The Assad Files: Capturing the top-secret documents that tie the Syrian regime to mass torture and k
Some half a million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. An additional five million have fled, emptying the country. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE MCQUADE
The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.
He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.
In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.
Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.
The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty.
Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”
The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.
Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.”
Counting Syria’s dead has become nearly impossible—the U.N. stopped trying more than two years ago—but groups monitoring the conflict have estimated the number to be almost half a million, with the pace of killing accelerating each year. The war has emptied out the country, with some five million Syrians escaping to neighboring countries and to Europe, straining the capacities of even those countries which are willing to provide asylum and humanitarian aid. The chaos has also played a fundamental role in the rise of ISIS, the bloodiest of the jihadi groups that have used Syria as a staging ground to expand the reach of terrorism.
Last fall, Wiley invited me to examine the commission’s case at its headquarters, on the condition that I not reveal the office’s location, the governments assisting with document extraction, or, with few exceptions, the names of his staff.
In December, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller in rural Tunisia, fed up with a life of harassment and extortion by venal government officials, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and unwittingly ignited the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Middle East and in North Africa, sharing his rage and despair, rose up against an assortment of autocrats and kings. They demanded democratic reforms, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption. In late January, 2011, Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal, “What you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease.” Syria remained stable, a fact that Assad attributed to his attention to the “beliefs of the people.” He added, “This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”
In fact, Assad’s confidence was likely rooted in the proficiency of Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus, which had kept his family in power since 1971. Other autocrats in the region placed similar trust in their own security forces. Then Egypt’s dictatorship collapsed, and the U.N. Security Council voted to refer the situation in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi had ruled for forty-two years, to the International Criminal Court. In March, NATO forces launched a bombing campaign in Libya. In Syria, people began calling for concessions by the government—timidly, at first. The country had spent forty-eight years under martial law, and the notion of public demonstration was unfamiliar. The protests were met with tear gas and bullets, but were soon attracting tens of thousands of people.
On March 30, 2011, Assad addressed the nation from the rotunda of the Syrian parliament building. He had just sacked his cabinet, and many people expected him to announce liberalizing reforms. Instead, he declared his intention to suppress dissent in the brutal tradition of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “Syria is facing a great conspiracy, whose tentacles extend” to foreign powers that were plotting to destroy the country, he said. “There is no conspiracy theory,” he added. “There is a conspiracy.” He closed with an ominous directive: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty, and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it.” He emphasized, “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”
Two days later, protests across the country grew larger. Assad had already formed a secret security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell, to coördinate a crackdown. Its chairman was Mohammad Said Bekheitan, the highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, after Assad; the other members—who were all Assad-dynasty confidants—were routinely shuffled among the top positions in the military, the ministries, and the security-intelligence apparatus.
Every night, the Crisis Cell met in a drab office on the first floor of the Baath Party Regional Command, in central Damascus, and discussed strategies for crushing dissent. This required detailed information about each protest, so the cell requested reports from security committees and intelligence agents in the most rebellious provinces. The group decided to hire someone to process all the paperwork.
One of the applicants was Abdelmajid Barakat, a twenty-four-year-old with slicked-back hair. Barakat, who had recently finished a master’s degree in international relations, was working for the education ministry. At his interview, in April, a high-level official named Salaheddine al-Naimi examined his résumé and asked whether he could use a computer. Next, Naimi asked how he would resolve the developing crisis. Barakat replied that, in order to avoid an armed response, the government should make some concessions and enact moderate reforms.
Barakat was surprised to be hired. In college, he had been questioned by military-intelligence agents about suspicions that he and his friends were involved in anti-government political activities. Early in the unrest, he had joined one of Syria’s first organized revolutionary bodies. Now, in the regime’s haste to make the Crisis Cell more efficient, it was employing a member of the opposition to process confidential security memos from all over the country. On most days, more than a hundred and fifty pages arrived at Barakat’s desk, cataloguing the minutiae of perceived threats to Assad’s rule—graffiti, Facebook posts, protests—and, eventually, actual threats, like the existence of armed groups. Barakat read everything and drafted summaries, which Naimi delivered to the members of the Crisis Cell to guide each meeting.
Barakat was never allowed into the meeting room, but he saw the members walk in, and Naimi kept detailed minutes on Baath Party letterhead. Occasional guests of the group included high-ranking Baathist officials, Syria’s Vice-President, and Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a short-tempered military commander, whom the European Union identified in a sanctions list as the “principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.”
At the end of each meeting, the Crisis Cell agreed on a plan for every security issue. Then Bekheitan, the chairman, signed the minutes, and a courier delivered them to Assad at the Presidential palace. Barakat learned that Assad reviewed the proposals, signed them, and returned them to the Crisis Cell for implementation. Sometimes he made revisions, crossing out directives and adding new ones. He also issued decrees without consulting the Crisis Cell. Barakat was certain that no security decision, no matter how small, was made without Assad’s approval.
Shortly after Barakat began working for the Crisis Cell, he started leaking documents. Though the regime publicly claimed that it was allowing peaceful demonstrations, security memos showed that intelligence agents were targeting protesters and media activists, and shooting at them indiscriminately. Barakat photographed the memos in the bathroom, and sent the pictures to contacts in the Syrian opposition, who forwarded them to Arabic news organizations. His plan was to steal as much information as possible and then leave the country. But each leak heightened suspicion within the office, increasing the chances that, sooner or later, the regime would discover that he was the mole.
One day in October, 2011, while Bill Wiley was visiting a Libyan exile in Niger, he received a phone call from a friend, relaying a request from the British government: as the crisis in Syria spiralled into civil war, it was looking for someone to train activists to document human-rights violations. Wiley told the caller that plenty of groups were already cataloguing the abuses. But he had a counter-proposal: he could train Syrians to collect the type of evidence that would better serve a prosecution, tracing criminal culpability up as high as it went. It was a novel approach—instead of raising awareness of crimes, he intended to pin them on state actors, whether or not the international community sanctioned the investigation. The British government approved of the idea.
Wiley’s career had intersected with a resurgence of the field of international criminal law; since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there had been no major international investigations until the atrocities in the Balkans, in the nineteen-nineties, led to the Yugoslavia tribunal. Wiley, who had completed a Ph.D. in international criminal law at York University while serving in the Canadian Army—he wrote his dissertation on war crimes and the evolution of international humanitarian law—became an analyst at the tribunal. In 2002, he travelled to Kigali to investigate war crimes in Rwanda, and the following year he moved to the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was the first investigator retained by the International Criminal Court.
Wiley, who considers himself “a field guy, not an office guy,” is tall, with reddish-blond hair, and handles the considerable stress of his profession with Cuban cigarillos, gallows humor, and exercise. (At the age of fifty-two, he bench-presses more than three hundred and fifty pounds.) While working for the I.C.C., he came to believe that the international court system was often afflicted by upper-management “incompetence.” Since its launch, in 2002, the I.C.C. has opened nine investigations, spent more than a billion dollars, and secured convictions against three men: two warlords and a former politician, all from Congo. After two years, Wiley became disillusioned, and he applied to become a human-rights monitor for the