Friday, 31 January 2014

Fourth Chemical Volcano Rocket Used On August 21st Geolocated

Following on from yesterday's post on a third possible impact location of the chemical rockets used on August 21st I've been investigating more of the GPS co-ordinates provided to me by the local who filmed the video used in this ITN report

I now believe there is enough information to locate the position of the rocket I've dubbed Volcano 4 (playlist here).  One set of GPS co-ordinates pointed to this location

After reviewing video footage collected for the 8-9 Volcano rockets recorded after the attack, I believe this is almost certainly the location of Volcano 4.  The below clip shows a view to the west followed by a view to the east from two different videos.

Firstly, the location itself.  We can see to the north there's a brick wall which appears to have been pierced by the rocket, and in this image from Google Earth's historical satellite imagery we can see it's casting a shadow

In the satellite imagery it appears the building just west of the wall, on the north side, juts out to the south

In the video we can actually see it's only the top floor that juts out, while the ground floor is level with the wall

It's also noticeable that the building to the south is not parallel to the street, which can be seen on the satellite map

In the view east, we have a clear shot down the road

Satellite imagery shows a large multistorey building to the east, as visible in the above still

Although somewhat obscured in the video by greenery, the historical satellite imagery appears to show that the design of the building matches what we see in the video

Combined with the GPS data, I think this proves a strong match to Volcano 4.  What's also very interesting about this video is it appears the munition passed through the wall to the north, landing just south-east of the hole in the wall.

It's worth keeping in mind that just northwest of this position is a building that appears to be at least two storeys tall, so it's possible the munition could have deflected off the building.  However, it does seem likely the rocket would have come from the northwest.  I've created the following map showing the distance from the impact site, with the red line being 2km, yellow being 2.25km, and green being 2.5km.

It's worth noting the area south of the motorway running from the north to the west of the picture was the scene of Operaton al-Kabune, a government operation to secure a strip of land between Jobar and Qaboun, with the aim to encircle Jobar and Qaboun along the motorway running north to south in the above image.  That operation commenced on August 20th 2013 as part of Operation Capital Shield.

A big thank you to Chris Kabusk for help finding the impact locations of this rocket.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Third Chemical Volcano Rocket Used On August 21st Geolocated

Things have been rather quite on the blog recently while I work on a number of projects, including the launch of a new website.  One project I'm working on involves the August 21st Sarin attack, and while working on that project I've managed to geolocate one more potential impact sites from the August 21st Sarin attack in Damascus.

This task was made somewhat easier because I was able to contact the person who filmed the footage for this ITN report

He provided me with the GPS co-ordinates of what he filmed, and I was particularly interested in one site, which I've called Volcano 5 (playlist here).  This video shows what appears to be the impact site, and it appears the munition was removed from the site, leaving part of the warhead's outer shell, and the remains of a black rod device that has been sighted in a number of Volcano videos, but whose purpose is unclear

Because the munition is not present, we cannot be 100% sure this is an impact location, but I believe this area is worth geolocating on the chance it could be, and because it features in a number of videos and photographs, in particular focusing on one feature, a mound of dead animals

According to the GPS information I received, the location of the dead animals was in this area

The first image from this video shows the building to the south of the open area.

This building is partly built, and we can see from Google Earth historical satellite imagery this building construction appears to have begun between 2010 and 2011

Here we can see the ground floor juts out from the building, as it does in the video

At the bottom of this image we also see the building behind the newly constructed building that's visible in the video

The forth picture in this article shows the pile of dead animals, and is facing east.  On the map we can see the following 3 points of interest

At point 1 we can see a building at the corner of a walled area filled with trees.  The photograph shows a small building on the south corner, with another smaller building attached to it.  This matches what we have in the satellite image.

At point 2 there's a building visible in the photograph, and behind that at point 3 another building that juts out to the north, also visible in the photograph.

In this next video we have a view to the west

In this frame from the video it's possible to see a number of points of interest

At points 1 and 2 we can see the alleys to the west and south.  At point 3 we can see the building at the end of the west alley.  Behind that building is a taller building with balconies, visible in the historical map images of the area, marked with a 1 in the below image

Based off the above information, it seems very likely that this is the correct location, bringing the total number of Volcano rockets geolocated to three.

A big thank you to Chris Kabusk for help finding the impact locations of this rocket.

Syrian Biological Weapons Capability

By Hamish de Bretton Gordon, director at the London based CBRN consultancy SecureBio and former commander of the UK’s specialist CBRN Regiment.

On 29 Jan 14 James Clapper, Director National Intelligence, released a statement saying “We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program,”.  This news appeared to have shocked a number of western agencies and shed new light on to, what was viewed as, a hitherto un-disclosed Syrian capability.  However, this announcement should come as no surprise, after all biological weapons are the oldest form of WMD and often referred to as the “poor mans nuke”.  More worryingly why was this such a revelation, the information has been in the public domain since at least 2007 and SecureBio have included it in our specialist chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training and awareness package since 2012.

The UN agreement, drawn up in October, to remove Assad’s weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent Syrian declaration was notably light on any mention of biological weapons, despite a report in 2007 indicating that Syria possessed a number of Category A pathogens, including Anthrax, Plague, Tularemia, Botulinium, Smallpox, Aflotoxin, Cholera, Ricin and Camelpox.  Category A pathogens are considered the most toxic biological compounds, as an example 1 gram of crystalline Botulinium is assessed to be sufficient to kill about a million people, if dispersed under optimal conditions.

Syria’s Biological Weapons (BW) programme, centered at the technically advanced Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) near Damascus, like many other nations, has its origins in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, of which (pre-war) Syria provided 90% of the pharmaceuticals in the region. In order to effectively inoculate and protect individuals and livestock from the various endemic diseases, such as Anthrax (which is rife in the region), live pathogens are cultured and grown within a controlled laboratory.
These laboratories vary significantly in technology, with the SSRC being considered relatively modern, through to improvised laboratories in tin shacks on the outskirts of Kabul, which were used to produce veterinary strain vaccines in 2001.  The growing of biological cultures enables scientists to produce effective vaccines, which can be used to provide inoculation from disease and deliver defensive medical counter measures to first responders, at risk individuals and of course the military.

Despite good intentions, the more advanced scientific research and development facilities (such as SSRC) are easily and readily adapted to deliver a dual-use, defensive medical and offensive military capability, whilst remaining hidden from foreign intelligence assets. Dual-use facilities have the ability to grow live pathogens and then at a very late stage, separate them into vaccine strains and the more potent strains suitable for BW agents.

Consequently, it is entirely probable that the Syrian facilities will have acquired and developed their pharmaceutical industry quite legitimately however, at a later stage blurred the lines and opted to develop dual-use technologies; obtaining proof of this illegal development requires physical inspections by technically competent bodies and regime cooperation, something which has been absent from Syria for many years.
Based on Syria’s previous (and current) alliances and the assessed list of biological agents, it is likely that in addition to obtaining samples and cultures from endemic bacteria and viruses, much of the dual-use biological pathogens and technology will have originated in Russia, Iran and the DPRK.  Despite the sharing of bio-scientific information, the development of dual-use facilities and the growing of category A pathogens, it is should be noted that this is still only half the battle.

Once biological agents have been cultivated and grown, at dual-use sites, there is a significant step up in technology and scientific know-how required to transform the pathogens into a credible biological agent and then deliver them as a weapon. The programmes, to weaponise chemical, biological or radiological agents, are usually at the heart of a nation state’s most sensitive (or special) weapons sections, making it very difficult but not impossible to estimate how advanced they are.

The process of weaponising a biological agent is complex and multi-staged, involving enrichment, refining, toughening, milling and preparation of the pathogen.  These processes are designed to ensure that the biological agent survives the relatively traumatic experience of being fired from a rocket, dropped from an aircraft or post delivery exposed to harsh climatic conditions eg.  extremes of temperature, UV, wind, rain etc.  From James Clapper’s statement, it would appear that the US view the Syrian Biological Weapons programme as having successfully achieved this process and developed a viable delivery means, most probably as an aerosol, for its biological agents.  However, development of a biological weapons programme is one element, the development and refinement of biological agents is only of strategic value if the programme has the ability to scale up, ensuring sufficient stockpiles are maintained and that the agents can survive in long-term storage, through the use of climate controlled storage conditions, otherwise one rocket does represent a significant threat.

It would appear that there is little doubt about the accuracy of the US report or the inferred capabilities of the SSRC facility however, is the BW programme scalable and more importantly was it hardened against attack?  Let us not forget that last year the Israeli’s launched an air strike against the SSRC, which may have destroyed or at least reduced the capability of the Syrian BW programme.

Therefore, the question whether Syria possesses a legitimate BW programme is almost certainly yes, but the real question should be what capability remains after airstrikes and two years of civil war?

The final piece to the puzzle is how secure have these sites been over the past two years?  Biological agents are relatively easily identified, once deployed and symptoms begin to develop however, when in transit they are much more difficult to detect than chemical or radiological material. This difficulty in detection, coupled with the lack of internal security in Syria, presents a credible risk of biological proliferation from extremist groups.  These groups, through existing networks and knowledge, are more than capable of collecting and moving biological agents across international borders and delivering them, through improvised means, as a terror weapon; this a long aspired goal of Al Qaeda.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Syria's Sahwa: A Battle of Confusion

A guest post by Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

Syria's war, waging for almost three years now, seems to have reached a new level. Since the early summer of 2013 "al-Qaeda" ruled the media. A strong presence on social media showed us that Jabhat al-Nusra (the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria) and ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa's-Shām (known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Shām) were not only waging full scale war against the Syrian regime, but also were clashing with objective allies.  Fighting FSA and Kurdish forces in Rojava was obviously expected but after a while ISIS was getting accused of attacking member groups of the Islamic Front. And vice versa, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām, for example, lost several of its foreign fighters. A Belgian and aTunisian member of ISIS got killed near a checkpoint; news came out early December.

But the incident that seems to have triggered the current events (which can be described as the first signs of Syrian Sahwa or uprising)  must have been the torture and murder of a Harakat Ahrār as-Shām member, Doctor Husayn as-Sulaymān Abū Rayyān. His body was released in a prisoner exchange. Pictures of his mutilated body circulated widely on social media. A statement about Abū Rayyān in Arabic can be read here.  This and other recent violent clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups, unleashed unseen infighting in Syria.

In a few days time close to 700 casualties were reported by Jihādī sources. In about a week there were 16 suicide attacks targeting rebel forces. There are, obviously, no independent sources on these numbers. Rumors are spreading, and have been confirmed in some cases, that foreign fighters have been targeted more than ever. The last few days the most striking would be the abduction of two Belgian teenage girls.  Another report claimed that three Dutch girls were abducted and raped. ISIS seems to be disintegrating in some areas. A contact in Idlib province ( Sunday January 5): "The place is swarming with lost ISIS-fighters ... There's utter chaos ... Some were arrested, some want to secure their families, others prefer to keep on fighting. In some regions Jabhat an-Nusra just took over ISIS strongholds without firing a single shot." Later that day he contacted me again: "There are no more Dawla fighters where I am, Jabhat an-Nusra, Harakat Ahrār as-Shām and FSA took it all. A lot of these boys are now in hiding, because Jaysh al-Mujāhidīn are now arresting all ISIS-fighters and Muhājirīn [foreign fighters]."

In the first few days there was some confusion whether or not Harakat Ahrār as-Shām was involved in the clashes with ISIS, but my contact was clear about that, from day one they were. And hereby the devils were unleashed. The days that followed my Twitter timeline got flooded with accusations, quite quickly there were two camps calling each other names. Some people went berserk and started a true war of words. The name calling and slander were unprecedented; even compared to what happened before between the Kurds and ISIS the tone of voice hardened. And literally all got dragged in, Jabhat an-Nusra for example; some British ISIS fighter stated: "Jabhat an-Nusra in Raqqa attacked us but Jabhat in Badiya gave us a car for free packed with a heavy machine gun. Confusing ?Most certainly."  When I informed my contact about what was going on, he reacted firmly "Are they officially at war ? No ! So what's the point saying such things on Twitter ? Some Nusra guys I know left for Aleppo to protect the families of the Dawla-fighters. They should post that on Twitter."

In the meanwhile it became clear that the leadership of Jabhat an-Nusra and ISIS were bound to react to clear the fog of war. And as expected the first official reaction came from Jabhat an-Nusra's leader Abū Muhammad al-Jūlānī.  In an audio recording that was released by Jabhat an-Nusra's official account he made an offer to negotiate between the clashing factions.  Al-Jūlānī blamed ISIS though for the fighting between Muslims, an example he referred to was the captivity of Jabhat an-Nusra's local leader in ar-Raqqa. To solve the infighting Jabhat an-Nusra formed a committee all groups should join , an independent Sharī'a court should settle the issues. For, if the infighting continues, "we will loose a great battlefield of Jihād."

It only took a few hours before ISIS answered with it's own lengthy statement. Although it took their spokesman, Abū Muhammad al-'Adnānī, 37 minutes to bring his message, it can be summarized as Charles Lister put it in one of his recent articles: "We have armies in Iraq and an army in Syria full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones, finding nothing tastier than the blood of Sahwa." This message can clearly be seen as an open declaration of war towards the SNC and SMC. He refers to them as the allies of Jewish and Crusader forces, a quite often used rhetoric. He further calls upon his men to protect the foreign fighters, as they are the main victims of the Sahwa.

And indeed,  as one British fighter put it; "It breaks my heart to know that the people, who in the first place left the comfort of this Dunya, now have to flee out of Syria away from Jihād. My heart is broken. Even though I disagree with ISIS in many things,the hate they are met with today is unbearable. They are my brothers." In the meantime, the infighting and battle of words linger on, it is unneeded to state that Syria's war has reached a new phase. Where this will leave ISIS, for now, is open for speculation but it's likely to result in a weakening of the whole rebellion. Meanwhile al-Assad stands by, gloating to see his enemies fighting amongst themselves.

More of Pieter Van Ostaeyen's work can be found on his blog.