Flying its black flags, the Islamic State group advanced across Syria and Iraq in convoys of pickups and SUVs, some mounted with heavy guns and reinforced with metal plates.
Vehicles were central to the ISIS campaign, but like any trucks, they broke down, and mechanics were needed to keep them on the road.
Mechanics like Boutros Massroua.
For several months in 2015, the Lebanese national repaired ISIS vehicles, both in the Bekaa Valley, where he lived, and across the border in Syria.
He wasn’t a member of ISIS. A Catholic, he had to remove his crucifix before going to work so as not to provoke his fanatical employers. But he was well paid.
Now, the 54-year-old is living in British Columbia and fighting Canadian government accusations he was complicit in the crimes against humanity of ISIS.
Global News first reported on the case on April 18 without identifying Massroua because the government had removed his name from his refugee file.
But Global News has since obtained documents, publicly put into the court record by Massroua himself, that identify him by name and provide a fuller picture of his past.
The Canada Border Services Agency would not answer questions about the case. The Vancouver lawyer representing Massroua also declined to comment.
But in Vancouver, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) ruled he had committed a crime against humanity, making him ineligible for refugee status.
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IRB member Michal Fox wrote that ISIS needed Massroua’s automotive expertise and that by working for the terrorist group he had “willingly and knowingly” contributed to ISIS.
“If it weren’t for the principal claimant’s work on these armed vehicles, these vehicles would not be returning to Syria with guns on top of them — to shoot unarmed women, children, men of every religion, to blow up buildings,” Fox wrote.
“This is a significant contribution to the entire war effort of ISIS.”
The decision was upheld on appeal and is now before the courts.
While Canada has prosecuted a handful of ISIS supporters, the Massroua case is unusual in that the government is using war crime laws against an alleged ISIS collaborator.
Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, said that precedent should be applied to those who left Canada to join ISIS and were captured.
“That his appeal was rejected and that he was found to be complicit in crimes against humanity is a victory for human rights and should help guide how the Canadian government moves forward in dealing with its citizens who joined ISIS and have returned to Canada,” he said.
“ISIS has carried out the most horrific mass atrocity crimes in Syria and Iraq, and Canadians, male and female, who travelled to the Middle East to join the group are equally complicit as the Lebanese asylum-seeker.”
Massroua is from Zahle, a Lebanese city near the Syrian border. He worked as a mechanic for a small company. His wife was an accountant at a Catholic school.
In December 2014, a man named Abou Mohamed brought an SUV to Massroua and was impressed with his skills.
“He liked my work because I am a specialist in difficult repairs and was able to do the repairs with ease where the other mechanics had failed,” Massroua wrote in his refugee claim.
Mohamed brought Massroua more vehicles and then asked him to come to Majdal Anjar, a town on the Syrian border.
Massroua agreed and worked on vehicles while also overseeing other mechanics. Before long, he was taken to a new location.
It was a big covered parking lot that contained up to 20 jeeps and four-by-fours that had been repainted and reinforced with metal plates and bars.
None had licence plates. Some had bullet holes in their sides. He saw a military weapon in one and noticed the people wore long beards and spoke in Syrian or Iraqi accents.
Despite the indications he was working for ISIS, he returned repeatedly, always at night. Each time, he was patted down, and his phone was taken away, but he was happy to comply and he made good money.
For a single night, he was paid as much as US$400 — roughly half his monthly salary at his daytime job.
ISIS had bigger plans for him. Because Massroua was a Christian, and therefore less likely to arouse suspicions, ISIS wanted to send him to China and arranged a visa.
“They wanted me to buy something for them,” he said.
He did not know what but he had increasing cause for suspicion. He was working on a truck when he smelled blood inside. “I looked around me and saw blood, some of which accidentally got on my hands,” he wrote.
“It was still sticky.”
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He fixed the truck anyway but said he subsequently made excuses not to return. Gunmen would then come to his house to take him to the vehicles, he said.
“Three times they took me into Syria to do repairs there,” he wrote. “I was convinced by then that they were ISIS.”
But according to the IRB, Massroua knew from the outset who he was working for, and the evidence only grew over time. He was also explicitly warned that his employer was ISIS.
A member of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which was fighting ISIS, came to Massroua’s house and gave him a week to stop working for ISIS.
By then, Massroua said, he and his wife had decided to leave the country. His wife had a sister in Canada, and she sent a letter of invitation.
Four days later, however, Massroua was back at it. He spent the night fixing ISIS vehicles, returning home at 6 a.m.
Hezbollah paid him another visit and threatened him, he said. They said they knew he had been with ISIS again. They told him the exact time he had come home so he knew he was being watched.
But when ISIS came back to his house to take him to Syria, he went with them again — unwillingly, he claimed, although their vehicle got a flat and they never made it.
Two Hezbollah members soon showed up at his workplace and drove him to a place called Turbul. This time, according to Massroua, they wanted him to keep working for ISIS so he could spy on the group.
ISIS came again that night and took him to the repair facility, then into Syria to fix an SUV.
“Once I was done, they took me back home, around 2 a.m.,” Massroua said.
The next morning, Hezbollah said they were going to place a recording device on him. Massroua claimed they threatened to kill him and his wife if he didn’t co-operate.
With their Canadian visitor visas approved, Massroua and his wife drove to Beirut, picked them up at the embassy and caught the 1 a.m. flight out of Lebanon on May 23.
The windows of his wife’s car were later smashed and their house was ransacked, according to Massroua.
“Both sides want me now,” he wrote in his refugee claim.
His past quickly became an issue in Canada. At a hearing in Vancouver on May 4, 2016, the government argued Massroua was inadmissible to Canada for being a member of ISIS.
The IRB disagreed, saying he wasn’t a member, but following a separate hearing five months later, the agency ruled he was complicit in crimes against humanity.
The decision said Massroua had done it for the money and was hired by ISIS because of his expertise in vehicle electronics and transmissions.
“He was needed to get those vehicles with arms on top of them and bullet holes on the outside of them in working order so that they could be used again for military ISIS purposes,” the IRB wrote.
The IRB dismissed the claim that Massroua was working for ISIS under duress, noting he had the cash he’d earned from ISIS and two cars and could have fled anytime.
“Even after Hezbollah told him to stop working for ISIS at first, the claimant didn’t stop working for ISIS,” Fox wrote on Oct. 12, 2016.
“The claimant stayed put at his home waiting for more ISIS work until he finally left the country in late May 2016. He had worked for ISIS for at least three full months.”
When Massroua decided to leave home, nobody tried to stop him, the IRB noted.
“There is no defence of duress,” the board concluded.
The Refugee Appeal Division concurred in a ruling handed down in December. Massroua is now fighting the matter in the Federal Court in Vancouver, arguing he was coerced into working for ISIS.
He “took immediate steps to safely remove himself from this sporadic after-hours work once he knew that this was likely a criminal operation,” his lawyer wrote.