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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. Tracey Thakore

    In research I have read, especially regarding the incident in Salisbury and the “Skripal Two,” I was under the impression that Sarin was a colourless and tatesless liquid. Though not a chemist, the formular would need a the addition of an agent and a process to be a gas.

    • Alec Kynes

      Properly prepared and pure sarin is indeed colourless, but it becomes brownish/yellowish muck if it is contaminated (e.g. because of impure starting materials or suboptimal manufacturing conditions). The sarin used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995 was hurriedly produced at the last minute and as a result was not very pure and was brown rather than colourless.

      Secondly, “formular would need a the addition of an agent and a process to be a gas” is not true. A liquid doesn’t need to boil for it to become a gas (evaporate). Water, for example, boils at 100 °C, but there is plenty of water vapour in the air at any given time (unless you live in a very arid place). When laundry dries outside on a clothesline all the water in it evaporates without the temperature getting even remotely near to the boiling point of water.
      If left in an open container, some of the sarin will start to evaporate and at saturation there will be 6 g of sarin in 1 m3 of air at 20 °C*. This readiness to evaporate is what makes it a good weapon: if you can spray an area with it, it’s high toxicity will kill a lot of people. Then you can wait a couple of hours and safely move your own people in after all everything has evaporated and dispersed.

      * Source: William S. Augerson – A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Volume 5: Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents – Appendix B – Page 197

  2. Tracey Thakore

    Whilst researching the subject, I have read that Sarin absorbs moisture from the air, therefore as you suggest if it is left in an open container, are you suggesting it could become airbourne ? If sprayed on a table, surely the chemical would / could react with an another chemical if the surface area was say, “cleaned?”

    • Alec Kynes

      It is entirely possible that sarin is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the air). But that has nothing to do with it becoming airborne or not. I suppose this means you could use it in place of calcium chloride in dehumidifiers, but since sarin is highly toxic, I would recommend against this.

      All molecules evaporate, and become airborne, to some extent. This is how you smell stuff. Sarin just evaporates more easily than some other molecules, for example, VX.

      To illustrate this: the attacks on the Tokyo subway were done by simply poking holes in the bags containing the sarin and letting the nerve agent leak out and evaporate. This isn’t the most effective to do this (although effective enough to kill twelve people outright), and there were plans disperse it as an aerosol, but this was scrapped because it was too complex.

  3. Tracey Thakore

    If Sarin was in a “substance,” or “solid,” would the addition of water affect the way in which the chemical reacts?

  4. Alec Kynes

    Your question makes no sense. What do you mean by “in a “substance,” or “solid,””?

    What are you trying to figure out here?

  5. Tracey Thakore

    Sarin is a colourless and tasteless liquid which mimics the properties of another chemical.
    Whilst all chemicals cause a reaction, how can you tell if the substance Sarin is present in something?

  6. Alec Kynes

    What chemical would it mimic?

    There are several techniques to detect sarin. One of these is GC-MS (Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry). This technique separates the different chemicals in a mixture and measures how much one molecule of a given chemical weighs. Sarin would have a very different mass from, say, VX, which in turn would have a very different mass from tabun.

    This link lists a large number of detection techniques:


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