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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

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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69 Comments

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Ursula

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

    Reply
  4. www.mivillaparaiso.com

    what does rofl stand for in texting

    The first crucial action would be to cautiously look in the material you must add in your essay.

    That

    Reply
  5. 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
  6. Dirk VT

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

    Reply
  7. 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
  8. 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

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