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IJPC Wins Lawsuit Against Ohio BMV

Court Rules in Favor of Local U.S. Citizens and Documented Immigrant Youth: Granting Equal Access to Driver’s Licenses and Ohio IDs

CINCINNATI, OH – On Wednesday, February 26, 2020 members and supporters of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) gathered alongside Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) to celebrate a federal district court judge’s decision to block a discriminatory policy enacted by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) that denied driver’s licenses and Ohio identification cards to 16- and 17-year olds with foreign-born parents because of their parents’ immigration status.

“We take for granted how much power a driver’s license grants you, to be able to move freely and go about your life,” shared Allison Reynolds-Berry, executive director of IJPC.

IJPC and six individual plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against the BMV in October of 2018 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division. The lawsuit was brought by ABLE, a nonprofit law firm, and Porter Wright, on behalf of IJPC and the plaintiffs, after IJPC learned that members of their Youth Educating Society (YES) program were being unlawfully turned away by the BMV. It was discovered that U.S. citizens and documented immigrant youth who were otherwise eligible for a driver’s license were being denied because BMV policy stated that their undocumented parents cannot serve as cosigners on the minor’s applications because they didn’t have a U.S. issued ID.

IJPC’s Youth Educating Society program empowers immigrant youth and allies through support and education to cultivate social and legislative change for a more inclusive and just society. One YES leader, Karina, boldy shared her story as one of the main plaintiffs on this case. She shared, “I called my cousin and I told him the news. The reaction on his face was priceless. It seemed as if wings had regrown on him. He’s sixteen and now he’s able to get his driver’s license and so will his siblings.”

This ruling will grant an estimated 3,000+ U.S. citizen or documented non-citizen children living in Ohio the ability to drive.

“Going forward the BMV will not be able to require that parents present proof of lawful presence in order to cosign their children’s driver’s license applications,” said Emily Brown, co-counsel from ABLE. She continued, “The ability to drive…especially in a state of Ohio with limited public transportation is fundamental to accessing many human rights like working, attending school, caring for family members and obtaining medical care.”

ABLE also received a ruling on a related lawsuit filed on behalf of three other plaintiffs, including Community Refugee and Immigration Services, a refugee resettlement agency in Columbus.

That related ruling overturns another BMV policy, which effectively denied licenses to lawfully admitted refugees if those refugees have not adjusted their status to lawful permanent residence within two years of their arrival in the U.S.

For additional information, contact Allison Reynolds-Berry, allison@IJPCcincinnati.org, (513)579-8547 office (630)336-0041 cell.

The post IJPC Wins Lawsuit Against Ohio BMV appeared first on IJPC | Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center | Cincinnati Ohio.

VKontakte vs. Facebook: From Open White Supremacy To Stealth

Fascist and white nationalists wear masks and try to hide while attempting to spread hate and pretend to be bold

In March of 2019, Facebook banned white nationalist and white separatist statements from its platform. White supremacism had been forbidden for some time, but last year’s Christchurch massacre seems to have convinced the social network that a more aggresively anti-racist approach was necessary. This ban is not comprehensive, and there are numerous holes in enforcement. This article is about one such hole: the vibrant community of American racists who “hide their power level” just enough to avoid being banned, while subtly pushing their views on friends and family.

These white supremacists are not particularly coy about their tactics. They plot out in the open, on VKontakte (commonly abbreviated as VK), a Facebook-like popular Russian social medial platform that has much looser moderation. Here’s Kevin Beair, Exalted Cyclops for the Keystone States chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, explaining how “public outreach” for the racist cause can be done on Facebook:

“…get on facebook and post links on small tv stations to soft-right stuff to pull people in our direction…the cool thing about facebook is you can reach people nationwide… nothing stops you from posting on a small town local tv stations facebook page 3,000 miles away… i think i’m the only one who does this… just don’t get carried away and let yourself get banned by calling blacks monkeys like ive done several times.”

We have been unable to locate Kevin’s current Facebook profile. But his VK activity gives hints as to his life on Facebook. Kevin suggests posting content from several “soft-right” sources in order to push white Facebook users in more extreme directions. One such source is Colin Flaherty, a writer with WorldNetDaily who helped popularize the “Knockout Game”, a myth that groups of teens — generally understood to be black teens — were randomly assaulting American adults. 

Flaherty’s goal seems to be popularizing stories of black people assaulting white people. His book, White Girl Bleed A Lot, makes the case that black mob violence is a massive and growing threat to American white people. It contains numerous basic factual errors, but the book’s Facebook page is at least modestly popular:

On January 20, 2020, Beair wrote on his VK account that he was banned from posting on the Virginia Citizen Defense League Facebook page (The VCDL is the group that organized the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia on that same day). Beair shared the BitChute video he published, called, “New Confederate.” He asserted that the Second Amendment rights battle in Virginia was racially and ethnically motivated and directly cited George Lincoln Rockwell (GLR) the original founder of the American Nazi Party. 

The following day, Beair guided his VK followers, instructing them what to post in the Virginia Citizen Defense  League Facebook group. His content again focuses on pushing the idea that a “black on white” crime wave is sweeping the nation. 

This claim is wildly innaccurate: 82% of white American murder victims are murdered by other white Americans. But the idea that black-on-white violence is an epidemic is enormously powerful to racists. It was this belief that inspired Dylann Roof to murder nine black people at a Charleston church. 

We know that Kevin Beair considers this myth to be well-worth spreading in his efforts to “red-pill” people on Facebook. Unfortunately for us, Kevin’s actual Facebook account remains hidden for the time being. But many of his colleagues have been less careful and, by monitoring their activity on both VK and Facebook, we can put together a catalogue of their attempts to mainstream racial extremism on the world’s largest social network. 

Daniel Burnside: White & Proud On Facebook, Vicious Nazi On VK

Daniel Burnside has several dozen Facebook friends and does not outwardly advertise his Nazi ideology; however, his byline reads, “white and proud.” As is shown below, Burnside “likes” a handful of “White Lives Matter” pages. Burnside’s activity has been documented by the media and he is a known personality and active member of the National Socialist party. He hosts monthly meetings at his Ulysses Pennsylvania home for the NSM 2 chapter.


The above images feature a mix of likes for non-political pages, including McDonalds and The Grizzled (a car-focused clickbait site), along with numerous “White Lives Matter” pages. Because Burnside declares himself “White & Proud,” we know he is a white supremacist, but his content on Facebook evidently stays just shy of crossing the line that will get him banned. 

Indeed, extremists have found numerous ways to get around Facebook bans. As documented by Buzzfeed, when the Proud Boys were banned from the social network following a series of assaults in 2018, they were able to return to the service by using names like “PB Canada” instead of “Proud Boys Canada”. Only very slight amounts of obfuscation are necessary to fool Facebook’s censors. 

Daniel’s wife Sabrina, for example, has a Facebook account that has so far avoided a ban. It is filled with photos of the couple’s nine children, and her byline reads, “Married, White, Straight Momma of 9 Beautiful babies. I live the 14 words to the fullest every day”. 14 words is a reference to the popular white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”. It should be noted that, as of this writing, Sabrina’s VK profile is unavailable and a message reads that her account was removed due to violating VK’s policies.

In a May 26, 2019 Facebook post, Sabrina shared a welcome sign which her woodworker husband made for the Ulysses Area Improvement committee. A casual bystander might assume that the Burnsides are a typical suburban family who make positive contributions to their local community without realizing that this family of active Neo-Nazis advocate for racial extermination, no matter how coy they are about their agenda. 

On Facebook, Daniel regularly posts content that would be acceptable to mainstream conservatives, including this picture below. The banner on it reads, “I support the border wall.” 

A sizeable majority of mainstream Republicans support substantial barriers on the southern border of the U.S. However, Daniel’s VK posts make it clear that he supports the wall for reasons of white separatism, to ensure white children grow up in a “safe White nation.” 

Daniel’s Facebook lists his job as “self employed woodcutter”, but his VK profile states that he is employed by the National Socialist Movement. His profile picture features him standing in front of a Nazi flag hanging from his house. His byline reads, “NSM Region 2 Director and Radio host of NSM 101.” 

On Facebook, the Burnsides post wholesome family photos of their children which appear to be professionally taken. On VK, their profiles contain images of their children posing with Nazi regalia.

Facebook

Facebook

Facebook

VKontakte

VKontakte

VKontakte

When we add it all up, we see that Daniel Burnside presents his family as wholesome, normal middle-class Americans on Facebook. They show themselves as being active members of their community, who participate in youth sports and volunteer. They express white pride on Facebook but not explicit racism. This may simply be done to avoid running afoul of Facebook’s restrictions. 

It is also possible that family members have taken a page out of Kevin Beair’s book, and their strategy is more subtle; this may be part of a long game to convince their neighbors that someone can be “white and proud” but not a racist. As long as the swastika-drenched reality stays off Facebook, they have a good chance to do just that.

Christopher Gonynor: “Third Positionist” On Facebook, Nazi On VK

On Facebook, Christopher Gonynor doesn’t post many items relating to his ideological beliefs, although he labels himself as a Catholic Third Positionist on his byline. The Third Position  is a neo-fascist political ideology that tends to favor reactionary right-wing cultural views and radical left-wing economic views. Gonynor has posts about his girlfriend, photos of food, and memes.

His views are softened on the platform, whereas on VK, he states that he belongs to the American Fascist Party and that he is a former Patriot Front member. The Patriot Front  is an American white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and neo-fascist group.

Gonynor’s VK profile picture shows him signaling the OK sign, which has been co-opted by white supremacists as a hate symbol.

Gonynor’s VK profile also includes numerous Swastika and SS runes, the phrase “Blut und ehre” (Blood and Honor, a Hitler Youth slogan), and the acronym FGRN, a KKK slogan meaning “For God, Race and Nation.”

On December 22, 2019, he posted a graphic of Hitler, writing, “Long live the third reich my white brothers and sisters!”

On December 4, 2019, Gonynor posted a graphic image of an African American who was lynched for voting, and added, “Reject Modernity, embrace tradition 14/88“. The number 14 refers to the white supremacist slogan as explained above, while 88 refers to heil Hitler, since the letter “h” is the 8th letter of the alphabet.

Gonynor’s Facebook profile gives almost no hint of these beliefs, and it is entirely possible that they are hidden from many of his friends and family. He had a “hentaigrind” band, Vulgar Lacerations, that does not seem to have been Nazi-inspired. His girlfriend posts regularly about her love of K-Pop and Adventure Time; the family who comment on his posts do not express extreme racism. Like David, Chris peppers his feed with relatively mainstream conservative memes:

On Facebook, Gonynor does directly reference the Third Reich, but carefully. At one point, his cover photo was one of Adolph Hitler’s old paintings, and he seems to enjoy posting illustrations of Wehrmacht tanks. With Christopher’s page we again see exterminationist racism covered up just enough to hide in plain sight. 

Alicia Ciamaricone: Etsy Vendor And Animal Lover On Facebook, Hitler Fangirl On VK

Alicia Ciamaricone goes by the name “Alicia InkedPrincess Ciamaricone” on Facebook. Her account contains innocuous content where she shows off her tattoos and her Etsy wares, as well as raises funds for animal causes.

For example, on November 28, 2019, Ciamaricone was promoting a fundraising event for a senior dog sanctuary.


Unlike the other subjects of this article, Ciamaricone provides very few even vague signs of her true beliefs on Facebook. She seems to be a perfectly normal woman with goth-y aesthetic preferences and a small Etsy side business. But on VK, Ciamaricone freely expresses her affinity for National Socialism.

On May 7, 2019, she posted an image in the likeness of Adolf Hitler which reads, “he was right.”

On January 5, 2019, Ciamaricone posted a graphic promoting the fourteen words:

While neo-Nazis like Kevin Beair are quite overt about their desire to convert people using Facebook, there is no evidence that Ciamaricone and the other racists in this article are part of an organized effort to mainstream white supremacy. What we have documented in this article is more than likely a decentralized, acephalous effort to normalize racial hatred and extremist ideology. 

The fact that there is no single organization behind it does not make this effort less dangerous. In fact, it makes it harder to combat. Algorithms can be trained to search for phrases like “14 words”, but Nazis are more than capable of inventing new terms in order to evade bans. The fact that there is no central structure to this effort means that only knowledgeable human beings can reliably sleuth out white supremacists. There are no automated shortcuts to dealing with this problem, which makes it less likely to be dealt with at all. 

Ciamaricone may just be a Nazi who likes to keep her racism and her mainstream persona separate. Perhaps she has no plans to convert or radicalize her friends. Or, perhaps, her relatively placid Facebook presence is merely her “testing the waters” before introducing more of her true beliefs to the people outside her circle. 

That may be true of hundreds or thousands of other Facebook users. We know this because folks like Kevin Beair, as quoted in the beginning of this article, say it quite plainly, and we can watch it working every day. Beair’s fiance, Lauren Magdaleno, for example, feels comfortable openly identifying as a National Socialist on Facebook.

Despite Facebook’s policies, Lauren Magdaleno feels secure posting content that, at the very least, verges on outright white supremacy. It is not hard to find other users who enthusiastically share her feelings. 

On Facebook, Magdaleno feels safe expressing casual anti-Semitism… 

…and even fundraising directly for neo-Nazi Ted Dunn, leader of the “SS Action Group”.

This apparently does not violate Facebook’s policies against white supremacy, and it is very difficult to tell where the social network’s line even is. Would Lauren have violated their guidelines if she’d gone into more detail about why she supports this man? We don’t know. But we can see that she is much more expressive about this issue on VK:

On Facebook, Magdaleno’s explicit white supremacist beliefs co-exist with a perfectly milquetoast assortment of more mainstream memes; jokes about the coronavirus, Jeffrey Epstein, and the recent Iranian crisis. More than anything, Magdaleno’s account suggests that her fellow Nazis are working way too hard to hide from Facebook. You can apparently raise funds for Neo-Nazi activists and call yourself a National Socialist without being declared a “white supremacist.”

This, for the Nazis, has been the goal all along. 

The post VKontakte vs. Facebook: From Open White Supremacy To Stealth appeared first on bellingcat.

In Kerala, millions of people form a human chain to protest India’s “anti-muslim” citizenship laws

“The citizenship law will endanger the constitution and destroy peace”

Screenshot from YouTube Video by indusdotnews.

Human Chain in Kerala. Screenshot from YouTube Video by indusdotnews.

On 26 January, on the Republic Day of India, several millions of people formed a 620 km human chain from the north to the south of Kerala demanding the withdrawal of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) promulgated in December 2019 provides a path to citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, it has drawn criticism from civil society organizations and the opposition for unfairly excluding Muslims. The Citizenship Amendment Act, combined with the nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), is deemed to be disastrous, not only for the minority Muslims, but also all other Indians.

The human chain event was organised by Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition of left-wing political parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its leader, the Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan.

Another Human chain is going to be created by the Malayalis in Kerala on our Republic Day,2020.

This human chain will be 620 km long to show the protest against #CAA_NRC_NPR and other unconstitutional activities of Sanghis.

From Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram.#CAA_NRCProtests pic.twitter.com/Rb0MANTJXc

— Debasish Paul (@ComradeDebasish) January 25, 2020

Note: Malaylalis = People from Kerala speaking the Malayalam language. Sanghis = Followers of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation.

The crowd included politicians, cultural activists, religious leaders, artists and concerned citizens. Social media accounts were flooded with colorful images and videos from the protest:

A view from the 620 km long human chain in Kerala to protest against the anti constitutional CAA, NRC & NPR and ‘Hum Dekhenge’ in Malayalam in the background.

Let our PM identity all these people by their dresses 🙂
pic.twitter.com/N9exiGsooa

— Ravi Nair (@t_d_h_nair) January 26, 2020

Note: “Hum Dekhenge” = We will see.

The Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan joined the protests and said in a statement:

The citizenship law will endanger the Constitution and destroy peace in the country since their (the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s) intention is to destroy secularism. We have already declared that Kerala is not the place to accept the new citizenship regime.

He also shared this tweet:

Kerala, in essence, is an argument for equality. The people of this land are unapologetically secular. The #KeralaHumanChain of today is yet another example for our unity. This battle, we will not rest and we shall overcome.#HumanChain pic.twitter.com/W3Hprr7E8t

— Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) January 26, 2020

Stand up in any way you can. It’s necessary#NoCAANoNRC

PHOTOS: Newlyweds, Young Children Take Part In Kerala’s Human Chain Against CAA https://t.co/fhGy6zEAm3

— Riddhi Doshi (@riddhi09) January 29, 2020

From their Wedding to the 620 km human chain —-

formed in Kerala demanding withdrawal of CAA.#शाहीन_बाग_से_हिलती_सरकार pic.twitter.com/4rHfwRA3EA

— FAISAL ALAM🇮🇳 (@FAISALALAM832) January 27, 2020

The Kerala human chain was not allowed to break even in backwaters. Such is the devotion towards constitution. pic.twitter.com/TASApYuqIk

— Ramesh_India (@CommonManInd65) January 28, 2020

Thousands of people formed an 11km long human chain in Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal on the same day.

#Kolkata . This human chain goes 11 kms to Golpark from Shyambazar Against NRC/CAA/NPR. pic.twitter.com/Yj40ArgKFd

— Dibyendu (@Dibyend48970765) January 26, 2020

Republic Day honours the date (26 January 1950) on which the Constitution of India came into effect and turned the nation into a newly formed republic. On this day, India saw protests across the country that accuse the CAA of being detrimental to a key component of the constitutional value system — envisioning a secular India.

Protest against CAA/NRC/NPR in india in 56 cities on Republic Day #शाहीन_बाग_से_हिलती_सरकार pic.twitter.com/XqtXuNRent

— Aamir Siddiqui (@AamirSi11033884) January 27, 2020

🔸Lakhs in a Human Chain in Kerala

🔸11km Human Chain in Kolkata

🔸Republic Day celebrations in Shaheen Bagh

🔸Dalit & Adivasi march in Bengaluru

Anti-CAA-NRC movement grows bigger & bigger. Modi would be tired of seeing pics & identifying crores of people by their clothes 😄pic.twitter.com/9wxWADKlW0

— Srivatsa (@srivatsayb) January 27, 2020

Read our special coverage: Who is paying the cost of India’s declining democracy? for more details on the protests against the citizenship laws in India.

Written by Rezwan · comments (0)
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The War Trade: How Italy Sold Armoured Vehicles To Russia + Their Deployment With Syrian Army Militias

These findings were made by Benjamin Strick, Leone Hadavi and Bashar Deeb and are a result of a year-long investigation stemming from the EU Arms Project, an investigative collaboration between Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports. Special thanks to Francesca Costantini who helped us analyse Italian Government reports. 

There is a direct prohibition against supplying arms to Russia due to sanctions imposed following its attacks on Ukraine. Italy, however, has supplied Iveco Light Multirole Vehicles (LMVs) to the Russian Defense Ministry after these sanctionatory measures were established. 

Meanwhile, the EU Common Position calls for Member States to

  1. Deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression;
  2. Exercise special caution and vigilance in issuing licenses, on a case-by-case basis […], to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the competent bodies of the United Nations, by the European Union or by the Council of Europe;

We have geolocated these vehicles being used, on multiple occasions, within the context of the war in Syria. These were not only operated by Russian military personnel but in some cases also embedded with and/or diverted to local Syrian militia leaders who are under EU sanctions for their responsibility in human rights abuses.

In this report, using open source evidence, we will show:

  • What is the Italian Iveco LMV
  • How did it get to Syria from Russia
  • Where and When the Iveco LMV was being used in Syria
  • Who are the EU-sanctioned Syrian militia leaders using the Iveco LMV; and
  • Why transactions for the sale of these arms appear to be anomalous.

1. What Is The Iveco Light Multirole Vehicle?

The Iveco LMV (image above from Iveco site), known as “Lince” (Lynx) in Italy, is an off-road capable IED-resistant modular vehicle for transporting troops with a range of different protection levels and armament configurations depending on versions.

2. How The Iveco Got To Syria From Russia

Transport was effected in two ways, by air and by sea. In this footage, the Iveco LMVs are transported with Russian sappers to Syria. The footage can be geolocated to Chkalovsiy Airport in Schyolkovo, Moscow, filmed from here.

The Iveco LMVs rolled off the plane at Syria’s Hmeimim Air Base here.

By sea, Iveco LMVs can be seen passing through the Bosphorus on Russian Navy vessel BSF Saratov (#150) here. Deliveries were also made by BSF Orsk (#148), spotted crossing the Bosphorus reportedly on its way to Syria on at least one occasion, in April 2018, carrying an Iveco LMV, as shown here.

Some of the Iveco LMVs have been spotted at the Port of Tartus in Syria, here.

Of the Iveco LMVs seen in the delivered vehicles above, one has plate number 1100YO94.

The plate number of this Iveco LMV matches the plate number of the Iveco used by Syrian Arab Army’s (SyAA) Tiger Forces commander Suheil Al-Hassan. Al-Hassan is both a controversial and popular leader within the SyAA. Here we can see him on a field tour with Assad in Idlib.

These above are standard Russian military licence plates: as the sample below makes more evident, the last two digits on the plate are smaller than the others but closer to the top edge. That is to make space for “RUS” written at the bottom of the last two digits.

3. Where And When In Syria The Iveco LMV Was Being Used

Tiger Forces Commander Al-Hassan In Aleppo (محطة حلب الحرارية)

Footage uploaded to YouTube on March 18, 2016, shows a scene during the offensive to recapture Aleppo’s Thermal Power Plant. The Iveco LMV seen in the footage is used by Suheil Salman Al-Hassan (سهيل الحسن‎), commander of the SyAA’s Tiger Forces, or Quwwat al-Nimr (قُوَّات النِّمْر)

Al-Hassan was subjected to EU restrictive measures over the situation in Syria since 2014 and was identified as having given orders to fire directly at protestors in a Human Rights Watch report.

In this footage we can see the Iveco LMV and confirm the make through the various angles it was filmed at below: 

Footage can be geolocated by searching for “thermal power plants, Syria” and following the georesults through Wikipedia, providing the following list: 

This takes us to this location, East Aleppo Power Station.

Location of attack unfolding in the background can be verified by comparing the imagery with features on the ground. 

Chronolocating the event can be done by looking at features identified that would change over time, such as the destruction of the plant, and the smoke. Rather than using Google Earth Pro’s historical slider, Sentinel Hub’s playground browser can be utilised for its more frequent range of satellite imagery. 

Specifically, Sentinel Hub has this shot from February 16, 2016.

Layering Sentinel-2 imagery from Sentinel Hub with a fire script made by Pierre Markuse (found here on Github) into Google Earth we can compare the direction of the eastern plume to chronologically match the feature present in the footage and thus to verify its time and location. 

Social media images, taken moments after the attack on the Aleppo Thermal Power Plant, also show an Iveco vehicle, likely that of Al-Hassan. We geolocated the image to this location. Note, the vehicle is identified by the green arrow in the bottom left image. 

Desert Hawks In Al-Rassafah (الرصافة‎)

In June 2016, an Iveco LMV was spotted on the road connecting Sufyan oilfields to Tabaqa (foreground, left), next to a Russian GAZ Tigr vehicle (foreground, right).

Sources have described this as part of the offensive carried out by different units belonging to the SyAA. Among these was the Suqour al-Sahraa’ (لواء صقور الصحراء‎), i.e. the Desert Hawks (or Desert Falcons) Brigade, which deployed from Ithiriya on June 2, 2016, and followed Highway 42 towards Raqqah, with some Russian support. 

The main force, after reaching the Safiya crossroad, reportedly headed North leaving Highway 42, past the Sufyan olifields, and attacked ISIS positions while trying to reach Tabaqa airbase. As ISIS counter-attacked, it eventually forced the SyAA to retreat and abandon all previously-occupied territory up until the oilfield. 

Footage from the offensive has enabled a more comprehensive look over the area, and allowed us to identify the exact location where the Iveco LMV was spotted.

This variation in elevation, visible looking North from the LMV, has been found on Google Earth imagery as well, after scanning large portions of the road connecting Sufyan oilfields and Tabaqa airbase, and corresponds to the area preceding Thawra oilfield coming from the South.

By analysing this portion of road on other satellite imagery providers, a second line of poles which follows the road (from where we can see the Iveco LMV in line with the top of the hill ahead) is visible. This is another indication that the road visible from the first photograph and the footage matches the one captured from the satellite.

A photograph of the same scene taken from the vehicles’ front allowed us to identify the missing piece: the antenna on the picture’s left edge indicates the position of the Al-Rassafah station, which the convoy had driven through previously from Highway 42. This enables the identification of the section of road of interest between the two points, Thawra and Rassafah.  

Using the two photographs and the aforementioned video we were able to geolocate the Iveco LMV to this exact point.

To chronolocate the event we can, again, focus on a fire. In this case the one captured in the RT video we previously mentioned. That video was uploaded to YouTube on June 20, 2016, but was likely recorded before that date. The smoke is coming from the direction of Thawra Industrial Facility, but it does not look like it originated from the facility itself, but rather from a smaller object, possibly a vehicle, closer to the camera and to the side of the road. The Facility’s buildings, in fact, appear more to the background compared to the flames. We can see this in the illustration below, where the Thawra Industrial Facility is located in green, whereas the location of the smoke appears to be coming from a location more to the ‘right’ in the image, as indicated by the red circle. 

When comparing Sentinel-2A L1C imagery with Landsat 8 USGS imagery of the area, respectively from June 12 and June 19, 2016, a plume of black smoke is visible rising westward and located ahead of the point where the road slightly turns to the right, shortly before the Industrial Facility. This is consistent with the location and size of the smoke originating from the burning object visible in the video, and is consistent with the geolocation of the Iveco LMV.

Because satellite imagery from June 12, 2016 shows no signs of fires nor of charred soil on that portion of land, and because SyAA units had reportedly abandoned the territory conquered until Thawra following ISIS’ counterattack on June 18, the photograph of the Iveco LMV must have been taken between June 12 and 19, 2016, most likely closer to the latter date.

To further prove the existence and verify the entity of the fire and the direction of its plume of smoke, EOS LandViewer allows to apply a Shortwave Infrared (SWIR) band combination. This enables us to spot, in the portion of land of our interest, a peculiarly hot section which “glows”.

At the center of the first photographs stands Mohammad Jaber (محمد جابر), leader of the Desert Hawks Brigade, wearing sunglasses. Jaber is surrounded by military personnel equipped in a peculiar fashion: the man with a concealed face standing in front of him carries an AK-74 assault rifle and sports a Russian military patch on his left arm;  two men in the background — one aboard the Tigr vehicle — wear a 6b47-type-styled helmet

The particularities in equipment listed above, together with the presence of the Iveco LMV and the GAZ Tigr, suggest that the Russian support to the Suqour al-Sahraa’ was, at the time, significant.

Mohammad Jaber was the leader of the Desert Hawks Brigade, a Shia militia which participated in many battles with the SyAA between 2013 and 2017. Despite several military successes, the unit was reportedly disbanded in August 2017.

Mohammad Jaber, and his brother Ayman Jaber (أيمن جابر), are listed among sanctioned persons by the EU since 2011 for their role in the repression and violence against the civilian population and coordination of Shabiha militias, and for providing economic support to the regime of Bashar Al-Asad.

Desert Hawks/Hezbollah in Palmyra Offensive at Western Bayarat (البيارات الغربية)

This Iveco LMV was spotted on Road 32 which connects the T4 (Tifor) airbase to Palmyra, and appears to be armed with a DShK-type 12.7mm heavy machine gun, most probably mounted on a ring mount on its roof. 

Following the review of a significant amount of footage from the Palmyra campaign, this video was found. It was recorded at the same location, apparently only a few seconds before the picture above, and it shows the same Iveco with an open roof hatch in the background. 

Two additional videos (1,2), and this picture, all taken around the same location, allow for the geolocation of the Iveco LMV to this position.

The main picture was first published on Syrian Arab News Agency’s (SANA) website on February 17, 2017. According to Wikimapia, the area in which the Iveco was geolocated is called Western Bayarat (البيارات الغربية). 

Al-Masdar News published this map on February 14, 2017 announcing SyAA’s seizure of Hayan gasfield/oilfield:

On February 15, SANA published a video showing combat footage around Hayan gasfield. This narrows down the date of the image between February 14 and 17, 2017.

The Palmyra campaign started on January 13 and ended on March 3 with SyAA taking back control over the ancient city, its surrounding hills and gas/oil fields. Hezbollah and the Desert Hawks Brigade were among the units who participated in the campaign.

This RT report on SyAA’s advance in Palmyra includes an interview with a soldier. The badge on his left  arm reads قوات صقور الصحراء‎, “Desert Hawks Forces”.

We have geolocated this footage. It was recorded from this hill, near the triangle of Palmyra:

Al-Manar TV, a Lebanese channel which is banned in different countries for its links to Hezbollah(1, 2)reported on the participation of Hezbollah to the Palmyra offensive while visiting one of Hezbollah’s defensive positions. The report (archived) includes pictures of soldiers standing on a hill behind trenches, and interviews with soldiers who spoke from a Lebanese perspective about the strategic importance of Palmyra.

One of these defensive positions, with a soldier standing behind sandbags, was geolocated to this hill (an alternative picture which allows better analysis was found on Twitter).

 4. Why Transactions For The Sale Of These Arms Appear To Be Anomalous

Iveco Export Licence Authorised In 2009

The 2009 Report to Italy’s parliament on the sale and export of military equipment stated that Iveco was granted a licence by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to export:

  • 2x model M65E19WM armoured vehicles
  • 3x manuals; and
  • 98x spare parts and tools for the same vehicle model 

The total value for this licence was €642.064,00. We have provided a screenshots below of the reports where this is indicated in the red box (Attachment 1; “model M65E19WM” is the original name). These screenshots below correlate to any further mentions of the related attachments. 

 













 

In the report by the Ministry of Economy and Finances (MEF) concerning concluded exports, the same amount is mentioned for payments made by Russia. 

From this, we can tell the following: 

  • The licence’s number is 17977 (seen in attachment 2)
  • It was paid for in full in 2009 (attachment 2) and; 
  • Its items were wholly exported by the same year (seen in attachment 3)

Iveco Export Licences Authorised In 2011

In 2011, another authorization by the MFA granted Iveco the sale of 10 M65E19WM armoured vehicles for €2.750.000,00. This can be seen in attachment 4. 

By comparing the license values we can say that this was licence number 22210. It was paid for, in its entirety, by Russia in 2011 (seen in attachment 5) and its content was exported in the same year (seen in attachment 6) as indicated by the Customs Agency.

Another authorization released in 2011 allowed for 358 M65E19WM disassembled vehicles to be exported by Iveco for €96.600.000,00 (attachment 7). No payments referring to this licence have been found in Italian Government documents — up to the year 2018, i.e. the latest available data — where payments related to arms exports are usually reported.

At the same time, exports originating from this licence have occurred in:

  • 2012 (€15.474.531,00 for 57 vehicles – attachment 8)
  • 2013 (€34.158.600,00 for 126 vehicles – attachment 9) and;
  • 2014 (€21.896.400,00 for 81 vehicles – attachment 10). 

This order has seemingly not been fully exported (264 vehicles delivered up to 2014). However, Jane’s reported in 2014 that Russia had just concluded assembly of 358 armoured vehicles from Iveco following an order placed in 2011 [ITAR-TASS original statement], and that it would not assemble more. 

Additionally, in 2013 TASS revealed that a criminal case had been instituted against Oboronservis for evasion of the customs fee in relation to the import of 264 armoured vehicles manufactured by Iveco following contracts concluded in 2011-2012

Official government documents, instead, tell a different story: 

  • 264 vehicles were only exported by 2014, and not by 2013; 
  • 358 vehicles will be only exported by 2015 (and not even then) — as shown below — and not by 2014.

Iveco Export Licence Authorised In 2015

In 2015, a new authorization was issued for the sale of 94 M65E19WM armoured vehicles for the value of €25.130.469,00 (seen in attachment 11). 

By comparing the values we can tell:

  • This was license number 36288 
  • A payment concerning this licence was made by Russia for €22.410.000,00 (seen in attachment 12); and
  • 83 vehicles out of the lot of 94 were exported in the same year (seen in attachment 13). 

By adding the 94 vehicles of the 2015 license to the 264 exported by 2014 of the 2011 license, we obtain 358 of the original lot. 

At the same time, the 2011 license had not been fully exported, and the relative payments are missing from arms exports data. Operations regarding this vehicle’s model to Russia do not appear in following years’ reports.

An Arms Embargo

On July 31, 2014, the EU adopted Council Decision 2014/512/CFSP concerning restrictive measures in view of Russia’s actions destabilising the situation in Ukraine

Of particular interest and relevance are the provisions within Article 2 Paragraph 1 of the Decision:

These measures have been renewed regularly since their adoption in July 2014, until the latest Decision, in June 2019, that extends the sanction until July 31, 2020.

As with every sanction, this one too has its waivers, which are contained in Paragraphs 4 to 7. Only Paragraph 4 is pertinent:

This provision exempts any contract stipulated before August 1 2014 or additional contracts necessary for the completion of previously-granted ones from being sanctioned, and does not require prior authorization nor for the Council to be informed.

The authorisation of the new license for the sale of 94 M65E19WM armoured vehicles for the value of €25.130.469,00 was granted after Decision 2014/512/CFSP was adopted.  

Summary Points

In this open source investigation, we have shown you the path of the Iveco LMV as it was sold to Russia from Italy, with government-granted export licences. 

We have identified some of these exports to be in breach of the EU Common Position, as well as being licensed after the establishment of sanctions placed on Russia by the EU. 

On the ground level, we have identified why these safeguards exist in the first place — that is, to stop European arms ending up in the hands of EU-sanctioned militia leaders who have been responsible for acts against human rights. 

Through geolocation and chronolocation, we have identified how the Italian vehicles arrived in Syria, and where and when these vehicles have been in use by those leaders. Furthermore, they continue to be in use by Syrian Army and Russian forces in 2019.

The post The War Trade: How Italy Sold Armoured Vehicles To Russia + Their Deployment With Syrian Army Militias appeared first on bellingcat.

How Russia Issues Fake Passports to Its Operatives in Ukraine

On 27 October 2014, a man named Igor Nikoalevich Beregovoy arrived in Simferopol, Crimea, after boarding an Aeroflot flight in Krasnodar earlier that afternoon. Igor Nikolaevich was born on 30 December 1965, from the Crimean city of Simferopol.

However, there is another man named Igor Nikolaevich born on 30 December 1965, and who was born in Simferopol — Igor Nikolaevich Bezler, the infamous separatist commander who controlled the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk oblast in 2014, and who has been credibly accused of a litany of war crimes. On October 27th, the same day that “Beregovoy” arrived in Simferopol, Igor Bezler told the press secretary of his former fighting group in Horlivka that he had left eastern Ukraine and would not return.

Bezler is just one of many Russian operatives who were given fake passports by Russian security services while operating in Ukraine. By using leaked Russian databases, only a few basic biographical details can unmask an operative’s fake identity, as seen with another GRU operative — Oleg Ivannikov (“Andrey Laptev”).

Bezler’s Shoddy Fake Identity

Bezler was issued an internal Russian passport under the name Beregovoy, with all the other personal details (date of birth, first name/patronymic) the same as his real identity. Bezler/Beregovoy used this passport to travel in Russia/Ukraine, as revealed in leaked databases freely available online that show Russian air travel activity in 2014.

The ten-digit number for internal Russian passports are easy to decipher. The first two digits indicate the issuing office for the passport, the next two digits indicate the year that the form was printed, meaning that the passport was likely given in either this year or the following one, and the final six digits are the passport’s serial number. Thus, the “passport neighbors” for “Beregovoy” belong to other people issued their documents in the same batch as him. In a previous Bellingcat investigation, we found that GRU-issued passports to Wagner fighters were in the same “passport neighborhood”, with the final digits being fairly close to one another, as they were all processed together.

The passport of “Beregovoy” (numbered 4513078492) was issued by a Moscow office, as indicated by the 45 at the beginning of his internal passport number. The next two digits — 13 — indicate that the form for the passport was printed in 2013, meaning that the passport was issued in either 2013 or 2014. Lastly, the final six digits — 078492 — refer to the serial number of the passports issued by this Moscow office from 2013-printed forms.

One of the easiest ways to verify a Russian citizen’s real identity is through referencing the taxpayer number (INN), given to all Russian citizens as they reach adulthood. However, when searching for the taxpayer number (INN) for a Russian citizen having these same personal details as Beregovoy, there is no result, indicating that this is likely not a real Russian citizen. Additionally, it’s very unlikely that “Beregovoy” would have a different internal passport, as he was issued this one in 2013/4 and would not need to renew his for quite some time. “Beregovoy” was not listed in any publicly available databases for citizens issued replacement passports due to the document being lost or destroyed.

Passport Neighbors

Issuing a fake passport for an infamous war criminal under his real first name, patronymic, and date of birth may seem sloppy, but the story does not end there. If we are to search for Beregovoy’s passport number in the same 2014 flight database, but having the last two digits as a wildcard operator (allowing for any result for these last two digits), we can find his “passport neighbors” for individuals issued passports at around the same time as him. Running this search, we find a startling discovery: Andrei Laptev, the cover identity of GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov.

This flight information shows that Andrei Ivanovich Laptev, born 6 April 1967, flew from Rostov to Moscow on 23 August 2014. Like with “Beregovoy”, running these details through Russia’s taxpayer database brings about no results. More importantly, we can see his passport number: 4513078464. This passport number differs by only twenty-eight digits from that of Beregovoy (4513078492), indicating that they were issued from the same batch.

Andrei Ivanovich Laptev is not a real person; rather, he is the cover identity of Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, born on 2 April 1967 (four days before the birth of “Laptev”). While operating under the cover identity of Laptev, Ivannikov served as the chairman of the Security Council (2004-2006) and as the Minister of Defense and Emergencies (2006-2008) of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. While in eastern Ukraine, Ivannikov/Laptev operated under the code names “Andrei Ivanovich” and “Orion”, and were the subject of a 2016 call for witnesses by the official criminal investigation into the downing of MH17, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Ivannikov/Laptev’s distinct high-pitched voice can be heard in his phone calls in the embedded video below.

Easily Exploitable Vulnerability

While Russia is able to change its records for its own internal records and databases, the widespread proliferation of leaked Russian databases serves a continuing threat to the secrecy of Russia’s security service operatives. Russia can modify its internal, active records, but once a database is scraped and leaked online, it is fossilized at the point of leaking — in other words, Russia cannot modify the thousands of offline copies of databases floating around on torrents, leaving any potentially dangerous information out of reach of the state.

The aforementioned travel database is just one of countless leaked databases from Russian records, which also include vehicle ownership records, residential lists, social media details (including from deleted profiles), and far more examples.

The post How Russia Issues Fake Passports to Its Operatives in Ukraine appeared first on bellingcat.

Reckless charges of anti-Semitism endanger Palestinians

The baseless claims made by The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon at Bard College last week feed the dysfunction of the American debate on Israel-Palestine, making it more difficult for Palestinians and their allies to advocate for their rights.

Batya Ungar-Sargon speaking at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College.

Batya Ungar-Sargon speaking at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College (Screenshot October 11, 2019).

In a strange public controversy last week, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Opinion Editor at The Forward, published a column claiming that she had been protested by members of Students for Justice in Palestine during one of her panels at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College, ostensibly “for being a Jew.”

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The article omitted the fact that many of the protestors were Jewish, and were largely objecting to the presence of keynote speaker Ruth Wisse, who has made notoriously racist comments about Arabs. They were also objecting to Ungar-Sargon’s attacks on U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar and her dismissal of the concerns of Jews of color about her editorial decisions at The Forward.

As +972 contributor Mairav Zonszein reported in Jewish Currents on Monday, many other participants at the conference – including the Jewish protestors, fellow Jewish speakers, and Jewish organizers of the event – have revealed that Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed and her departing speech at Bard were grossly misleading and detached from reality. Many of these participants issued their own responses refuting Ungar-Sargon’s account (examples are here, here, here, and here).

This episode is unfortunate yet unsurprising to many observers. In recent years, Ungar-Sargon earned respect in part for actively bringing a diversity of voices to The Forward regarding Israel-Palestine. These included Palestinian writers whose views were radically different from her own, offering them a platform to engage American Jewish audiences that they might otherwise not have interacted with.

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rally on the university's Manhattan campus against the Fordham administration's refusal to register SJP as a student organization, January 23, 2017. (Joe Catron)

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rally on the university’s Manhattan campus against the Fordham administration’s refusal to register SJP as a student organization, January 23, 2017. (Joe Catron)

However, her theatrics at Bard were illustrative of a baseless and reckless diagnosis of anti-Semitism which — in addition to cheapening a serious accusation — has contributed to a dangerous climate for Palestinians and their allies, including Jews, to challenge individuals and ideas that condone their oppression.

In many ways, the current debacle echoes Ungar-Sargon’s role in the saga around Rep. Ilhan Omar, after Omar criticized AIPAC’s political and financial lobbying of Congress by quipping on Twitter that “It’s all about the Benjamins.” The post drew accusations from Ungar-Sargon of espousing “anti-Semitic tropes” — a narrative that quickly dominated the public discourse, tarnished Omar’s reputation, and has made her the target of relentless political attacks to this day.

Though certainly not the sole source of that crisis, it seems Ungar-Sargon has not questioned whether her interventions in those events were accurate, warranted, or productive. In fact, she doubled down on her position while The Forward fundraised from the uproar. Following this incident, many Jews of color who previously contributed to the site criticized Ungar-Sargon and demanded she apologize to Omar — calls that went unheeded. (Those same contributors also stated that they were misrepresented or disparaged by other editorial choices she made in the newspaper).

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. (Leopaltik1242/CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is of course legitimate for Ungar-Sargon to have her opinions, and it cannot be emphasized enough that combating anti-Semitism is an urgent and vital task in the political left as well as the right. But her misleading analyses appear to be unduly impacting the American conversation around Israel-Palestine, contributing – intentionally or not – to an atmosphere in which the rights and reputations of many activists wanting to speak up about Israel (and Zionism) are increasingly under attack, from colleges to Congress.

It is not just that her positions are being used by the right to silence Palestinian voices. By presenting herself as an “influential voice among American Jewish progressives” (as she describes in her bio), she is arguably also persuading more ‘moderate’ U.S. audiences to buy into the conflation of Israel critics with anti-Semitic hate groups. This, too, feeds the dysfunction of the debate on Israel-Palestine – the very phenomenon she is supposedly challenging – thus making it more difficult for Palestinians to advocate for their rights.

The damage this has caused is not compensated by the claims Ungar-Sargon made about her work in her speech the day after the protest: that she has published more Palestinian op-eds than any other U.S. outlet; or that she has “spent her entire career embedded in the Palestinian community”; or that she has “convinced more Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List than you will meet in your life.” (Ungar-Sargon was contacted to elaborate on these assertions for this article; no reply was received).

There are countless Jewish writers and analysts, women and men, who come from different or opposing political camps and who have valuable, credible, and grounded takes on these subjects (including here on +972). The dangerous episodes spurred by Ungar-Sargon undermine her claim to being one of them. Instead of advancing the public discourse, she has sadly done much to regress it.

The post Reckless charges of anti-Semitism endanger Palestinians appeared first on +972 Magazine.

Settlers attack olive harvesters, Israeli volunteers in West Bank village

Masked settlers uproot olive trees, set groves ablaze, and beat several Israeli volunteers with stones and metal rods in the West Bank village of Burin.

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai is evacuated from the village of Burin during an olive harvest after being attacked by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai is evacuated from the village of Burin during an olive harvest after being attacked by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

Masked men from the settlement of Yitzhar wielding metal rods and stones attacked volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights, a human rights organization based in Israel, while they were picking olives alongside Palestinian farmers in the West Bank village of Burin on Wednesday. According to a spokesperson for the organization, settlers set fire to the olive groves, causing a blaze that spread rapidly and burned for hours.

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Israeli volunteers have for years aided Palestinians in the Nablus area with the olive harvest, largely to protect them from settler attacks, which are common. The attack that occurred on Wednesday afternoon was particularly violent: a group of masked men uprooted olive trees, set the grove ablaze, and beat several of the volunteers bloody.

Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights’ board, was taken to Meir Medical Center after suffering severe wounds. He recounted the incident while lying on a gurney in an ambulance, as medics bandaged his head. One of the masked youths had hit him on the head with an iron rod, while another instructed him to leave. “I told them to leave me alone, that I am 80 years old and cannot run,” he said.

Avi Dabush, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said the incident highlighted the lawlessness in the West Bank, stressing that the volunteers would not be deterred from helping the Palestinian farmers as they harvest their olives. “For the last 17 years we have helped with the harvest, and we will continue to stand up against violent bullies,” he said, adding that this was the only way toward a peaceful joint future between Jews and Arabs living on the land.

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AFP reported that Israel sent fire extinguishing planes to extinguish the fire set by the settlers. Researchers for Israeli human rights group Yesh Din estimate that the blaze consumed hundreds of acres of farmland in Burin and Huwara, both villages in the Nablus area.

The Rabbis for Human Rights spokesperson said that a group of settlers had threatened the farmers earlier in the week, threatening to beat them and vandalize their crops. The army has failed to protect the farmers from settler attacks, he noted. Israel’s occupation policies often prevent Palestinians from accessing their own lands, while violent settlers are allowed to roam freely.

Earlier on Wednesday morning, residents of the village of Deir Ammar woke up to discover that unknown vandals, most likely settlers from nearby outposts, had slashed tires and spray-painted Hebrew slogans and Stars of David on their homes and on their cars.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

The post Settlers attack olive harvesters, Israeli volunteers in West Bank village appeared first on +972 Magazine.

Over 100 Jewish scholars condemn Trump admin for exploiting anti-Semitism

More than 100 Jewish academics sign open letter demanding the Trump administration stop exploiting anti-Semitism in order to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Tuesday, October 30, 2018, following the mass shooting that left 11 worshippers dead. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Tuesday, October 30, 2018, following the mass shooting that left 11 worshippers dead. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

Jewish academics are fighting back against the Trump administration’s attempts to silence criticism of Israel on college campuses. More than 100 Jewish scholars have signed an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education in response to its demand that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies modify its curricular programming or face defunding.

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The open letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signatories include renowned scholar Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and artist Molly Crabapple, condemns the Education Department’s recent investigation of the consortium and subsequent ultimatum as “an unfounded and anti-democratic campaign of intimidation” and charges the Education Department with “exploiting fears of anti-Semitism” and “using Jews and our concerns over anti-Semitism to try and justify repressive policies.”

The letter also denounces the “shocking Islamophobia running throughout” the Education Department’s letter announcing the investigation’s findings.

DeVos ordered the investigation into the Duke-UNC Consortium following a complaint that a conference it hosted last March on the politics of the Gaza Strip — which featured several well-respected American, Israeli, and Palestinian experts — demonstrated “severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

The Education Department has, under Trump, adopted an aggressive posture toward criticism of Israel and particularly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — a change perhaps best embodied by the appointment of the department’s civil rights chief, Ken Marcus. A longtime professional pro-Israel operative, Marcus has pushed the government to define the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and to designate anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism as violations of Jewish students’ civil rights.

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But while the initial complaint of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism was the ostensible catalyst for the Education Department’s investigation, the letter announcing its findings made no mention of either anti-Semitism or Israel. Instead, the Education Department claimed the Duke-UNC consortium was failing to meet its requirements for federal funding by focusing too much on cultural studies courses and topics like “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and not enough on “advancing the security and economic stability of the United States.” Thus, what began with the pretext of investigating an already spurious accusation of anti-Semitism turned into a rare federal intervention in the curricular programming of an academic institution.

“We have the Department of Education leveraging an attack on a conference related to Gaza to have a chilling effect on free speech overall on campuses,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and one of the speakers at the conference on Gaza last March. The DOE’s actions, she said during an interview, were “effectively a broadside against Middle East studies programs nationwide that accept any federal funding.”

“The attack on the Gaza conference was bogus from the start,” Friedman added. “Anyone who actually reviewed what happened at the conference would say, ‘this is not anti-Semitism.’ And it appears the Department of Education was unable — assuming they were motivated to try to find antisemitism — to find it.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2017 (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Charlotte Rosen, a doctoral student in history at Northwestern University who worked on the Jewish academics’ open letter, called the Education Department’s investigation “a cynical use” of Jewish historical trauma and an attempt to police the conversation about Israeli policy and silence already marginalized voices.

The Jewish academics’ letter, she said, was intended to send a message to the Trump administration of “a rejection coming from the very community they claim to be acting and speaking on behalf of.” Rosen added that the goal going forward would be “to continue to lift up the point that criticism of Israel and Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.”

The Education Department’s investigation into the Duke-UNC consortium is part of the pro-Israel right’s ongoing anti-BDS offensive. Aided by the Trump administration, that offensive includes Assistant Secretary Marcus’s efforts to change the government’s definition of anti-Semitism, attempts to stifle campus criticism of Israel and Palestine solidarity activism, and anti-boycott bills — which the ACLU considers unconstitutional — that have passed in at least 27 states. American Jewish establishment organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee, have largely supported these measures.

“We are prepared, apparently, as a community to quash free speech across the board, on campuses, in the public space, if that’s what is required to have an exception for Israel,” Friedman said of the Jewish communal organizations’ approach to the Education Department’s investigation and the rash of anti-boycott bills. “The fact that this is happening at a moment of rising illiberalism, rising lethal anti-Semitism, and our community is actively participating in and contributing to the closing of space for free speech, for social protest, for political protest, is unconscionable.”

The post Over 100 Jewish scholars condemn Trump admin for exploiting anti-Semitism appeared first on +972 Magazine.

New Evidence Links Russian State to Berlin Assassination

Joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, the Insider and the Dossier Center.

  • In the first part of this joint investigation, we disclosed that the assassin detained by German police traveled on a valid Russian passport issued under the fake identity of “Vadim Sokolov”. We concluded that the usage of a validly issued passport in the name of a non-existent person indicated a link between the assassin and the Russian state.
  • Interim reporting by Der Spiegel and other media has disclosed that the suspect initially traveled from Moscow to Paris and then on to Warsaw, where he rented a hotel room for five days during which he traveled on to Berlin – suggesting he initially intended to return to Warsaw following the Berlin operation.
  • In the interim, we have obtained information that a Russian-issued SIM card was found at “Sokolov”’s hotel room in Warsaw. German and Polish investigators are reportedly analyzing the data linked to that SIM card.
  • In a report from 26 September 2019, the New York Times (NYT) reported that German investigators received a tip from an anonymous source claiming the suspect’s real identity is that of Vladimir Stepanov, a former police officer from St. Petersburg who in 2006 was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in jail for being part of an organized crime group that murdered two people at the orders of a business rival. The NYT quotes a Western intelligence agency as giving credence to the tip, and the NYT partially corroborates this hypothesis by referring to a facial recognition analysis that compared media photographs of Stepanov from the time of his court proceedings to the German police-issued killer’s photograph. German police are cited as yet-undetermined whether Vladimir Stepanov is in fact the person behind the Vadim Sokolov persona. The NYT report did not put its weight behind the hypothesis that Stepanov is Sokolov, but did introduce the mysterious, anonymous tip to the public.

Contrary to the findings of the unnamed Western agency, Bellingcat and its investigative partners Der Spiegel, The Insider and The Dossier Center have concluded that the suspect held by German police is unlikely to be Vladimir Stepanov. This conclusion is based on a weeks-long investigation that analyzed – and ultimately rejected – the hypothesis that the killer and the former police major serving a 24-year sentence are the same person. The same finding was reached independently by the Petersburg-based outlet Fontanka, who claim in September 26 report that Vladimir Stepanov remains in a Russian prison.

In the process of this investigation, Bellingcat and its partners have obtained conclusive evidence that the suspect – whose real identity is still being sought by our team – traveled to Berlin under a cover identity with the active support of the Russian state that created a comprehensive, back-dated paper-trail for this fictitious persona in order to help him obtain the necessary travel and insurance documents, and – crucially – a Schengen visa. These findings preclude the hypothesis that this was an organized crime operation, or even a semi-official operation that received only limited support from individual corrupt officials.

A false lead

Within hours of our initial report that included the first published photograph of the detained hitman, Bellingcat was contacted by an anonymous source who – based on the NYT’s description – appears to be the same source who provided the tip to the German law enforcement, and possibly to Western intelligence agencies. The source believed they had visually identified the suspect as Vladimir Stepanov, the convicted former policeman, and provided information on the place where Stepanov was supposed to be serving the last decade of his long prison sentence. This was the 11th Penal Colony (or IK-11), located in the Russian town of Bor in the Nizhny Novgorod District, about 300 kilometers east of Moscow. This prison’s population includes convicted former law enforcement or intelligence officers, and its walls have seen the likes of both dirty cops and killers and high-profile spies, such as at least 2 former intelligence officers who were exchanged during the notorious 2010 spy-swap case involving ten Russian illegals working in deep cover in the United States.

Over the following weeks, Bellingcat and its investigative partners comprehensively assessed the veracity of this mysterious tip. Despite some early corroborating evidence, for example Stepanov’s similar age, a full match of initials, and a number of striking facial similarities, we ultimately concluded that Sokolov and Stepanov are not the same person.

To reach this conclusion, we initially scoured through hundreds of pages and hours of open source data for a photograph or video clip showing Stepanov. Despite the significant coverage of the high-profile court case in 2005 and 2016 (one of the assassinated businessman was the CEO of Almaz-Antey, Russia’s state-owned monopolist in the production of the Buk anti-aircraft defense system that shot down MH17, and who was reportedly a close personal friend of Vladimir Putin), we were unsuccessful in finding a high-quality photograph of Stepanov allowing forensic comparison.

We then obtained a copy of Vladimir Stepanov’s passport file from a source with access to Russia’s central passport database. It contained two photographs – one taken when Stepanov was 20, and the latter taken around the time he turned 45 (in 2016), as at that age Russian citizens must obtain a new passport.

While visually there are certain similarities between Stepanov’s passport photos and that of “Sokolov”, we could not establish an unequivocal match. Bellingcat then referred the photographs for comparison to Dr. Hassan Ugail, professor of Visual Computing at the School of Engineering Bradford University. Prof. Ugail specializes in facial recognition and age progression simulation techniques.  Prof. Ugail’s determination was that Stepanov and “Sokolov” were two different persons.

“Vadim Sokolov” can be seen on the left and right portions of this matrix (color photographs 1 and 3), and Vladimir Stepanov is on the top and bottom (black and white photographs 2 and 4). Results matrix provided by Prof. Ugail of Bradfort University

In order to further validate this finding, we sought other sources who were familiar with Vladimir Stepanov. We identified and contacted two former police officers from St. Petersburg who served jail time at the same prison outside of Nizhny Novogrod until recently, and whom we assumed might know Stepanov. Both confirmed that they knew Stepanov well – one said Stepanov had been his suborinate – and recognized him on the black & white passport photographs seen above, but not on the photograph of the bearded/mustachioed assassin. Both of these acquaintances of Stepanov also told us that according to the latest information they have, Stepanov was still serving his sentence at the Bor correctional facility. One of the two sources also told us that Vladimir Stepanov never had any tattoos – contrary to the information from German law enforcement sources that “Sokolov” has tattoos on both arms.

Seeking an additional source of validation, our investigative team then established contact with an officer working at the Bor prison facility. This source confirmed to us that Stepanov – as of mid-September 2019 – was still serving time there. This information has been corroborated by a Fontanka report. At our request, the source even took a photograph of Stepanov walking in the prison’s courtyard. Based on comparison to public videos and documentaries about this prison, we were able to geolocate the courtyard as belonging to the IK-11 facility. The images’ metadata also are consistent with the reported timestamp of capturing the photograph in the middle of September.

Based on all of this objective and subjective evidence, we have concluded that it is unlikely that Stepanov is the real person behind the fictitious “Sokolov” persona.

Our assumption for the false-positive match provided by the facial comparison commissioned by NYT is that the source photo of Stepanov used by the researcher is only of a part of a face, and is not facing the camera. A partial face compared to a full (frontal) face is much more likely to produce a false positive than full-face comparison. In addition, individual feature comparison suggests that the 2006 photograph discovered by NYT (middle) bears more similarity with Stepanov’s passport photo (on the left) than with that of “Sokolov” (on the right)

Left: Vladimir Stepanov in an old passport photograph. Middle: Vladimir Stepanov in court. Right: “Vadim Sokolov” shortly after his arrest in Berlin.

To preclude a false negative assessment, our team obtained Stepanov’s criminal record which includes a unique fingerprint formula. This record would arguably make it possible for German law enforcement to compare the formula to the fingerprint data from the actual suspect.

An honest mistake or a red herring?

We are not able to assess if the mysterious tip by the anonymous source was earnest confusion or part of a ruse to sidetrack the investigation and/or discredit investigative media, such as Bellingcat, or intelligence services by coaxing them to publish demonstrably false conclusions. If Bellingcat or another media outlet were to accuse Stepanov of being Sokolov, Russian authorities could easily produce Stepanov — something they have not done with any of the other GRU officers we have unmasked, including Oleg Ivannikov, Anatoliy Chepiga, and Aleksandr Mishkin. We are unable to determine how and why a Western intelligence agency may have concluded that the hypothesis provided by the anonymous source is credible, given our own findings within a relatively short period of time.

Evidence of a state-endorsed operation

In our previous report we based our assessment that “Sokolov”’s operation was highly likely state-sponsored on the fact that he was issued a valid, fully registered international travel passport in the name of a non-existing actual person, and was able to cross the Russian border, suggesting his fake identity was also entered into the central passport database. Further, following the arrest his data was removed from the passport database, which – as well as the issuance of the passport – could not have happened without state involvement.

Our additional investigation has found that the involvement of the Russian state in creating a documentary footprint for the non-existent identity of “Vadim Andreevich Sokolov” is more wide-spread and comprehensive than previously thought. Based on this additional evidence, the concept that this operation may have been set up without the full endorsement of the state apparatus is implausible.

Our investigative team followed the chain of steps that “Sokolov” needed to go through before obtaining the coveted Schengen visa that would allow him to travel initially to Paris, and then onward via Warsaw to his ultimate destination in Berlin. Then ,we made an inventory list of documents and paperwork he would have needed at each step.

As reported in our first publication, “Sokolov” received an international non-biometric passport issued on 18 July 2019, and applied for a Schengen visa on 29 July 2019. In order for him to apply for a visa, this fictitious person would have needed to have the following:

  • A domestic passport and an entry in the Russia passport database. The domestic passport is needed as a precondition for obtaining the international travel passport. It is also a necessary requirement for creating a job “footprint” (see below)
  • Proof of employment, typically in the form of a certificate of employment
  • Bank statement showing sufficiency of funds
  • Travel insurance

A tax identification number for a non-existent man

As we reported previously, two sources with access to the Russia passport database had found no entry for Vadim Sokolov as of early September – after the murder and the arrest of the suspect. We assumed that the Russia passport database had been purged of his data following the murder. However, we also hypothesized that “Sokolov”s passport data may have remained intact in other government databases that may not have (yet) been purged by the Russian authorities. We decided that a good candidate for a database with a forgotten digital footprint would be the tax database. In order for “Sokolov” to show proof of employment to the French consulate, he would have had to be formally (fictionally) employed, most likely by a cutout company used by Russia’s secret services. However, any employment, fictional or not, would lead to mandatory tax registration.

From a source with access to tax records, we were able to obtain a copy of “Vadim Sokolov”’s tax file. As expected, it had not been purged, and contained strong evidence of a freshly-created fictitious persona.

“Vadim Sokolov” was first entered into the Russian tax system on 16 June 2019, and received a tax identification number (INN in Russian) the first time on 23 July 2019 – just five days after the issuance of his international travel passport, and six days before he applied for a visa. Notably, Sokolov received a tax ID number for the first time at age 49. While receiving a tax ID number is not technically mandatory in Russia, a tax registration is automatically triggered by any employment, thus implying that “Sokolov” was first gainfully employed at age 49.

The tax registration, as predicted, also included a domestic passport number for “Sokolov”. This passport was allegedly issued in 2015. Using the passport data in this tax report, we were able to validate its authenticity by entering “Sokolov”’s passport data into the Russian state-run online tax ID validation tool. Based on the passport number, name and date of birth, the tool reported a valid INN number which was the same as the one on the report we had obtained. Thus, effectively “Sokolov” appeared as a valid Russian citizen in one government-run database (the tax registry), while missing completely in another (the passport database).

Our attempts to find any trace of the 2015 passport number listed in the tax record in dozens of Russian databases – including in 2016 and 2018 editions of a comprehensive database of Moscow residents – returned empty results. As the passport number was (allegedly) issued in Moscow, if it had existed as of 2015 it would have shown up in both of these databases. We also tested for the possibility that “Sokolov” may have obtained a passport in Moscow while not being resident there. To this end we searched for his name and birthdate – with any passport number – in several thousands of regional databases leaked over the past 20 years. None of them had an entry for this parrticular “Sokolov”, Notably, these leaked offline databases, which cannot be modified by Russian authorities, include even the fake identities of Skripal poisoning suspects, GRU officers Col. Chepiga and Mishkin. This fact suggests the passport was created in 2019 and “retrofitted” to appear as if issued in 2015.

Having obtained this passport number, we asked one of the sources with access to the real-time Russia passport system to search for it in the database. The source reported that this passport entry was marked with a disclaimer “A person protected by law…To obtain this file, contact an administrator”.

As we have previously reported, several persons who have long worked with the Russia passport database have informed us that such “firewalling” of certain sensitive passport dossiers was introduced for the first time after Bellingcat’s explosive reports identifying the Skripal suspects. Indeed, during our early investigations into the identities of the three GRU officers implicated in the Skripal poisoning, no such firewalls existed, while in later periods our sources were no longer able to access these same passport files, with similar disclaimers appearing in their place.

“No Such Person Here”

The tax file contained another interesting lead: a registered residential address for “Vadim Sokolov”. Unlike the (non-existent) address in St. Petersburg that “Sokolov” claimed in his visa application, the one in his tax record was in Bryansk, a town in western Russia near the border with Belarus.

We obtained an official real estate record for this address, but, unusually, it contained no ownership data. Our collaborative investigative team dispatched a reporter to the stated address and found a run-down house. None of the people at this address knew of a Vadim Sokolov. The person living in the apartment listed in “Sokolov”’s tax file, a man in his eighties, said he does not know of a person by that name, nor if such a person ever lived at that address.

In previous investigations of undercover operatives in Russia, we have come across other “cover” residential addresses that are actually used by elderly people who may or may not be aware of the alternate “on-paper” residents in their apartments.

A missing employee

The employer “Sokolov” listed on his visa application document – and had to provide a certificate of employment with – was a St. Petersburg company called ZAO “RUST”. This is a construction company with a long history, but limited digital footprint. The company’s listed fixed-line phone number is the same as the number listed by a company wholly owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, but we were not able to establish if the number was used concurrently or at different times.

Our team contacted the CEO of the company, who denied having employed or issued a certificate of employment to Vadim Sokolov. Furthermore he claimed that the company was in reorganization and could not have issued an employment certificate in recent months, as it conducts no economic activity. Still, he promised our reporter to look at the company’s records and inform us if a Vadim Sokolov has ever been employed by RUST. Thereafter, he switched off his phone and has not responded to our repeated attempts to reach him.

While “Sokolov”’s real identity is yet unknown and is the object of our ongoing investigation, our findings so far provide overwhelming evidence that the arrested assassin acted with the full support of the Russian state. The issuance of an array of documents to a fictitious person with no historical evidence of existence – including a last-minute entry into the tax database shortly before his trip to Germany – would not be possible without the direct involvement of a state apparatus. Even less plausible is the ability of a non-state actor to “firewall” the data on a Russian passport behind a disclaimer known to be used to protect personal data relating to undercover special service operatives.

The post New Evidence Links Russian State to Berlin Assassination appeared first on bellingcat.

Simulations, Craters and Lies: Postol’s Latest Attempt to Undermine the Last Vestiges of his Reputation

In the beginning of August 2019, the Tulsi Gabbard campaign published “Reports on Chemical Attacks in Syria”, expressing Gabbard’s views on the allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria — and based mainly on the work of Dr. Theodore Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Aside from various errors, contradictions, and misleading statements made on that page, links to the work of Postol on chemical weapons attacks in Syria were included. With this came what was believed to be a previously unpublished report, Computational Forensic Analysis for the Chemical Weapons Attack at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017, published by Postol and other contributors, that used computer simulations to make the allegation that the crater formed in Khan Sheikhoun was not formed by an air-dropped bomb as claimed by the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), but, in fact, by the impact of a 122 mm rocket impact. 

Summary Of Postol & Co.’s  Allegations

The main argument of Postol report focuses on the crater that the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism report on Khan Sheikhoun stated “was caused by the impact of an aerial bomb travelling at high velocity”, specifically a chemical bomb. According to Postol et al’s report, computer simulations demonstrates this crater was in fact created by the impact of a surface to surface rocket. 

In an October 25, 2017 letter discovered on The Russian Center for Policy Research (PIR Center) website, Postol describes the results of his report to a “Ms. Grebenkina”, requesting help with passing his “document on to the Russian delegation at the UN”. The PDF’s metadata states the original file name was “Note2Sputnik_(October25,2017)_”  — meanwhile, a Sofya Grebenkina works for Russia’s Sputnik News

On October 30, 2017, Sputnik published an article based on the contents of the letter, but did not include Postol’s request that the document is passed onto Russia’s UN delegation. It is unclear why the document is on the PIR Center website. Postol summarises his report as follows:

“Forensic computational analysis performed by two of my colleagues, Professor Goong Chen and Dr. Chung Gu, at Texas A&M University unambiguously explains how this crater was actually created.”

“Our calculations speculated that the crater was formed by a standard 122 mm artillery rocket explosive warhead of the kind that is ubiquitously available for purchase around the world. An example of this standardized warhead is shown in the image below. This particular variant of the warhead weighs about 18.4 kg and has a 6.35 kg explosive charge. The exact weight of the charge in these easily purchased warheads varies somewhat but the explosive effects of charges of slightly different weight is essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations.”

The image referred to by Postol is shown below. The original source of this image is a slideshow by Tohan SA, a Romainan arms manufacturer:

Image of 122 mm warheads used in Postols’ October 25th 2017 letter

Postol then goes onto state, “Our results show exactly what is observed in the photograph.”

In his letter, Postol then moves on to the rocket motor used. Rather than being a standard 122 mm rocket motor, as used on rockets launched by the regular  platform for launching 122 mm rocket — i.e. the BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher — i.e. Postol says the rocket was “almost certainly fabricated locally and a purchased warhead and igniter and nozzle assembly was attached to each end of the improvised rocket.” 

Despite extensive imagery from the conflict in Syria documenting improvised weapons used by both sides in the conflict, Postol does not present a single example of an improvised rocket motor armed with a factory manufactured 122 mm warhead. The authors of this piece are also unaware of any existing examples of this.

Postol finishes the summary of his work thus:

“It is therefore unambiguous that the crater was created by a standard 122 mm explosive warhead of the type that can be purchased anywhere in the world. There is absolutely no evidence of any sarin containing vessel. The split pipe that has been inaccurately identified as evidence of the container filled with sarin is simply the casing of the rocket motor that propelled the purchased warhead to the location of the explosion.”

Comparison Of The Khan Sheikhoun Crater To 122 mm Warhead Impacts

Postol clearly states that the result of his investigation shows how a standard 122 mm explosive warhead formed the crater at Khan Sheikhoun, and that “the exact weight of the charge in these easily purchased warheads varies somewhat but the explosive effects of charges of slightly different weight is essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations.”

122 mm rockets are used widely in conflicts across the world. The craters formed by their impacts have been filmed and photographed. As Postol himself states the charges of different weights are “essentially irrelevant to the findings shown in our calculations” we can assume that if Postol et al’s calculations are accurate, then there should be many real world examples of craters formed by 122 mm warheads that are comparable to the crater seen in Khan Sheikhoun. 

One particularly well documented instance of 122 mm rocket use is the January 2015 attack on Mariupol, Ukraine, where an urban center came under fire from multiple 122 mm rockets. The remains of rockets documented at the site indicate 122 mm rockets launched from BM-21 Grads were used, and these would carry the “standard” warheads Postol refers to. If Postol et al’s calculations are correct, we should expect to see craters on road surfaces that are a close match to the crater at Khan Sheikhoun.

However, this is clearly not the case when the Mariupol craters are compared to the Khan Sheikhoun crater. The Khan Sheikhoun crater is shown below:

The crater in Khan Sheikhoun (Source:  Aleppo Media Centre)

Forensic Architecture was able to measure the crater, establishing it was 1.61 m wide at i’s widest point, and up to .49 m deep:

 

We can compare this to multiple craters on different surfaces in Mariupol. This graphic from Human Rights Watch show multiple craters, one of which shows the remains of a 122 mm rocket embedded in it, all of which are much smaller than the crater in Khan Sheikhoun:

Human Rights Watch graphic showing 122 mm rocket craters after the January 2015 Mariupol attack (Source)

Bellingcat investigated the 2015 Mariupol attack and put together an extensive collection of videos showing the moment of the attack and the aftermath, with many 122 mm warhead impacts documented. None of these impacts look anywhere near to being the same as the crater at Khan Sheikhoun. Simply put, Postol et al’s claim that the crater at Khan Sheikhoun was created by a standard 122 mm warhead does not match real world evidence, regardless of what their simulation shows.

It is even possible to find 122 mm rocket craters in Postol’s own work, and they — surprise! — do not match the Khan Sheikhoun crater. In Postol’s “An Explanation of the Evidence of Weaknesses in the Iron Dome Defense System” he uses a number of images to explain his conclusions. Figure 16, titled “A rocket exploded near a road in the Sdot Negev Regional Council, causing damage to the road but no injuries. (July 2014)”, shows the remains of a rocket motor next to a small, shallow impact crater.

Figure 16 from Postol’s “An Explanation of the Evidence of Weaknesses in the Iron Dome Defense System” (Source)

A clearer image of the rocket motor can be seen here, while a close up of the motor is seen here. This is the rocket motor of a 122 mm rocket, used widely by Hezbollah, and it would be armed with a “standard” 122 mm warhead. It is unclear how, despite Postol’s extensive work on the Iron Dome system and the rockets it intercepted, including 122 mm rockets, he was unable to see the significant discrepancies between his simulation and real world examples of 122 mm warhead impacts.

Comparison Of The Khan Sheikhoun Crater And The Postol Et Al Simulation

The Postol et al report relies heavily on claims that the remains of the munition inside the crater belong to an improvised 122 mm rocket, with manufacturing defects and with a “standard” 122 mm warhead. There is no reason stated for this measurement being selected, beyond the statement that it fits the simulation. The simulation includes the moment of impact, with the remains of the rocket motor coming to rest in the crater, as shown below:

There are two major discrepancies between this simulation and the actual crater documented at Khan Sheikhoun. 

The remains documented inside the crater do not match the simulation results. Postol et al state that this debris is the remains of an improvised rocket motor, and that this cylindrical rocket motor split due to poor quality manufacturing. According to the simulation, the front end of the rocket motor splits as a result of the warhead detonation, as shown below.

Screenshot from Postol et al’s simulation of the detonation of the simulated munition shortly after the warhead detonates (Source)

After the rocket comes to rest, the split section of the rocket is embedded in the crater, with the cylindrical rear of the rocket still visible:

Screenshot from Postol et al’s simulation of the detonation of the simulated munition after it comes to rest (Source)

In multiple images and videos of this fragment, we can see that what Postol et al believe to be the external side of the rocket motor is covered with what appears to be some kind of textured layer. This layer evenly coats one side of the fragment.

In these images the rough surface of the “rocket motor” is clearly evident (Source)

For anyone who has a basic understanding of how tube-launched artillery works, it is very clear that this coating makes this fragment very unsuited to being part of a rocket motor. This kind of coating would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fit this “122 mm rocket motor” into a launch tube. It would also make it very inaccurate.

Postol et al also suggest that this “122 mm rocket motor” had a “weld” with a “strengthened edge”. Their simulation “assumes the preexistence of structural weakness along a generatrix of the cylinder, due to possible welding in the fabrication of a pipe”.

Illustration from Postal et al’s paper showing their modelling of the rocket

However, a closer examination of this “strengthened edge” does not appear to support the conclusion of Postol et al. Although said “edge” does appear to be a weld, after having modelled this fragment, we believe it is in fact part of the casing of a much larger munition. 

Close up photograph of the fragment in the crater

Using a large number of images and videos of the fragment in the crater we have modelled what we believe this fragment could look like, both in its folded shape and once it has been unfolded. 

Top: fragment in its folded state. Bottom: fragment in its unfolded state

One significant feature of the metal fragment is a curved metal bar attached to the fragment, which, according to Postol’s claim, must have run the length of the improvised rocket motor. The simulation does not appear to account for this feature, or how it would have been bent inwards by the detonation of a 122 mm warhead at the opposite end of the rocket motor. In Postol’s letter, published by Accuracy.org, Postol describes the metal fragment as follows:

“The OPCW report never identifies the metal “object” in the crater as a pipe of roughly 120 mm diameter. It instead describes the pipe as an object that the investigators assess was produced by the impact of a bomb of roughly 300 to 500 mm diameter. There is no explanation for how a sheet of metal could be rolled into a uniform diameter pipe of 122 mm diameter. The object that is a pipe is never described as pipe in the reports while the other object is identified in the report as a filler cap.”

What is claimed to be a “122 mm pipe” in the Khan Sheikhoun crater

It is difficult to understand how anyone who had taken the time to review the images of the metal fragment would come to the conclusion it was “a uniform diameter pipe of 122 mm diameter” as claimed by Postol. This claim simply doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination of the images in question. 

Inconsistencies between simulated and actual crater

Not only does the simulator crater not match any other 122 mm rocket craters we have observed, it doesn’t even match the crater seen at Khan Sheikhoun. 

In Postol’s simulation, the rocket impacts a road where the tarmac is simulated as being 10 cm thick, with soil underneath. In the simulation we see that outside the bowl of the crater, the tarmac suffers extensive damage across a wide area. This damage is localised to the northern side of the crater bowl, and ranges from 1 cm to 10 cm in depth.

Damage seen in simulation. Note the extensive damage to the tarmac to the left (north) of the crater.

Nothing like this kind of damage is seen in the actual Khan Sheikhoun crater. The tarmac on the north side of the crater is almost completely undamaged, saved for several cracks. If the simulation was accurate, the area highlighted in yellow below would display significant damage, with lacerations going down at least 10 cm. 

Comparison of damage seen in Postol’s simulation to actual crater (Source)


In fact, the kind of damage seen in the simulation is not seen in any direction around the crater. 

Note that no area around the crater displays anything like the level of damage seen in the simulation (Source)

This type of damage, which is part of the simulation, is consistent with other examples of 122 mm rocket impacts. During the detonation of the warhead shrapnel is blown outwards, and, when on flat surfaces, can leave a distinctive fan pattern. 

This is something Postol should be well aware of. On May 22, 2019, Accuracy.org published New Assessments from Leading Scientist Accuse OPCW Leadership of Rigging on Alleged Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks Used to Justify U.S. Bombings, based on letters and articles submitted by Postol to various bodies in relation to his report. In a covering letter, addressed to the “German Foreign Ministryl (sic)”, Postol reiterates his positions based on his latest analysis, including the following statement:

“The supercomputer calculations show that the geometry of the charge and its orientation relative to the ground produce a classic crater that has a tear-drop shaped perimeter (that is, a perimeter that is not circular). Craters with this shape are known to be produced by artillery rockets, as is documented in the UN manual for peacekeepers in the document, Introduction to UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards.

“Section 1.2, titled, Verification of Minefields, Explosive Remnants of war and Crater Analysis contains the basic information on crater recognition used by UN peacekeepers in the field. Similar discussions can be found in US Army Artillery Officer Field Manuals. These characteristics of artillery rocket craters are therefore very well known to true professionals who deal with these matters.”

The document he refers to includes diagrams of impact craters from various munitions. The following image shows the impact crater from a low angle fuze crater, created by munitions such as artillery shells and 122 mm rockets:

Image from UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards showing a low angle fuze crater

At Bellingcat, we are quite familiar with these craters and the measuring methods described in the UN Peacekeeping Pre Deployment Training Standards document. In 2015 and 2016, Bellingcat published two reports using a combination of satellite imagery showing crater impacts and the measuring methods described in the UN document to identify dozens of sites of cross border artillery attacks from the Russian Federation into Eastern Ukraine. 

It is clear from the diagrams in the UN document that the craters described do not match the crater visible in Khan Sheikhoun, most notably for the lack of side spray from the detonation of the 122 mm warhead Postol et al have simulated.

In the video below, the simulation has been overlaid with an image of the real crater, showing where we would expect to see this damage:

The following comparison of the real crater and the simulated crater clearly shows the lack of damage in areas the Postol et al simulation indicates there should be damage — i.e. to the north of the crater:

Although the crater bowl is superficially similar in shape, the damage outside the bowl itself cannot simply be discounted, as it provides vital information about the nature of the munition and its direction of travel. It seems incredible that the authors of this paper could claim that “the computational mathematics and mechanics calculation essentially predicts most or all of the observed features of the crater at Khan Sheikhoun” because, as we see above, this is simply not true. 

In the above video, it is notable that the warhead remains modelled in pink cross a space occupied by a metal cabinet. This is significant, because while Postol et al’s simulation shows this pink spray clearly damaging the floor around the crater, they have not modelled anything in the location of the metal utility cabinet. 

Based on the simulation, it would appear there should be significant damage to this cabinet, but images from the scene show this is obviously not the case. The following video clearly shows no shrapnel damage is visible on the metal cabinet:

 

However, in the text of the report, Postol et al argues that this cabinet should be undamaged:

“Another argument made by the experts engaged by the JIM cites the scarcity of “visible signs of damage caused by fragmentation or overpressure, especially on the metal cabinet located 3 to 5 m away from the crater” [3, para 54]. Although it is not clear from the report, it appears that this observation applies to one of specific scenarios considered by the JIM, namely the one in which the crater was created by an explosive charge placed on the ground. In this scenario one indeed would expect to see a certain damage to the metal cabinet. However, in the scenario considered here, it should be taken into account that a cylindrical explosive charge, such as a 122-mm warhead considered in this analysis, would not produce a spherically-symmetrical blast wave or a debris cloud. For munitions with a high length-to-diameter ratio most debris would be distributed in an annular pattern that is perpendicular to the munition axis (pointed forward if the motion of the munition is taken into account). This effect, in fact, can be seen on the second panel of the explosion sequence shown on Figure 3.1. The location of the metal cabinet placed it in the solid angle that is unlikely to be affected by the explosion debris.”

At best, this demonstrates the simulation should have included some representation of the metal cabinet. This, combined with the lack of damage around the crater that’s present in the simulation, calls into question the accuracy of the claim made in the report that the simulation genuinely recreates the crater seen at Khan Sheikhoun, and certainly not as Postol claimed showing “exactly what is observed in the photograph.”

Problematic Methodology

Although Postol et al chose to simulate Postol’s previous, discarded theory, that a container of Sarin was blown open on the ground, they chose not to simulate a liquid-filled, air dropped munition. This is especially strange considering this hypothesis is the one proposed by the OPCW-UN JIM, regarded as the authority on the matter of chemical attacks.

Despite the wide and extensive range of evidence examined by the OPCW-UN JIM, the authors simply decided that they wouldn’t simulate it, a rather bizarre decision.

Publishing 

Postol et al’s paper is written in an academic format as if it has been published in a journal, however we could not find any reference to it in any peer reviewed publication. The only sources for the paper appear to be Tulsi Gabbard’s website and Accuracy.org. According to Accuracy.org, “This manuscript has been accepted for publication by Science and Global Security, a refereed science-based journal published out of Princeton University.”

At the time of writing, the journal in question has not published this paper. We struggle to see how a peer reviewed journal could publish a document with so many grave and self evident errors, especially since said document already appears to have been used by a state party in an attempt to undermine the OPCW-UN JIM.

The post Simulations, Craters and Lies: Postol’s Latest Attempt to Undermine the Last Vestiges of his Reputation appeared first on bellingcat.