuggler. At that moment we were already two months on the road. We were like, so exhausted, hungry, very cold. And you never trust a smuggler. And I told my friend, okay, who will take the first shift? Somebody has to stay awake in the car. He said, Yeah, don't worry, I will take the first shift. You go to sleep. And so I fell asleep. Then I woke up, the smuggler was saying go go go. I said yeah, but where? And I looked at my friend, he was just sleeping. He was snoring at my shoulder. I woke him up, I said, Do you know where we are? No, I was sleeping. So I asked him, Where are we? Said In Germany. I didn't really believe him, but I had no other option just to leave the car. We left the car and just started walking these dark streets alongside trees and forest. And I was a little bit anxious. I don't have any charge in my phone and to check my maps. We walked for 20 minutes, of course, very tired. And then a police car stopped us. Also, it was dark. It was like 3 am 4 am. And he talked to me in a language that I didn't understand. Then he start talking to me in English. Where are you from? I pretended not to talk English. To not understand English. And then I kept walking. So they came out of the car and they start asking us questions. And I told my friend, No, don't answer any questions. Because, like, that's my instinct not to trust people in uniform. Then I asked him, Where are we? I think he wanted to make a joke. He said, in Russia. And at that moment, I believed him! I really did believe him, you’re in Russia. And then I started talking, how come blah blah blah we’re in Russia? Oh now you know English? And then I saw after that, the flag and I realised, Yeah, we are in Germany.
Fritz Streiff: Kenan had made it to Germany, to safety. Like Kenan, and like Halabi, Diana had also decided to try and get to Europe.
Diana Khayyata: I decided to leave Turkey because I battled even in Turkey, to win custody on my children. Once I understood the legal rights of mine and also the basic human rights for anyone, that's when I knew what my case is. That's when I understood all the aspects of my case with my children. So the first thought is I need a civil law country. Then I decided to choose Netherlands, because when I was searching what country defends human rights the most, especially women's and children's rights, Netherlands was the one that pops up the most. So I knew that this is my right destination.
Fritz Streiff: Unlike Halabi, Diana didn't have any connections in intelligence services or amongst influential politicians that could help her get to the Netherlands.
Diana Khayyata: So in 2015, in March, I decided to resign from my work and take the death trip coming to Europe. We don't name it death trip for nothing. It was really painful. It was really hard journey. So I decided to be smuggled from Turkey, from Izmir. Through the rubber boat trip to Greece. And from Athena in Greece, I smuggled myself, interestingly enough, smuggled myself with a fake ID, and I travelled from Athena to Rome. I remember in the aeroplane from Rome to Amsterdam, which is the final obstacle let’s say. I was waiting not just for the door of the aeroplane to close, but the aeroplane to kick off. And the minute we raised above the ground, I put my head on the window and I immediately sobbed in tears. And the guy next to me, he was like, Are you okay? What's going on? Are you okay? Because I was sobbing. And I told him, I'm afraid of flying.
Fritz Streiff: After a two and a half hour flight, Diana touched down at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
Diana Khayyata: I was jumping out of joy. And then I had to stand in the customs, and I was hearing this weird sound like gates opening in some direction. So I was looking and seeing people doing something and then crossing very fast. And I looked at the sign and it says EU passport holders. And they were literally just putting their passport on a machine and the gate open, a gate of a country open. And here I am standing in customs and after a death trip, waiting with a fake ID by the customs. And there are people, just because of the location they were born in crossing by just putting their paper on a device, for God's sake. And I felt envy at that moment. I'm not going to hide it.
Fritz Streiff: Diana's ID must have been a good fake because she made it through customs with no problems. She then travelled to Ter Apel, in the north of the Netherlands, where the main asylum centre and immigration office is.
Diana KhayyataI remember it was Sunday and the lady told me there is no officers there working today. So she made me sleep on a bench, in a kindergarten section in the immigration office. On Monday they check you, the security guys check you, take your fingerprints. And so the process starts off of asylum seeking.
Fritz Streiff: Diana quickly received asylum seeker status. She could now begin fighting to get her children back.
Although they had brought him into the country, it seemed that once Halabi had actually arrived in France, the French intelligence didn't want anything to do with him. Any information Halabi had that he could exchange in return for continued beneficial treatment, the French seemed not to be interested in.
Bill Wiley: It appears that the French realised that al-Halabi was too toxic, so they abandoned him. He ran out of money.
Fritz Streiff: Halabi had only been issued a 90 day visa, so when that expired he decided to apply for asylum in France.
Eric Emeraux: So when a foreign national arrives in France, he or she can apply for protection and asylum to avoid being sent back to his country or her country, especially if there is risk of death penalty or something like that.
Fritz Streiff: Colonel Eric Emeraux is the former Head of the French Central Office for the Fight against Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Genocide. After filing a claim for asylum, Halabi would then have had to wait to be called by OFPRA, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.
Eric Emeraux: The applicant then undergoes a thorough interview to check whether he or she is eligible for French protection. When they apply for that, they are supposed to be interviewed by people we used to call a protection official. If these people detect some gaps in the applicant's speech or identity, the protection official can investigate further. Finally, if there are some doubts about the possible involvement of that person in crimes against peace, any country, it’s not special for France, any country can refuse him protection under the Article one.
Fritz Streiff: Generally any country that is a state party to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention will offer refugees protection, for example, in the form of asylum. However, like Colonel Emeraux says here, if someone applying for this protection may be guilty of such crimes against humanity, as Halabi is suspected of, the protection can be refused. After his interview, all Halabi could do was wait for a decision from the asylum authorities.
Eric Emeraux: They are in France as a refugee, so they are waiting for the final decision of the French administration. And so they don't have to do anything special in fact. We have to have people in which he is supposed to be in contact with and he's waiting for the answer. They have to stay in the country because they ask for asylum in France. If they ask for asylum in one country, they have to wait and they are not able to go seeking asylum in other country, in fact.
Fritz Streiff: As he waited in Paris for the asylum authorities' decision, little did Halabi know that his asylum interview had triggered an investigation within the French refugee OFPRA. It would appear that during the interview, he hadn't tried to hide the facts of his previous career back in Syria. And alarm bells hadn't just been sounded in France. As news and stories continued to emerge of atrocities being committed in Syria, Western legal investigators, as well as Syrian lawyers and activists who had fled the country, were ramping up efforts on how to address the serious crimes that were being committed in Syria. Steve Kostas was one of those lawyers, a senior legal officer at OSJI, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Steve has led their work on Syria since 2014.
Steve Kostas: OSJI, along with many organisations, were trying to understand what could be the shape of accountability work with respect to all of this criminality. There were efforts to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, which was then vetoed by Russia and China.
Fritz Streiff: This was when Russia and China vetoed attempts by coalitions of states in the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, the ICC. The first veto happened in May 2014. By this stage of the war, an estimated 160,000 people had been killed and millions of Syrians had been displaced. But with the ICC no longer an option to try and deliver justice for these crimes, legal investigators had to get creative.
Steve Kostas: And really, with that door closing, we and everyone saw that the options were really limited in significant ways. So in 2014, 15 and 16, so for three years we organised large roundtable meetings amongst international and Syrian and documentation NGOs. And the first meeting was called in Turkey and then later two meetings in Berlin. And the purpose initially was to hear about the experience of the NGOs that were already working on accountability for the atrocities in Syria. So to hear about their experience of it, what they perceived as the gaps and the ways in which NGOs could collaborate or coordinate more.
Fritz Streiff: And there was one Syrian who was about to help bridge those gaps and steer the course of justice for Syria onto a new path. Abdallah, the activist from Raqqa. In the last episode, we heard how a Human Rights Watch investigator, Lama Fakih, explored the inside of State Security Branch 335, Halabi’s branch, after the liberation of Raqqa. Files were strewn all over the building, files that could have held important evidence of the crimes that had gone on inside the branch. Lama and her colleagues didn't take any of these documents from Branch 335 with them. But it turns out Abdallah had. Not from 335, but from another intelligence branch in Raqqa.
Abdallah: Because I have a law background, from the first day of liberation of Raqqa, I went with my friend to the political security branch, and I took all the documents. So the FSA they succeed to enter the ground floor. At that time, I went with the FSA, with my friend. I bring four or five big bags of documents. I collect all the documents. This is in 2013 on March. So I start from that day collecting the documents. I know that these documents will be very important in the future for the justice.
Fritz Streiff: Where did you bring them at the time?
Abdallah: I put two bags at my place or one, and my grandpa also I put one and my friend also I put one or two.
Fritz Streiff: So four or five bags.
Abdallah: Four, five bags, big bags, all documents with the names, signature, stamps. ISIS they came and they occupied my or take control of my apartment and they take for this documents They take them.
Fritz Streiff: But the ones that were in other places…
Abdallah: Yeah other places, they moved them to Turkey.
Fritz Streiff: These documents that Abdallah had taken from inside a Syrian intelligence office were highly incriminating. They were evidence of the crimes the Syrian regime had perpetrated, and they had now made it out of Syria. If these documents had made it out of Raqqa, could evidence pertaining to Halabi and Branch 335 also make it out? In France, more bad news was about to come out Halabi’s way. This is journalist at the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt. Wolf began investigating the Halabi story in 2021.
Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: While, as far as I recall, there were some problems in France. I think it was pretty obvious that the French authorities were not that happy about him being there, and it looked like the French asylum authorities would reject his claim and they had already been suspecting him of war crimes.
Fritz Streiff: Was Halabi’s recent past about to catch up with him?
The Syria Trials: The disappearing General is hosted by me, Fritz Streiff. If you are enjoying this new season, please do leave us a review in Apple Podcasts or on Spotify. We love to hear what you think and it'll really help us reach new listeners. And if you're an Arabic speaker, please also check out our sister series in Arabic. You can find us both at 75podcasts.org Thank you for listening.