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Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi - Key Updates on Albukamal (Abu Kamal)

4/29/14
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented in-depth the various militia factions that exist in the town of Albukamal (Abu Kamal: on the border with Iraq in Deir az-Zor province) here and here, in addition to giving an account of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s (ISIS) unsuccessful assault on the town earlier this month. Factional dynamics are never static, of course, so below are the key updates and clarifications to understand the current situation in Albukamal.

1. Liwa Allahu Akbar no longer exists: Previously I have mentioned Liwa Allahu Akbar as the local Supreme Military Council (SMC)-aligned faction in the town. However, it turns out that once the group’s leader- Saddam al-Jamal- became the local leader of ISIS, members of Liwa Allahu Akbar either joined him in ISIS or became part of other factions. Thus the formation was dissolved.

2. Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin separate from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar: In my overview of the factions of Albukamal I described Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin as an apparent subsidiary unit of the local Authenticity and Development Front faction Kata’ib Allahu Akbar. However, if that were the case before, it is quite clear now that the group is separate from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar. This is illustrated in two ways. First, note in a recent joint statement by factions in the Albukamal area (town and countryside), Liwa Fatah al-Mubin emerges as a signatory distinct from Kata’ib Allahu Akbar.

Joint statement issued on 27th April 2014 for the formation of a Shari’a commission in light of ISIS’ actions. The signatories are Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
In an interview at the end of March, the group’s spokesman clarified to me that the group is independent but uses the FSA-banner, adding that “we work to remove oppression from our people, to make the phrase- ‘There is no deity but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’- supreme, and to build a free Syrian state devoid of the gangs and shabiha of Assad.” In other words, the group espouses a vague Sunni Islamist ideology, characterized also by rejection of the opposition-in-exile. 

In the weeks since the interview, Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin has subsequently defined itself as part of the Euphrates [Islamic] Liberation Front coalition, a conglomeration of FSA-banner groups along the Euphrates River, including members in the Manbij countryside area in Aleppo province who have been fighting ISIS. This fighting has included limited coordination with Jabhat al-Akrad (a YPG/PKK front-group) and Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, an ex-Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate (FSA-banner in origin) that was never quite properly integrated into Jabhat al-Nusra likely responsible for the unofficial statement put out in Jabhat al-Nusra’s name in Raqqa at the beginning of the infighting with ISIS in Raqqa city. The group has since January been an independent formation, invalidating ISIS claims of supposed PKK-Jabhat al-Nusra coordination against ISIS in the northern Euphrates area near Kobani (Ayn al-Arab).

Logo of the Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front. I put ‘Islamic’ in square brackets above because it is used interchangeably with Euphrates Liberation Front. In an interview, a media activist for the coalition from Aleppo explained to me that the grouping consists of more than 20 brigades, supposedly including Christian fighters. The Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front defines itself as FSA.
Members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin, 27th April.
Another photo of members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin on the same day.
Members of Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin before heading out to fight, 27th April.
Though a signatory to the joint statement noted above, it should be pointed out that Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin does not appear to be part of the coalition of factions governing the town itself, but is primarily based in the surrounding countryside, and is arguably the most influential in that area.
The five factions of the town of Albukamal: Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq (Jabhat al-Nusra), Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar. In my first article on Albukamal I noted there was once an FSA-banner faction in the Albukamal area called Katiba Junud al-Haq that coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra. It turns out this group was the direct predecessor of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, which became an affiliate of Jabhat al-Nusra.
3. Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna in reformation: It will be noted in the 27th April joint statement that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna’s signature is absent. This is because the group is currently undergoing a reformation process following a change of leadership, which also led to the dismissal of some of the group’s members. Hence it is otherwise inactive.

4. New convoy heading out from Albukamal to fight ISIS: In light of the ongoing fighting between ISIS and other factions in the al-Markadah area of southern Hasakah province and western localities of Deir az-Zor province like Kabajeb, the factions of Albukamal are sending out new convoys to fight against ISIS. 

Saddam al-Jamal in a recent ISIS al-Itisam Media video, accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of working with other factions (in particular the Hay’at al-Arkan: i.e. SMC) to form a united front against ISIS. A particular purpose in this video is to highlight Jabhat al-Nusra’s supposed inconsistency in Jowlani’s pronunciation of takfir on SMC-aligned groups while working with them in the eastern region (e.g. the Deir az-Zor locality of Muhessen) against ISIS.  Saddam proudly speaks of being a “soldier” in ISIS and his “repentance” in joining ISIS. He also rejects allegations of indiscriminate killing by ISIS, and accuses the other factions, on whom he pronounces takfir, of fighting “for the sake of dunya [the material world], while we fight for the sake of martyrdom and the Hereafter.” He concludes by emphasizing ISIS does not want to fight but is just striving for the arbitration of God’s law.
ISIS officially justified its assault on Albukamal as an operation to free prisoners.
Part of the new rebel convoy heading out from Albukamal on 28th April to fight ISIS. In the photo are vehicles belonging to the independent group Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar
Part of the new convoy including Jabhat al-Nusra to fight ISIS.
Summary

In short, the factions currently governing the town of Albukamal are:

- Jabhat al-Nusra
- Kata’ib Allahu Akbar (Authenticity and Development Front)
- Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya (independent, close to Jabhat al-Nusra)
- Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna (independent, close to Jabhat al-Nusra).
- Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar (independent).

But in the surrounding countryside more factions exist.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.


Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi - The Latakia Front

4/26/14
By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

It has now been just over a month since rebels launched a new offensive on regime-held areas in northern Latakia province in the wake of rebel losses in Qalamoun and Homs, so how stands the current situation, and who is fighting?

Current Positions 

As of now, the historically Armenian Christian town of Kasab- now almost entirely emptied of its original residents as inhabitants fled in fear of the rebel offensive- remains in the hands of rebel forces, who have named their offensive the “Battle of Anfal” (‘spoils of war’: a reference to eighth chapter of the Qur’an). The capture of Kasab allowed for rebels to reach the Mediterranean shoreline in Syria for the first time via the nearby locality of Samra.

On the beach by Samra, Latakia: “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Though much outcry was raised over a supposed impending ‘genocide’ of Armenians in the town at the hands of the rebels with the “#SaveKessab” hashtag on Twitter, no convincing evidence exists pointing to mass slaughter or rampant desecration of churches in the town, drawing attention away from the contrasting situation in the Damascus province town of Yabroud, which- recently captured by the Syrian army coordinating with foreign Shi’a militias- has shown signs of desecration of churches by rebels. 

While churches have not been desecrated en masse in the town of Kasab, many rebels in the offensive are keen to emphasize a supposed new Islamic identity for the town. In this photo, under the initiative “Islamic Kasab,” a Jabhat al-Nusra member paints some walls in white. 

Abu Qatada al-Masri, an Egyptian member of Jabhat al-Nusra, says that his fellow mujahid in the photo here tore down the cross in this church in Kasab.

For a time the rebels also held the area of Burj 45 (“Tower 45”) to the south of Kasab and leading the way to Latakia city itself, but this place has since been reclaimed by regime forces. Generally, fighting is now much more sporadic as rebels have unsuccessfully tried to regain Burj 45 and regime forces remain confined to the rural areas of the Kasab district, though in short, the rebels have certainly been put on the defensive.

Rebel Goals

The question then arises of what the rebels’ goal here is. The offensive did not simply arise out of nowhere. It should be seen in the context of the recent rebel losses in Damascus and Homs province: that is, the hope is to score at least a psychological blow against the regime by pushing into what has been seen as the regime’s homeland and, if not capturing regime territory, then at least kill figures closely tied to Assad- something that was achieved this time around with the killing of Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Hilal early on in the offensive. Particular significance is attached to reaching or capturing Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha- something that was also underlined in the offensive launched last summer- but both then as now, that goal is unlikely to be reached, apart from the occasional mortar and rocket falling on the area.

Participating Groups: Regime Side

On the regime side, it is not simply the Syrian army and the local branch of the National Defense Force (NDF, which in Latakia was led by Hilal), for there is also the militia group known as the “Muqawama Suriya” (“Syrian Resistance”), which prior to the outbreak of conflict in Syria was called “The People’s Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta”: dedicated to bringing Turkey’s Hatay province just north of Latakia under Syrian control, as Syria has never accepted the territory’s incorporation into Turkey since it was ceded to the latter by the French in 1937.  

Led by Turkish-born Alawite Mihrac Ural (also known as Ali Kayali, who, despite initial rebel claims, I can confirm via direct contact has not been killed and remains alive and well in Latakia), the Muqawama Suriya claims an inclusive national line not distinguishing among sect, the militia is primarily Alawite and Twelver Shi’a in composition and has largely dedicated itself to defending such areas in Latakia, Idlib, Homs and Aleppo provinces.

Though the Muqawama Suriya is sometimes thought of as a joke group that does no meaningful fighting, the militia has in fact lost some fighters in the current rebel offensive in Latakia, concurrent with the militia’s assuming a more active role in aiding the Syrian army’s offensive in Aleppo province. Most recently in the Latakia fighting, the Muqawama Suriya conducted a joint operation with the Syrian army to clear the Burj 45 area of rebels. 

NDF on Mount Chalma in the Kasab district on 19th April.
Ali Kayali  (centre) at the funeral on 26th March for the local Syrian army commander of Burj 45 who was killed by rebels in the initial offensive.
Nawar Yusuf, a fighter for the Muqawama Suriya whose death was announced on 31st March as part of the ongoing fighting in Latakia.
Members of the Muqawama Suriya in the Burj 45 area in mid-April.
In line with the regime’s narrative, Ali Kayali told me that the rebels are “terrorists” who have been sent over the border by the Turkish government under the “Salafi dictator” Erdogan. Just as Hezbollah supporters attached particular importance to capturing Yabroud with the song “Finish your victory in Yabroud” by Lebanese singer Ali Barakat, so the Muqawama Suriya has attached the same significance to the objective of recapturing Kasab, releasing a song attributed to Ali Barakat under the title “Finish your victory in Kasab,” whose lyrics include: “Oh Nusra [Jabhat al-Nusra], we are coming, oh you who resist, the spirit of God is your edge…We protect ash-Sham with heroism and honor. Syria will remain free. Coming, we will cleanse all the land and wipe out da3esh and Nusra.”

The term da3esh is a derogatory Arabic acronym for the al-Qa’ida-offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham [ISIS], which, unlike last summer, is not participating on the rebel side in this offensive, having withdrawn from Latakia province to the east some time before in order to consolidate control over Raqqa, eastern Aleppo province, and most of southern Hasakah province. 

In addition to the Muqawama Suriya, two other irregular regime-aligned forces are playing a role in the ongoing fight by the regime to retake Kasab. The first of these is the Ba’ath Brigades, which also plays a role in the fighting in Aleppo province and whose local Latakia commander- Hussam Ibrahim Khadra- was killed recently. The second is the Suqur al-Sahara (‘Desert Falcons’: see my profile here) elite forces that previously have tried to secure Syrian desert border areas with Iraq and Jordan.

Funeral for Hussam Ibrahin Khadra, also attended by Ali Kayali. 23rd April.
Car decorated for the funeral of Hussam Ibrahim Khadra on 23rd April
Suqur al-Sahara ambush point set up in the forests around Kasab
Two members of Suqur al-Sahara in the ongoing regime push for Kasab. Photo from 24th April.
Suqur al-Sahara fighter in the countryside of the Kasab area.
Rebel Side

While one can easily be inclined to dismiss routine regime claims of a foreign conspiracy, there is no doubt that in common with the failed 2013 summer offensive, the ongoing battale in Latakia is being spearheaded on the rebel side by muhajireen (‘foreign fighters’). The most important groupings on the rebel side are the Islamic Front (the Salafi Islamist coalition: specifically Ahrar ash-Sham and Kata’ib Ansar ash-Sham), Harakat Sham al-Islam, the al-Qa’ida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Chechen-led grouping Junud ash-Sham. Free Syrian Army-banner groups have only played a very minor supporting role.

For the Islamic Front, Kata’ib Ansar ash-Sham has played a particularly important role in supply of heavy weaponry for the offensive, and operations are directed under the group’s Chechen muhajireen component, specifically one Abu Musa ash-Shishani. One should also note that Ansar ash-Sham have a battalion named after the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that broke away from Russia: Dzhokar Dudayev. Chechens play a leading role here is not to be unexpected: they are familiar with hilly terrain, and have long maintained a presence in Latakia. The group is currently focused on trying to reclaim Burj 45.

Harakat Sham al-Islam is arguably the second most important group behind the offensive. Though an independent organization, it shares the same ideology as al-Qa’ida (i.e. establishing a Caliphate over the entire world, as a Syrian member of Harakat Sham al-Islam confirmed to me). Taking an official anti-fitna stance in the conflict between ISIS and other rebel groups, Harakat Sham al-Islam is nonetheless closer to Jabhat al-Nusra, as my contact pointed out to me, which comes as no surprise since the group’s deceased founder- Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir (Ibrahim bin Shakaran, who was once a detainee in Guantánamo)- was a member of al-Qa’ida Central and fought in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan. Like the group’s founder, Harakat Sham al-Islam largely consists of Moroccan muhajireen, with a minor native Syrian component. It has throughout the conflict been primarily based in Latakia, and participated in last summer’s offensive.

Al-Mathna al-Maghrebi, a Moroccan fighter for Harakat Sham al-Islam killed in the Latakia offensive.
Ibrahim bin Shakaran: the founder of Harakat Sham al-Islam, killed during the fighting in Latakia.
Under Jabhat al-Nusra’s wing, one should note in particular the muhajireen group Suqur al-Izz, which was founded by Saudi fighters. Like Harakat Sham al-Islam, it is officially independent but is ideologically aligned with al-Qa’ida. Though no official pledge of allegiance has been made to Jabhat al-Nusra, the group’s inability to support itself financially from private Gulf donors has made it ever more dependent on Jabhat al-Nusra. At the end of last year, another foreign fighters’ battalion in Latakia- Katiba al-Muhajireen- pledged formal allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra.

Abu Maryan al-Jawfi, a Suqur al-Izz fighter killed in the Latakia offensive.
Conclusion

Ultimately, the fighting in northern Latakia, regardless of whether the regime eventually retakes the town of Kasab, only serves to reinforce the stalemate across Syria. Though no churches may have been desecrated in Kasab, the importance of foreign fighters on the rebel side- harboring Islamic supremacist sentiments (e.g. describing Alawites as “enemies of religion,” while my Harakat Sham al-Islam contact told me Christians of Kasab should be subjugated as second-class citizens or dhimmis)- hardly reassures minorities, and will only serve to strengthen support for the regime in the long-run, just as the rebel-YPG conflict out to the north and the east has only reinforced stalemate and led to the supreme position of the PYD among Syrian Kurds.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Guardian Masterclasses - How to be a citizen journalist with Brown Moses

4/25/14
I've teamed up with the Guardian to put together a masterclass teaching my methods and techniques.

Citizen journalists are outperforming the mainstream media, breaking new ground and untouchable stories in countries such as China, Kenya and Brazil. But thanks to the vast repositories of video footage, satellite images and eyewitness reports posted on social media, anyone with an internet connection can report from the world's most dangerous territories without setting foot in them. Founder of the famous Brown Moses blog, Eliot Higgins research into the Syrian conflict has inspired questions in parliament, major stories in the Guardian and New York Times, and praise from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

During this large-scale seminar, Eliot reveals the tools and techniques for tracking down sources of new footage and information, verifying facts, spotting fakes and accurately geolocating material. He also offers tips on how to use multiple sources to build up a comprehensive picture of on-the-ground realities.

This course offers a unique opportunity to learn from a recognised pioneer in the field, whose work at the vanguard of social media forensics is prized by news outlets, NGOs and governments alike.

This course is for you if...

  • You're interested in exploiting vast reserves of new information for your own writing or blog
  • You're a journalist looking for new sources for stories or corroborative evidence
  • You're a researcher or investigator for a charity or NGO, especially those working in conflict zones
  • You're a documentary maker who wants to find new, original and trustworthy sources for open source footage
  • You're interested in methods of gathering competitive intelligence

Course description

This is a large-scale seminar during which Eliot Higgins reveals the tools and techniques needed to find, verify and geolocate news footage through social media. Eliot will demonstrate practical application of his methods, using his own investigation of Sarin gas attacks in Damascus as a model. Topics covered on the day include:

  • What is open source information?
  • Finding open source information on social media
  • Primary sources on social media, how to find them and why they are important
  • An introduction to verification and geolocation
  • Advanced verification and geolocation techniques
  • An example of the practical applications of these tools and techniques (The Damascus Sarin attacks)
  • Q&A with Eliot Higgins and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Tutors profile

Eliot Higgins is an independent conflict analyst who attained global recognition through his Brown Moses blog on the Syrian conflict. Drawing on extensive Arabic language Facebook and YouTube pages and Twitter feeds, his research focuses on collating, filtering and analysing images and text from social media platforms that have, among other stories, provided evidence of supplies of arms to various Syrian opposition groups, as well as chemical weapon usage by the Syrian armed forces. His investigations and research have been widely covered in global media, and he has conducted social media forensics work for organisations including Human Rights Watch.

Guest speaker profile

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a research fellow for the Forum's Jihad-Intel project.

Ticket information can be found here.  Limited to 100 spots, so book soon.

SecureBio Report - Improvised Chemical Weapons In Syria

4/25/14
The following report was published by SecureBio on April 13th, authored by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon and Oliver Morton.  SecureBio are updating this report to reflect current developments and this new report will be available direct from www.securebio.co.uk.  You can also follow SecureBio on Twitter for updates on CBRNe issues.

Executive Summary: Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) are readily available and have been previously used to produce improvised or dirty chemical weapons. More recently, we have seen Chlorine used in Iraq in 2007, Hydrogen Cyanide developed by terrorist organisations and individuals around the world (including AQ), Ammonia in the production of homemade explosives and Organophosphates in the production of home made nerve agents (Tokyo in 1995).

The chemicals used are generally covered under schedule 2 of the Chemical Warfare Convention but owing to the intended nefarious use, they become difficult to track as a small scale weapon through internal borders. Since 2003, Military planners have begun to prioritise the security of TICs across the battlefield but this is unlikely to be of use in Syria. Thankfully, despite the fact that the chemicals are readily available, easy to mix and relatively easy to deliver their usage as a terrorist weapon has not been widely taken up. There are two likely reasons for this:
  1. Notoriety. Individuals and organisations like their efforts to be noticed, a big explosion is ideal for this but counter productive to a chemical release. 
  2. Risk. Due to the size and scale of agent required to deliver a truly “battle winning” effect, a large footprint will be generated and therefore, easily interdicted. 
Recommendations: SecureBio assess that the deliberate use of chemical agents, be it CWA or improvised chemical agents, inside Syria remains MODERATE (An attack is possible but not likely). However, SecureBio assess that the accidental release of a TIC or CWA to be a more credible threat and categorise it as SUBSTANTIAL (An attack is a strong possibility.). It is recommended that individuals and crews operating inside Syria, should ensure that they have CBRN PPE available to them, understand the short comings of their equipment and have a prearranged escape plan and “actions on”, under pinned by SecureBio advice.

SecureBio remain available for further advice, comment and training.

OVERVIEW

Introduction. Historically, chemical warfare agents (eg.Tabun Nerve Agent) have been developed either directly or as bi-product from a relatively innocent but never-the-less harmful chemical (eg. Organophosphate used as pesticides). These harmful chemicals, not designed to kill, are usually categorised as toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) however, by modifying the delivery means or combining with other TICs, these chemicals have given rise to improvised or dirty chemical weapons, often referred to as “Kitchen Sink WMDs”.

The chemicals used in improvised chemical weapon, are typically covered under the Chemical Weapons Convention as a Schedule 2 Chemical; permitting their legitimate manufacturing in controlled quantities. However, to better understand the threats posed by TICs, the International Task Force 40 (ITF40) list was created in 2003; ITF 40 prioritises some 1756 (and growing) of the most dangerous chemicals readily available. 63 of the chemicals included on the ITF40 list are considered so dangerous that they are classed as military priority industrial hazards.

Some of the chemicals included on the ITF40 list are:


THE AGENTS

Annex A covers the 8 chemicals listed above, under High Hazards, in greater detail and includes
signs and symptoms and commercial uses. It is SecureBio’s assessment that the most likely
agents to be used in Syria, as part of an improvised chemical weapon, are Chlorine, Hydrogen
Cyanide or an Organophosphate (all marked in bold).

Lethality. Whilst generally considered to be less lethal than Chemical Warfare Agents, the 8 high
hazard chemicals listed above are considered lethal in relatively small doses, usually measured in
parts per million (PPM). To better understand this, SecureBio have created a scale (below); using
Hydrogen Cyanide as the benchmark at 250PPM. On this scale, Chlorine is considered to be
x0.25 less lethal than Hydrogen Cyanide (it is still exceptionally harmful), where as Sarin Nerve
gas is x4166 more lethal than Hydrogen Cyanide.

DELIVERY

In order to effectively turn a TIC into an improvised chemical weapon, a means of delivery is
required. There are a number of ways to deliver the dirty chemical agent however, SecureBio
would suggest that there are 4 primary routes, each with their own pros and cons; Chemical IED,
Binary Device, Sprayer and finally as Indirect Fire (IDF).

Chemical Improvised Explosive Device. Chemical IEDs have been seen on many occasions in
Iraq, either as a deliberate device or inadvertently utilising legacy chemical munitions, such as an
unidentified Mustard shell. 2007 saw an increase in the use of chemical IEDs in the form of
Chlorine devices (see below image).



Pros. This is by far the simplest and historically most popular method to deliver a chemical agent; it relies on existing IED knowledge to provide the burster charge, with the chemical agent ideally stored in a pressurised container, being released on initiation of the IED. It also creates a high degree of attention, due to the explosion
Cons. The system relies on the intended target coming to the device and more importantly the explosion typically burns most of the chemical agent off, thereby rendering it useless.

Binary Device. These require a little more chemistry but are still relatively simple to manufacturer; again they have been seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and also on terrorist and suicide websites from around the world. The most widely covered Binary Device is the Mubtaker (see below image), which utilises two separate containers to mix Potassium Cyanide (commonly used in the jewellery industry) and an acid together; this will produce Hydrogen Cyanide.


Pros. The device is widely publicised on the internet and consequently relatively easy to manufacturer. Furthermore, in its constituent parts is easy to transport and critically poses very little hazard to the operator. Cons. Again there is a reliance on the intended target coming to the device and will generally only impact on a small area; ideally suited to confined spaces.

Sprayer. The most effective method for delivering a dirty chemical (or biological) agent but generally considered unpopular due to its lack of “spectacular” effect. The system requires either a garden sprayer or crop-duster and a moving platform, ideally an aircraft. In 1990 the Aum Shinrikyo cult (infamous for the use of homemade Sarin in Tokyo) utilised truck-borne sprayers to launch a biological attack against the US Navy; nobody noticed and the agent was blown out to sea.


Pros. The agent is delivered in the most effective and cheapest method, allowing it to be carried downwind for some distance, especially if released at slight altitude.
Cons. The sprayer is highly dependent on wind direction and will generally require a suitably protected individual to be in the area. Additionally a suitable delivery platform needs to be procured.

Indirect Fire. Technically the hardest to achieve; a mortar bomb, artillery shell or rocket requires a high degree of stability inflight to maintain accuracy. Chemical agents are typically liquid which will dramatically affect the stability of flight, causing the missile to at best fly erratically or at worst break up en route to the target. Furthermore, a burster charge and fuse would be required to ensure that the agent is effectively released over a wider area and doesn’t just generate a mucky puddle at point of impact (below picture). Consequently, it is assessed as the least likely method attack, owing to the technical hurdles that must be over come.


Pros. Allows a dirty chemical agent to be fired with a high degree of standoff and can (theoretically) burst over a given area.
Cons. Technology required to make this an effective delivery means.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Protective Equipment. Toxic Industrial Chemicals behave very differently to Chemical Warfare Agents (CWA) and consequently traditional CBRN equipment often has significantly reduced efficacy against them, eg. In the open air, Chlorine may defeat a CWA filter in under a minute (specialist Toxic Industrial filters are available.). It is therefore, best to avoid contact with TICs, where possible however, should crews find themselves inadvertently caught out, SecureBio provide the following advice:
1. Don your respiratory protection immediately, if you have it.
2. Fasten your chemical protective clothing, if you are ALREADY wearing it.
3. Leave the area immediately, upwind of the hazard.
4. Where possible, head to high ground.
5. Conduct immediate decontamination, away from any potential hazard.

CONCLUSION

In modern times security organisations have seen TICs being increasingly used by terrorists and those seeking to commit suicide. SecureBio typically report 2-3 major incidents per week involving a TIC death, usually a suicide. In addition to this terrorist websites and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have not only seen these dirty chemical weapons being used but also highlighted the vulnerability of individuals to attack from improvised chemical warfare agents.

The situation in Syria is clearly becoming more and more desperate however, both sides are fully aware of the impact of using Chemical Warfare Agents. It is therefore assessed as unlikely that the regime would use CWAs, unless left with no-alternative. However the use of red lines for CWA draws two further possibilities.

Firstly, the FSA (or other fighters) acquire CWAs, use them and then attribute blame to the Assad regime, thereby triggering western intervention. Alternatively, both sides play semantics and develop improvised chemical warfare agents and launch a dirty chemical weapon attack, on the proviso that it hasn’t breached Obama’s redline.

It is SecureBio’s assessment that the use of improvised chemical weapons is not in the interests of either side and therefore, assessed as unlikely. However, utilising existing CWA stockpiles and blaming the other side is entirely plausible and continues to pose the greatest threat. Consequently, SecureBio assess the deliberate use of chemicals weapons to be a MODERATE threat, inside Syria.

The final and most credible scenario option is the accidental realise of TICs or CWAs, through the inadvertent destruction of a processing plant, storage facility, or accidental firing of an unidentified CWA munitions. Owing to the number of facilities and availability of CWA munitions, SecureBio assess the accidental release of a TIC/CWA as SUBSTANTIAL.

A pdf of the full report, including details of improvised chemical agents, can be found here.

Evidence From 2 Weeks Of Chlorine Barrel Bomb Attacks

4/22/14
Over the past 10 days I've collected videos from various alleged chemical attacks in Syria, all of which appear to be linked to the alleged use of chlorine gas inside improvised barrel bombs.  US officials have recently acknowledge the potential use of chlorine gas in attacks, with one official reportedly stating
Our assessment is it is, at a minimum, concentrated chlorine dropped from helicopters, that could only be the regime. 
The following are playlists of videos from various attacks that have been reported since April 11th

April 11th - Kafr Zita, Hama
April 12th - Al-Taman'ah, Idlib
April 14th - Atshan, Hama
April 16th - Kafr Zita, Hama
April 18th - Al-Taman'ah, Idlib
April 18th - Kafr Zita, Hama
April 21st - Telmans, Idlib

It should be noted these playlists represent only some of the reported chlorine attacks over the past 10 days, with at least six having been reported in Kafr Zita over that period.  Chemical attacks were also reported in Harasta, Damascus on April 11th and April 16th.  It should be stressed there's been no way to independently verify these reports.

Along with videos of victims, videos showing the remains of the improvised barrel bombs used in the attack have also been posted online (playlist).  These videos share some similarities with each other, which adds some weight behind the claim chlorine gas was used.  The following video from Kafr Zita shows the remains of two barrel bombs reportedly used in the attack, with the remains of what appear to be chlorine cylinders are part of the debris


It's worth noting the yellow paint on the chlorine cylinders, the colour coding used for industrial chlorine cylinders in many parts of the world.

Two days after this video was posted online, another video from Kafr Zita was uploaded showing the remains of what was claimed to be another chlorine barrel bomb


In this case it appears explosive det cord has been wrapped around the neck of the gas cylinder, no doubt in an attempt to explosively detach it from the cylinder on impact.  The colours on this cylinder are interesting as well, it appears to be a yellow undercoat with red painted on top.  It's not entirely visible, but it could possibly be an ammonia cylinder, which is usually painting yellow with a red top.

Videos from the April 21st attack at Telmens (playlist) also show the remains of barrel bombs, as well as dead animals near the impact sites



It appears in the first video we can yet again see yellow paint on a cylinder inside the barrel bomb.  Neither video is terribly clear, but there do appear to be some small clues chlorine was used again.


Two New Significant DIY Barrel Bomb Videos - Chemical And Skinny

4/17/14
Over the last 24 hours, two new videos have been uploaded to YouTube from different areas of Syria showing interesting variations in DIY barrel bombs.

The first, from Kafr Zita, shows the remains of two DIY barrel bombs that have been dropped on the town


This video shows the remains of a DIY barrel bomb and chlorine cylinder that was reportedly used in an attack on April 12th (covered here).  Later in the video, we see the remains of a badly damaged cylinder that shares very similar markings, from a more recent attack, and it appears since the initial reported chlorine barrel bomb attack on April 11th, there's been a number of attacks reported.  Only last night another chlorine barrel bomb attack was reported, with several videos uploaded from Kafr Zita.

Another video posted today from the town of Khan Shikhoun shows the remains of a DIY barrel bomb


What's interesting about this is it's a skinny version of the types of DIY barrel bombs that have been seen over the last few months (many examples here).  The first wave of DIY barrel bombs were around this smaller size, but there's certain features of this barrel bombs that suggest it's based on the design innovations of the newer, larger, barrel bombs

Three tail fins [Source]
Slot between tail fins [Source]
Det cord [Source]
So it appears this new, smaller, DIY barrel bomb is based on the design lessons learnt from the new wave of DIY barrel bombs.  Why they are using these smaller bombs is unknown for now.

Something else I noticed during my research for this post is the front end of one of the barrel bombs as it falls, something I only noticed when watching a particular piece of footage frame by frame


You'll note there appears to be a plate at the front of the bomb, and this is something visible in some videos of DIY barrel bombs

[Source]
It appears this front plate is part of a large, flat, impact fuze, another piece of information on how these bombs operate.

Evidence Chlorine Gas Was Used In A Second, Failed, Chemical Attack On Kafr Zita

4/13/14
This is an update of an earlier post.

On April 11th, reports supported by video from the town of Kafr Zita, Hama, claimed to show the aftermath of a chemical attack on the town.  Reports claimed helicopters had dropped a "barrel bomb" containing a toxic gas on the town, with the below video claiming to show the attack as it happened


While there's been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it's a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect.

Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, "there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine... leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation".

Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack


Photographs show the markings on the container clearly




The markings, CL2, indicate the container has Chlorine gas inside it, with the name of the Chinese company Norinco also visible.  "Bar" is a reference to pressure, so it seems extremely likely this was a cylinder containing Chlorine gas.

Reports from the Kafr Zita media centre claims the cylinder was inside a DIY barrel bomb which failed to explode, shown in the below video.  This seems an incredibly badly designed way of deploying chlorine, but may be the only option available after the OPCW's work in Syria, and like the chlorine bombs used in Iraq appear to be better at spreading terror than chlorine.



In the videos and photographs this is specifically described as being dropped from a helicopter. Again, there's no evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra have a helicopter, and considering Kafr Zita has been the focus of Syrian military activity for the past weeks (including the first deployment of BM-30 launched cluster munitions) it seems unlikely the Syrian military would have missed a mystery helicopter flying overhead.  One also has to ask how Syrian State TV could state Chlorine was used without access to the site, a pro-opposition area.  One also has to wonder how much State TV's claims Jabhat al-Nusra was responsible is influenced by Seymour Hersh's recent claims Jabhat al-Nusra were responsible for the August 21st Sarin attack.

Thanks to @markito0171 and @7oriaWBas for highlighting the videos and photographs.

Update The Violations Documentation Center has now produced a detailed report on the attacks, which can be read here.

The Fighting in Abu Kamal (Albukamal): Background and Analysis

4/12/14
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Cedric Labrousse.

Introduction

The eastern Deir az-Zor provincial town of Abu Kamal (more accurately in Arabic, ‘Albukamal’)- on the border with Iraq- recently came to headlines with reports of clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and other rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), resulting in dozens killed. What is the story behind this incident?

Maps put out in mainstream media outlets (e.g. the BBC) have frequently color-coded Abu Kamal as an ISIS stronghold. As demonstrated previously, this characterization is highly inaccurate. One need not repeat at length what has already written, but to recap for convenience: the town itself is controlled by six different factions.

One of these- Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- is the local JN affiliate, and arguably the most influential in the town and wider area, having exclusive control of the Shari’a Committee. Briefly in late spring and summer last year, Kata’ib Junud al-Haq was part of ISIS, re-defecting to JN following Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s call for ISIS to be dissolved.

JN signposts in various parts of Abu Kamal, illustrating the group’s influence: “The da’wah media office in Abu Kamal: decoration of the streets with banners of Tawhid.” 
The other five are Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya , Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Kata’ib Allahu Akbar and Liwa Allahu Akbar. Of these groups, the first two are independent but closely aligned ideologically with JN, the third is an independent grouping that professes no real political program beyond bringing an end to the Assad regime, the fourth is an affiliate of the Authenticity and Development Front (ADF: an Islamist coalition professing influence from Saudi religious thought) and the fifth is aligned with the SMC. 

However, it would appear for a time that Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar professed some kind of affiliation with Ahrar ash-Sham, stating on 27th October:

“Up to now Ahrar ash-Sham remains the most organized Syrian Islamic faction and the least sinful, maintaining a good reputation among the sons of the Syrian people from the beginning of the revolution…with loyalty and purity till now in the shadow of chaos it has remained, excelling by far factions on the ground.”

Jointly, the six groupings have maintained a “security battalion” responsible for maintaining order in the town, and are represented on the local governing council. In September last year, JN clashed with Liwa Allahu Akbar, which was then led by one Saddam al-Jamal, accused by JN of being a criminal. Later, Saddam was apparently kidnapped by ISIS, which maintained an underground presence in the wider area, and broadcast a video of his apparent defection.

At the time, it seemed that Saddam’s supposed confession was made under duress and therefore not genuine and of little importance. After all, in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s disappearance, nothing had changed on the ground, and he was not exactly missed by members of the other factions. Further, at least two of the town’s factions- namely, the local JN and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya- had some sympathy for ISIS, with the local leaders aiding ISIS across the border in Iraq.

However, it turns out that regardless of the nature of Saddam’s initial testimony, subsequent rumors that he became ISIS’ local amir in the Abu Kamal area were correct. This development, together with the wider infighting across Syria between ISIS and other factions that broke out in January, proved important in the creation of tensions between ISIS and other groups in the area, culminating in the heavy fighting we have just seen. 

Events from January to March 2014

When the infighting first broke out, opinions in the Abu Kamal area were somewhat divided. In an interview, the local JN spokesman distanced his group from ISIS and blamed ISIS for the problems that had arisen in northern Syria, saying that the problem with ISIS is its ‘extremism’ and the existence of too many ‘ghuraba’ (‘foreigners’) in the group, in contrast to JN. On the other hand, Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar officially took an ‘anti-fitna’ stance on the infighting, releasing a statement at the end of January formally distancing itself from Ahrar ash-Sham, while not mentioning the group by name:

“We announce the following:

1. Our rejection of this fitna and Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar’s return to independence not affiliated with any side.

2. Our arms are directed against the evil Nusayri regime only and we will not direct our arms against any faction unless it attacks [us].

3. Our affirmation and support for the so-called ‘Ummah Initiative’ [Sheikh Muheisseni’s attempt to stop infighting] and any initiative aiming to stop the fighting and apply God’s law between those disputing among themselves.”

In the Abu Kamal countryside, where more factions exist beyond the six in the town, a certain group called “Jund ash-Sham” (not to be confused with the group formerly based at Krek des Chevaliers that was founded by Lebanese muhajireen) declared its support for ISIS.

For the first month or so after the wider infighting broke out, Abu Kamal remained free of clashes, even as ISIS was deploying suicide car bombs against rivals like Ahrar ash-Sham in nearby localities such as al-Mayadeen. However, on 8 February, some ISIS fighters crossed over the border from Iraq and launched an assault on the town, only to be driven out quickly in light clashes with JN that ended by the late afternoon on the same day (according to JN’s local spokesman whom I interviewed). JN issued a ‘repentance’ deadline on the same day for remaining ISIS members in the area, calling on them to surrender themselves and their weapons. On the following day, JN then issued a statement saying the deadline for ‘repentance’ was to be extended by another 24 hours 

Local JN statement on 9 February extending repentance deadline for 24 hours to ‘da3esh’ (derogatory acronym for ISIS).
Even so, ISIS under Saddam al-Jamal continued a clandestine campaign in the local area, culminating in the killing of four members of Kata’ib Allahu Akbar during an ambush, prompting a statement of condemnation on 18 March:

“The group was on its way to carry out a military mission as part of the missions of the ‘Battle of Bay’ah’, and on the path there was an ambush for them set by a gang from the so-called ‘Islamic State’- da3esh- under the leadership of the criminal ‘Saddam al-Rakhaytah’ [Saddam al-Jamal] so they surrounded the group of fighters and after their surrender, they were bound and then killed in cold blood with shots to the head and marks on their pure bodies.

This account came from an eyewitness with the Shari’a Committee in Abu Kamal. The criminal Saddam al-Rakhaytah spared him to send a message to the mujahideen in Deir az-Zor: that the da3esh gang will kill every mujahid who comes into their hands and so the ADF has undertaken to call out its mujahideen in Deir az-Zor and fund this criminal and those with him, for they are wanted by all brigades of the ADF in the expanses of Syrian lands so that they can face judgment and be punished with just retaliation for the crimes they have committed against the Syrian people.”

The four Kata’ib Allahu Akbar fighters killed by ISIS in March.
The local JN branch released a statement on the same day, condemning ISIS for the same ambush but also accusing Saddam al-Jamal and his followers of two other actions: first, “placing a car bomb to blow it up in the middle of the public square from the path of its followers (Ans al-Hadid and Yusuf al-Juburi from al-Baghuz)” and “placing IEDs among civilian families in the middle of Abu Kamal without regard for the safety of families and civilians from women and children (IED on the military checkpoint- IED on the house of Ya’ud Layith Sharaqat- IED on the house of Hamadi al-Alaiwi).” 

Tensions were further raised by the ongoing fighting between ISIS on one side and JN aligned with the Islamic Front and ADF on the other for control of the strategic southern Hasakah province locality of al-Markadah, which can serve a useful access point for ISIS into Deir az-Zor province. Despite repeated assaults from JN et al. on the locality, they have been unable to gain control of it from ISIS, and have had to send up reinforcements on multiple occasions from Deir az-Zor province, including Abu Kamal. 

”Now, now the fight has come”: JN’s renewed offensive on ISIS in eastern Syria at the end of March.
As it so happens, the intense fighting in al-Markadah has led to the killing of at least two JN fighters from Abu Kamal: Zayd al-Omar and Omar al-Shaman, whose corpses are shown here. This led to an emotional funeral eulogy from the Shari’a judge in Abu Kamal known by the name of Abu al-Layth (real name: Muhammad Majul al-Rawi, who, despite his surname suggesting ultimately Iraqi origins, was a native of Abu Kamal). 

In the eulogy, he denounces ISIS as the “gangs of Rafdan” (referencing Aamer al-Rafdan: ISIS’ amir in the Deir az-Zor province but to whom he ascribes control over Hasakah; also renowed for criminality like Saddam al-Jamal; his house was blown up in February by rebels) and “gang of Saddam al-Rakhaytah.” He then accuses ISIS of killing youths, entering Muslims’ homes by force, abducting women from their homes in the middle of night: “You know, oh people, what Saddam al-Rakhaytah’s gang has done.” He further denounces those who would suggest that the fight against ISIS is a case of “fitna,” which implies equal wrongdoing on both sides.

On the ISIS side, one problem for rebel factions in the Deir az-Zor area that has been developing is the fact that in addition to controlling most of Raqqa province, eastern Aleppo province, and Hasakah territory out of regime and Kurdish hands, ISIS also operates with impunity in much of the Homs province and western Deir az-Zor province desert areas, dubbed “Wilayat al-Badiya” in ISIS discourse. Here, as in the Anbar desert, ISIS has been freely running military camps, providing an apt front from which to attack rivals in Deir az-Zor province

Example of a photo of ISIS fighters in the Syrian deserts.
ISIS fighters praying at night in Wilayat al-Badiya.
The Fighting this Month

In the circumstances of a growing ISIS presence in the desert expanses, a clandestine local ISIS insurgency, and a renewed offensive on al-Markadah by ISIS’ rivals, a new ISIS offensive on eastern Deir az-Zor province comes as no surprise. The starting point was overnight ISIS movement on 9-10 April primarily focused on Abu Kamal. 

By how many routes ISIS moved on the town is a matter of dispute. Some accounts give an attack from two fronts: across the Iraq border (as happened last time in February) and from the southwest desert areas (i.e. ISIS’ Wilayat al-Badiya). While an attack on Abu Kamal using manpower from Iraq would be logical in trying to connect Anbar and Deir az-Zor provinces in ISIS’ hopes of building a continuum of territory over the borders (which they have already done so to an extent with Ninawa and Hasakah provinces), Jabhat al-Nusra’s local spokesman in an interview denied that ISIS came over from the Iraqi border, saying instead that they “departed from Raqqa and came from the Abu Kamal desert” (i.e. to the southwest).

Document recovered by rebels purporting to show the ISIS plan of attack on Abu Kamal.
The first ISIS contingents to arrive in Abu Kamal early on 10 April consisted of native Syrian members who moved in on the cultural center in the town, which has been used by Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya as a base. Apparently the ISIS fighters presented themselves on friendly terms to the rebels in the cultural center but then quickly turned their weapons on the rebels, overrunning the center. ISIS’ main forces then arrived in the town and overran multiple sites, including the Shari’a Committee’s building, the Baghuz bridge, the “industrial area,” and the grain silos.

ISIS graffiti- “Islamic State”- inside the JN Shari’a Committee building in Abu Kamal. Remnant of the assault on 10 April.
The other rebel contingents in the town quickly mobilized in response sparking intense clashes before midday. By mid to late afternoon local time, much of the areas taken by ISIS had been recaptured by JN and the other local factions, confining ISIS control to a local hospital- the A’isha hospital- the industrial area and the grain silos. The A’isha hospital soon fell into rebel hands, but Saddam al-Jamal and his associates, who were allegedly inside the hospital, escaped capture and joined the remaining ISIS contingents in the industrial area and grain silos. 

By nightfall, ISIS had been driven out from the town and was then expelled from the surrounding countryside into the desert areas at the hands of local battalions (e.g. Kata’ib Ahfad A’isha- whose leader Abu Ibrahim was killed in the fighting- and Katiba la Ghalib illa Allah), who, like the town’s local factions, drew on tribal support and had sent in some fighters to assist the rebels inside the urban area. The expulsion of ISIS by nightfall was celebrated with victory parades that can be observed here.

The fighting came at a heavy price. A complete list of those slain on the rebel side can be found here, but one of the most notable losses was Abu al-Layth for JN.

Corpse of Abu al-Layth.
Prayers in the Great Mosque in Abu Kamal for those killed in the fighting with ISIS.
The corpse of Abu Ibrahim, the leader of Kata’ib Ahfad A’isha slain in clashes with ISIS.
One of the corpses of the slain Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya fighters. A list of the dead for this battalion can be found here.
Saraqa Khalid al-‘Aran (Abu Lu’ay): a Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar fighter who was killed in the clashes with ISIS. A full list of the brigade’s dead- totaling 20 people- can be found here. The battalion hails them as martyrs killed fighting “the Nusayri dogs of da3esh.” Note that the instances of shared surnames appear to show the brigade, like other factions in the town, is based on local families.
Elsewhere in eastern Deir az-Zor province, the three main localities ISIS tried to enter on 10 April were Kabajeb, al-Quria and Taiana. In Taiana, ISIS were expelled during the afternoon by JN, and ISIS’ disappearance from the locality was confirmed on the following day in an interview with a contact from the area. 

JN flag in Taina amid celebration at the expulsion of ISIS from the town.
In al-Quria, the situation was more complicated as an apparent local agreement was reached between JN and ISIS that neither side should hold up its banner in the town. Here is a video of a reception given to a Tunisian fighter from ISIS, expressing his intentions to establish God’s law in the land. In another video, an ISIS fighter in al-Quria speaks of the “much ignorance” and shirk [polytheism] in the town. ISIS’ entry into the town was supposedly facilitated by a local battalion called Liwa al-Qa’qa’, which was accused by JN of being an affiliate of ISIS. However, Liwa al-Qa’qa’’s leadership denied these claims. The following day saw a demonstration in al-Quria against ISIS calling for the group’s expulsion from the town. Finally, in Kabajeb, ISIS’ assault was ultimately unsuccessful, with a number slaughtered by the Islamic Front and JN.

Conclusion

The fighting in Abu Kamal marks the first major ISIS offensive on rebel-held areas since the infighting broke out to have been repulsed. One factor undoubtedly significant here in the failure of the ISIS offensive (dubbed “the conquest of Abu Kamal” in ISIS social media) is the lack of local support for ISIS, particularly in light of ISIS’ leaders in the area being associated with criminality. The situation should perhaps be contrasted with eastern Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, where ISIS has been able to co-opt local tribal support. The phenomenon cannot be dismissed as mere ISIS propaganda.

Tribal convoy in rural eastern Aleppo province pledging allegiance to ISIS in late January.
Tribesmen in Raqqa province who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Photo from early February.
ISIS’ lack of local support in the Abu Kamal area and nearby localities notwithstanding, the rebel side clearly sustained much heavier losses, and ISIS’ free rein in the Badiya areas in particular means that there is still a considerable chance of a renewed ISIS incursion or offensive in the near future. In short, we may well call these recent clashes a Pyrrhic victory for the rebels, and the ability to withstand another ISIS attack (backed by superior financial resources and weaponry) must be somewhat in doubt. 

The Knowledge Gap - Seymour's Hersh Of Cards

4/9/14
Since my earlier blog posts examining some of the issues with Seymour Hersh's piece, The Red Line and the Rat Line, Hersh has made further media appearances defending his piece.  At the same time, many more pieces have been published criticising Hersh's work.

In his recent interview in the Turkish press (update, now in English), Hersh gives more details on the claims he's making.  Hersh is asked about Volcano rockets, with my work being referenced.  Previously, Hersh has claimed the rockets used were "homemade" and not known to be used by the Syrian government. 



As I've clearly demonstrated, Volcano rockets have been in use by the Syrian military since late 2012, with both explosive and chemical versions being in use, and the chemical version turning up in previous alleged chemical attacks, including August 5th in Adra where three examples were filmed.   Videos and photographs from pro-government sources have clearly shown the government using the explosive type of Volcano rockets, which are virtually identical to the type connected to alleged chemical attacks.  It seems clear that despite their "homemade" appearance (in the view of Hersh), the rockets have been used by the Syrian government.  

This is not some small point in events of August 21st, but key evidence linking the rockets to the Syrian government, so Hersh's statement that the rockets are not used by the Syrian government seems incredibly ill-informed, and considering the amount of information easily available online it seems rather alarming that any journalists would fail to uncover that fact when writing a story on August 21st, especially one that blames a government for assisting with a false flag attack.  

When asked about Volcano rockets in his most recent interview, Hersh seems dismissive of their relevance.  Oddly, Hersh now seems to be aware of the work I've done linking the rockets to the government, and shifts his position; rather than the rockets not being used by the government, it now doesn't matter they are being used as the government because of claims about the range of the rockets by Richard Lloyd and Ted Postol, and also statements by Ake Sellstrom. He fails to address how the Syrian opposition acquired these munitions, and as I've pointed out earlier, the Syrian government has never claimed the munitions were captured or otherwise lost from the stockpiles.  The alternative is the Turkish government or Jabhat al-Nusra created perfect copies of them for their false flag attack.  

It seems this dismissiveness is down to his belief that the approximately 2km range described by Lloyd and Postol and referred to by Ake Sellstrom means any discussion about who has the rockets is irrelevant.  He appears to believe the front-lines were far more than 2km away, just like the White House claimed in their intelligence report criticised by Lloyd and Postol, and therefore not worth discussing. 

The problem for Hersh is, as Lloyd and Postol points out, the White House report lacked certain details that reflected the situation on the ground accurately.  The map provided by the White House does seems to show government position several kilometres way, and for Hersh that seems to be enough.  Except, it provable using open source information that the White House report didn't accurately reflect the situation on the ground.  

From June 2013 to August 20th 2013, ANNA News, embedded with the Syrian military, uploaded a series of reports to YouTube showing "Operation al-Qaboun". In total, nearly two dozen videos were uploaded, showing the Syrian government's forces slowly capturing a region between Qaboun and Jobar.  Videos from opposition sources show the other side of the fighting, in particular firing mortars at checkpoints on major roads in the area.  I've spent the past 8 months collecting and analysing videos related to that area, and I now have what I strongly believe to be an accurate representation of the area controlled by the Syrian government on August 21st


Videos do suggest there was some firing into these areas by opposition groups, but it appears sporadic at best, and not of significant intensity. 

But how does this relate to Hersh and his dismissal of the relevance of Volcano rockets?  The below map shows the impact locations I've found for 5 Volcano rockets used on August 21st using a combination of videos, photographs, and satellite imagery, with the 2km distance from each rocket marked in red


These only represent those five rockets I've been able to find precise positions for, and the below map shows the positions of rocket impact sites reported by the Zamalka Local Co-ordination Committee, some of which match the above locations


Despite Hersh's dismissal of the Volcano rockets importance, these images do show the impact locations were in range of government controlled areas on August 21st.  This is to assume the 2km maximum range is correct, and with the greatest respect to the work of Lloyd and Postol I do not believe their calculations have been peer reviewed.  However, based on video evidence showing rockets being launched and landing, which allows for basic calculations on how far the rockets travelled (one example here), it seems 2km is a realistic figure for the minimum range of the rockets used on August 21st.  

It seems by not researching Volcano rocket, nor the situation on the ground on August 21st, Hersh has wrongly dismissed the importance of the rockets.  As I've clearly demonstrated, Volcano rockets are used by the Syrian government, despite Hersh's statements to the contrary, and their 2km range is not an indication they can only have been launched from opposition territory.

It's also worth noting Hersh appears to completely ignore the M14 artillery rockets recovered in the west of Damascus that have also been linked to the August 21st attacks.  He makes no mention of these in his article, and only refers to "homemade" rockets, which the M14 certainly are not.  No explanation is given for their presence in the attack, nor that the attacks would have been launched from two different sites.  Again, it's seem Hersh has deemed this information irrelevant to his narrative.

A number of articles have been published in response to Hersh's piece, criticising various aspects of his report.  "Who Trusts Russian Spies on Syria?", "Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality", and "Turkey’s Syria Policy: Why Seymour Hersh Got it Wrong" all focus on different aspects of the story, and Dan Kaszeta's Hersh and the Red Herring looks closely at the chemistry and practicality of the claims made in Hersh's piece.  This includes Hersh's claim that Porton Down couldn't match batches of Sarin together from their reference stock and the type used on August 21st:
The article also either ignores or misunderstands other important technical details. Much is made of a sample of Sarin provided by Russian intelligence. Even under the best of circumstances, can we count on Russian intelligence services to have probity and objectivity, given Russia’s record of obfuscation on the issue of the Sarin attacks? After all, Russian state media has been ruthless in pursuing alternative narratives in this case. Hersh also makes much of matching samples of Sarin. By its very definition, all Sarin, binary or otherwise, is made by a batch process and not a continuous production process. Even with the best, highest grade of stockpile-quality US Sarin, there were differences between batches even though millions were spent to have a standardized product. Consistency was hard to achieve. Certainly, Iraq could not produce consistent batches. With binary Sarin, the differences can be particularly pronounced, as the product is typically made in much smaller quantities at a time. The Sarin from the first pouring from the mixing vessel can be much different than the last one. Given these differences, the ubiquitous presence of an additive, hexamine, is ever more pronounced. None of these important facts are mentioned in Mr. Hersh’s report. 
This section of the article is of particular interest as Tom Coghlan, Foreign Correspondent for The Times, contacted the MoD about these claims
Again, when asked about the work of Dan Kaszeta Hersh does little more than dismisses it, rather than realising it's key to the claims he's making.  Hersh also claims Jabhat al-Nusra has a Sarin production facility in Aleppo, clearly having no grasp of what that would actually entail (a large custom made facility to produce the quantity of Sarin used on August 21st), and his claims that Turkey were shipping precursor chemicals to the factory in Syria would require at least one end of the process to be manufacturing Methylphosphonyl difluoride, a key component of the Sarin used on August 21st, requiring large, custom built, facilities to manufacture the quantity needed for the August 21st Sarin attack, and huge amounts of closely controlled chemicals. Beyond the vaguest of explanations, Hersh provides no explanation to how any of this could have occurred, and it seems when it comes down to the finer details, that would cast doubt on the narrative he's constructed, he believes a hand wave is all he needs to dismiss it.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at brownmosesatgmail [dot] com

What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets?

4/7/14
This morning, I wrote about Seymour Hersh's Volcano Problems, asking why Seymour Hersh left out key details on Volcano rockets from his recent piece for the London Review of Books, The Red Line and the Rat Line, about the August 21st Sarin attack.  Following my piece, Seymour Hersh appeared on Democracy Now, talking about the article, and finally spoke about the rockets used:


AMY GOODMAN : Sy, on Sunday, the EA WorldView website published a piece headlined "There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy-Dissecting Hersh's 'Exclusive' on Insurgents Once More." The author, Scott Lucas, questioned the claim that rebels could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August, given the range and scale of the operation. He wrote, quote, "Reports on the day and subsequently Not indicated that 7-12 sites were Attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks Launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus. [The chemical] ... FOLLOWED BY ... heavy Conventional attacks were attacks. " The author, Scott Lucas says, is that you fail to ask questions about wheth anyone, apart from the regime, would have the ability to carry out such an extensive operation. Sy?

Seymour Hersh : [inaudible]-we're past that first article on. We know now. Actually, The New York Times even ran a retraction, of sorts. You had a-it was like reading Pravda. But if you read the article carefully, The New York Times had run a series of articles after the event saying that the warheads in question that did the damage to the car but from a Syrian army base, something like nine kilometers, six miles, away. And at that time, there were a number of of analysts, a group from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], led by Ted Postol, who used to be a science advisor to the CNO, the chief of naval operations, Busy somebody with a great deal of background and no bias. He did a series of studies that Concluded that the warheads with his team probably did not go more than one or two, at most, kilometers-two kilometers, 1.2 miles. And we now know from the UN report-a man named Aker Sellström, who ran the UN investigation, he's Concluded the same thing: These are missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile.

They were-one from the footage looks-just saw one, they were homemade. They did not fit any of the known nomenclature of the weapons. And do not think we do not have a very good picture of what the warheads in terms of Syrianska have. They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons that fit. And so, you have a UN report. You have this independent report saying they were-went no more than one or two kilometers. And so, I do not know why we're talking about multiple-launch rockets. These are homemade weapons. And it seems very clear to most observers-as I say, even to the UN team that did the final report-the UN, because of whatever rules they have, was not able to say is that-who fired what. They could just say-they just could describe the weapons and never make a judgment. But I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was fired weapons were very clear that the Syrian army and were not homemade. This is asked and answered; these are the arguments that go on. This is-I assume it's a blog. I do not know-I do not know the the blog.

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So, point by point:
"These are missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile" - Well, we don't know that, video of the Volcano rockets have shown them travelling at least 2km, (1.24 miles), and it's possible they have a longer range. It's much shorter than the previous estimates, as he correctly states, but videos from ANNA News, a Russian channel embedded with Syrian government forces show the frontline was around 2km away from the August 21st impact sites.

"[T]hey were homemade. They did not fit any of the known nomenclature of the weapons...They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons that fit." - As I've repeatedly demonstrated, despite their appearance, there's clear evidence that the Syrian government has been using this family of munitions for over a year.  They don't fit any of the known nomenclature because they've been developed by the Syrian military and were virtually unknown before August 21st.

These are both issues I wrote about in my Foreign Policy article, Sy Hersh's Chemical Misfire, and questions that have been asked and answered repeatedly since.

So what's the answer to "What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets?" It seems barely anything at all, which is pretty shocking when so much information is available about them online, even in articles about Seymour Hersh's work on August 21st.  For someone making such huge accusations about the Turkish government's involvement in the August 21st Sarin attacks, you'd think he'd do at least a quick Google search the subject.