As Canada launches air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, an investigative team funded by Western governments is quietly compiling a paper trail of evidence on the ground in neighbouring Syria against the militant army. It's a race against time to ensure that those responsible do not evade justice.
A Western man takes a seat in a sparsely populated restaurant, located in a country that shares a border with conflict-torn Syria. He orders a glass of chai and is soon joined by a second man – a Syrian – who appears exhausted and distressed as he sits down beside him. The Syrian explains that he didn't sleep the night before. He faced a particularly harrowing journey when he crossed the border and is worried about his family, who are in an area of the country that's been plagued by fighting in recent days.
Keeping his hand just below the edge of the table, the Syrian slips a flat, rectangular object to the Westerner as they talk. It's the passport of a European man believed to be fighting with Islamic State, one of dozens such travel documents discovered in Syria during the past year alone. IS officials frequently confiscate foreigners' identification cards and passports when they arrive – a tactic that serves the dual purpose of stripping them of their previous identity and controlling their future movements.
The Westerner slides the passport into a pocket and, after some more conversation, the Syrian leaves the restaurant on his own. The Westerner finishes his tea, departs on foot, and disappears into the crowd.
Their exchange is one of multiple ways documents and other information about the secretive Islamic State is steadily flowing out of areas the militant group controls. Today, the item handed over is a passport. Other times – and of much greater value – investigators will obtain a list of officials' names, communiqués from mid-level leaders, or the recorded minutes of one of the militants' meetings.
As Canada launches its first air strikes against Islamic State operations in Iraq, a private, not-for-profit organization is quietly compiling information on the ground in neighbouring Syria, part of an effort to lay a foundation for future war crimes prosecutions.
The organization, which is funded by Britain and Denmark, cannot be named out of concern for the safety of its investigators. Some of those involved work outside of Syria as analysts or managers. Others are embedded with more moderate armed opposition groups inside the country, and have their own sources operating within Islamic State.
The Globe and Mail spoke with three members of the investigative team and with numerous outside sources familiar with the organization's work in Syria. All of the investigators spoke on condition of anonymity because of a fear that their operations or their safety could be compromised, but both Western governments funding their work confirmed their support for the investigators' activities.
It's still unclear how the Syrian cases might eventually be tried. But observers say it's crucial to gather evidence connecting leaders to the crimes now, before the conflict ends and it becomes more difficult to obtain.
Already, the team's investigation into Islamic State in Syria is among the first – along with separate investigations into the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – to be carried out in the midst of a high-intensity conflict. It's a shift some experts believe could mark the advent of a new model for war crimes investigations.
"It's a new type of idea, a new kind of organization, which plugs in a hole in the mosaic of international investigations of war crimes," said Mark Kersten, a researcher at the London School of Economics who has studied international criminal justice and spoke broadly about the current investigations in Syria.
The investigative team is also keen to expand its work into Iraq, where Islamic State militants have attacked Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims in a conflict that's forced some 1.8 million people from their homes. If the expansion is successful, the group says it could likely have the first cases ready for prosecution in the Iraqi legal system within roughly six months.
Their focus, the investigators say, is on understanding the command, control and communication structures of Islamic State so they can begin to connect mid- and high-ranking leaders to atrocities that are being committed.
"Journalists might ask, well, are we looking for the killer of James Foley, for example," one investigator said, referring to an American journalist whose brutal murder was filmed and released as propaganda earlier this fall. The knife-wielding Islamic State fighter who killed Mr. Foley spoke with an apparent British accent, sparking widespread speculation about who the foreign jihadi could be.
"The answer is yes and no," the investigator continued. "The guy who actually [committed the beheading], no we're not interested. We're interested in individuals way up the chain of command."
The same concept applies to countless atrocities committed against civilians and armed groups in Syria, investigators say.
But tracking down evidence that might link top officials to a given crime can be a daunting task. Whether investigators' work relates to Mr. Foley's murder or other reports of executions, crucifixions or assaults, Islamic State members produce a much smaller paper trail than a government like the Assad regime would.
Documents are usually the most valuable material the group collects because they're less fallible than human memory.
But the IS investigators also gather a trove of information through other means, from the open-source propaganda posted by Islamic State members themselves, to the reports that come from members of the moderate, armed opposition groups that work as investigators inside Syria and are trained to interrogate captured IS fighters.
Their work is dangerous and, by necessity, highly secretive. Embedded Syrian investigators also have sources within Islamic State who provide insider information on how the militant organization operates.
As IS leaders' aspirations for statehood have grown, so too has the group's level of organization and bureaucratic formality. Some of the documents investigators have been able to collect include spreadsheets containing fighters' names, noms de guerre and nationalities, directives to subordinate IS leaders and reports that go up the chain of command.
Sometimes, the level of detail bears a surprising resemblance to a modern, state-run military force: In one case, investigators obtained a document tallying the number of bullets used during a particular battle so they could keep their inventory up to date.
Stephen Rapp, the U.S. ambassador for war crimes and a proponent of the IS investigation, pointed to requisitions militants have made for equipment, their ability to move oil, and the careful way the group has documented its prisoners as evidence of the militants' growing sophistication.
The investigators' work is critical to help reveal who might be pulling the strings when atrocities are committed, Mr. Rapp said.
"So you know it's not easy, but there are brave people that are willing to work in those areas and gather what they can," he added, referring to the investigators.
The Globe has learned that the organization briefed officials in Ottawa on its work last March and shared a proposal for expanding into Iraq via e-mail earlier this fall, according to people familiar with the group's outreach to governments.
A spokeswoman for the British foreign and commonwealth office said London is funding the investigators' efforts – as well as a separate investigation into the Assad regime – as part of a commitment to ensuring those responsible for war crimes in Syria are held to account.
A statement from Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard, provided to The Globe by e-mail, said his country is funding investigations into "several parties to the conflict," including Islamic State, to pursue accountability for human-rights violations.
Controlled from the top
Initially known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) the al-Qaeda offshoot group changed its name to the shorter Islamic State when it declared a caliphate earlier this year.
Investigators say the group seems to be modelling itself on the structure of the Umayyad Caliphate, a Muslim dynasty that once controlled an expanse of land that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan and India. The group has established a series of administrative regions that function like provinces, distribute social services and have a governor at their helm.
Crucially, it's IS officials at the provincial and district levels that are the easiest to connect to atrocities. Investigators have compiled close to 350 names of people in various mid-level positions of leadership that can help establish linkages between crimes that are committed and orders from superiors.
"It's a very strictly controlled operation," one investigator said. "So if we can block out this middle layer, we know we can fill in the bottom with the crimes, and we're getting evidence that everything's well-controlled [from the top]."
Often, the mid-level leadership can be less dogmatic than its superiors, another investigator said. The group has detailed methods for dividing the spoils of war and smuggling antiquities, passports and other valuables across the border, and IS officials also set up elaborate taxation systems in some of the areas they control.
"There's an extraordinary pragmatism there. And the outrageous violence, mass executions and the way people are murdered and tortured and so forth in archaic ways – that often diverts the attention of casual observers from the real seriousness of the threat," he said.
A lot of the structure appears to have been imported from Iraq, which is one of the reasons the investigators are keen to expand their work into that country. And increasingly, operations traverse both countries, making it difficult for investigators to halt their efforts at the Iraqi border.
"They don't recognize the border, and we're kind of hamstrung a bit by the fact that we haven't got the ability to look at this phenomenon from the east. So we're building half of the picture," said one investigator, who is focused on analysis.
Some donors have expressed a willingness to help fund the group's expansion in Iraq, but the money has not yet come through and it's unclear how much of the $1.5-million cost it will cover.
Islamic State produces a trove of videos, documents, social media commentary and other propaganda that can provide investigators with useful insight into the way the organization works. But it is the front-line Syrian investigators embedded with armed opposition groups who frequently provide the most valuable information.
The Syrian investigators receive training to interrogate captured IS fighters and scour abandoned IS buildings for documents. They also have sources who hold positions within IS, providing a glimpse inside the secretive organization.
There are risks, however, that come with sending investigators into a combat zone with armed opposition groups. Some outside observers worry about the reliability of the embedded investigators, in part because there is always a risk they could become involved in wartime atrocities themselves.
Documentation collected now could be dismissed by a future war crimes tribunal for multiple reasons. Questions about the investigators' methods, issues with the way witnesses are interrogated, and errors in tracking custody of documents that are retrieved are all issues that could be picked apart by a defence team.
But many observers seem to believe the benefits of running an investigation now – rather than waiting until the conflict is over – far outweigh the risks.
Independent groups like the one investigating Islamic State also have a higher tolerance for risk than the more formal investigation by the United Nations commission of inquiry on Syria, which has produced reports on atrocities but is not focused on linking specific crimes to the individuals who may have ordered them.
"There is going to be an immense security challenge once the conflict ends," one investigator said. "If the Syrians don't want to endure a decade or more of terrorism, as experienced by Iraq, they're going to need a security foundation, and that foundation will be built on information derived from investigations now."