Sotloff v. Syrian Arab Republic, Civil Action No. 16-725 (TJK)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtTIMOTHY J. KELLY, United States District Judge
Citation525 F.Supp.3d 121
Parties Arthur Barry SOTLOFF et al., Plaintiffs, v. SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 16-725 (TJK) ,(C/w 18-cv-1625)
Decision Date15 March 2021

525 F.Supp.3d 121

Arthur Barry SOTLOFF et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 16-725 (TJK)
(C/w 18-cv-1625)

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

Signed March 15, 2021


525 F.Supp.3d 126

Edward B. MacAllister, Emily Amick, Steven Robert Perles, Joshua K. Perles, Perles Law Firm, PC, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TIMOTHY J. KELLY, United States District Judge

James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American journalists covering the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, were kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the "Islamic State," "ISIS," or "ISIL." As a result of the gruesome video of their deaths that ISIS distributed for propaganda purposes in 2014, their tragic deaths are well-known to many Americans. This case, brought by their families against the Syrian Arab Republic under the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, is largely about whether Syria provided material support

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to ISIS such that Syria may be held liable for what happened to them. After a two-day evidentiary hearing, the Court now finds Syria liable. Thus, for the below reasons, it will grant the pending motion for default judgment and enter judgment against Syria.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

1. Syria and the Rise of ISIS

Syria has provided safe haven and support to terrorist organizations within its borders for decades. See 45 Fed. Reg. 33956 (May 21, 1980) ; Ex. 15 (2000 State Department Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism) at 5.1 In the early 2000s, the Zarqawi organization, or network, operated from Syria and received funding and resources from Syria. See Foley v. Syrian Arab Republic , 249 F. Supp. 3d 186, 193–95 (D.D.C. 2017) ; Thuneibat v. Syrian Arab Republic , 167 F. Supp. 3d 22, 36 (D.D.C. 2016) ; Gates v. Syrian Arab Republic , 580 F. Supp. 2d 53, 59–63 (D.D.C. 2008).2 ISIS is simply "the most recent iteration of ‘the Zarqawi organization,’ [which] has undergone several name changes since its emergence in the early 1990s." Ex. 1 at 12;3 Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 39:13–40:13; see also Ex. 2 at 1 ("Syrian government support for the terrorist network that morphed into ISIS goes back many years, to include support for foreign fighters traveling through Syria to join al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, and specifically the terrorist network led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi) which later became ISIS.").

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The United States’ invasion of Iraq in March 2003 opened a new chapter in Syria's role supporting Zarqawi's organization. Despite pressure from the United States,4 Syria continued to support Zarqawi and his forces, motivated by twin desires to "tie down U.S. forces in Iraq" and "allow the Iraq conflict to serve as an outlet for its domestic jihadists in the hope that if they were fighting in the war in Iraq, they might not cause trouble at home." Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 50:20–25; Ex. 1 at 53. Syria maintained direct ties to the Zarqawi organization and allowed key Zarqawi operatives to operate in Syria and across its borders into neighboring countries. Ex. 1 at 53–55; Ex. 2 at 20–23. Over the next few years, Syria became "a transit station for al-Qaeda foreign terrorists on their way to Iraq," as Zarqawi facilitated the flow of "money, of weapons, and terrorists intent on killing U.S. coalition forces and innocent Iraqis." Levitt Hr'g Tr. 163:24–164:3. The Treasury Department responded by designating members of the Zarqawi network in Syria under Executive Order 13224 for providing financial and material support for terrorism.5 But the Zarqawi organization could not have operated in Syria without the "knowledge and permission" of the Syrian regime. Levitt Hr'g Tr. 162:3. Thus, the Treasury Department also moved to designate members of the Syrian government itself, including its Director of Military Intelligence, as Specially Designated Nationals under Executive Order 13338, for furthering Syria's support for terrorism.6 Indeed, Syria's policy toward the Zarqawi organization from 2002 to 2010 was for Syrian intelligence officers to "not investigate, surveil, assist, or arrest such militants unless the top (officials) of the government wish[ed] it," according to a former high-ranking member of Syria's intelligence service. ECF No. 37-1 ¶ 13.7

In March 2011, "Syria began to experience the effects of the ‘Arab Spring’—a wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa against authoritarian governments. The Arab Spring prompted both a non-violent movement as well as an armed insurrection, calling for government change and an end to corruption ..." Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic , 363 F. Supp. 3d 141, 147 (D.D.C. 2019) (citations omitted). This movement made Syria's support for the terrorists within its

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borders a matter of survival for the Syrian regime. In the months that followed, fearing Western military intervention of the sort that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad began supporting the latest iteration of the Zarqawi organization "in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as terrorists," and thus make similar action to dislodge his regime harder. Ex. 2 at 1, 6, 9; Ex. 1 at 53; ECF No. 37-1 ¶¶ 35–39. Syrian national security and intelligence forces coordinated the effort to help create and support what became ISIS. Ex. 2 at 6–8. Syria did so in several ways.

First, between May and October 2011, Syria began unconditionally releasing battle-hardened Syrian jihadists, including those that became senior ISIS leaders and key operatives. Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 56–58; Ex. 1 at 55 ("In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry described ISIS as, at least in part, ‘created by Assad releasing 1,500 prisoners from jail.’ "); Ex. 2 at 1, 9–10; ECF No. 37-1 ¶¶ 35–36. Many of the released jihadist prisoners had been held at "one of Syria's most notorious and brutal jails," "known for gross human rights violations and ... mass executions" and described by former guards and prisoners as "an incubator for jihadism." Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 56:1–16; Ex. 1 at 54–55. The Syrian regime selected prisoners for release that would undermine more moderate forces opposing it. Ex. 2 at 9–10.

One released prisoner, Abu Luqman, became "one of the most notorious members of ISIS's leadership" and governor of Raqqa; he recruited hundreds of fighters, contributing to the Islamic State's ability to control territory. Ex. 1 at 56–58; Ex. 2 at 9. In 2015, the Treasury Department designated Luqman under Executive Order 13224 for providing financial and material support for terrorism, noting that he had been "in charge of ISIL's detention of foreign hostages," "supervised security matters, including executions, interrogations, and transfers of ISIL prisoners, at an al-Raqqah detention facility used to hold foreign hostages," and had "ordered the beheadings of two ISIL hostages" in 2014. Ex. 1 at 58. Another prisoner that Syria released, Amr al-Absi, became governor of Aleppo and ran an ISIS prison there, below a children's hospital. Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 68:18-24. Al-Absi also led ISIS's media efforts and was responsible for the distribution of propaganda videos depicting the beheadings of prisoners. Id. ; Ex. 1 at 61.

Second, Syria also developed a "direct financial relationship" with ISIS that helped it raise revenue. Gartenstein-Ross Hr'g Tr. 82:14–19. In 2014, ISIS captured strategic oil fields in Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq. Gartenstein-Ross Tr. 78:20–25. The Assad regime bought oil (and wheat) from ISIS, helping to fill its coffers. Ex. 2 at 11–13; Ex. 1 at 63–73; ECF No. 37-1 ¶ 47. In 2014, the year ISIS executed Foley and Sotloff, its oil revenues were as high as $3 million per day. Id. at 79:6–7; Ex. 1 at 65; Ex. 2 at 12. Moreover, "[a]ccording to numerous accounts, including documents intercepted from ISIS's oil minister, Syria was the biggest customer of ISIS's oil." Gartenstein-Ross Tr. 54:12–15; see Ex. 1 at 66–70. The Treasury Department recognized the significance of these oil sales by sanctioning several Syrian businessmen under Executive Order 13582 for facilitating them. Ex. 7; Ex. 27.

Another example of Syria's financial assistance to ISIS concerned access to the international banking system. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental policymaking body of which the United States is a member, issued a report that found that as of February 2015, Syria permitted more than 20 Syrian financial institutions to operate in

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ISIS-controlled territory.8 Ex. 8 at 28. By allowing ISIS to use its banks, Syria provided vital access to the international financial system to ISIS, Levitt Hr'g Tr. 269:10–15, that allowed it to "function as a local economy," i.e. , to "send [money] abroad for purchasing power," to buy weapons, resources needed to keep the oil industry functioning, and "things [needed] to run society, the schools and garbage collection and everything else that a militant organization has to take care of...

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  • Kar v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action 19-2070 (JDB)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 2022
    ...and the purpose of accomplishing ‘the sort of third-party compulsion described in the [Convention.'” Sotloff v. Syrian Arab Republic, 525 F.Supp.3d 121, 135 (D.D.C. 2021) (alteration in original) (quoting Simpson v. Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Simpson II), 470 F.3d 356, 359 (......
1 cases
  • Kar v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action 19-2070 (JDB)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 2022
    ...and the purpose of accomplishing ‘the sort of third-party compulsion described in the [Convention.'” Sotloff v. Syrian Arab Republic, 525 F.Supp.3d 121, 135 (D.D.C. 2021) (alteration in original) (quoting Simpson v. Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Simpson II), 470 F.3d 356, 359 (......

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