Syrian refugees walk toward the Kelenfšld train station in Budapest last September. Former militiamen accused of committing crimes during Syria's war are now blending in and seeking asylum in Europe. File Photo by Achilleas Zavallis/UPI | License Photo
Displaced Syrian civilians who found asylum in Europe fear an increasing number of former militia members and mercenaries loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are surfacing in Europe and posing as refugees.
Known as shabiha – Arabic for "ghosts" or "shadows" – the term is used to describe groups of government thugs and militiamen well known for their use of violence and intimidation. Having gained notoriety over the past several decades in Syria, particularly during the initial violent government crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in 2011, these men are considered by most Syrians to be above the law.
In recent months, reports have surfaced of shabiha and other former Syrian security personnel being spotted in Europe – either recognized in refugee camps or seen in photographs posted online.
Mujremon is an initiative launched by Syrian volunteers to track and expose war criminals in Europe. The website urges users to fill in an online form with information about former combatants who have recently relocated to Europe, with evidence proving their involvement in war crimes.
Other independent activists and journalists, such as the U.K.-based Ben Davies, have gone out on their own to track down accused combatants over social media as they attempt to take asylum in Europe. Davies has closely followed events in Syria since the uprising's outset, working with other activists on the Radio Free Syria project before leaving to pursue his own Syria-focused journalism.
Syria Deeply spoke about the phenomenon with Davies, whose blog details the crimes and journeys of shabiha members he has tracked from Syria to Europe.
Syria Deeply: When and why did you start tracking shabiha members fleeing the war in Syria?
Ben Davies: In October 2015 I began dedicating more time to this issue, when more and more people started reporting and sharing profiles of people who one minute were seen online standing on corpses and the next were posing in front of the Eiffel Tower.
These people live in refugee centers with the same civilians who fled to Europe to get away from their crimes. They also extort some refugees for money or information, and threaten to harm their relatives back in Syria.
This [tracking them] is crucial, not only for the refugees but also for the citizens of countries with high refugee populations. I don't think anyone would feel safe knowing there are people who have committed atrocities walking around their cities.
Syria Deeply: What methods do you use to verify your information?
Ben Davies: The methods vary depending on the context. On many occasions I get profiles and screenshots sent to me by Syrian activists who find out that a member of the security forces or a former militiaman is now in Europe. I verify the information by going through all the evidence presented to me, from images to videos showing the perpetrators committing crimes.
Sometimes I collaborate with journalists working on the same issue, who receive complaints from refugees that someone in their camp used to be a criminal back in Syria. I take these allegations and do a thorough search into their past affiliations.
These criminals leave traces everywhere on the Internet – as we've all seen in their propaganda videos – and if we had more volunteers and people assisting us, we would be able to track thousands of them.
Syria Deeply: What is the average profile of the type of person you follow? Do you go after only those who have killed civilians in Syria, or do you target fighters in general?
Ben Davies: I look out for uniform insignia, as it's widely known that pro-government forces almost always show their pride by wearing camouflage and plastering posters of the Assad family all over their profiles. I find people wearing uniforms from the National Defence Forces, as well as the Republican Guard.
Of course I'm not after loyalists, I'm after criminals, and that's when the hard work begins. I look into their ranks in the military, which divisions they belonged to, and which areas they served in.
Some of these people try to erase all their previous affiliations from the Internet once they move to Europe, but their histories have usually been saved by Syrian activists who have received threats or been bullied or who have simply followed them.
The first case I ever worked on was exposing Avo Khorozian, a former combatant with the Syrian army. I saw what he was posting on his Facebook profile, but I let him continue, in order to see evidence against him pile up before I exposed him.
Syria Deeply: Are there other groups working on the same issue?
Ben Davies: I'm connected to a number of journalists in Germany and Sweden who volunteer to work on the issue. Many Syrian activists are also involved. I sometimes collaborate with watchdog organizations such as Mujremon, who also work to document these cases and persuade the authorities to look into them.
Syria Deeply: What does European law say about asylum seekers who have been previously involved in armed conflicts?
Ben Davies: The law explicitly states that humanitarian asylum is granted to civilians, not fighters. But because the screening process is easier for Assad's soldiers than for other civilians, many of these soldiers are granted asylum in Europe.
For instance, it's easier for former government militants because they are not seen as a threat to the European way of life; these men wear Western clothes, like to party and are more easily integrated into society. It's also easier for them to pass the security checks because – as far as European governments are concerned – they committed crimes because they were serving their government. They don't have any ideological reasons to pose a threat in Europe compared to devout Muslims.
In my opinion, that is a very false assumption. Some of these men are not in Europe simply because they want to put their past behind them; the Swedish intelligence service SAPO has confirmed 20 Syrian spies currently live in Sweden.
Syria Deeply: Do you receive support from the governments of countries to which these men have located?
Ben Davies: I don't get an immediate response after notifying the authorities, but I often hear that they have looked into it, especially when many people share the information. For example, when I tracked Mohamed Ahmad Tafankaji – a soldier who served in the infamous 601 Mezze Military Hospital and then surfaced in Germany – I found out that the German police had been talking to him.
Another case was Hamza Akkad, a member of Assad's security forces who was accused by many civilians of rape and sexual harassment, and who applied for humanitarian asylum in Norway. He messaged one of the activists who exposed him and told him to remove the post as he had been "questioned by the Norwegian police three times."
The German and Swedish police are very passive, whereas the Norwegian and the Finnish police are more collaborative on this matter and they respond quickly.
Syria Deeply: How many shabiha members have you successfully tracked to Europe?
Ben Davies: So far I have exposed 70 former members of Assad's security forces and mercenaries, but I still have many more to track down. I estimate that around 2,000 of them have been granted asylum in Europe.
My network of contacts and volunteers is expanding, and the issue is gaining momentum in the press, so I'm expecting many more of these criminals to be brought to justice.
Zuhour Mahmoud is the deputy managing editor of Syria Deeply. This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the war in Syria, you can sign up for the Syria Deeply email list.