Fritz Streiff: It was 2014 and Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi was in Paris, still waiting to hear if his claim for asylum had been accepted by the French authorities. He didn't know that his openhearted asylum application interview had triggered an investigation at OFPRA - the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People. Applications for asylum can take up to six months to process in France, a perhaps unnerving amount of time for a former Syrian intelligence official to wait in a country where his only bargaining chip - himself and information about the inner workings of the Syrian intelligence - had apparently already been rejected by the French intelligence services. As 2014 slid into 2015, he also didn't know that he'd walked into a nest of legal investigators.
This is The Syria Trials, The Disappearing General. I'm your host, Fritz Streiff, and this is Episode Six - Investigators Assemble.
Both Syrian and Western lawyers weren't sitting idly by as news of atrocities continued to emerge from Syria. They were leaping into action. Investigators like Bill Wiley, who in response to the conflict in Syria, had founded the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.
Bill Wiley: Myself through a consultancy company that I owned and an old colleague, we started to engage in Syria in November 2011, at the request of what was then the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office approached us with the idea that we would engage with human rights defenders in Syria. And my friend, former colleague, he asked me, What do you propose? And I said, Well, at this juncture it appears to be morphing quickly into an armed conflict as opposed to a sort of a grievous civil disturbance. And I was influenced in my thinking by a scholarly paper I had written a couple of years prior with a former colleague from the ICC, Morten Bergsmo, about engaging the NGO community, the human rights community in particular, that was active in conflict zones, to leverage the considerable local knowledge of these NGOs to support public sector criminal investigative activities.
Fritz Streiff: The idea Bill was promoting was not just for European or Western legal teams to swoop in and see what evidence they could gather and what cases they could build, but rather to actively work with the very people who knew better than anyone else what was going on inside their country. Syrians, those still inside the country and those who had fled already.
Bill Wiley: So we were pulling the Syrians out of Turkey, activists, to sensitise them to the forms of information and evidence that inform criminal investigations and international criminal prosecutions.
Fritz Streiff: Bill asked his former colleague Stephen Rapp to join him in Turkey. Here, they started to meet with Syrian lawyers and civil society activists who could help CIJA start on the path to justice for Syria.
Ambassador Stephen Rapp: My name is Stephen Rapp. I'm a former U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Issues, an Office whose name changed to Global Criminal Justice, while I was there during six years of the Obama administration. Since leaving the State Department seven years ago, I've been involved in a lot of activity with civil society organisations, documenting crimes in various situations where there isn't at the moment an international tribunal to investigate, to achieve justice.
Fritz Streiff: And there wasn't an international tribunal that could begin to investigate the crimes that were being committed in Syria. Referring the situation to the ICC, the International Criminal Court, had been blocked by Russia and China. So legal investigators like Bill and Ambassador Rapp needed to get creative.
Bill Wiley: Ambassador Rapp very generously joined us. I asked if he would come to Turkey. And then in the hotel bar, I mooted the idea that, perhaps the idea that had been put in that scholarly paper a couple of years before might be put into practice. Ambassador Rapp thought that was a marvellous idea. And so in 2012, a few weeks, a couple of months later, we registered what became CIJA as an NGO in the Netherlands.
Fritz Streiff: Nerma Jelacic joined the CIJA team in 2014.
How did you get into this line of work? So not with CIJA, but even before that?
Nerma Jelacic: Well, this line of work came to me because I was born in Bosnia, so when the war started I was a child and I ended up being a refugee in the U.K. Actually, my first career was in journalism, so I covered different conflicts as a journalist for the U.K. press. Went back to my own country to try and establish an investigative journalism centre focusing on war crimes and post-war organised crime networks, which led me closer to the accountability or criminal accountability work. I finally ended up crossing over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before I jumped over to CIJA.
Fritz Streiff: I'm walking with Nerma along a corridor that could be in any office building in the world, with its white walls and grey carpet. We're in the CIJA offices, which are located in a nondescript building on a busy thoroughfare in a European city. I can't tell you which city, though. CIJA keeps its location a secret.
Nerma Jelacic: So there are two, but this is the bigger one. And it’s a bit cold!
So this is one of CIJA’s evidence rooms, or archives, in which we keep the hard copies of the documents extracted from Syria over the years by our investigators. This is room number one, so you'll see probably around 300 or just over 300 boxes in this area of the documents, starting with zero one down there, which would be the first, the very first documents that we got, and then ending here with probably the documents which we got here about a few years ago.
Fritz Streiff: CIJA Keeping its location a secret seems fair enough. After all, at the heart of its work are the incriminating documents that they are in possession of. So security is of the utmost importance for them. These documents are all kept in brown cardboard boxes that tower over us and the evidence room we're standing in. And it's cold!
Nerma Jelacic: And it's cold, the humidity levels, the temperature and the climate has to be adjusted to the fact that there is a lot of paper in here, just under a million documents in this room with the rest of them here.
Fritz Streiff: And the reason CIJA has all of these documents? From working with teams of evidence gatherers on the ground in Syria.
Nerma Jelacic: In the early days when the protests turned into armed conflict, we had eight governorates covered.
Fritz Streiff: At the time the revolution started, Syria was made up of 14 governorates, also called provinces.
Nerma Jelacic: Our approach was to go to the areas where we can keep our people at the back and then if the area falls in those early days, then they would go in and swoop up the material before the area is then secured by the FSA. So this material comes from the number of different governorates in those early years. And then importantly, because communication is two ways, you're getting the information also coming from Damascus to them.
Fritz Streiff: So as regions fell out of regime control to the armed opposition, CIJA’s teams would enter and collect all the materials that they could find. It was dangerous, life threatening work and required highly sensitive preparation and execution by the Syrian CIJA teams on the ground. But they managed to get a whole load of regime documents out of Syria and into CIJA’s possession. CIJA says that the evidence they have incriminating the Syrian regime is stronger than what the prosecutors had against the Nazis at Nuremberg.
Can we have a look at one of these boxes?
Nerma Jelacic: Let's see if I can remember which one you could look at without me having to call somebody to clear it. I have to put it down because it's heavy. The boxes are packed in the order in which the material was collected, and that was very important for the whole chain of custody element of our work.
Fritz Streiff: Chain of custody is really important, especially in these kinds of criminal cases. You need to be able to show exactly where the documents originally came from and who handled them, when and why, right up until the point the documents reach the authorities.
Nerma Jelacic: And then the work with the document actually happens on the electronic evidence management system. The only time we work with these documents is when our team of the evidence scanners deals with them. So we're not going to read through them, but I just want to show you, I think this one is good because it shows different types of material. This one would be a map. It is a military campaign map with the writings on the map. Let's see if this one… Yeah. You see, it's all handwritten. I can't remember precisely this one. We would have to find the number and and search it on our evidence database. But in terms of different types, so you would have this material. You would have this kind of barcode on each one.
Fritz Streiff: So every document has an individual barcode attached?
Nerma Jelacic: Every page has a barcode. And then you have things like these written ledgers, right. The important thing to bear in mind, we collect everything. If we enter a place, the idea is that you can’t say, Well, I only picked the stuff that was interesting to me and the rest I left behind. So the direction is that we collect everything and the actual sorting out of what's relevant is done here, so that way you also can't be accused of leaving behind exculpatory evidence, or that you're only focusing on stuff that shows the guilt of the individual, right? So you'll find administrative things from lists of recruits, even from before the war. You'll find administrative bureaucracy from ordering equipment for the office, or paper, etc. But also majority of it will be reports or circulars or orders or plans.
Fritz Streiff: Many of these reports relate to what was going on inside intelligence branches after the revolution began in Syria in March 2011.
Nerma Jelacic: If CIJA has over 1 million pages, I would say 80% of it comes from the security apparatus of Syria. So it would be from one of the security intelligence agencies. Which in a conflict and in states such as Syria, obviously plays a huge role in that network of not just the quashing of the revolution and the uprising, but also the detentions, checkpoints, etc. So it's a good chunk of the criminality of the regime. Reports, you have different ones, security situation reports, so when they would send daily reports back up the chain of command from each governorate to the NSB, which is National Security Bureau, and then CCMC.
Fritz Streiff: The CCMC being the Central Crisis Management Cell, the body set up by the Assad regime to better coordinate the response of its intelligence apparatus and the military to the protests. The CCMC reported directly to the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Nerma Jelacic: “Today, we did this and this and then we arrested ten people and interrogated them and here are the four reports.” And then you will have interrogation reports which says, this person was picked up at this checkpoint. And these are the questions we asked them. This is where the pattern starts appearing, because you start getting interrogation reports from different governorates at different ends of the country, using the same questions for the people that they are interrogating. And these questions are then connected to the directive issued by the CCMC in the summer of 2011 in which they say, We want you to focus on arresting the protesters and identifying those who are helping organise them, financing them, speaking to the foreign media, etc., etc. So they end up basically putting a target on different types of people and then asking them to tell them more names. So you have more names in the interrogation reports and then they swoop up these names and then they interrogate them, and more names are given. So this is 2011, 12, when it turns into this huge hoovering operation of getting the protesters. And these are the ones you then end up finding in the detention centres being tortured.
Fritz Streiff: Like any bureaucratic document, the reports CIJA is in possession of don't exactly make for explosive reading. It's not like they explicitly detail what specific torture and interrogation techniques were used on which detainee. Instead, the usefulness of these documents is all about reading in between the lines.
Nerma Jelacic: You can only infer what is done, right. The important thing with these documents is that it shows that it wasn't an ad hoc event. The interrogations were part of an orchestrated approach that the regime took from the highest level and reported down, saying this is how you're going to deal with it. This is the information we want. And then the security elements are running around at that time freaking out because they're losing control. And picking up more and more and more people to try and appease, to say we have we have, we're getting the information that you want, even if it's not relevant, because a lot of these names would have been taken from under torture. You don't know whether people are really involved in anything or not. So the point is that the elements of torture, how the torture happened, etc., this is what you show through the survivors who tell you those stories or through those individuals who can corroborate it. So they would be maybe lower ranking people who we would speak to and say, well, how did it work? Was Halabi at this level? And did you report to him and did he have the power to decide if somebody was released or he would have to ask somebody? So you would corroborate what you are finding in the documents through the individuals that directly knew how it worked.
Fritz Streiff: As these documents began making their way out of Syria and into the hands of Syrian and Western legal investigators like CIJA, there was also increasing numbers of Syrians fleeing to Europe, especially in 2015, which saw unprecedented numbers of Syrians arriving in Europe. Many of them had either been detained by the regime or experienced their brutal and often illegal warfare tactics. And their stories could corroborate the evidence found in files like the ones that were coming into CIJA’s possession. But with so many documents and so many witnesses, the legal teams were overwhelmed. There needed to be more of a focus to their work. Teams of Western and Syrian legal investigators came together to hash out a strategy for pursuing justice. They decided on three essential criteria: One, greater involvement of Syrians in case building. Two, to build cases of emblematic crimes like attacking hospitals or the use of chemical weapons. And three…
Steve Kostas: Build cases against higher ranking regime officials who could be tried in Europe.
Fritz Streiff: Steve Kostas was another lawyer working on the Syria file. At this stage of the war that been no prosecutions brought against Syrian regime actors, those most responsible for the crimes against humanity and war crimes that were occurring in Syria.
Steve Kostas: And so there was an urgent need to see that there were cases against regime actors and not just complaints filed against officials, you know, like Assad, for example, who's in Syria, but identifying perpetrators who could be actually brought to trial in Europe. So either people who are in Europe or could be arrested and brought to Europe. And then OSJI…
Fritz Streiff: OSJI is the Open Society Justice Initiative, where Steve works.
Steve Kostas: … On select cases, then in addition to supporting that work, was involved in identifying witnesses that would participate in the litigation. And we came over time to see the role of the witnesses as really critical to the success of the cases.
Fritz Streiff: For a successful criminal case, documentary evidence, like the files CIJA holds in its evidence rooms, is critical. Verified documents, especially with signatures, usually don't lie. But the testimonies of witnesses who can describe and explain exactly what happened to them and who did it are just as important.
Steve Kostas: CIJA had these briefs that set out the responsibility of senior officials for crimes committed in that governorate or in that area. But it didn't focus on building a sort of case against an individual. So they wanted to turn part of their work towards identifying individuals and building the cases against those individuals. And then also to focus on people that could be tracked to Europe. And so we supported them to establish a track and trace team. And to do sort of individual case building and to identify who were the highest ranking people in Europe, ex Syrian government officials in Europe, against whom a strong criminal case can be built.
Fritz Streiff: And in 2015, as they began this work, one man's name in particular came up quite quickly. Khaled al-Halabi.
When did you first hear about Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi?
Ambassador Rapp: In late 2015. And that came as a result of discussions with the staff and leadership of CIJA, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, that had certainly found evidence that he was on the Security Committee of Ar Raqqa. Was, you know, on multiple minutes with his own signature, acknowledging his presence, high level meetings that decided to essentially disappear and detain persons that were engaged in peaceful opposition to the Syrian regime.
Fritz Streiff: Do you personally remember the moment that you first heard about him?
Bill Wiley: Yeah, I do remember when I first heard about him. CIJA has what we call a tracking capability, so we identify suspects who have made their way to the West on the basis of information or intelligence that's gathered by our personnel in the field in Syria, in the region.
Mark Watson: So at the time we had a case study where we decided to look at information that the field investigators had collected. And one of these cases was the individual called Brigadier General al-Halabi.
Fritz Streiff: Mark Watson was one of the criminal investigators working for CIJA in 2015.
Mark Watson: And what we were trying to do there was to establish as much information that we could do through desktop review, initially. So, for example, desktop review includes open source information and social media intelligence techniques. And what we were trying to do was to identify, number one, if the individual had left the country. And number two, where the individual was. And that information was stating that Halabi was supposed to be in France.
Fritz Streiff: We left Halabi in France in mid 2014 waiting for a decision on his asylum application. It appears that he did not wait around long enough to see whether France would accept him as an asylum seeker or not. The disappearing general decided once again to disappear.
Mark Watson: We didn't have any reasons to believe he wasn't in France, to be honest. What we were trying to do at the time was to verify that information. And the reasons that we came to our findings really, was focussed around looking closely at his social media presence and also trying to link together pictures that we were able to see online on the individual. At the time, we also had a telephone number that we thought was more than likely linked to Halabi, and through the telephone number we were able to look at different parts of the phone number plus the WhatsApp profile as well.
Ambassador Rapp: And so, you know, we were able to tell that he'd been rejected for asylum in France and that he had gone from there either to Switzerland or to Austria.
Steve Kostas: But at that point, it was unclear if he was in Austria or if he might be moving between countries in Europe or might still be in France. And so we took a strategy that was to file complaints in the countries where we thought he might be and try to suss out where he was.
Mark Watson: We decided to go slightly deeper with our investigations. And through open source we identified Halabi’s Skype account. And then we use something which is passively checking the Skype address at that time through an IP resolver.
Fritz Streiff: The CIJA tracking team were closing in on Halabi.
Mark Watson: And that IP resolver was actually stating that the Skype account, shall we say, was located in Austria.
Steve Kostas: The team at CIJA was then pretty quickly able to determine that he was in fact in Austria.
Bill Wiley: So probably mid 2015 we received the information and figured out that he was in Vienna and so forth.
Fritz Streiff: Austria. Why was Halabi now in Austria? Remember what happened in June 2015, the diplomatic car speeding out of France through Germany and heading to the Austrian city of Salzburg. Remember Operation White Milk? The Austrian intelligence, at the time called the BVA, had smuggled the Brigadier General out of France and into Austria. But why would they help a Syrian intelligence officer, who had already been dropped by the French intelligence? What use was he to them?
That's next time in Episode Seven of The Syria Trials. The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General is hosted by me, Fritz Streiff. If you've been enjoying this new season, please do leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify. We love to hear what you think and it'll really help us reach other listeners. 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 very much for listening.