Investigating Torture: FBI-HSI Investigation Leads to U.S. Citizen’s Conviction for Human Rights Violations in Iraq

Creator of illegal weapons factory overseas sentenced for torture, other crimes

Gavel in Empty Courtroom (Stock Image)

A U.S. Army veteran who established an illegal weapons facility in the Kurdistan region of Iraq— and who proceeded to both direct and engage in the torture of one of his employees—has been sentenced to 70 years in federal prison for those crimes and for additional crimes linked to his role at the facility.

Ross Roggio of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, directed Kurdish soldiers kidnap an employee and hold him hostage at one of their military compounds for 39 days. There, Roggio and the Kurdish military personnel under his corrupt command physically and mentally abused the victim.

The victim was an Estonian national who worked at the factory, but who planned to blow the whistle on the illegal activities going on there, explained Supervisory Special Agent Crystal Stevens of the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit. In response, Roggio not only directed the victim’s abduction and abuse, but also forced fellow employees to watch the abuse as a deterrent tactic.

The abuses first came to light amid a preexisting counterproliferation case against Roggio. After investigators finished interviewing one former factory employee—a woman from Estonia—she turned over a cellphone audio recording of Roggio that implicated him for torture.

The agents then worked with their agencies, as well as federal and international partners, to locate additional former employees, in case they witnessed or fell victim to torture by Roggio and/or his corrupt cronies.

These efforts—and the ensuing forensic interviews—were successful.

The torture victim came forward and shared his account, and both the victim and witnesses agreed to travel to the United States to testify against Roggio in federal court.

On April 15, Roggio became the second-ever person to be convicted under the U.S. torture statute since it took effect in 1994. 

The case was co-investigated by the FBI Philadelphia Field Office and Homeland Security Investigations—who joined the investigation in 2017—with support from state, federal, and international partners.

"His military records tend to show a lot of disciplinary issues and smaller legal questions through the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

Thomas O'Donnell, special agent, FBI Philadelphia

The Counterproliferation Case

The FBI began investigating Roggio for potential weapons crimes in 2016.

Roggio attended high school in Pennsylvania before joining the U.S. Army.

"His military records tend to show a lot of disciplinary issues and smaller legal questions through the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” O’Donnell noted.

After leaving the Army, Roggio set up a gun shop near Fort Liberty, North Carolina—home to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command—where he manufactured and sold firearms. Roggio lived and attended church in the area.

One of Roggio’s church friends—who happened to be a U.S. special forces soldier—introduced him to a friend he made while serving in Iraq.

This new acquaintance, a member of a ruling family within Kurdistan, hoped that he and Roggio could work together to set up a gun factory in Iraq that would manufacture M4 and Glock-style firearms.

The man said he wanted Roggio to set up the facility in accordance with applicable rules and regulations. And U.S. citizens are allowed to set up these kinds of businesses so long as follow the letter of the law while doing so, Homeland Security Investigations Agent Jeff Burke, O’Donnell’s case partner, explained.

But Roggio didn’t comply, and his business partner’s political connections essentially granted him immunity within Kurdistan.

“At one point, I called our assistant legal attaché overseas in Iraq, and I mentioned the name of the family, the Talibanis,” O’Donnell recalled, “and the assistant legal attaché said to me, ‘Do you realize the people you're asking about? ... One is the equivalent of the director of the FBI, and the other is the equivalent of the director of the CIA.

“Roggio just had the right connections because they were familiar. That family controlled that area, and it was in a war zone.”

The investigation led to Roggio’s indictment and arrest on counterproliferation-related charges in 2018. He then received pre-trial release.

This map illustrates the location of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where Russ Roggio established an illegal weapons factory and tortured a man in his employ.

This map illustrates the location of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where Russ Roggio established an illegal weapons factory and tortured a man in his employ.

Seeking Victims and Witnesses

In the meantime, O’Donnell and Burke continued their investigation. They believed that interviews with Roggio’s former employees—largely Estonians, but also other Europeans who’d been handpicked by his special assistant—could help strengthen the case. And that gut feeling proved right.

When the duo learned that a former female employee of Roggio’s—an Estonian citizen—was slated to travel through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, they worked with Estonia’s Internal Security Service to interview her about her experience with Roggio. The woman turned out to be the first international employee of Roggio’s weapons facility. She shared enough information with O’Donnell and Burke to justify a trip to Estonia to conduct a more in-depth interview with her in a friendlier setting.

Investigators hoped that the interview could help them put the finishing touches on their counterproliferation investigation. But that trip yielded more than just a follow-up conversation.

It also gave investigators the chance to meet a second former weapons factory employee, who surprised the investigators with a six-year-old cellphone recording that captured Roggio making threats of torture, confessing to that and other crimes, and even speaking to motive.

This was the first time they’d heard torture allegations concerning Roggio.

After interviewing these and other former employees, investigators returned to the U.S. with a case, having identified a new and urgent objective: to seek guidance and expertise from the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit to seek a potential prosecution for torture violations.

The FBI is responsible for investigating torture if the victim is a U.S. person, or if the perpetuator is either a U.S. person or if they’re physically located within our country’s borders. This jurisdiction comes from 18 USC, Section 2340A.

The agents knew they had to act quickly—and carefully.

Careful collaboration between the case team, the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit (part of our Criminal Investigative Division), federal victim services providers, multiple FBI legal attaché offices, the U.S. Department of Justice, and our Estonian law enforcement partners enabled the case team to travel to Estonia to conduct forensic interviews with these subjects.

The investigators got the greenlight to take a joint trip with DOJ prosecutors to explore the matter of torture in great detail. The investigative team leveraged their agencies’ resources and connections, as well as international partnerships, to locate and interview multiple former employees of Roggio’s who may have witnessed or been victims of torture.

FBI Supervisory Child-Adolescent Forensic Interviewer Jacqueline Goldstein—who, at the time, held a similar role at HSI—helped ensure these conversations were cognizant of the trauma that these people’s experiences with Roggio may have left them with, while still being admissible in court and supporting investigative needs.

“It’s designed to pass judicial scrutiny,” she said. “So it’s non-leading, non-suggestive. But it’s also trauma-informed so that the investigative interviewing process is uniquely suited to the developmental, cognitive, clinical needs of that individual, and we're not creating additional trauma in that investigative process.”

And with that, in August 2021, investigators were finally able to interview Roggio’s victim: a man who’d been held in captivity and subjected to physical and mental torture—including physical beatings, suffocation, and choking—for more than a month.

“He had very vivid recollection,” O’Donnell said. “Some people blacked out everything. This guy remembered every detail of a lot of what happened.”

Law enforcement also captured statements from a wider group of former employees who’d been forced to witness Roggio’s brutality against the victim. They also convinced the witnesses to travel to the United States to testify against Roggio in federal court.

As a result of these efforts, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment in 2022—which added a charge of torture and a charge of conspiracy to commit torture to Roggio’s already long list of alleged crimes—and he was again arrested.

"We had four eyewitnesses that watched and the torture victim himself, in addition to the recording where Roggio bragged about it."

Thomas O'Donnell, special agent, FBI Philadelphia

A 70-Year Sentence

The combination of the audio recording and the victim’s and witnesses’ firsthand accounts played a pivotal role in winning the conviction.

"We had four eyewitnesses that watched and the torture victim himself, in addition to the recording where Roggio bragged about it,” O’Donnell said.

And, the investigators said, Roggio’s courtroom behavior—including admitting to all of his alleged misdeeds and making fun of the torture victim’s reaction to the abuses—didn’t help his case, either.

"He would say things and the jury would audibly gasp, like as a group,” Burke recalled.

In 2023, Roggio was convicted on all 33 counts he ultimately faced:

  • One count of torture, for his abuse of his former employee;
  • One count of conspiracy to commit torture, for directing Kurdish soldiers to kidnap and otherwise torture the former employee; and
  • 31 other counts related to his illegal export of weapons parts, weapons tools, and defense services from the U.S. to Iraq.

“Torture is among the grievous crimes the FBI investigates and this is the second time we have been able to bring justice under the federal torture statute,” said Executive Assistant Director Timothy Langan of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch in a DOJ release about the sentencing. “Our investigation into Roggio’s abominable crimes and today’s sentencing would not be possible without the sheer courage of the victim to tell his story. The FBI and our international partners stand with victims by standing up to human rights violations wherever they occur.” 

Reporting Torture to the FBI

The public can submit tips regarding torture and/or other human rights violations to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324) or by visiting Tips may be submitted anonymously.

You can also reach out to your nearest FBI field office or legal attaché office, if you’re located overseas. You can also reach out to your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.