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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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. artykuły reklamowe

    I feel this can be among the so much considerable information and facts personally. Exactly what pleased mastering your article. Nevertheless would like to statement for some fundamental concerns, The internet site flavour is a plus, a articles will be great : N. Excellent undertaking, best wishes

    Reply
    • 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
  7. 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
  8. sandro

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

    Reply

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