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We are often asked how we find the information we provide in our investigations. In this post we will try go give a detailed description of such a search, taken from our investigation of the RuAF airstrikes in Syria.
During our investigation we've covered two air strikes — on Al-Lataminah and on Talbiseh. While in the first case it was clear the airstrike hit Tajamu al-Aaza group, part of the Syrian army (the air strike and its impact was published on the group's YouTube channel, it’s commander told Foreign Policyabout the airstrike; unfortunately, while we prepared this post, the group's channel became blocked, copy of the video), in case of Talbiseh it was unclear who controlled the town. In our investigation, we proved Talbiseh was controlled by a group of local rebels "Jaysh al-Tawhid", which also considers itself a part of the Free Syrian Army.
How we did it
In this investigation, we were helped by the editors of Conflict News, a Twitter account publishing dispatches from conflicts all over the world, including Ukraine and Syria. The Twitter account's editors have been long following the events in Syria, some of the journalists there know Arabic.
When we asked in the editors' chat, who controlled Talnbiseh, we were given a link to an article of a pro-opposition website adoptrevolution.org. We translated the article from German with Google translate (we will need it again later) and that the city was controlled by a FSA group "Jaysh al-Tawhid".
The article was very critical toward the Russian bombings, which is why we couldn't exclude it being biased and had to check this information. Conflict News editors gave the Arabic name of the group: جيش التوحيد.
Quite a useful technique of searching for information on Syria is doing a YouTube or Facebook search of the name of a settlement or a group. We searched جيش التوحيد on YouTube and found a channel with the same name.
The channel had a lot of videos of the group's fighters in combat, but, unfortunately, we couldn't find the objects that would help us geolocate them (like the minarets and water tower we used to geolocate the Talbiseh air strike).
We tried to search YouTube for the name of the group together with the Arabic name of Talbiseh. To find the latter, we found Talbiseh on Google Maps and copied its name: تلبيسة. The search of the group's name and the city (presented here ordered by date), unfortunately, didn't yield any geolocatable results either.
Note: We may have missed some easily geolocatable videos or the may have appeared after our investigation.
We recalled that in the beginning of our investigation, while we searched for Talbiseh videos, we saw photos of some rebel group on Twitter. We tried to search Twitter for the group's name in English and found the tweet:
— Thomas van Linge (@arabthomness) July 22, 2015
The source of the photos wasn't given, but we did see a logo:
Such logos are often placed on videos of Syrian armed groups or amateur news channels. By the way, Jaish al-Tawhid also has a logo, which we will need later:
We decided to find the photo's source to prove their relation to Talbiseh or Jaysh al-Tawhid, as well as found hints helpful in geolocation. We asked Conflict News who the "STEP" logo belonged to. We were told it belonged to, strange as it may sound, STEP NEWS.
We searched YouTube again, found the STEP NEWS channel and started browsing through the video history to July 22 (the date the tweet above was published). However, we did not find the Talbiseh parade video.
We noticed the rather low quality of all the channel's videos and got a suspicion that the Talbiseh parade photos published on Twitter were indeed photos, not video screenshots. In the channel's description, we found a link to the STEP NEWS Facebook page, where we found quite a lot of photos:
Browsing the photo stream back to July 22, we finally found the source of the parade photos:
Unfortunately, the parade photos had no description, but we did manage to indirectly confirm their date:
The Facebook photos also had a much higher resolution than on Twitter. This helped us with geolocation.
In the white technical video screenshot, a logo can be seen on the windshield which matches the Jaysh al-Tawhid YouTube channel logo. A similar logo is in the group's Twitter account (linked in the descriptions of most videos on the channel):
We found this logo on a photo of another technical which took part in the parade:
Thus, we've proven the photos to be of Jaysh al-Tawhid vehicles. What was left was to prove they were indeed shot in Talbiseh. To do this, we started browsing satellite imagery of Talbiseh on Google Maps for a gate and a column on a rather wide street. We found the place quite easily:
To make sure this was the same gate as in the photo, we tried to find a satellite image of them at a good angle, using the "historical imagery" function in Google Earth. You can read about another way to use historical imagery here.
In a 2012 image, we found a pair of arching structures, matching the shape of the gate in the parade photos:
After that we recalled we'd seen the gate somewhere. It turned out we saw them in a photo on the Talbiseh Facebook group, which we found while geolocating the air strike by following a link in the description of one of the videos of the air strike's aftermath. We matched the parade photo with the Talbiseh Facebook photo and satellite imagery, thus performing its exact geolocation:
Another proof was the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque minaret we could see in both photos. We'd used it earlier to geolocate both air strike impact videos:
Thus, we were able to determine that Jaysh al-Tawhid did control Talbiseh as recently as July 22. After our investigation we found a September 30 tweet saying Jaysh al-Tawhid shelled regime positions in response of the bombing of northern Homs (i.e. the rebel enclave in the north of Homs governorate which includes Talbiseh):
— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) September 30, 2015
Why we believe Jaysh al-Tawhid are moderate rebels
Кого бомбил Путин в городе Talbiseh – группу Jaish al-Tawhid, https://t.co/KmxQ6NQhhC это суннитские исламисты, которых финансирует Катар.
— Calculon's sister (@CalculonsSister) October 4, 2015
Translation: This is who Putin bombed in Talbiseh – Jaish al-Tawhid, Qatar-financed Sunni islamists
You can find the link if you search Google for "Jaysh al-Tawhid" (unquoted):
However, a careful reading of the Wikipedia article shows the following:
- the brigade mentioned there is called "Liwa al-Tawhid" ("Unification Brigade"), while the one controlling Talbiseh is called "Jaysh al-Tawhid" ("Unification Army");
- the logo of the brigade in the Wikipedia article does not match Jaysh al-Tawhid's logo found on the group's YouTube channel, Twitter account and the group's vehicles:
- Liwa al-Tawhid operated around Aleppo, while Jaish al-Tawhid controls Talbiseh, which is way further to the south, near Homs:
- the last link in the Wikipedia article, reporting Liwa al-Tawhid's decline, is dated 2014 годом.
We tried to search for proof of Jaysh al-Tawhid's allegiance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), searching Google for "jaysh al-tawhid" fsa. The second link was a Wikipedia article with a list of armed groups fighting in Syria. We searched the page for another transcription of the word "unification" ("tawheed") and found the group (which, unlike Liwa al-Tawhid, does not have a Wikipedia article):
One of the links has the following tweet:
— Syrian Rebellion Obs (@Syria_Rebel_Obs) May 8, 2015
The tweet tells about Jaysh al-Tawhid coalition with a familliar logo created in northern Homs (i.e. where Talbiseh is located) and also mentions the group to be independent and consist partially of FSA fighters.
An article on creating the coalition can be found by searching its name on Google (third link). The date of the group's creation mentioned in the article (May 6, 2015) is similar to that of the Youtube channel's creation:
Mentions can be found on the Internet of Jaysh al-Tawhid coordinating operations with the islamist Ahrar al-Sham and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated An-Nusra front. However, this all may be explained by the fact that they all are located in a rebel enclave cutting the strategic Homs-Hama highway which government forces have been struggling to take control of for years. This is evident by the scale of destruction in Talbiseh from SyAAF (Syrian Arab Air Force) air strikes evident in the RuAF air strike videos.
We also found an article and a tweet telling Jaysh al-Tawhid freeing Talbiseh from Islamic State on May 15, 2015:
Here r images from earlier this year which shws Jaish al-Tawhid kicking out daesh &capturing there HQ in Talbiseh (2 pic.twitter.com/oVZleRDeUj
— AbuKhattab ثورة_شعب# (@abdullahazam175) October 4, 2015
Pro-Kremlin bloggers often say FSA fighters are no different fron the an-Nusra front which they strike tactical alliances with from time to time. As we don't know Arabic, we can not assess the ideological aspect of Jaysh al-Tawhid statements, but we can determine how moderate the group is by the videos it has published.
Firstly, we haven't managed to find evidence of executions or other public punishment published by Jaysh al-Tawhid, while Al Qaeda and IS love to publish those. Secondly, several videos feature a man wearing a military uniform (which is quite a rare sight among Syrian opposition) and epaulettes. We've seen him here, here and here:
In another video of a shelling in response for the September 30 Talbiseh bombing, we see him reading some sort of statement:
We entered the video's name into Google Translate:
He seems to be Jaysh al-Tawhid's commander and probably a former officer of Assad's army. It should be noted that it were such soldiers and officers who initially formed the Free Syrian Army.
Finally, let us compare Jaysh al-Tawhid fighters with those of an-Nusra front which the Kremlin loves so much:
We believe this data is enough to conclusively prove Jaysh al-Tawhid is not a terrorist group and of course is not part of Islamic State, which it fought mere months before the Russian bombings.
We were very sad to see that even Russian opposition politicians and activists say that all Syrian rebels ae terrorists because "there is a lot of videos of them crying Allah Akbar". Painting a person or a group as terrorist based only on what they look like or what the cry is not just labeling – it's a license for murder. Few of us would want to be sentenced to death because of a trifling resemblance to the bad guys. This is why we ask that you be very careful with the term "terrorist".
You can read the explanation of the phrase “Allahu Akbar!” here.
UPDATE: according to our reader, Jaysh al-Tawhid's commander's epaulets match those of a colonel of the (pro-government) Syrian Arab Army. We checked this information by googling “Syrian Army Insignia” and finding the relevant Wikipedia article:
The aforementioned video title translation suggests the colonel's name is Abdulsalam:
We googled "Colonel Abdulsalam" (quoted) and found the following tweet:
Colonel Abdulsalam Almerei, Commander of Talbeissa Operations calls for help "to stop those brutal crimes against unarmed civilians…"
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) October 1, 2015
Further search yielded a recording of BBC Neswnight, with colonel Abdulsalam addressing the US and international community for support after the RuAF bombing:
Thus, we once again proved that Jaysh al-Tawhid, headed, like many other FSA groups, by an ex-Syrian Arab Army officer colonel Abdulsalam, controlls Talbiseh in the north of Homs governorate.