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Verifying Claims Of An Execution In Syria

July 9, 2014

By Eliot Higgins

The following video, titled “FSA Terrorists Massacre Imprisoned Syrian Army Soldiers in Quneitra, Golan Heights (18+)”, was posted on the YouTube channel Eretz Zen War Vids, claiming to show evidence that Syrian opposition groups executed prisoners.  The video description states “This two-part video shows strong evidence that militants from the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) massacred Syrian Army soldiers from the Fourth Platoon of Brigade 61 in Harak town of Quneitra province, in Syria’s southern Golan Heights area. The FSA terrorists also attacked a UN outpost in that area before getting to the Syrian Army location.

The participating FSA brigades include Grandsons of the Prophet Brigades, Blessing of the Compassionate Brigade, Martyr Salah al-Jolani Brigade, Freedom Martyrs Brigade, and Sibteen Brigade.

Warning: Graphic content (not for shock, 18+, not for faint-hearted, viewer discretion advised, aimed only at documenting crimes by FSA terrorists in Syria)

In this post I hope to take a closer look at this video, but also highlight some of the ways in which the person producing this video could have helped anyone trying to investigate the claims made in the video, for example news organisations who might have wanted to cover it.

When I see a video like this that’s been edited, the first thing I want to find it the original source videos, to confirm the uploaded date, original description, and other details.  Whenever I upload copies of videos onto my YouTube channel, I include details from the original video, including a link to the original video (for example here), so even if the video is deleted the original information that was attached to the video is preserved.  In the case of the above video, that information hasn’t been included, so that means I have to go find it myself.  That’s okay for someone like me who spends all day looking at videos from Syria, but you can’t expect a journalist to do that, or even know how to do it effectively, so it’s best to make life easy for them.

Fortunately, the person creating the above video took screenshots of the channels they took the videos from, so after asking for help to get the names typed out in Arabic, I put them into YouTube search.  Again, this is a step that could have been skipped if those names and links were just put into the YouTube description.

That came up with two YouTube channels where I found the two videos.  It’s always best to find the original channels these videos were posted on, as that’s where you’ll find all the original information, and if the video has been posted elsewhere by the groups involved (Facebook for example) then you can just paste the video URL into Google, and see where it appears.

The first video, showing the men still alive, was posted on a channel that translates to News Center Free Syria.  Frequently, the channels used to post original videos are named after local areas or opposition groups, so that’s the first clue it might not be the original channel the video was uploaded to.  If you then take a look at the list of videos on the channel, you’ll also note there’s whole variety of different logos on the videos, for example:

Image 1

This is a pretty strong indication this isn’t a channel that posts original videos, so now we need to find the original channel.  Some channels that repost videos use the exact same title as the original video, so that’s one place to start, and in the case of this video it’s also worth searching for just the name of the town the video was filmed in.  For those of us who don’t speak Arabic that means copying the title of the video into Google Translate, then figuring out which word is the name of the town (which in this case translates to “mobility”), then hovering over the English word with the mouse cursor, which highlights the word in the original Arabic text.  Copy and paste that into YouTube search, and away you go.

This will bring up a number of videos, so then it’s a case of browsing through the video, looking for ones with matching previews, and seeing which was posted first.  In the case of this video, the first appearance appears to be on the YouTube channel Mhmad Samoor.  Judging from the video descriptions, this channel is posting videos for the local media centre, and generally all media centres have a Facebook page.  So, more copying of Arabic text into Google Translate, and this time we want the name of the media centre.  Paste that into Google, and we get results for Facebook pages with that name.  The results in this case includes this page, along established page posting news from the area the video was reportedly filmed in, and the page features a post made on November 11th featuring the video, (here).   So for the first video, we’ve established the video has been posted on a YouTube channel used by local media centres, the videos have been shared on the Facebook pages of those groups, and what that does is help build the evidence that these videos are authentic.  It seems like a lot of work, but when I’m writing about videos that show significant events, such as war crimes, I’m thinking about getting as much evidence as possible they are authentic.

The second video, showing the corpses of the men in the first video, was taken from the YouTube channel of Liwa Tabaruk ar-Rahman.  They rather handily link their (now closed) Facebook page in some of the descriptions of their YouTube videos.  Although they didn’t link the video of the dead men on their Facebook page, they did link other videos from that channel on the Facebook page, dated before and after the video of the dead men.  This gives a great deal of weight to this video being genuine.

At this point we’ve established the videos are almost certainly genuine, so the question is now, do they match?

The most obvious thing to check is the clothes the men are wearing

Image 2

Right-to-left
1 – Green shirt, black trousers, bare feet.
2 – Black jacket, camouflage trousers, black shoes/socks.
3 – Greenish stripped shirt, blue jeans, blue socks/shoes with white stripes.

Image 3 Image 4

4 – Camouflage jacket, blue jeans, bare feet.
5 – Black jacket with a blue trim, camouflage trousers, black shoes/socks.
6 – Camouflage jacket, blue jeans, bare feet.

Of course, clothes can be moved and changed, especially shoes or socks being removed, or jackets being removed or opened, so that should be kept in mind.  Unfortunately in the video of the bodies isn’t very good quality, but there’s some matches that seem pretty clear

Image 5

This is clearly a strong match for man number three, same shirt, same blue jeans, and wearing some sort of footwear.  Two of the dead men match the description of two men in the video that wore black jackets, camouflage trousers, and black shoes/socks

Image 6 Image 7

However, in the video showing the men alive, one man clearly has no facial hair like the man in the bottom picture

Image 8

It’s also worth noting that one man appears to be absent from this, number 1 in the first video, wearing a green shirt, black trousers, and no footwear.

The video quality isn’t great, but among the men there’s at least some matches of clothing, but there’s also something else that matches in the two videos, pointing towards this being the same incident

Image 9 Image 10

In the background of both videos we can clearly see the same debris, in particular two distinct yellow containers, as well as other debris.

It should always be kept in mind during these types of investigations that videos of the same incident may have been posted elsewhere, so it’s worth searching for video uploaded using other keywords, such as other names used to describe the location, or names of other opposition groups that were operating in that area at the same time.  In the case of this incident, there was in fact another group operating in the area who filmed the same group of bodies, but much more clearly

The video’s narrator doesn’t provide too much additional information

“Allah Akbar, dead bodies from Assad’s dogs inside 4th platoon, aka Khaldoun platoon, after it was liberated by Gurabaa’a Horan Liwa, that belongs to Ahfad al Rassoul (Grandsons of the prophet) group.”

But it does give a much clearer view of the dead men, and we can see, as with the video showing the living men, there’s two men with camouflage jackets, blue jeans, bare feet.

So it seems certain at least one of the men in the video showing them alive was killed, and also very likely four more of the men were also killed, with the sixth man absent from the videos showing the dead men.

It seems from these videos that these men were killed after they were captured, despite the claims in the Liwa Tabaruk ar-Rahman video they were killed in an ambush.  As there were a number of groups involved in this operation it’s unclear which specific group was responsible, but it seems highly unlikely it would have been anyone but one of those opposition groups.

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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