Exclusive: Investigating Syria's civil war

How hardline rebels turned on activist Razan Zeitouneh

The disappearance of Razan Zeitouneh and her colleagues has been one of the greatest mysteries of the Syrian war – until today. DW's investigative unit hunted clues across six countries to track down the perpetrators

By the summer of 2013, documenting human rights abuses had become taboo even in rebel-held territories in Syria. But Razan Zeitouneh was steadfast.

The prominent human rights lawyer had just fled the capital, Damascus, due to the immense pressure placed on her work by the regime – and she wasn't prepared to stop it at the behest of armed men in rebel-held Douma, a small town on the outskirts of the capital.

That tenacity, however, would prove fateful.

Although the leaders of armed opposition groups had widely supported documenting atrocities committed by President Bashar Assad's forces, they viewed efforts to chronicle their own war crimes with open hostility.

Eventually, unknown assailants would kidnap Zeitouneh, her husband and two colleagues.

The number of possible witnesses has diminished in the eight years since. Some are threatened into silence, others have been killed, and even more are subject to routine intimidation. As a result, the abduction has remained one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Syrian war – until today.

DW's investigative unit gathered evidence across six countries, spoke with dozens of witnesses with intimate knowledge of the case and tracked down the group most likely responsible for her disappearance.

Because of security concerns and fear of reprisal, DW has decided to keep the identities of its sources anonymous in most cases.

Jaish al Islam fighter in Douma, Syria (photo: AFP)
Friends turned foes – the Army of Islam: although Jaish al Islam proved instrumental in smuggling Zeitouneh and her husband into Douma, they eventually took issue with how she was conducting herself there, launching a social media campaign to discredit her, including making her out to be an immoral woman and likening her to a regime spy. All evidence points to Zeitouneh and her colleagues having been kidnapped and held by the same group

Within weeks of arriving in Douma in the spring of 2013, Zeitouneh had requested access to various prisons run by armed opposition groups to investigate claims that detainees were subject to torture.

Her efforts unsettled many in the town. Some even voiced concerns about her loyalty to the Syrian revolution – one of several uprisings against autocratic rule that swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.

It was a critical moment for the human rights defender, who believed that the dignity of all humans was inviolable, and that all abuses demanded documentation and accountability.

"She was one of the first ones in the Syrian opposition to say we're not going to give the armed groups a free pass, even if they are fighting a greater evil," Nadim Houry, director of the Arab Reform Initiative and a friend of Zeitouneh's, tells DW.

One above all: Jaish al-Islam

Douma at the time was not only a battleground for rebels and the regime. It was a town hotly contested by the "Islamic State", al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and other militant forces vying for power.

One group stood head and shoulders above the rest: the ultraconservative Jaish al-Islam, Arabic for Army of Islam. Although the group proved instrumental in smuggling Zeitouneh and her husband into Douma, they eventually took issue with how she was conducting herself there.

"I myself advised Mrs. Razan that writing about the regime is a great ethical matter," said Mohammed Alloush, the former political leader of Jaish al-Islam. "But, before writing reports about violations committed by opposition groups, I asked her to talk to them, give them advice and teach them about human rights."

That advice hardly seemed earnest. Zeitouneh was repeatedly denied access to rebel facilities, including those operated by Jaish al-Islam.

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