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Fact Checking Russia’s Claim that it Didn’t Bomb a Mosque in Syria

November 1, 2015

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

On October 1st 2015 reports of Russian airstrikes hitting a mosque in the town of Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib began appearing online. This included reports from local activists posted on social media, and video footage showing what was claimed to be damage to the Omar bin Al-Khattab mosque, in the north of the town. The claims were published by various media organisations, including Reuters, the Daily Telegraph (UK), and Al Jazeera. Russia’s Major-General Igor Konashenkov confirmed the presence of Russian aircraft in the area, claiming the complete “destruction of a command post on the northern outskirts of Jisr al-Shughur”. On October 30th the Russian Ministry of Defence responded to the allegations in a press conference about their air-strikes in Syria.

In the English transcript of the press conference the Russian Ministry of Defence states the following:

Thus, the western media published another “hoax” concerning the Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque supposedly demolished by the Russian strikes in Jisr al-Shughur (Idlib province).

Today the real picture is shown by the means of objective monitoring.

The photos, which were made yesterday on October 29, 2015, show this mosque.

The photos show in detail that the mosque suffered no damage. That is why all the so-called revelations published by a number of respected publications is nothing but just a simple fabrication, which has no real factual basis.

The following image, which was claimed to be aerial imagery from October 29th, was presented by the Russian Ministry of Defence claiming to show the undamaged “Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque”

12105987_1674425452800204_6918160825015014312_n

Although the Russian Ministry of Defence gives no date for the reported mosque bombing, local activists in Jisr al-Shughur have only reported one mosque bombing in October 2015, therefore we can assume the Russian Ministry of Defence is referring to the October 1st bombing.

With two contradictory claims the question is whether or not the claims can be confirmed. What is key is establishing whether or not the mosque local activists claimed was bombed is the same one featured in the Russian Ministry of Defence imagery. The first indication that the mosque bombed was not the same was the name used by local activists. In social media posts relating to the incident locals always refer to the mosque bombed as the “Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque”, never as “Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque”, which the Russian Ministry of Defence used to describe it. Bellingcat also contacted local activists directly who confirmed the name of the mosque bombed on October 1st was the “Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque”. They also stated that the mosque in the Russian Ministry of Defence aerial imagery was known as the Al-Farouq Mosque, and sent the following image showing the name of the mosque on the building itself

Al_Farouq_Idlib

Historical satellite imagery from Google Earth from July 20th 2011 shows three rows of windows on the side of the mosque next to a wall, similar to what is visible in the photograph of the mosque

Windows

An image of the mosque taken from a distance was also provided by local activists, showing the distinct blue dome, and giving a better sense of the size of the mosque

Al-Farouq Mosque-1

In October 1st footage of the mosque bombing it’s possible to see both the outside and inside view of the roof. From the outside it’s clear no blue dome is present on the roof of the mosque, which also appears to be a shorter building than the Al Farooq Mosque

Omar roof outside

The inside of the mosque is also shown, with the roof clearly being intact, and no blue rubble present in any images of the mosque bombing, so it cannot be claimed the dome would have collapsed inside the building

Omar roof inside

Tariq Abdul Haq, a member of Jisr al-Shugur Local Coordination Committee, confirmed the name of the mosque bombed was the “Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque”, and the location of the mosque at 35.821077, 36.322102 on the northern side of Jisr al-Shugur. While the satellite imagery for the location is unclear, Tariq Abdul Haq provide a still from drone footage locals recorded at the start of April 2015 showing the area around the Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque (note, the image has been turned 180 degrees, a full sized version can be found here)

Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque small

From this image it is possible to match features from the videos and photographs of the mosque bombing to the drone image. For example, here we can see a view south where storage tanks on the roof of a nearby building and a gap in the wall of a building to the south is clearly visible

Matches 1

In the below image from an Orient News video filmed on the east side of the mosque, facing south, the blue/white garage door is visible, along with the two pairs of windows next to it

Mosque East Side

The remains of the top of the minaret are also visible in the rubble in the courtyard area, on the north side of the mosque

minaret 1

Another angle of the same area shows part of the six-sided minaret in the rubble

minaret 2

Prior to October 1st there are a few images showing the minaret still standing, the closest to October 1st being an August 11th video showing a view over the town where the minaret is visible in the far distance (marked in red below, with thanks to the Conflict Intelligence Team)

August video ssx687Gi1d

Many more matches are visible in the various photographs and videos posted online by local groups, clearly indicating that the mosque bombed on October 1st 2015 in Jisr al-Shughur was the Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque located in the north of the town, not the “Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque” in the west of the town, mentioned by the Russian Ministry of Defence. The locations of the two mosques are shown in the below image

Mosque map

It is also noteworthy that on the Russian Ministry of Defence aerial image the location of Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque is covered by the text box at the top of the image.

Comparison

Since Bellingcat contacted local activists a statement has been posted by them on their Facebook page, including the images provided to Bellingcat, and reconfirming the names of the mosques, that only the Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque was bombed, and repeating their allegation it was Russian aircraft that bombed the mosque.

Based on the above analysis it is clear claims made by the Russian Ministry of Defence on October 30th are untrue. What it is not possible to establish is if this was a result of poor intelligence, or a deliberate act of deception.

Written by Eliot Higgins with contributions from the Bellingcat Investigation Team and the Conflict Intelligence Team.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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34 Comments

  1. Sean Lamb

    As always it is quite difficult to follow the reasoning of bellingcat. Suffice to say if local say a modern mosque on the outskirts of Idlib has been destroyed, in the absence of any photos showing it is not destroyed, I’ll take their word for it provisionally.
    Bellingcat lost me when they started on the drone footage. I genuinely can’t follow their logic, but I will assume they are correct.

    However, rather than stating this:
    “Based on the above analysis it is clear claims made by the Russian Ministry of Defence on October 30th are untrue.”
    Wouldn’t it be fairer to say that they were simply confused over the identity of the mosque in question? They believed they had been accused of destroying the mosque in the old city that has heritage value.

    There is nothing that prevents a mosque from being a legitimate military target if it is used to store ammunition or as a command and control center. It is like bombing a troop ship that has deceptively painted a red cross on itself.

    If the terrorists don’t wish their mosques to be destroyed, then the answer is fairly straightforward. Simply use them solely for religious purposes.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      Do you have any evidence that the mosque hit was “used to store ammunition or as a command and control center”?

      Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        Hi bellingcat,

        I don’t run an intelligence agency. This looks like a direct and intentional hit. The lists of targets are drawn up by the Russians in conjunction with the Syrian government. As I imagine the terrorists are distinctly unpopular with the locals – having utterly devastated civilian life – I imagine they have no difficult in getting accurate intelligence.
        In Palmyra the Russians have specifically stated that the insurgents have militarized mosques. It was common practice in Fallujah in Iraq. I believe the Israelis claim the same happens in Gaza.

        The most likely scenario is the target was passed to the Russians by the Syrians as a building of zero heritage significance and the location of bona fide military activity , the Russians bombed it unaware it was a mosque.

        Reply
          • Sean Lamb

            You are welcome
            http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/04/07/1081326803452.html
            From 2004
            “US marines pressing an offensive in this Iraqi town west of Baghdad bombed a central mosque and killed up to 40 insurgents holed up inside, a marine officer said.

            The bombing came after several hours of small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) fire from insurgents, which left three marines wounded, said Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne.

            He said there were “as many as 40 rebels” inside the mosque. “We want to kill the people inside,” he added. “

        • Hassan

          “As I imagine the terrorists are distinctly unpopular with the locals – having utterly devastated civilian life”

          Yes surely it’s pure imagination. And could you please explain how they devasated life? By gassing children with sarin while they were asleep on August 21? Or by indiscriminately dropping over 10,000 barrel bombs on rebel-held areas, forcing 14 million people out of their homes? Or by torturing 11,000 detainees to death and whose photos were leaked by a defector code-named Caesar and verified by former UN forensic investigators? Or by delibrately bombing crowded markets like they did in Douma which was cited yesterday in the UN and the Red Cross chiefs’ joint statement?

          Reply
          • Sean Lamb

            “And could you please explain how they devasated life? By gassing children with sarin while they were asleep on August 21? ”
            Yes, I think the rebels’ Sarin attack of August 21 was particularly vile. And as the Syrian government observed: every time the Security Council was about to hold a vote on Syria, a massacre would suddenly occur.

            But even ignoring the atrocity-porn approach, you can’t run an urban insurgency – choosing the urban environment as your battleground – without devastating effects on the population who happened to be living there. And obviously the rebels were too weak to choose any other battleground other than using the urban environment as a physical shield and civilians as a human shield to try and neutralize the superiority of the Syrian army’s fire power. Nor was it realistic to expect the Government to throw up their arms and surrender the moment extremists began infiltrating the towns. After that everything becomes inevitable, Syrians are going to continue resisting the foreign incursions and interventions, the Saudis, the Qataris and the US are going to keep on gradually escalating and doubling down.

            Even if the extremists did through some miracle manage to win and put together some kind of government that was somehow better that the Assad government (and Libya tells us that is a huge and highly uncertain “if”). It wouldn’t have been worth all the suffering the process has inflicted. I think everyone knows this now but now the Western elite has fallen for the gambler’s fallacy of chasing the losses. Everyone keeps staking more and more on the strategy of civil war rather than just acknowledge that the entire strategy was wrong headed from the very beginning.

      • Randy Dread

        Al Quaida has been satoring weapons and hiding fighters in mosques for years.

        Better ask Russian intelligence about evidence of ammunition storage or other things.

        They are hardly going to bomb a mosque just for laughs are they, especially when if they wanted to do that there is a much better mosque to bomb in the same city.

        Reply
  2. Anonymus

    It seems, that the two Mosques in question were named after Umar Son of Al-Khattab, “one of the most powerful and influential Muslim caliphs”, lived between 583 CE and 644 CE.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umar

    Incidently, this name is similar to another very well known name in mordern Russia – Chechen commander Ibn al-Khattab, who was killed by Russian FSB in 2002. Al-Khattab and Shamil Basayev (killed by FSB in 2006) are the two most known (and hated) Chechen commanders in Russia.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_al-Khattab

    Reply
  3. Darrin

    All sides in this war are responsible for religious buildings.been.destroyed trying to say Russia is doing it deliberately is quite ludicrous seems bellingcat making something out it isn’t ,it well known rebels have used these building to store arms and supplies also use them as.HQ,s there’s a.story for you.

    Reply
    • Sean Lamb

      Hi Darren,
      At this point in time it is looking more likely that the Russian jet was brought down intentionally, possibly by an onboard bomb. Although we will try and spin this as being solely the work of ISIS, in reality this could only have taken place with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood (no American civilian planes have been targeted, for example). This will complicate our efforts to bring Brotherhood aligned militias to power in Syria.

      The ground needs to be prepare so it can be spun that this plane was only downed due to the insensate rage brought about by destruction of the most sacred Omar bin Al-Khattab mosque, which has seen thousands of Sunni pilgrims visiting from all over the Muslim world since its construction in 2008.

      It is a difficult task which Bellingcat is approaching with great skill and sensitivity.

      Reply
      • boggled

        Oh, I have a new conspiracy theory for you Sean.
        The Kremlin knowing it is going to be deep in debt and trials for MH17 and needing extra navy assets to protect itself from radical fundamentalists, had an FSB agent blow up the plane over Egypt so they could make a claim against Egypt not protecting the aircraft from terrorists, so in compensation they are going to demand both Mistril ships.
        Eh, what do you think? There are some strange coincidences.

        Fare thee well

        Reply
        • Sean Lamb

          I see and cunningly trick the Islamic nutjobs to claim responsibility, like they cunningly tricked the Ukrainians into shutting down all their civilian and military radar systems on 17 July 2014?
          Is there to end to the guile of Uncle Vova?

          Reply
          • boggled

            Primary radar was the only one not active or not turned over.
            All the other various types of Secondary were turned over by Ukraine.
            Personally my opinion is the excuse down for maintence is not good enough and Ukraine should be forced by international media to clear up the issue.
            Hopefully some questions like that will be answered by the DSB question answer session coming up.

            You do know that many military do have transponders that they utilize in general flight?
            Those are picked up and specified on various types of secondary radar.
            Yes, the military can turn those off in ‘hot zones’ but it does not mean all of them do when flying.

            Many aircraft have various types of collision avoidance systems built into them, and guess what, MH17’s blackbox did not register anything.

            If you have some questions about primary radar and Ukraine, maybe you should contact their ATC through the site –
            http://uksatse.ua/index.php?lang=en

            I have looked through the site but have not called or wrote them yet.

            As far as tricking the nutjobs, not that hard to do I think, just put up an imitation of their videos or audio releases.
            Kremlin and ISIL are about the same level of propaganda, although I think the Kremlin puts more of its budget into it.

            Regardless, it sounds like it does not really matter, it sounds like the tail of the plane fell off, probably fatigue and overloading the cargo department is my guess.
            And it does not appear to have burn traces on the tail (indicating a bomb on board in cargo bay).
            Some vodka drinking aircraft mechanic in RF is probably going to be spending some quality time in a Russian prison for the rest of his life (or maybe he will get sent to Donbas to fight (you did know that is where some of the mercenaries come from don’t you, Russian prisons?) for shirking his duties, or it may go higher up in the airliner’s company.

            Time will tell, I am sorry soo many innocent Russians lost loved ones there.
            Sounds like responsibility for another plane crash is going to be the Kremlin and their policies in my guesstimation.

            Thanks again for your own conspiracy theory, it gave me some things to dwell on today.

            Fare thee well

  4. boggled

    BC,
    So basically, it would have been nice for the MoD statement to be, there are two mosques in the village and we destroyed one of them.
    But with their obfuscation, they combined the names of both mosques and said we did not destroy this mosque.
    The were correct they did not blow up one of them, the one they showed.

    From the beginning though, the whole accusation from Syrian and other groups was that it destroyed the other one and never used the wording Al Farooq at all?

    And the MoD added Al Farooq as there possible intention of plausible deniability and never replied at all to the claim of it destroying the other mosque.
    Kind of like POTUS Bill Clinton’s I never had sex with that woman, which was true technically because in his lawyer wording a cigar is not a sexual organ.

    So Russia never declared what their target was (did not want to declare they targeted a mosque), said they never hit Al Farooq (which was one not targeted or destroyed) , and the accusation was another mosque of the village (that was destroyed by Russian military aircraft) that they avoided answering and just called the claim false even though it was plain that the accusations were about another mosque.
    Ultimately they destroyed a mosque and never gave a reason for its targeting and destruction, obfuscation.
    I wonder what obfuscation wording they will use in the MH17 trial.
    We did not give the BUK to the rebels in Ukraine.
    (the rebels paid for it with 1 rouble)
    Or some such lawyer jumbo twisting of truth with defense attorney doublespeak.
    Lawyers will be making a killing off of trying to defend the Kremlin I think.

    Fare thee well

    Reply
  5. Andrea

    Sean,
    why don’t u open a blog with all those conspiracy theories and speculations made on the intel u gather while eating chips on the sofa … it may be funny
    And if u wan an help i’m pretty sure Mr Randy Dread can be a grat asset 😉

    Reply
    • Randy Dread

      oh by the way Andrea, your google earth based theory of the Buk bypass route avoiding the low bridge has been exploded.

      Reply
      • Rick

        Randy Clown!!!!. We thought you had drunk yourself stupid.. Is there great wisdom you would like to empathy from that bitter troll mouth..

        Reply
          • boggled

            Randy, I doubt it.
            Those little concrete things were not there in the satellite images (and neither were the white swing fences that were pictured on Misha’s images).

            My guess is both were after the destruction of MH17, which there are no public available detailed images after September 2014 of the area near Hirne.

            How long would those little concrete items take to install as haphazard as they look? an hour?
            Not sure of the date on Misha’s images of the bridge, but looking back through the satellite images I do not see them.
            So either well before the earliest satellite image date or well after MH17.
            My guess is FSB or some novorossiya nutcase put them up, then contacted Max and Misha and Hector to report on it.

            They were not there when the BUK drove through.
            Max van der LIAR et al fails again.

            Fare thee well

          • boggled

            Thank you Just A, I was not sure the best way to link from there, I am not the most internet savvy person and I thought Terraserver links lost their map coordinates.

            So June 4 2015, they were not there, then June 10 2015 they magically show up.
            Then on July 9 2015 they are gone again! I wonder how that can happen?

            I forget when Micha and Max started their tirade about this.
            Wonder if they staged it themselves?

            What do you think they are Just A? Do you think they are the swinging fence that Micha pointed out in Max’s video?
            Or do you think they are the concrete blocks that Randy Candy pointed out?

            My guess is they tried the blocks first while the swinging gate was being built, then installed the gate about the time of Max driving under the bridge.

            A staged photo op? Or the Mine operation business got sick of people (DNR) using the bypass road?
            Obviously it gets a lot of traffic since not a lot of brush and undergrowth are seen on the road in any of the images.

            Thanks for finding it and pointing it out and sharing it with us all.

            Wonder what Randy thinks it is?

            I know, two of the world’s largest pencils about 8-10 feet apart parallel to each other!
            Be worried, he might claim you manipulated Terraserver images on their website.
            Because you cannot see Cement dividers from satellite.

            Thanks again for finding sharing the additional images.
            Darn, Randy, Max, Hector, and Micha are exposed again as being wrong (and maybe not very thorough in the research right Randy? 😉

            Fare thee well

  6. Randy Dread

    Ha ha, are you kidding me, how could you possibly see ‘little concrete things’ in a google earth satellite photo.

    You’re a clown afflicted with verbal diaorrhea.

    Reply
    • boggled

      Well Randy, I can see the painted on lines of the highway, so I think some concrete dividers should be no problem
      I would be able to see them, but not tell exactly what they are on ‘unclassified’ lower definition satellite images.

      I can even count the rafters in the sections of the roof nearby where metal panels have blown off.

      There is a large amount of historical images there as well to go through, about 15, and nothing showing up.
      2002’s image is interesting, it shows a truck and trailer about the same size about ready to go under the bridge.
      7/19/2014 also.

      I think some of the images of terraserver and wikimapia have more definition to them, but they may have been taken at different times of day.
      Maybe you should look there for your recently installed barriers.

      All in all, major fail by Max and Misha and crew.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
    • Rick

      Randy Clown. You have proved you are nothing but an abusive troll who’s only point in attending this forum is to spew conspiracy theories from troll sponsored sites. Although you do create some levity being a clown. Your Russian sponsored opinion is neither needed or wanted. Do the world a favor and go earn an honest living. Thanks for proving the Kremlin is afraid of this site.

      Reply
  7. Andrea

    Randy… thanks 4 the pic u uploaded… but there is still #1 point missing: is the bridge exactly 4,5m high or maybe it’s just the road sign?
    I’m not sure of the measures i’m stating (don’t remember your older posts) but i remember there were less than 20cm, perhaps just 16, exceeding in the buk+ loader height….

    Then i must think that if farmers and miners can operate a buk system those concrete blocks can’t be such a trouble 😉
    And please consider that those rail tracks are not on an usual busy railway but probably just for a warehouse/factory

    Reply
    • boggled

      wikimapia calls it the ruins of a dairy and meat packing plant.
      Shut down I think in 2011.
      It may have been shut down longer, but the roof blew off after 2/22/2012 and never fixed.
      Interesting image that one, looks infrared to me.
      Did not expect that on Google Earth.
      Another one looks like at low light conditions.
      Satellite images can be such fun to browse through.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
  8. Mad Dog

    All other evidence, all of it, is baseless cause Randy can’t find a way around the bridge. Sure am glad he is not a mountain guide!

    Reply
    • Sean Lamb

      Is Randy trying to say that the footage must be photoshopped because of the bridge?

      The footage was deliberately staged, so it is not impossible that he is right about the bridge. But the it is genuine footage – just of a different truck of the same make and model as the one that appeared in the Paris Match photo

      The Ukrainians neglected to include the red metal supports that are keep the yellow telephone number board in place – indicated by a red arrow.
      http://i.imgur.com/dX8I02T.jpg

      Otherwise it was a damn good copy.

      Reply
      • boggled

        I see them there and so can everyone else that can zoom and compare with other better images by pausing the video.
        Sean, I think you need to invest in a better monitor or some glasses, or stop lying.
        Not sure which it is.

        Fare thee well

        Reply
        • Sean Lamb

          How unfortunate this should have all taken place in a suburb which the Government had just retaken…..
          http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28363086

          Relax boggled, I have seen slip ups far worse than this been smoothly papered over and ignored in the West.

          The MH17 is going to be determined purely on political grounds. There is zero chance that the JIT will find any one other than Russia responsible, no matter how cack-handed the Ukrainian government was. After notice how the fact that Ukraine claiming to have shut down all their radar systems aroused not so much as a whisper of protest across the entire spectrum of Western political, intelligence or media circles?

          Not a single comment anywhere – you guys are perfectly safe.

          Reply

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