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Investigators in Syria Seek Paper Trails That Could Prove War Crimes
The New York Times
Marlise Simons
7 October 2014

THE HAGUE — Behind the blitz of airstrikes and land battles in Syria, an unseen army is hunting for special spoils of war: pieces of paper, including military orders, meeting minutes, prison records and any other documents that could help build cases for future prosecutions.

Several Western governments, including those of the United States and Britain, are financing two separate teams of investigators searching for evidence needed to establish criminal liability in any future war crimes trials. It is important, diplomats say, that the teams and their local operatives search for documents while the conflict is being waged.

“Experience has shown that it’s important to move documents before they can be hidden, destroyed or tampered with,” said William H. Wiley, a Canadian and a veteran of international war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. He heads one of the groups, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.

Mr. Wiley says that his group, independent of any court, has been working in Syria since 2011, and that his investigators can operate more freely than those sent by war crimes tribunals. “We can work faster, we have a high risk tolerance and no cumbersome bureaucratic rules,” he said.

Inside Syria, local lawyers and law students have been recruited to scour prisons and government and military offices for papers revealing what Mr. Wiley calls “the three C’s” — the structure of command, control and communication. “We start with the organization, not the incidents,” he said.


A second team, working independently, received British and other European funds this year to focus on the organization of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. It started work in January, as the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was threatening villages in northern Syria and well before it seized a large stretch of territory in Syria and Iraq. The team’s chief investigator asked that the real names of staff members be withheld for security reasons.

The head of the team targeting the Islamic State is a former Western counterintelligence agent. His job, as he described it, is not to record the crucifixions, beheadings, executions or massacres of recent months but to study the organization and the underpinnings of its self-proclaimed caliphate.


While his team seeks to penetrate the secretive Islamic State, the group focusing on the Syrian government has benefited from what Mr. Rapp called a Syrian “mania for documentation that we haven’t seen since the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis.”

As Mr. Wiley said: “There are orders coming down, reports going up the chain of command, reports on logistics, on operations. Everything they do is in writing, with the seal of Syria or the Baath Party stamp. Copies are sent around the system: to government departments, to the Baath Party, to no less than four different security and intelligence agencies. They all communicate with each other.

To get documents, Mr. Wiley’s team has built alliances with rebels who oppose President Bashar al-Assad, notably those of the Free Syrian Army, although it recognizes that some rebel groups have also committed atrocities. “Sometimes, like the police, you have to ally yourself with bad guys to get the guys that are badder,” Mr. Wiley said in one of several interviews.

 A Syrian lawyer who coordinates the team inside Syria, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said paid operatives had learned to swoop in and gather documents when government offices fell into rebel hands.

“Sometimes defectors literally lift them from prisons or police or military records,” he said in a Skype interview outside Syria. “Some of this is very dangerous. To get regime documents, people need to be near the front line and act quickly when an office falls under opposition control.”

So far, tons of paper — an estimated half-million pages — have been taken out of Syria by the group, often via Turkey or Jordan.

There have been setbacks: One safe house full of papers was destroyed by bombs. A family unknowingly burned more than 200 pounds of pages to heat the fireplace and bake bread, said Hassan, an investigator.


The second, smaller group, investigating the Islamic State, also leans on anti-Assad rebels to collect and hide documents. “We’ve got them to assign about a dozen people to the task, and they are on our payroll,” John, an investigator, said in a Skype interview. “They are laypeople, so we have given them some basic understanding of investigation.”

The team has obtained Islamic State military and civilian directives, as well as the passports of Western fighters, and collected the names of military commanders and provincial governors. But little is known about the “emirs,” the middle-ranking civilian authorities who “play a huge role in local decision-making,” a team member said.

Unlike the Syrian government, the Islamic State produces relatively little compromising paperwork about its operations, but lists of internal rules have surfaced. For example, a three-page document dated November 2013 and stamped “intelligence report” records the minutes of the “Committee for Control and Supervision” for Aleppo Province, Syria.


Investigators say a major obstacle to gathering more information right now may not be the Islamic State itself.

“The most difficult issue for us is the absolute lack of coordination between the Syrian opposition fighters,” said the head of the team investigating the Islamic State. “There are about 10 major opposition groups, all operating separately from each other. There is no structure, their loyalties change, their allegiances change. It’s like lava coming out of a volcano, moving constantly.”

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