by and for citizen investigative journalists

The Hills of Raqqa – Geolocating the James Foley Video

August 23, 2014

By Eliot Higgins

Earlier this week the Guardian reported on claims made by hostages held by the Islamic State, identifying the speaker in the James Foley video as being an Islamic State member based in Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold in north-central Syria. Based on that claim, and information in the James Foley video it’s possible to narrow down the location the video was filmed at.

In the video there’s not a great deal of information, however, it is possible to determine some information from the images.

Angle 5

It appears to be a hilly area, with barely any plants or grass, and in the distance we can see a green plain below the hills. In the below map we can see Raqqa, surrounded by green plains, with hills to the south

Sat map Raqqa

The position of the shadows in the video suggest this was filmed in the morning, with the camera pointing northwards. Based on that it seems reasonable to search the hills to the south of Raqqa for a possible location. But what details are available in the video to match to the featureless terrain in the area?

It appears the video was filmed on an area of raised ground, with the edge of the raised area circled in red in the below image.

Raised 1 Raised 2

Also visible is the edge of a track, circled in green, leading to a break in the rocks, circled in purple, which is also visible in this picture.

Raised 3

In this image, filmed face on to James Foley, the break in the rocks is visible on the left, with another small break in the rocks visible on the right.

Break 1

It also appears that in the distance there’s no obvious structures beyond what may be trees or small individual buildings.

Break 2

After examining the hill in the area, I believe this is a likely match for what’s visible in the video.

Location 1

The below images show the track entrance to the area, and you can see in the satellite map images the rock outcrop would be partly covering the entryway, as it does in the video.

Jut 1 Jut 2

Also visible on the satellite map imagery is the raised area the video is filmed on.

Outcrop

Based on that information it appears these are the approximate positions of what we can see in the video.

Location 2

When the camera is positioned to the right it appears trees are visible in the distance that are a possible match to the trees on the road to the north-west. It’s also worth noting buildings or other structures are not visible on the satellite map or on the video.

Background 1 Background 2

In the below images we see the view north, through the break in the hillside.

Background 3 Background 4

Again, we see very little beyond fields, and the occasional tree or structure. For example, this tree is roughly 1km directly north of the camera.

Background 5

Having reviewed locations along the hills south of Raqqa this appears to be the only location which fits what little information is available in the video. Along the hills this appears to be the most isolated spot with any sort of road access, with most other areas with road access appearing to have structures that would be visible in the video. Based on all available information we can say that at the very minimum the James Foley video was filmed in the hills south of Raqqa, and likely at the location shown above, supporting the claims made in the Guardian that Raqqa is the possible location of the remaining hostages.

Update ISSE Net has produced this interesting counter-argument to the above location being the site of the James Foley execution.

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 investigations tools and techniques.

68 Comments

  1. Sam

    I wonder whether there is a mistake in the 1st paragraph of this article where it states ” identifying the speaker in the James Foley video as being an Islamic State member based in Raqqa, an Islamic Front stronghold in north-central Syria”.
    Raqqa, as far as I know, is not a stronghold of [ Islamic Front].
    or have I misunderstood the sentence?

    Reply
  2. Chris Stiles

    Impressive work – really adds a refreshing new dimension to the discovery aspect of journalism making maximum use of freeware…keep up the good work. Your motivation to find the truth and willingness to toil with the details is an inspiration.

    Reply
  3. Jeridlawil

    Thank you for this extraordinary detective work. There is something noble, even beautiful when with limited information one opens up a whole world. Please, keep me informed of other projects you are working on. Thank you again.
    JL

    Reply
  4. Kay

    Please do one on Nigeria’s BH videos. Would be very interesting if you can glean a bit of info about their locations.

    Admire your work by the way.

    Reply
  5. Elisa

    Well E. Congrats. It was again breathtaking to read your analysis. What a world you are opening for us, your followers. THANK YOU!!!!

    Reply
  6. A Cooper

    Eliot we met with you last week. Really nice work, impressive, and valuable. We’ll stay in touch.

    Reply
  7. bellingcatadmin

    I’ll just add I’m continuing to examine satellite footage around Raqqa for other possible locations, so if anyone has suggestions let me know.

    Reply
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  9. secrit name

    hello !! are you sure of your realazation ..!!??
    this place that you show in photos is my village in Raqqa countryside …!!??
    but many places there look like this ,,??!!

    Reply
  10. annelies

    if it is one of their strongholds, why make this in an area which is hard to identify, without surrounders, or buildings etc… and why a a dark line over the head of the journalist at one moment, and no sign to verify the date. other videos from the so called caliphate are completely different style

    it is as real as the phishing emails from a bank: they put the name of the bank but it’s still a fraude

    and by the way arabic is not written from left to right… the maker sure isn’t reading Qur’an because then he would already have the habit of putting his arabic letters right to left

    this reminds me more of the Adams family actually, am I allowed to think this outloud or am I going to be pursued or followed now?

    Reply
  11. Raj Kumar

    Those belong to different location, West of what you indicated.
    Try Mosul pics, they too look very very similar.

    Reply
  12. Barry

    On BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme this morning, the Syrian Government spokeswoman (probably the same one that was shouting on C4 news the other night) claimed that James Foley was killed about a year ago. She said the UN knew this.
    Is there anything in the ISIS video that indicates the date of the filming? (I haven’t watched it)
    Voiceover doesn’t really count, as it could have been added recently.

    Reply
  13. paralyzer

    wow this is amazing detective work. have you shared this inteligence and finds with the goverment and mi5 mi6? contact them immedietly with this info. its important. great work. I hope the goverment hires you for some important job.

    Reply
  14. Matthias

    Bravo sir. excellent work. People like you really pay society and all people of good will a great service. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  15. ivan

    The well-worn road track with two pronounced curves (the most positively identifiable feature) is definitely absent in the satellite images shown here and it certainly would be visible in the satellite images if this location was correct, so it is very unlikely that it is correct. The trees and ground features in the distance, though slightly similar, actually don’t match. Reviewing the Google satellite view of the Raqqa area it becomes immediately obvious that there are almost an infinite number of places that might fit the bill. One would have to find a road with the two curves shown at the very least.

    Reply
    • Giovanni

      I have to agree. The tracks curves in addition seems really close to the point where on the map are just far.

      Reply
      • ivan

        Saskia posting below on 8-26-14 suggests that the satellite image may be old and that the curved road may be more recent and therefore not show up in the satellite image.
        I have been doing exactly this kind of Google satellite geolocation for years and have gotten very good at it – mostly locating esoteric archaeological or historic sites in developing countries. My experience is that in sparsely populated rural areas in developing countries dirt tracks almost never change, they certainly could, but it is quite unlikely, and has never been the case in any investigation I’ve done.
        Furthermore, even if that were indeed the case, this ID of the location still suffers from the background features not matching – particularly the shadows of the small cliffs in Elliot’s satellite image where the road cuts through – they do not match the rolling hills shown in the video at all – I’m fairly certain they could not be the same. When you do this kind of geolocation for a long time you notice that the satellite images really match up very well to ground photographs when you finally find the right place. These do not but it was a decent try.

        Elliot’s other find using the bridge and other features to locate the ISIS training camp is much more positive and almost certainly correct.

        The most difficult geolocation I’ve attempted has been to attempt to locate a recently discovered unexcavated archaeological site in an uninhabited area in Turkey using the scant references found in esoteric academic sources (who even list the coordinates but they are not correct!). I know I am within a mile or two of it but so far have been unsuccessful due to its paucity of identifiable ground features, so I am left with trying to match the shapes of hills which is very difficult. Like the area Elliot is examining here, the terrain is so self-similar that trial and error seems the most profitable way to proceed, but of course it is the worst method. At least in the present case we have the curving road which will nail it pretty positively once the right spot is found.

        I don’t use Google Earth so I don’t have oblique “helicopter” topological relief views, but if I did that’s what I would use to search for this spot, pointing the camera north and tracking sideways looking for similar hills and backgrounds, then checking for the curved road.

        Reply
        • Giovanni

          I have to agree. South Raqqa there are 100 entrance to the moutains at least, 90% of them dirty, end if you make just some km inside and you are just high you can’t see the cities below hidden by the hills. So maybe that’s not a total hinabitated spot. If you see at the last part of the video where they present Steven Joel, you can clearly see some costruction on the left, if that is the same spot, but may be not.
          http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=35.847091&lon=39.155445&z=16&m=b
          If you take a look at this map, you can clearly see at least 10 entrance to the hills.

          Reply
    • Marco

      The Quran says everything and says nothing. It is too generic and as you can see , we have some issues.

      Reply
  16. Ursula

    Excellent work, good to read truly investigative journalism, after being rained on daily with utter nonsense in the usual news.
    Please continue!

    Reply
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  18. I.T. Field

    Dear Eliot,

    Please find in all recognition the reward for your intensive and driven work. You are doing a great job. Keep it up.

    I.T. Field

    Reply
  19. Dirk VT

    There is a clear meandering road in the video, I don’t seem to see any road matching the video.

    Reply
  20. Jdonner

    Btw Eliot Higgins, may I remind you of this quote from the theguardian DOT com:

    “Scotland Yard has warned internet users they could be arrested under terrorism legislation if they viewed or shared the video of James Foley’s murder, as Twitter and YouTube attempted to remove all trace of the footage from the web.”

    Read carefully…. “VIEWED or shared”

    Reply
    • Brian S

      Let’s keep some sense of proportion here: notice the “could” in this statement. We haven’t yet slid into a police state, despite the ongoing hysteria. No one is going to prosecute you for viewing anything as part of an investigative inquiry.

      Reply
  21. Guest

    Read your story in a Belgian paper today. Very nice, much respect.
    Can you please explain how you see that the shadows come from a morning-sun?
    Cheers

    Reply
  22. Saskia

    Great work! The curved road may not be visible in Google’s satellite images, because they may be several years old. Google does not update the imagery of remote location as frequently as it does images of densely populated areas.

    Reply
  23. Costa

    Regarding the trees, I noticed that in the satellite imagery, there is a pretty dense cluster of trees that appears nearly immediately to the left of the ones you identified. It does not appear to the left of the trees in the video footage.

    Reply
  24. MIbuckWild

    WOW. Great job! The Wire just recognized this as well. I hope a couple of hellfire missiles are in bound for these terrorists

    Reply
  25. DanEngels

    Hi,

    Great investigation work.

    But it started me thinking. Assume the camera position is not North but South. If that is correct, the location must be on the other side of the river. Have a look: N35° 52.682′ E38° 37.254′ (google earth).

    Reply
    • nd

      @DanEngels
      The camera couldn’t be positioned N to S. Look at the shadows over the bodies. They are directed toward the camera, this means the camera is pointing N, and they lean on the left, meaning it is morning.

      Reply
      • Giovanni

        To me main camera is poiting NE where the second is pointing NNW in the morning due to the shadows.

        Reply
  26. nd

    @DanEngels
    Sorry my mistake,
    I was meaning that the bodies are fully exposed to light, meaning they are facing the sun which, for latitudes between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, is projecting shadows N in the northern hemisphere.
    Thus, the camera is positioned S to N. The shadows leaning quite a lot on left means it is morning.

    Reply
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    • DanEngels

      Thanks for this. I figured out one possible location already, but not sure about certain details. Because I do not have the video myself, this enhancement of those trees is a very helpful.

      Reply
  28. waskey

    Hi Eliot –

    When news of the beheading first broke on CNN, there was a note about the process of intelligence agencies working to verify it’s authenticity.

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/19/world/meast/isis-james-foley/

    Do you know if it has been deemed authentic?

    If so, do you know the other data points cited as evidence?

    Do you view the geolocating work you have done as conclusive or corroborative?

    I really don’t have the tools to make an opinion about this my self, and I wonder if your process was to assume it was genuine first — not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se.

    Thanks for your great work.

    Reply
  29. sandro

    If you have achieved these results simply with G.E. congratulations you have been really good, you have a great talent investigative

    Reply
  30. cora

    This looks like an amazing detective work ok, but I think that for the potential safety of remaining hostages, that kind of work should not be published on the internet…

    Reply
  31. LF

    Knowing the height of James Foley, with a time span defined (sun movement considerations), shadow angle i believe theoretically it’s possible to know the latitude.

    Reply
  32. Dan Trojak

    Excellent detective work. I totally admire your theory, scientific knowledge and estimated calculations but it appears there was one VERY IMPORTANT calculation you didn’t take into consideration when estimating or calculating “distances”……
    The executions were filmed on HD (1080p) SmartPhones…. not DSLR cameras with 35mm Field Of View lenses.
    Smartphone lenses have a wider Field of View and a tendency to make objects in the background appear much further away than they truly are.
    Did you also take this potential into consideration during your calculations?
    Objects which appear to be some distance away in the videos might actually be closer than you realise.
    It is possible to correct the Field of View in several freebie softwares which might help tighten up on the true location and “true distances”.
    Keep up the excellent work :-)

    Reply
  33. Yve Clark

    I have tried similar techniques with photographs I had taken myself on a tour of Israel. It is incredibly difficult even when you have a rough idea where the picture was taken. I have to say that your reasoning is sound and I am impressed. As I found features on the ground took very different from above. Curved roads may appear straight in photographs for instance. You have encouraged me to see what I can find out. Thank you for that.

    Reply
  34. Vincentabbinante73@Gmail.com

    Rompiamoli il culo a questi bastardi del isis
    Tagliamoli le palle e mettiamole in bocca
    Vai America
    Vincent

    Reply
  35. Tripod2

    Not impressed at all. Since the video doesnt show blood or the beheading at all, ill only be impressed if you prive he was really beheaded at all. No interest in the geolocation of a knife waving in front of a journalist’s neck, faded to black before any blood, followed by a picutre of a body with a head (unidentifiable as Foley’s) on its chest,

    Yoyre a tool

    Reply
  36. Tripod2

    Its akin to saying that you proved the geolocation of a commercial jetliner hitting the Pentagon. If there’s no plane, then you’re serving red herring

    Reply
  37. Jon Paul

    National Geographic, many years ago, published an article in which they took photos from the Peary North Pole expedition, and used an analysis of shadows to establish the long and lat at which photos were taken, proving that the expedition did indeed get to 90 north. Don’t know the math behind the technique, but suggest it could speed things up if it is practicable, and end a lot of discussion over hills, tracks, trees, etc. etc.

    Reply

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