The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published new evidence in the torture and beheading of a man in Syria, whose gruesome death was first revealed in a two-minute video released on June 30, 2017. At the time, observers speculated that the Russian-speakers pounding the man with a sledgehammer and chopping at his body with knives and shovels were possibly mercenaries from the “Wagner” private military company. Earlier this month, Novaya Gazeta acquired an additional two videos from the murder scene, and the newspaper says the new footage bolsters suspicions that Russian mercenaries were behind the killing.
In the new videos, the assailants are heard speaking Russian with no foreign accent, coordinating the dismemberment of the man’s body and making jokes about the barbecue to come, when the group later strings up the headless, handless corpse and sets it on fire.
Earlier this month, the Arabic news outlet Jesr Press identified the victim: Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah, a Syrian man born in Deir ez-Zur in 1986, who initially fled the civil war in his country, before returning in 2017, when he was promptly drafted into the Assad regime’s army reserve. He later tried to desert, but was caught. Jesr Press believes the video of his execution was recorded in the province of Homs.
In the footage, the Russian-speaking men torturing and killing Al-Abdullah conceal themselves, except for one man who lowers his scarf briefly and exposes his face. Novaya Gazeta ran the image through FindClone (a neural net that matches photos to profile pictures on the Russian social network VKontakte), and the journalists say they followed the digital breadcrumbs to a man named “Stanislav D.” (the newspaper isn’t releasing the individual’s full surname, to protect the safety of his relatives). Novaya Gazeta says it’s managed to obtain copies of Mr. D.’s passport, his security service questionnaire (dated in February 2016) as a “reconnaissance gunner” employed by the “Wagner” group, and his nondisclosure agreement with the firm. Journalists also confirmed through information from former colleagues on social media that Mr. D. served as a police officer in Stavropol before he became a mercenary.
The suspect’s wife denied that it is her husband in the video and then stopped responding to Novaya Gazeta’s messages. The newspaper was unable to reach any of his colleagues or friends.
Arab sources reportedly believe Al-Abdullah was killed at Syria’s Al-Sha’ir oilfield, making it even more plausible that mercenaries from the “Wagner” group were involved, given that they were responsible for driving ISIS fighters from the area in the spring of 2017, according to a contract (first reported by The Associated Press) between the company “Evro Polis” (a front for Wagner’s operations in Syria, says the St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka) and Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp. The deal granted 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields captured and secured from ISIS by the Russian contractors.
Novaya Gazeta says the men in the leaked videos address each other by the call-signs “Pamir” (a mountain range in Central Asia) and “Volk” (wolf). The journalists note that the Serbian mercenary Davor Savicic shares the call-sign “Volk,” but the footage doesn’t make it clear if he is one of the men who helped torture and dismember Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah. While Novaya Gazeta was completing its investigation, another image appeared online showing four of the men posing, faces exposed, with Al-Abdullah’s hanging body, before they drenched it in gasoline and set it on fire. The corpse’s chest bears the inscription: “For the paratroopers [VDV] and recon!”