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Methodology: How we Tracked the Illegal Shipment of Sarin Precursor from Belgium to Syria

April 19, 2018

By Syrian Archive

Translations: Русский

On 18 April 2018 Syrian Archive and Knack revealed information that Belgium violated EU sanctions against Syria according to the summons of an upcoming lawsuit. The Belgian customs found that without having requested the appropriate export licenses three Flemish companies have exported 96 tonnes of isopropanol in a concentration of 95% or higher to Syria since sanctions came into force in September 2013.

The Syrian Archive has worked with Belgian news outlet Knack on this investigation for the past year. All of the information was publicly or collaboratively sourced through searching online databases, submitting Freedom of Information Requests and requesting statements from authorities, courts and companies involved.

This article documents some of the open source investigative methods employed in our investigation that discovered several key pieces of information.

Global trade figures

Syrian Archive staff began our investigation in the aftermath of last year April’s sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun in which the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that oversees compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, examined samples from and around the impact crater in Khan Sheikhoun, finding in laboratory tests that isopropanol was used in the production of sarin used in the attack.

We consulted The UN Comtrade database to identify whether any shipments of isopropanol, a sanctioned chemical from EU Member States to Syria, were reported after sanctions were put in place in 2013.

Comtrade, coordinated by the United Nations Statistical Division, collects monthly and annual trade statistics from more than 170 countries and displays these figures online in a public, downloadable and queriable format. The OCCRP similarly queried the Comtrade database in their investigation of Croatian arms sales being diverted to Syria.

Below is a walkthrough of the search we conducted on the Comtrade database.

While amounts reported to Comtrade may potentially under-represent true trade export figures due to self-reporting bias, the data shows that since 2014, an estimated 1.28 million kilo of propanol and isopropanol were exported by various countries to Syria (both propanol and isopropanol are registered under the same code). See below:

Source: UN Comtrade. Reported exports of isopropanol and propanol to Syria in kilograms (2013-2017)

The distinction between propanol and isopropanol is essential. While isopropanol in concentration of 95% or higher is prohibited without prior approval, propanol is not.

Data collectors

In order to find out whether the figures provided by Comtrade referred to propanol or isopropanol, we contacted the Trade Statistics Branch of the United Nations Statistics Division in April 2017 to inquire as to whether disaggregating figures was possible. Comtrade confirmed that they only have a single code in use for both for propanol and isopropanol (HS 290512). As a result, divorcing isopropanol from propanol figures within Comtrade figures was not possible.

In May 2017, we requested any additional information from the European Commission Service for Foreign Policy Instruments Restrictive measures team to inquire as to whether any Member States sought authorisation for the trading of isopropanol to Syria. In their answer, the European Commission stated they were “not in a position to provide advice on whether a concrete product falls under the technical specifications of an Annex to a Regulation” and that “Responsibility for the application of EU restrictive measures falls with the competent authorities of each Member State, as listed in Annex III to Regulation 36/2012.”

Through the Comtrade database we found that Belgium was the only EU Member State to continue exporting propanol/isopropanol to Syria since sanctions came into force in 2013, so we decided to focus efforts on investigating Belgium.

Courts and industry

Reaching a roadblock, and needing in country expertise, we reached out to investigative reporter Kristof Clerix of Knack, a Belgian weekly magazine. Clerix wanted to see what was going on out of public view and begun to file Freedom of Information Requests to various Belgium entities.

Belgium is divided into three regions: Flanders; Brussels; and Wallonia. Each with their own freedom of information policies. In Flanders, information about export licenses is published by the authorities on a monthly basis in public documents. So Clerix submitted Freedom of Information Requests to the other two regions.

Brussels and Wallonia replied to Freedom of Information Requests stating that no licenses were requested for the approval of isopropanol export to Syria during the 2013-2017 period.

After receiving those answers, Clerix also contacted Essenscia, the Belgian chemical sector umbrella organisation. After waiting six months to hear back, Essenscia stated that after extensive research and consultation with relevant stakeholders, it seemed “most likely that the export of (iso)propanol from Belgium to Syria is related to a trading company that has purchased the product abroad and then has handled it and exported it via Belgium.” Continuing on, the statement explains (emphasis in original):

“We have no indication whatsoever that the exported (iso)propanol to Syria has been produced or shipped by a chemical company located in Belgium. Moreover, the exported goods are fully approved by the customs authorities who severely monitor any trade with Syria since several years. All of this indicates that our country and our industry, who both support the Chemicals Weapons Convention and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in every possible way, cannot be linked to the intolerable incident in Syria.”

The statement was proven inaccurate by court documents received in subsequent months.

A publicly available document found by a Belgian expert consulted by Clerix revealed that in October 2016 in the Flanders region, authorities denied a permit request, preventing the export of €1.93 million of banned dual-use chemicals to Syria specified under Annex IX of the European sanctions against Syria. It has been confirmed by the Flemish authorities that this did not relate to isopropanol.

Belgian Customs confirmed that indeed shipments of (iso)propoanol to Syria had been made, although propanol and isopropanal figures were not disaggregated.

According to the summons cited by Antwerp Criminal Court press judge Roland Cassiers, a criminal case is currently being pursued by Belgian customs against three companies and two individuals. This case is set to begin on the 15 May 2018.

Our year long investigation revealed many key pieces of information located through open source investigative techniques. The Syrian Archive along with Knack will continue to pursue and document the case as it unfolds.

Syrian Archive is a open source platform that collects, curates, verifies, and preserves visual documentation of human rights violations in #Syria | Twitter: @syrian_archive

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  1. Kim

    This is total BS !!!
    The accumulative effect of all this propaganda has the potential to kill millions of innocent people.

    • Bob

      Oh shut up Kim

      Facts don’t care about your feelings. It makes no sense to be in denial about facts simply because you don’t like how people might respond to those facts.

      If Assad is using Chemical Warfare against his own people then evidence for this needs to be gathered and this needs to be made known because one day he will eventually have to step down from power and he will be held accountable for this.

  2. Paul Williams

    Belgian exporter of harmless widely available chemical fails to fill out correct paperwork.

  3. Brandreth

    I am somewhat confused by the focus on iso-propanol or propanol. Isopropyl alcohol is a very commonly used hard surface cleaner, I have a spray bottle sitting on my desk. Excellent for removing oil and grease from bike chains and disc pads, superior to ethanol, purchased from my local hardware store. A very common industrial solvent. I realise this is an illustration of a general research technique, but to no real purpose. How about investigation of other more specialised chemicals or process hardware more closely related to nefarious end uses?

    • Greg

      Brandreth, somehow you missed the obvious fact that isopropanol can be used to create sarin gas. Feel free to do some of your own research on how to do so. More specifically, paragraph four (4) of this article it states that laboratory tests from samples from the around the chemical attack crater have found that isoproponol was used to create the sarin used in this attack. Please read that paragraph, perhaps you missed it the first time through.

      Pseudoephedrine is a drug commonly found it over-the-counter cold medicines. These cold medicines are also purchased or stolen to make the illegal drug crystal meth (methamphetamine). As anyone with a reasonable education knows, there are many household chemicals/drugs that can be used to make illegal substances. Really bad chemicals are created by mixing other simpler chemicals together. By managing the simpler chemicals you can make it more difficult to create the really bad chemicals. I encourage you to broaden your knowledge by doing some research on your own.

      So, from your perspective killing approximately 80 people with sarin gas that was made from isoproponol is not, in your opinion, a nefarious end use? Can you define what you do consider a nefarious end use? I’m curious.

      Your statement that this article has no real purpose other than general research has me wondering if your comments are intended for purposed entirely different than honest pier review and comment…

      Thank you for your comments though. They give me a great reference point with which to consider your future comments!

      • Alex

        Somehow you missed the obvious fact that it’s such a common chemical that it can be used to synthesize millions of other compounds. All the hysteria has as much sense as blaming Belgium on exporting water to Syria, because water is used in sarin synthesis too.

        You’re welcome to find any movement of methylphosphonyl difluoride, which is used for sarin synthesis only, and is absolutely required to do it. If you find any proofs that anyone was killed with sarin in Syria, you’re welcome to publish them too.

      • big lou

        so, we should ban hand sanitizer? thats like saying that tracking metal shipments can be used to determine how many knives are being produced… pure BS

  4. jake_leone

    In 2012 Al Nusra went on a civilian killing spree. Killing around a thousand civilians in car bombings and suicide bombings. This the rebel group proudly admits to doing.

    Al Nusra has the following mission statement, “Remove Assad, establish an Islamic Emirate governed only by Sharia law”. Al Nusra has publicly stated that it IS AN AL QAEDA affiliate in Syria. All this from the wikipedia article on Al Nusra.

    The Syrian rebellion and Al Nusra will be forever linked.

    ‘In October–December 2012 Nusra received words of praise and appreciation for their efforts in the “revolution” against Assad from non-specified ‘rebels’,[98] an FSA spokesman in the Aleppo region,[103] a group of 29 civilian and military groups,[104][105] and the leader of the Syrian National Coalition.[106] ”
    That’s the official spokesperson for the “Free Syrian Army” in Allepo, praising Al Nusra (after Al Nusra had been killing civilians all year long). Nuts!

    How on Earth could we ever have supported the rebels, when the rebels took the arms we gave them, and then gave them to Al Nusra? The rebels are not fighting for democracy (which will be unstable in Syria, without a pluralistic Constitution). The rebels are fighting for the next dictator that will implement Sharia law.

  5. GeorgeNotBush

    Somehow I think 96K tonnes of isopropanol (aka rubbing alcohol) to produce enough sarin to kill some 80 people {lethal concentration (95 percent kill): 24 mg/m3/2M} indicates that it’s being used for something other than sarin production.

  6. Erwin Boydens

    In the whole discussion I have not seen any information n the shipments receiving party. Ok, it was going to Syria but which party accepted it, Which company, what are they involved in? I read somewhere it was a paint factory? Also Are these shipments part of regular business between these companies or rather a one -off. Why do you assume it is used for Sarin production while many, many other possibilities of use?

  7. Rob Heusdens

    Libyan stockpiles of chemical weapons have been plundered in the chaotic situation following the murder on Khadaffi and the 15-feb2011 ‘revolution’ and those weapons ended up in the hands of Syrian rebels.
    Bellingcat and other western propaganda instruments were looking the other side then!

  8. Rob Heusdens

    The story is…. well there is no story.

    Only an allegation that shipment of some normal chemical from Belgium to Syria would be linked to allegations of chemical war agents use by the Syrian government (which as we know is a propaganda story manufactured by those that aim for ‘regime change’ in Syria).

    Why did Bellingcat miss the plunderling and shipments of chemical weapons from the stockpiles of Libya to Syria to the rebel forces? That would be a big story!

    However, doesn’t fit the narrative, so not reported….

  9. Anon

    Yeaaah, this headline’s kinda misleading/agenda pushing. Then again I suppose “How we tracked the shipment of illegal hand sanitizer from Belgium to Syria” wouldn’t get as many clicks. Is this source really reputable enough?


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