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The Al-Jinah Mosque Complex Bombing — New Information and Timeline

April 18, 2017

By Christiaan Triebert

Translations: Русский

Bellingcat exchanged information with Forensic Architecture and Human Rights Watch. Both of which carried out separate investigations into the attack. All multimedia information has been archived by the Syrian Archive.


On March 16, 2017, around 18:55 local time, a United States (US) airstrike targeted the Sayidina Omar ibn al-Khattab mosque, where reportedly almost 300 people had gathered for the Isha’a night prayers and a religious lecture. The airstrike completely destroyed the northern side of the mosque complex near al-Jinah in Syria’s Aleppo governorate. Thirty-eight bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble, according to the Syria Civil Defence, a search and rescue group operating in opposition-held territories better known as the “White Helmets”.

There is no doubt that the US conducted the attack. Initial open source information already hinted towards US involvement as we detailed in our initial report, and the US Central Command (CENTCOM) claimed responsibility for the strike, saying it targeted “an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location,” killing “dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists” after extensive surveillance. They incorrectly referred to the location of the attack as the Idlib governorate, but later confirmed to Bellingcat that they meant that the strike occurred near al-Jinah in the Aleppo governorate. A US military spokesperson claimed that the US had taken “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life”. The Pentagon released a post-strike image of the site, and said they “deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo”. Instead, they claimed, a partially-constructed community hall was targeted.

However, one pressing question remained: is this building a mosque or a meeting hall? New information, collected by both Forensic Architecture and Human Rights Watch, reveals that the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence. Bellingcat believes that the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.

The new information will be discussed in this article in relation to all the open source multimedia information found by Bellingcat with a timeline of that information included later in the article. All multimedia information has been archived by the Syrian Archive, a project to which Bellingcat contributes.

Content

The Mosque Complex

  • The Location
  • The Floorplan
  • The Exterior

The Activities in the Mosque

  • The Tablighi Jamaat
  • An Al-Qaeda Meeting?

The Damage and the Casualties

A Timeline of Open Source Information

  • March 16, 2017
  • March 17, 2017
  • March 18, 2017
  • March 19, 2017

The Mosque Complex

The Location

The Sayidina Omar ibn al-Khattab mosque is located around 1.5 kilometers southwest of the village of al-Jinah in Syria’s Aleppo governorate, at coordinates 36.107721, 36.787080. The mosque is situated next to a small mosque just meters north of it. Locals told Human Rights Watch that construction at the mosque started in 2013. Historical imagery from Google Earth, Microsoft Bing, and TerraServer corroborates this account. The construction remained unfinished due to lack of funds, the interviewees said.

The Floorplan

The mosque complex’s original contractor and care-taker, who was also wounded in the strike, has been interviewed by Forensic Architecture. The upper floor in the northern part of the complex, he claims, contained the living space for the Imam, whose wife was at home and killed in the strike.

The upper floor in the northern part of the mosque complex contained the living space of the imam, according to the building’s original contractor and care-taker. Image courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

The ground floor  of the northern section included a ritual wash room, toilets, a kitchen, and the Winter prayer hall.

The ground floor of the northern section contained a kitchen, toilets, a Winter prayer hall, and a ritual wash room. Image courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

A video recorded during the construction of the mosque and published on YouTube in November 2014, confirms the use of each room, such as the ritual wash room (4:37-4:54), the   toilets (4:54-5:16), the Winter prayer hall (5:21-5:27), and the kitchen (5:37-5:57).

There are several important features in the video of what used to be the north area. It is worth pointing out is that the winter prayer hall had two openings. One, facing the west-east corridor, was closed off, and the other was open as is visible in the video. The main prayer hall had sliding doors and non-moveable windows, showing that the two sections of the building were connected by doorways. The video also shows that even during the earlier phases of the construction, the mosque complex, including the prayer hall, was used by locals.

The ground floor contained the main prayer hall in the southern side of the building, confirming Bellingcat’s initial research. Forensic Architecture has made a 3D model of the mosque complex. Several aspects indicate the building is indeed a mosque, such as the shelves for worshippers’ shoes, the rugs and the mihrab, where the Imam leads the prayer and indicates the direction to the Kaaba in Mecca.

The 2014 video also shows worshippers in front of the same mihrab. Other features visible in the videos also match, confirming this is the same location.

The Exterior

Two videos showing the mosque complex before the strike happened have been obtained by Forensic Architecture. One of the videos was provided by a local and was not previously published online, while the other had been uploaded to YouTube in 2014 and has already been referred to above.

The first video shows that the athan speaker, used for the call for prayer, is visible on the roof of the mosque. A sign next to the entrance reads “Sayidina Omar Ibn al-Khattab mosque”. It is worth noting that this sign is in the very same position as seen in post-strike photos and videos.

The second video starts with several photographs of the mosque complex under construction.

The Activities in the Mosque

The Tablighi Jamaat

Individuals featured in open source videos showing the aftermath of the attack claim that the mosque was used by Tablighi Jamaat, a non-political global Sunni Islamic missionary movement which focuses on urging return to primary Sunni Islam. The movement is believed to have around 12 to 150 million adherents worldwide, the majority of them living in South Asia.

The pre-strike video showing the mosque under construction was uploaded by a group that appears to be affiliated with the Tablighi Jamaat, as its title is “Centre for Tablighi Da‘wah in the Levant”.

Some individuals shown in the video, as well as Bilal Abdul Kareem, a  controversial reporter for a small media outlet called On the Ground News, confirmed the account that the mosque was used by Tablighi Jamaat, which reportedly held religious lectures each Thursday. These accounts are corroborated with a reporter of Anadolu Agency, and testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch:

“…preachers hold a religious lecture in the mosque between sunset and night prayer every Thursday, the day of the attack. On the day of the attack, as they usually do when it is cold outside, they used the eating area in the service section for the lecture because the large prayer hall in the southern section was poorly insulated.”

The group, going by the name “the loved ones” (Arabic: الأحباب), has a sizeable presence in the Aleppo governorate,  according to Ahmad Abouzeid, who spoke to Bellingcat.

In a video recorded after the incident, the imam of a mosque in the Aleppo governorate, Sheikh Abdul Razzaq (Arabic: الشيخ عبد الرزاق), says that a mosque and meeting place of the Tablighi Da‘wah group was targeted. He says that the Tablighi Jamaat have no connection with politics, Islamic State, or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Local residents and a mosque employee told Human Rights Watch a similar story:

“They are a hundred percent civilian. We call them “the beloved.” They don’t preach jihad or war. They preach only god and Islam. They rotate between different villages. There are 10-15 from our village. 10-15 from another village and so on. These people they practice itikaf  [the practice of staying in a mosque for a certain number of days, devoting oneself to worship and staying away from worldly affairs]. They’re just spreading the word of god.”

An Al-Qaeda Meeting?

The entire ground floor was open to the public and there were no doors to the prayer rooms, according to witnesses and confirmed by the 2014 video. This makes them an unlikely place for a secret “meeting of senior al-Qaida terrorists” as the Pentagon asserts, especially since almost  300 worshippers were present at the site according to witnesses.

Human Rights Watch has also not found evidence to support the claim that members of al-Qaeda or any other armed group were meeting in the mosque. As the organisation notes, the US authorities have so far not released any information to support their claims.

In case there were armed group members present in the mosque, Human Rights Watch stresses the importance of understanding the nature of the targeted building and the pattern of life around the building as crucial to assess the risk to civilians.

Human Rights Watch also searched online for the names of the dead, reviewing possible Facebook profiles connected to those names. They did not find any indication that any of the casualties belonged to an armed group. One user with an identical name had a picture referring to Jabhat al-Nusra, but Human Rights Watch could not confirm whether it was indeed the profile of a casualty, as the name is common.

In Bellingcat’s examination of all the photos and videos from the attack, we have identified no signs of armed individuals or military equipment at the mosque, nor have we seen any signs of al-Qaeda presence.

The Damage and the Casualties

The airstrike happened at 18:55 local time, only 15 minutes before the Isha’a night prayers would start that day. The time of the night prayer is relevant, Human Rights Watch asserts, because “since they knew that that another mosque was nearby.” Information related to prayer times is easily findable in online databases, and “should have been well known [to] US authorities.”

The strike targeted the northern side of the building, just as a religious seminar in the Winter prayer hall was taking place, according to eyewitnesses. The northern side of the building functioned as the service section of the mosque complex. Other individuals were gathering in the main mosque in preparation for the Isha’a night prayers, according to a witnesses interviewed by Forensic Architecture and Human Rights Watch.

Two large craters in the north part of the building have been identified by Forensic Architecture. Munition experts have confirmed to them that these craters are consistent with two 500-pound bombs.

Using available and sourced imagery, Forensic Architecture identified two large craters in the north part of the building, which are consistent with two 500 pound bombs according to munitions experts. Image courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

Using available and sourced imagery, Forensic Architecture identified two large craters in the north part of the building, which are consistent with two 500 pound bombs according to munitions experts. Image courtesy of Forensic Architecture.

As the bombs hit the northern part of the building, resulting in the total collapse of it, a large number of people started to flee the building, according to eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Forensic Architecture. As they escaped outside, they were targeted by several smaller missiles.

A US official later told a Washington Post reporter that Hellfire missiles were used in the attack.

Mohammad Halak, director of the Syrian Civil Defence’s western rural Aleppo sector, told Forensic Architecture that he saw around twenty to thirty dead bodies scattered between the mosque complex and the road. His account is confirmed by other witnesses. Mr. Halak told Forensic Architecture where they found victims in the rubble, including the location where they pulled out the 14-year old Mohammad Orabi, who later died of his injuries. That rescue attempt was filmed by Thiqa Agency.

Markings on the road that indicate the traces of a Hellfire missile are also visible in open source multimedia information, and have been visualised in the 3D model of Forensic Architecture. The pattern is identifiable by its distinct fragmentation pattern and by shrapnel found nearby, Forensic Architecture asserts.

In total, 38 bodies were recovered from the site according to the Syrian Civil Defence, who published 28 names of those who could be identified by relatives. Ten bodies were not identified, Human Rights Watch writes.

A Timeline of Open Source Information

This is a timeline of statements of the United States (US) airstrikes that targeted the northern side of a newly-built prayer hall in Syria’s northern Aleppo province. All times mentioned are in the local timezone of the Aleppo governorate (UTC+2).

Christiaan Triebert

Christiaan Triebert is an all-source conflict analyst with an interest in conflict and development. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, among other countries. King's College London and University of Groningen graduate. Contact via Twitter: @trbrtc

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29 Comments

  1. Andrea

    Nice article Christiaan! And the Forensic Architecture 3D renders are so cool!
    Seems that someone definitely chose the wrong target… It’s sad… Sad because of the human losses, and sad cause the “lies” used to mask the mistake delegitimate the reliability of the source (US DoD)…
    And in this kind of information war US/RUS this is DEFINITELY a thing we should avoid! Cause if both sides become unreliable…

    Reply
  2. Andrea

    Amazing to see how many other articles are flooded with comments…
    In some of those comments they blame bellingcat due to their continuous “anti-russian propaganda”…
    Then as a good “anti-US” article is published noone comes…

    Reply
        • stranger

          This is not an anti US article, the accents are not even close to what they allow themselves against Russia and nobody actually care about bombing of that mosque (unfortunately of course), there is no any political resonance. For “US trolls” look at the gas attack article. I’d not call them US, but anti Russian, sometimes Ukrainian, sometimes may be even NAT0 trolls, who knows.

          Reply
    • stranger

      Yes, I blame Bellingcat in continuous anti Russian propaganda. The fraction of their other articles are close to zero.

      Reply
      • Zaida

        As a Russian you should be banned from commenting on a Western site, in the same way Westerners are not allowed to comment on Russian sites,

        Reply
        • stranger

          Zaida, as an idiot, you should ask yourself twice before saying something. What a nonsense are you spreading here? Who is banned to “comment on Russian sites”?

          Reply
          • stranger

            Unfoturnatelly there are a lot of lists from the anti Russian side, and some of them not even trolls, but even have high political positions. That is disgusting to call St Peterburg troll everybody who don’t want to allow slandering on Russia. That is a lie by itself. firstly I heard this idea from Ukrainian troll here, they pushed the idea that everybody who disagree with them is a Russian troll. They and Bellingcat are working hard so that people would not even listen to Russia. Just stupid dirty propaganda for not very smart crowd. I’ve always thought that propaganda is not effective as a tool, but it seems it works over time.

          • stranger

            Type: …there is a lot of lies from “anti Russian” side…

          • stranger

            It’s enough for the mass stupidifying propaganda to paint everybody a “mass murderer”, finger point, and stupid crowd asks no more questions and ready for any war. That is how you have been demonizing Russia recently.

          • Mad Dog

            So, do you see a lot of folks coming on here and denouncing this article? Wonder why not, eh stranger. Maybe cause the US said they did it, told everyone what weapons they used and why they did it. No ‘warehouses’ to be found here. No diversion needed as this a just a matter of intelligence gone terrible wrong, not a mad man gone terribly insane.

          • stranger

            You are over complicating things. This incident with the mosque cannot be disregarded, but its local, it didn’t cause political wars and other consequences.
            I have no idea why other people are coming here. As for me I was annoyed by the constant lie and demonization against my country. That’s why I have retorted.
            And again, Bellingcat is not objective in the way how they collect the topics for their articles and how they put the accents and invent the missing logical pieces in their articles. The are too allured by the massive anti Russian hysteria. A couple of neutral, as if criticizing US, articles would not disguise their major bias against Russia. They selling out their propaganda and ruin their reputation along with it.

          • stranger

            Mad Dog, actually people object to the biased articles or too furious anti Russian propagandists here, because their lie and hypocrisy is too obvious. And for the last two years I can count just a few people who defended Russia from this constant flow of dirt and shit been pored here. In the beginnings there were a lot of ukrainian trolls who really hated Russia and all Russian, now they are almost gone for mysterious reasons. Probably people get tired and see the useless of their efforts. Several voices defending Russia have appeared just recently and I believe because the stupidity of anti Russian rhetoric is becoming too obvious and people cannot help to reply. That is how people indulge their self esteem. What you perceive as a “diversion” because you was infected by this rhetoric of Russian trolls, is just a laugh at idiocy of anti Russian propagandists and indulging self ambitions.

          • Mad Dog

            aw, C’mon stranger. How am I over complicating anything. The B/C folks just provide facts based on their investigation and the Russian and Syrian sides continue to provide material that needs to be investigated. How about the very simple, un-complicated thing I asked for. If both Russia and Syria insist on a warehouse explosion, then it is not a very complicated thing to provide information on where and when that happened. Only thing is, they can’t. Now who is lying? The whole matter could be solved with that info, but B/C has shown that the only possible warehouse in the area has already been destroyed. No lies or shit, just plain uncomplicated facts that have not been discredited by either Russia or Syria. But how about this scenario. This was actually an attack on a warehouse full of Chechnyan gays, escapees from the thugs in Grozny, but they hit another warehouse that was full of those real extremists, those dastardly, evil Jehovah Witnesses. Man, they really deserve to be gassed, don’t you think? Or is this just another lie from the Soros controlled press.

  3. Thomas

    At least the US admits it made a mistake. Unlike Russia that denies actions they take or try to cast doubt in the minds of others to hide their direct actions.

    Reply
    • Woody

      Mad dog, I quite agree with you to have the site in KS investigated. Too bad, government feet are not welcomed. Prior to France delivering its “analysis” of KS I believed they had some projectile parts. This case is far beyond clear. BC assumes culpa on Assad on anything. Recall how this all started in ME once a certain dude was looking for aluminium tubes…which they never found but hey, they brought their idea of democracy to ME. The Postol analysis with the missing projectile has never bothered BC. How sad is that?

      Reply
  4. Mohamed

    Bedankt voor je inzet! Ik zag je optreden bij DWDD. Hoe heet dat programma waar bij je kunt inzoomen op een gebied en alle social media activiteiten tevoorschijn komen? Mooi!

    Reply
    • Christiaan Triebert

      Hoi Mohamed,

      Bedankt voor je reactie. Dat programma dat ik daar liet zien heet Echosec. Er is ook een alternatief: WarWire (warwire.net). Je kunt ook zoeken per social medium op een geografische locatie, bv. op Twitter en op Instagram.

      Laat me weten als er iets onduidelijk is.

      Groet,

      CT

      Reply

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