Bellingcat

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Kurdish Sources Deny Any Knowledge Of Videos Showing Liwa al-Islam Launching The August 21st Sarin Attack

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about videos that had been posted on LiveLeak and YouTube by the same user, at the same time, claiming to show Liwa al-Islam launching rockets on August 21st which were linked to the Sarin attack on the same day (see here).  The implication of the video is Liwa al-Islam accidentally gassed Eastern Ghouta on August 21st when they intended to hit Assad's forces in Quboun and Jobar.  All videos had the following description
September 15. Kurdish Peshmerga killed three Syrian terrorists on border. They found cell phone in pocket. Night bombing video there. Terrorists on video wear gas masks. Video was shot August 21. One terrorist name it Storm operation.
These videos struck me as highly dubious for a number of reasons, including.

  • They were uploaded to two totally new LiveLeak and YouTube accounts, which is unusual for any video coming out of Syria, and in line with the way in which other dubious videos were uploaded. 
  • Everyone but the cameraman was wearing a gas mask.
  • People were wearing gas masks, but also short sleeves that exposed their skin, which would readily absorb any Sarin in the air.
  • They've gone to a lot of trouble to make it clear it's August 21st, Liwa al-Islam are launching the rockets, and have gone to the trouble of hanging banners everywhere and lighting the launchers with the truck.  Having done all that they fail to use a decent camera, and don't even hold it the right way up.  Considering Liwa al-Islam's experience in producing videos it seems unlikely they'd make that mistake.
  • You have to question why they would do an operation under the cover of darkness, only to light up the launcher with a big spotlight that would make it stand out for miles around.

There's various other issues that make these videos seem very suspect (which there's an on-going discussion about on Storyful's Open Newsroom), but one thing I was very interested in is the source of the videos.  As the description says, "Kurdish Peshmerga" supposedly took this from the mobile phone of "Syrian terrorists" on an unspecified border (likely Iraq as it talks about Kurdish Peshmerga), so they seem like the people to ask.  I contacted the journalist Hozan Ibrahim, who has many contacts with various Kurdish groups, and asked if he could ask his contacts what they knew about the video.  After a few days he came back to me:
I've called many sources from the Kurdish PYD, and they do not have any idea about these videos.  They denied their forces have arrested people who had these videos. Also today I contacted some people in Iraqi Kurdistan who are close to the Kurdish Peshmerga, they also denied having any knowledge of the videos. Most of PYD media sources said that these videos are fake.
The question is, how likely is it that no-one in those groups would know about a video they captured from dead "Syrian terrorists" that would be solid proof of Liwa al-Islam's involvement in the August 21st attack, especially if they went to the trouble of uploading them to two YouTube and LiveLeak accounts?  Unless a source from the Kurdish Peshmerga comes out and says they knew about these videos and who uploaded them, it seems these videos are more likely fakes created to blame Liwa al-Islam for the August 21st attack, and judging by the presence of the rocket launchers only seen in government hands (see here) it would appear to point to the Syrian military being the ones doing the faking.

More posted on the subject of the August 21st attacks can be found here, and other posts on chemical weapons and Syria, including extremely informative interviews with chemical weapon specialists, can be found here.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at brownmoses@gmail.com.

21 comments:

  1. This isn't the same Hozan Ibrahim of the Syrian opposition group the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) and member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) by any chance?

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    1. No, it's a different person.

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    2. Is it this guy: https://www.facebook.com/hozan.ibraheem

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    3. Nope, this guy works with Al Jazeera English in Turkey.

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  2. Thanks for this! Lots of valuable information that I will soon add to the analysis of the videos
    http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2013/09/evidence-contradicting-regime-attack.html

    Would love your input on the following:
    It's very easy to point out problems in this video. However, you seem to conveniently ignore that they make much less sense as a regime fabrication: Why would the regime publish this when a diplomatic solution was being negotiated and not earlier when military intervention seemed imminent? Why show the Howitzer which no one connected to a chemical attack before? Why mention the wrong targets when the regime's official story was a rebel false flag? Why use such low quality video that makes it unusable for mass media? Why not give clearer indications that this is a chemical attack (gas masks are a weak indication - anyone who thinks the regime used CW, would think they're for protection)?

    if this is a regime fabrication, It really seems like they made a special effort to make it unusable.

    I'm not saying the "this is the smoking gun" hypothesis is without problems, just that an objective analysis should look at the evidence and problems in both alternatives and weigh them together.

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    1. Well, this is speculation, so take it as that rather than concrete statements of fact:

      Why would the regime publish this when a diplomatic solution was being negotiated and not earlier when military intervention seemed imminent?
      It was published the day after the UN report, so it seemed more like a reaction to that, trying to push blame onto the rebels, especially as it mainly features the UMLACA, which the UN report highlighted as being used.

      Why show the Howitzer which no one connected to a chemical attack before?
      If you remember, it was claimed that there were artillery barrages before and after the attack, it might be an attempt to fit that narrative to make it seem more realistic.

      Why mention the wrong targets when the regime's official story was a rebel false flag?
      I think the regimes story has been variable, and this might not have been produced directly by the regime. Maybe this was produced by a military unit under their own steam, but again, that's speculation.

      Why use such low quality video that makes it unusable for mass media?
      They may have over-egged the quality pudding, trying to make it look like it's the sort of video the opposition would have produced, rather than making it look too professional, but ended up overdoing it. It might be an attempt to avoid providing the sort of background details that would make it easy to identify the location.

      Why not give clearer indications that this is a chemical attack (gas masks are a weak indication - anyone who thinks the regime used CW, would think they're for protection)?
      It was released the day after the UN report, showing the munitions identified in the UN report. There's a number of indications it's meant to be a chemical attack (gas masks, operation name, for example).

      One thing to keep in mind, just because their making fake videos doesn't mean they are particularly good at making them. You're average person hasn't spent the last 18 months watching dozens of videos on a daily basis, so they wouldn't know the difference between this and any other video produced from Syria. I'm sure you or I could produce a particularly effective fake video with the same resources, but that's because we're very familiar with the way these videos look and feel. If you compare this video to any other produced by Liwa al-Islam then I'm sure you and I both agree this seems very odd, but that's only because we know what to expect.


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    2. Thanks. Good answers, but the story still has some holes.

      So we have a local unit deciding to stage the video, obviously doing an amateur job. Yet somehow they don't do the standard amateur mistake of overfeeding the audience: No mention of sarin, no showing people mixing liquids, not implying false-flag. In fact, they do a very sophisticated job of indirectly implying a targeting mistake and using the "Reeh Sarsar" reference understood by only a few youtube fans.
      Just doesn't sound right.

      Here's my attempt at addressing the problems you raised. Let me know what you think.

      They were uploaded to two totally new LiveLeak and YouTube accounts.
      >After seeing the results, no body thought to publish this video. But definitely reasonable that it was forwarded secretly among friends ("you won't believe this video i got"). One of them uploaded it anonymously.

      Everyone but the cameraman was wearing a gas mask.
      > Not seen in video, but seems true from audio. I'll speculate that there's no real exposure risk as the rockets were sealed beforehand. It's just standard procedure to wear masks for precaution. He's taking his off to narrate the video and will put it back on if anything bad happens. Also a bit of showing off by a commander ("you wear your masks, but i'm a bad ass").

      People were wearing gas masks, but also short sleeves that exposed their skin, which would readily absorb any Sarin in the air.
      > skin exposure requires much higher concentrations. Definitely reasonable.

      They've gone to a lot of trouble to make it clear it's August 21st, Liwa al-Islam are launching the rockets, and have gone to the trouble of hanging banners everywhere and lighting the launchers with the truck.
      > This is standard procedure for Liwa Al Islam. See full discussion at
      http://whoghouta.blogspot.com/2013/09/evidence-contradicting-regime-attack.html

      Having done all that they fail to use a decent camera, and don't even hold it the right way up.
      > I'm sure not all operations are filmed, especially not at night. The commander may have thought this is interesting enough to do it himself.
      The orientation mistake was done by the uploader, not the cameraman. There's no correct orientation for a phone camera.

      You have to question why they would do an operation under the cover of darkness, only to light up the launcher with a big spotlight that would make it stand out for miles around.
      > It's not under cover of darkness. The regime attacked at night, and they're responding. They are within rebel held territory and are not trying to hide. In any case there is no way to hide rocket launches. You can be seen from miles away.

      Bottom line, both stories have some explaining to do, but it seems that the regime fabrication story has a tougher job...

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    3. I think this discussion highlights the issue with confirming videos are genuine, especially when we have videos like this that are the only evidence of the opposition being responsible, yet contains no verifiable information. Everyone in the video has their face covered, there's no way to identify the location, and this is the only evidence of the opposition having access to the launchers used in the attack. That's why I think it's important to have multiple pieces of evidence to support a theory, rather than just one set of evidence, especially when that set of evidence is impossible to confirm.

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    4. The Yugoslav army was not directly blamed for Srebrenica, being associated with or allied to the BSA, is not the same.

      Syria is like Bosnia, there are a number of pro-regime combatants. They don't really make videos. I can see that PR reticence thwarting this blog giving them the fame they deserve, but that's the reality.

      At the moment there is no conclusive evidence of (a) the Syrian army being responsible or (b) of the chemical attacks being regime sanctioned, and that is where the official agencies are.

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    5. another theory!!

      this blog need always a fresh news and some action to keep the light on it!!

      lets see: 1- a wide connections with Kurdish, wide connections with FSA, wide connections with activists in many locations in Syria specially in the CW areas..... Hmmm

      do a video with a specific quality and act as Liwa al-Islam Launching The August 21st Sarin Attack but do it very bad so we can confirm that they are trying to fake a videos because they admit that we are right about them!!!!

      just another theory

      so the Assad regime did many successful moves with the Russian then he fabricate this low quality and credibility video to give Mr BM an evidence confirming his theory... all can be right and we should just wait and hear more stories and fake videos made by Assad....

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    6. The regime is not fabricating very much, that is almost entirely the work of insurgents.

      The opposition murder and torture videos are virtually all genuine. That part is for real. Please note that being a homicidal sectarian maniac is not viewed as having a PR downside.

      Syrian insurgents freed 48 Iranians they had been holding in a swap for 2130 prisoners detained by the Assad regime. There is a reason no SAA POWs were included in the package, they are dead.

      If it was to the regime's advantage, they would certainly do YouTube propaganda, but it isn't really, so they don't.

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  3. "it would appear to point to the Syrian military being the ones doing the faking"

    Have you ever met a Syrian soldier? I spoke to quite a few of them. They don't really care about their PR and they don't do fake videos.

    Who cares about such videos? The Russians are saying X and X is just fine because X has a vote on the UNSC.

    Moscow’s analysis has so far proved to be more accurate than that of Washington, London or Paris. The Syrian army is engaged in a civil war and has remained loyal to the secular regime for 30 months, it is not holding back, and it is trying hard to win. It is also clear that the defeat of the regime would not mark the end of the conflict but a new phase of killing.

    The insurgents of various stripes have saturated the internet with the most appalling videos of mass executions and torture, they are proud of their atrocities.

    So, the Russian people, the orthodox church, much of the Syrian diaspora, the mercantile classes in Syria, and Alawites, Armenians, and so on, are all on the same page about who the dangerous people are.

    The Syrian army is winning the PR war.

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  4. The regime posts plenty of videos. The Syrian TV newscasts are full of them.

    For a while the regime has been slowly losing. Their manpower is being ground down. That would be a pretty good reason for someone on the regime side to put this together as propaganda.

    The top of the Syrian army is the regime. About ¾ off the officers are Alawite, thus will likely remain loyal. Large chunks of the remaining officers and soldiers have either defected to the rebels, stayed home or left the country.

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    1. The average regime soldier does not care about YouTube or westerners in armchairs. If he wins, western opinion is irrelevant, and if he loses, it won't matter.

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  5. The claim is the Turkish border as the uploader is Turkish. There is plenty of territory near all of the northern border except maybe in Latakia (Kesab) with heavy YPG presence. As they are present at pretty much any territory where the government is weak as well as near notable kurdish communities, which excludes Latakia but includes all of the north that the government don't control. My guess would be near Bab Al-Hawa-Reyhanli crossing as YPG has a presence there and continues to take new territory and Liwa fighters have previously been reported to be in and interviewed in Reyhanli.

    There is obviously many different groups and wills among and withing the kurdish fighters and YPG and it's definitively not organized under a single command or with any other objective than to protect Kurds. Many Kurdish fighters from Turkey do participate and there isn't much support from formal security forces in Iraq, and it's not clear that those that focus on ISIS and Nusra in eastern Syria and Iraq would know anything about what happens in Aleppo or Idleb provinces. I'd never expect anyone saying anything that would confirm the story and that it self wouldn't help the story, false confessions have been around since 2011. We would need to forensically examine the phone that shot the video at least to give it some credibility. Without that we would have to trust people.

    It would be a pretty neat trick to pull if it's misinformation but also one that would explain how a personal video like this could get it's way out to the net unintended. They could have said that any armed group that isn't a bastion for islamists got hold on the video and shared it with someone who leaked it. Or they could just have produced a much higher quality and professional video if it was an fake and presented it as evidence for Liwa involvement that the army found raiding any Liwa stronghold. But it's portrayed in a much more believable way as YPG do actually clash with these Islamists near the border. The details in the videos doesn't disprove of this, and it's clearly a launch of three 350mm+ UMLACAs that somebody launched and filmed.

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  6. Bare skin does not create a risk of poisoning from Sarin vapour.

    The LD50 for liquid Sarin applied to the skin is a massive 1.7grams!!

    The normal way of being poisoned is breathing in Sarin gas - which can kill with a few milligrams.

    Asides from that, as you well know there are many different groups in Syria, including Kurdish groups. Simply asking one or two Kurdish groups does not eliminate others. Especially if the group that released the video was aligned with the SAA as many if not most are.

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    1. "Bare skin does not create a risk of poisoning from Sarin vapour."

      Yep, your credibility to comment on CW topics just took a fatal hit.

      Dermal exposure to sarin vapour would be lethal if the victim was exposed to a high enough concentration for sufficient time.

      No one in their right mind would handle nerve agents without full body protection. Which means that if these videos were to be real, then the people involved don't have the faintest idea of what they are working with. In that case they can't be some elite Saudi chemical weapons group, or a rebel group that has knowingly been given access to Saudi produced sarin.

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