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Emails And Reading Comprehension: OPCW Douma Coverage Misses Crucial Facts

November 25, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks released an email from an employee within the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) indicating that the OPCW “misrepresents the facts he and his colleagues discovered on the ground”. This email has since been used to call into question the impartiality and effectiveness of the OPCW’s conclusion about the alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma, Syria.

However, a comparison of the points raised in the letter against the final Douma report makes it amply clear that the OPCW not only addressed these points, but even changed the conclusion of an earlier report to reflect the concerns of said employee.

Which Report?

Unusually, in the case of the Douma attack, the OPCW issued two reports. The first was an interim report of 26 pages published on 6 July 2018. The second was a final report of 106 pages, published on 1 March 2019.

The letter released by Wikileaks, dated 22 June 2018, raises concerns about a “redacted report”. The points raised in the letter are clearly not present in the interim report; however, they are present, or else are in modified form, in the final report. Therefore, it appears that the so-called “redacted report” provided a basis or early draft for the final report.

Points Raised By The Letter

Point 1

This wording used in the letter is not present in the final report. The paragraph that matches this most closely in the final report is paragraph 2.16, which states, “it is possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine.” 

The decision to use the word “possible” in the final report is a significant change from the word “likely”, as it represents the level of confidence of the OPCW. By changing this particular phrase, the OPCW have in fact downgraded their confidence in possible conclusions about this event, which is in line with the employee’s concerns.

Point 2.1

Aside from the absurdity of claiming that “singling out chlorine gas” after an alleged chlorine gas attack in a country where multiple chlorine attacks have taken place is “disingenuous”, these points appear to have been addressed by the final report.

Paragraphs 8.6 – 8.19 in the final report include a “Discussion of analysis results”, which addresses the points raised in this paragraph of the letter, including explaining why many of the chemicals listed in this part of the letter could be excluded. It should be noted that this section is chemistry-heavy. 

Point 2.2

The final report does not use the phrase “reactive chlorine containing chemical.” Instead, the phrase “chemical containing reactive chlorine” is used, as suggested in the letter. 

Point 3

The final report does not include this mention of the gas being released from cylinders. As highlighted in Point 1, the final report concludes that it is “possible” the cylinders were the source of substances containing reactive chlorine.

Point 4

At no point does the final report describe the levels of various chlorinated organic derivatives as “high”. However, it does note in paragraph 7 of Annex 4 that these derivatives exist in the natural background, and that control samples were collected at locations not expected to have been exposed to chlorine gas for comparison.

Point 5

The final report includes a discussion of symptoms, along with an Epidemiological Analysis addressing these issues, on page 25.

It is also notable that the final report consulted “four toxicologists and one toxicologist and medical doctor” (paragraph 8.87) rather than the three toxicologists mentioned in the letter. It also notes in Annex 3 that further consultations with toxicologists took place in September and October 2018, months after this letter was written.

It should also be noted that the final report also states that the FFM redeployed to conduct further interviews between 14-22 October.

Point 6

Although it is not precisely clear what the letter is referring to here, the final report devotes extensive and detailed discussion to the modelling of the impact of the two cylinders in pages 53-64. Three independent analyses by experts in three different countries were carried out, and all reached complimentary conclusions: the damage at the impact sites is consistent with the cylinders having fallen from height (Annex 12).

It should also be noted that the engineering studies were only received by the FFM in December 2018, well after the date of this letter. As such, any discussion about the point of impact on the date of this letter would have been superseded by the studies which came later. 

Point 7


The final report contains an extensive bibliography, including peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Conclusion

Although this letter appears to be at least superficially damaging to the OPCW, after reading the actual reports published by the OPCW it is clear that this letter is outdated and inapplicable to the final Douma report. 

The letter refers to a “redacted report” that was either not published or was heavily updated before it became the final version of  the report. The issues raised in the letter appear to have either been addressed with further work and research, or changed to reflect the concerns of the employee who wrote the letter. 

The fact that the redacted report stated it was “likely” the cylinders were the source of the chlorine or reactive chlorine-containing chemical, while the final report said it was “possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine” is significant. It demonstrates that the OPCW in fact downgraded their confidence in their conclusions in order to include the doubts raised by the author of the letter.

Based on this analysis, it is clear that WikiLeaks, the Daily Mail, La Repubblica, and Stundin have failed to understand the context of this letter and the final Douma report. 

If the people covering this story had actually taken the time to read the letter and the FFM reports, they may well have chosen to publicize it in a very different manner. 

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108 Comments

  1. Sean Lamb

    A long and unintentionally funny twitter thread from DDtea/Iridium Tea currently being promoted by the Bellingcat crowd

    https://twitter.com/iridium_tea/status/1200543847274762241

    Once you strip away all the scientific handwaving, there is absolutely nothing that conflicts with the whistle-blower. Let me quote the relevant passage.

    ” The only evidence available at this moment is that some samples collected at Locations 2 and 4 were in contact with one or more chemicals that contain a reactive chlorine atom. Such chemicals could include molecular chlorine, phosgene, cyanogen chloride, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen chloride or sodium hypochlorite (the major ingredient of household chlorine-based bleach). Purposely singling out chlorine gas as one of the possibilities is disingenuous. ”

    Disingenous is the operative word here, because the same person here quoted an article about a worker dying after being exposed to chlorine gas being liberated from household bleach. Of course, generally household bleach doesn’t liberate toxic quantities of chlorine gas, but since we are dealing with trace contaminants of 1 or 2 parts per billion then, the whistleblower is suggesting, there is nothing to suggest that these minute quantities couldnt be produced by micro-chemical reactions in response to household bleach.

    It would be like if after someone died of cancer, you pulled out a geiger counter and detected some radiation in the room and shouted “Aha! Clearly this cancer was caused by environmental radiation.” No one disputes radiation can cause cancer, no one disputes the chlorine gas can form chlorinated organic compounds; what you need to show is the radiation detected is an abnormal quantities above and beyond background level, ditto with chlorinated organic compounds.

    However, one of the properties of Chlorine gas is that in response to an aqueous surface – like the eyeball – it will react with water to form hydrochloric acid, which causes immediate pain and irritation to the eyes.

    That is why the fact the eyeballs of the victims being so clearly white and non-inflammed and so clearly not affected by acid, allows us to confidently rule out chlorine gas as the cause of their death.

    Reply
  2. Sean Lamb

    Denialists, of course, will simply abandon one rhetorical position and slip seamlessly to another.

    Alleged lattice markings: for example
    https://twitter.com/EliotHiggins/status/1201144180531245058

    Of course it is entirely usual for gas cylinders to wrapped in mesh protectors during periods of transport.

    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn%3AANd9GcSANuxMC3VwwDQts5dxR4yMIsJ8I_r6zPyAEuZWGlShRqJKKRKl

    But why acknowledge such a simple explanation when you can fantasize about cylinders hurtling through the air crashing through balcony railings?

    I do, however, want to treat all Bellingcat-ers with compassion and sympathy. Ever since Le Mesurier ….ummmm…fell off a balcony it is easy to imagine the cold churning fear that must be gripping their stomachs.

    I can promise all Bellingcat-ers that if they need to claim asylum there are a couple of apartments free in Edward Snowden’s building. Send me a post card SOS to Sean Lamb c/o The Lubyanka Building.

    If you are in the UK there is little we can do, but if you can make your way to Amsterdam I think we will be able to successfully exfiltrate to Moscow and safety

    Reply
      • Eliot Higgins

        You’ve provided two examples of lattices much smaller than the markings on the canister on the balcony, so maybe try to find one that matches exactly and you’ve got a point. Also, are you suggesting the metal debris that was found at the impact site and matched the lattice markings perfectly are mesh protecters?

        Reply
        • dick

          Does it actually matter in the big picture
          Highly trained impartial scientists on site determined that the cylinders were more likely to have been manually placed than to have been dropped from a height.
          It would be a great idea for the OPCW leadership to allow these FFM team members the platform they have requested to set out their original findings.
          Perhaps you, a layman could question them from the floor
          Why are you so attached to your report that you cannot stomach the thought of being wrong?
          Why not gracefully admit that you were mistaken?
          Because it would cast all your cherry picked open source investigations in to disrepute?
          https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/04/11/open-source-survey-alleged-chemical-attacks-douma-7th-april-2018/

          Reply
          • dick

            To Jeroen
            Thats the report the FFM team says totally misrepresents their findings
            Keep up buddy

          • Servus

            dick, you are cherry picking,
            One OPCW expert says that to him manual placement of the cylinders is more probable, while the final OPCW report states that 3 independent ballistic experts teams came into conclusion that the cylinders were airdropped.

            This is also a conclusion of the Forensics Architects simulation published by Bellingcat.

            In a previous exchange I’ve showed that you have fabricated some accusations, apparently you continue to manipulate , your credibility is bottom low.

            Experts disagree, discuss , argue and eventually create a consensus, this is a normal process. Picking a piece of larger, partial discussion is misleading.

          • Servus

            Ok dick, you don’t have to read all pages full of letters , a piece that might marginally interest you:

            “With regard to the ballistics data collected by the FFM [fact-finding mission], they were analysed by three external experts commissioned by the FFM, and working independently from one another. In the end, while using different methods and instruments, they all reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM final report.”« 

            At your service

        • JustPassingThrough

          When FA modelled the lattice, they missed the part still attached to the wall and put it in the wrong place:

          https://youtu.be/AOUsl_MuccM?t=29
          https://youtu.be/BqfguOJyIyI?t=1291

          If the theory is that the cylinder smashes nose first through the roof corner, what is the trajectory of the cylinder to then hit the mesh “perpendicularly”? The FFM also says it is not clear whether the mesh “had been demolished prior” (Annex6#4), if the frame was already destroyed what is the trajectory to hit the mesh horizontally but also hit the balcony nose down? It doesn’t make sense, as if the “visual damage” sentence was added later. Did any Bellingcat-related experts contribute?

          Did anyone ever verify via satellite photos that the damage to the roof corner didn’t exist already? Annex6#6 says the inspectors never went up onto the roof.

          The cylinder is lying next to the broken ends of the mesh and was definitely moved, so another explanation is that when the cylinder was rolled around it was scratched.

          Reply
          • Servus

            “The cylinder is lying next to the broken ends of the mesh and was definitely moved, so another explanation is that when the cylinder was rolled around it was scratched.”

            The cylinders are made of very resistant steel, typically carbon steel (sa516gr60/76 or similar) with the typical 6mm thick walls for this cylinder size, some even with MO-CO steel.
            Highly unlikely that one can scratch such cylinder by rolling around.
            And, well imagine the precision of such rotative movements (in both directions) in order to create a nice, regular lattice with perpendicular crossings at even distances… It’s as likely as Mr Hitches admitting errors.

            Why you propagandists can not stick to the message delivered by Mr Assad “There are two possibilities, either jihadists did it or it did not happen at all.”

          • JustPassingThrough

            Servus – I am not a “propagandist”, are you saying the ends of the broken mesh cannot scratch the paint off? Was it your model of the mesh? How was it determined to be an ‘imprint’ and not a scratch?

          • Servus

            “How was it determined to be an ‘imprint’ and not a scratch?”

            I can only comment how this looks to me.

            Let assume that the scratches were done by moving the cylinder.
            The scratches form a very regular lattice patter of several parallel straight lines, oblique to the cylinder axis. There are two sets of lines perpendicular to each other, forming a perfect squares at distances that happen to match exactly the mesh’s squares..
            Imagine how the cylinder would need to be moved to create such pattern ?
            It maybe difficult to do so one could model it with, a paper tube and a pencil or a cucumber and a knife. In order to create an oblique but straight line, the cylinder must move forward with constant speed and rotate with constant speed. In order to create a straight perpendicular line, one would need to move it back or rather carry it back or it woukd get scratched again, and then move forward again and rotate in the opposite direction, with exactly the same forward and rotation speeds as before or the crossings would not be at right angels, and all these precision movements are to be carried out with a 100kg metallic cylinder, a highly unlikely scenario.
            There should be also some sharp, hard and pointed object to make the scratches or dents, disposed at regular distances.
            The scratches are also very “clean” and uncover the underlying metal that subsequently corroded heavily most likely in contact with the chemical agent dispersed by the cylinder. I doubt that scratching paint of the cylinders would result in such perfect lines.

            The explanation given by FFM is straight forward, the cylinder fell under a “wide” angle, close to flat through the mesh, the mesh hit the cylinder (at high speed things tend do be very hard) and created the lattice pattern and stripped the harness with the fins and wheels.
            No obscure assumptions needed.

          • JustPassingThrough

            With respect, the FFM doesn’t give an explanation at all and “exact” matches are your assumption. There is only the one public image of the cylinder before it was moved (image is flipped horizontally)

            https://static01.nyt.com/newsgraphics/2018/05/15/douma-ar/09aa3a31b95d7c22b7a1a5283c0bcf8ad44a987c/3_dent/cam_23.jpeg

            The scratches should be on this side, perhaps Bellingcat/NYT/anyone could release any of these earliest images or videos rather than referring to images of the cylinder after it had been moved.

          • JustPassingThrough

            The facts are:

            Nobody scientifically determined the scratches to be an ‘imprint’
            The FFM fig. A6.2 states the visible damage is only “likely” from the mesh – they haven’t definitively linked the two
            The FFM is uncertain whether the frame was intact
            For the FFM to then assert that the cylinder definitely hit the mesh is a contradiction of the previous 2 points
            Nobody knows how the cylinder was moved – the mesh has many broken ends, many directions, your assumptions about what needs to be done to create the scratches are just that: assumptions
            The FFM conclude nothing about the harness and fins as (annex6#10) “the metal frame and fins, visible on the terrace in videos, were missing at the time of the FFM visit”

          • Servus

            “, your assumptions about what needs to be done to create the scratches are just that: assumptions”

            Correct, and highly improbable ones this is why this “moving and scratching” hypothesis doesnot make sense, glad you understood that.

            Please have a look at the initial NYT reportig and it’s videos or other early reports and photos and you will find the fins.

            FFM report:
            “Observed Changes to the Scene

            – the metal frame and fins, visible on the terrace in videos, were missing at the time of the FFM visit.”

            The war criminals had two weeks between the attack and the time OPCW was allowed on site to modify the crime scene.

          • Servus

            correction :

            “The war criminals had two weeks to modify the crime scene, between the attack and the time OPCW was allowed on site .

  3. Jeroen

    Syrian governement helicopters dropping explosive and chemical ordnance on Syrian towns and civilians have been so well documented since at least 2013, that anybody denying this should be met with apropriate suspicion.

    Sharing some links, lots and lots of information any serious concerned ciitizen will find him or herself.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22551892
    29 April 2013 Saraqeb

    August 2016, Aleppo
    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37049555

    About the effects of chlorine.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/37295926/the-effects-of-using-chlorine-as-a-weapon

    It must be great to talk to your grandchildren when you are finally grown up.
    Granddad what did you do “in the war”?
    Oh I was promoting disinformation and whitewashing (Assadist and others) war crimes.
    And making fun about pushing investigative journalists, citizens and humanitarian workers of balconies. Or even doing that yourself?

    They will be so proud.

    Reply
  4. Servus

    There are couple of ways to debunk/analyse a conspiracy theory, one quite effective is to hypothesise that the theory is real and list all physical, technical, organisational, timing and economical (etc) conditions for it to happen and asses how likely these are.
    Then one can also look at how likely it is that the conspiracy can be kept secret, If a lot of people are involved or knowledgeable about it and have to keep the secret for a long the time, it becomes likely that somebody will break the silence,

    The political, physical, technical and organisational aspects of the hypothetical false flag operation were analysed in an excellent blog post :

    https://feitoffake.wordpress.com/2018/05/09/a-douma-chemical-attack-false-flag-scenario-does-not-make-sense-at-all-here-is-why/

    The bottom line is that for the listed reasons, such hypothetical false flag operation is highly unlikely and it can be ruled out,

    To this analysis I would add that the cylinders in the two location would need to be deformed and this is a very difficult task. The cylinders are made of high quality resistant steel, typical wall thicknessers is 6 mm, , the jihadists would need to have a powerful hydraulic press for the task, dropping the cylinders from say 5 floors would hardly dent it. And the deformations would need to match the damage to the buildings and the cylinders planned trajectory, so that the subsequent simulations would conform a drop from few hundred meters. Its totally unrealistic, the need of specialised equipment and incredible ballistic competence rules out this possibility.

    Lets have a look at possibility of keeping such hypothetical false flag operation secret,

    How many jihadist would need to be involved, there are two locations, both would need to be guarded for some time, day and night, lets say 5 guys per location,
    There would need to be a team that demolishes the buildings and creates all the in ceilings, roof, etc, they would need to carry all the equipment upstairs and work few days, lets say 5 guys, another 5-10 would be involved in all logistics, providing the equipment and know about the project. There would be also a planning team of higher ranking jihadists, maybe 5-10 guys. So, there would be roughly 30-50 jihadists involved in planning and killing 43 local people, not necessarily hostile to them, including 25 children. It is possible that some of them would not like what has happened and would eventually talk.
    In every building we can assume 4-5 floors with 9 apartments each, with roughly 3 adults per apartment, it makes roughly 50 adults that lived at both locations. They must have been aware of the jihadist doing the demolition work, evicting the families living in the target apartments and guarding the sites, One can assume that another 50 people would visit them during this time, extended family and friends, Neighbours would see the logistics and talk to inhabitants about strange construction work,
    So another 50-100 people would know about the preparations,
    And out of these 150-200 people nobody told the journalists about anything suspicious happening in the apartments that eventually dispersed the chemical agent? People connect dots very fast and some would thing that the secret activity in these two apartments preceding the attack would be somewhat connected to the chemical attack, Nothing like that transpires from the witnesses,
    Russian journalists claimed that “here they brought in the cannister” but in early reports had no witnesses to support that,

    It would have been impossible to keep such a hypothetical false flag operation secret, some people would talk about suspect activities prior to attack, but they did not.

    This is yet another argument that the hypothetical false flag operation is a propaganda fabrication.

    Reply
  5. Jeroen

    Very well explained Servus.

    Every well thinking person will understand what you explained.

    You will not convince those people fond of conspiration theories and thinking.
    You will not convince pro Assad/syrian governement parties, except from all military, secret police or governement and state people who were involved.
    But the truth will come out, because people like cellphones and do film dropping bombs or cylinders from helikopters.
    Wikileaks will find them. Or others.
    Like the New York Times proves which bombings are done by Russian or by Syrian aircraft including on hospitals, towns, civilian homes.

    Last convincing will not work for paid or volunteer trolls knowingly or subconciously working for some state troll program.
    Every reader here can easily jugde who is a troll, the more trolls “troll” the easier ordinary people learn to judge and discriminate.

    Reply

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