The Syrian intelligence officer at the centre of one of the most shocking acts of the civil war – the Tadamon massacre – is still working on a military base outside Damascus and has since been accused by colleagues of directing up to a dozen more mass killings.
Amjad Yousef, a major in one of Syria’s most feared intelligence units, is operating from the Kafr Sousa base, where he has been for most of the past six months since the Guardian revealed his role in shooting dead dozens of people across a death pit in Tadamon, a suburb of the Syrian capital in 2013.
A former colleague of Yousef’s said he had admitted to the killings in a phone call with a mutual friend. “He said ‘Yes I did it. That is what I had to do at the time.’ No one was shocked we knew him. And we know the regime,” the former colleague told the Guardian.
The images shocked the Syrian diaspora and drew condemnation across Europe and in Washington. France, Germany and the Netherlands have all opened war crimes investigations using laws of universal jurisdiction and are hunting any perpetrators who may have escaped to European soil.
German investigators believe they may have identified an associate of Yousef’s now living in Germany and are preparing a case against the former intelligence officer. The Tadamon revelations also caused uproar in Syria, rattling the country’s leadership, which usually keeps a vice-like grip on state secrets, and causing widespread anger even among supporters of the president, Bashar al-Assad.
After the revelations, close to 100 long-term prisoners were released from government dungeons. Some had been locked up for more than a decade.
The former colleague of Yousef’s told the Guardian that the major had been a feared presence in Tadamon for the past decade, and had regularly snatched women from the streets of the suburb, many of whom were never seen again. “I saw him take women from a bread queue one morning. They were innocent. They had done nothing. They were either raped, or killed. Nothing less.”
Yousef was identified through research conducted by Prof Uğur Üngör and the researcher Annsar Shahoud from the University of Amsterdam’s Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The academics were leaked 27 videos, which were downloaded from the laptop used by Branch 227 of the Syrian intelligence, – of which Yousef was deputy leader. The sources who leaked the videos fled Syria earlier this year and their identities are being sought by the country’s military intelligence, which has opened an inquiry into how the material was leaked.
In an unpublished video, seen by the Guardian, Yousef shoots up to six women across a pit as his death quad looks on, and sometimes joins the slaughter. The pit is then set alight and a bulldozer brings ash and debris to fill it in, in what appears to be an attempt to eliminate evidence of the war crime.
The former colleague said up to a dozen more massacres were carried out in Tadamon and that local people were well aware of the locations. “All of the people were Sunnis,” he said. “This was sectarian cleansing. Nothing else. It was Alawites eliminating Sunnis.”
A sectarian dimension to the killings had been suspected, but two more of Yousef’s former colleagues had suggested they were also intended as a warning to communities in or near Tadamon not to collaborate with opposition groups.
The source said all massacre sites in Tadamon were no-go zones for local residentsand that the final death toll of killings by Branch 227 could be as high as 350.
The videos marked one of the only examples in the Syrian war where senior regime officials were shown committing atrocities. The unit recorded the videos to demonstrate to senior leaders – and even Syria’s political regime – what had taken place.
Assad reacted angrily when France announced in August that it would open a war crimes inquiry, telling Paris it was using the allegations as a pretext to try to re-colonise Syria.
France said its counterterrorism prosecutor’s office had been handed the videos. “The alleged actions are likely to constitute the most serious international crimes, specifically crimes against humanity and war crimes. The fight against impunity is a matter of justice for the victims. It is also an essential prerequisite for building a lasting peace in Syria. After a decade of crimes against the Syrian people, France remains committed to ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice,” a government spokesperson said.
Additional reporting by Leena Saedi