In the evening of June 22, ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency reported that ISIS militants had killed 3 Russian soldiers by detonating a roadside IED on the Raqqa-Ithria highway between Bir-Nbadj and Abu-al-Alaj.
The militants published photos as proof, claiming they were taken from the phone of one of the killed soldiers.
The situation in the area at the time ISIS message appeared
According to a dispatch by Russian RIA FAN agency reporter Roman Saponkov, on June 20 ISIS militants counterattacked the positions recently taken by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in Raqqa governorate. According to Saponkov, right after the start of the terrorists’ counteroffensive "the frontline shattered and the Syrian army rolled back 15-20 km" west. He estimates the losses in hundreds.
291st artillery brigade
One of the published photos shows a template of a payment claim addressed to the commander of military unit 64670:
Military unit 64670 is the 291th artillery brigade based in Troitskaya village, Ingushetia, North Caucasus. One of distinct artillery brigade weapons are 2A65 Msta-B howitzers which we have repeatedly reported as used by Russian soldiers in Syria. Such howitzers, as well as Kamaz-63501AT artillery tow trucks, are visible in another photo published by IS:
Whole searching for information on this brigade, we found its social media group on vk.com. The group’s profile picture shows a Msta-B howitzer in a mountainous area. The shape of these mountains is identical to the mountains in the photo published by IS:
A comment in the vk.com group says that the photo shows Tarskoye village:
Indeed, there is a training center in Tarskoye. It is likely that the 291st brigade went there for exercises.
Next we analyzed a photo showing a Russian soldier in sand-colored uniform near the parade grounds of a military unit:
The filename of the image is "IMG-20160405-WA0039.jpg", which suggests that the photo was taken on April 5, 2016. Since two of the photos analyzed earlier are related to the 291st artillery brigade, we started with an assumption this photo was taken at the brigade’s base. To prove it, we geolocated the image:
Satellite imagery of the base dated May 6, 2012 and September 24, 2009 clearly shows the shadow of the poster stand in front of which the soldier is standing in the photo, the parade grounds, barracks and another building in the background:
Satellite imagery dated July 26, 2011, shows posters on the building behind the soldier and the height of its windows matching those seen in the photo:
Thus, we have found out that the photo was taken at the 291st artillery brigade’s base in Troitskaya village, Ingushetia. Sometimes this brigade is attributed to the town of Magas, Ingushetia, since in Troitskaya village, right next to the military base, is Magas airport. Magas itself is in 30 kilometers to the south-west of the village.
It is also worth noting that satellite imagery of the vehicle yard of the 291st brigade clearly shows Kamaz-63501AT artillery trucks with howitzers (probably Msta-Bs):
18th separate motorized rifle brigade
In one of the photos, we see men who are probably Russian soldiers sitting next to an APC with a white triangle painted on it. The filename of the image is "IMG-20140906-WA0000.jpg", which suggests that the photo was taken on September 6, 2014.
White triangles were used as identification marks by Russia’s 18th motorized brigade during the Russian army’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine in August-September 2014:
Photo source: askai707.
The next photo shows three uniformed Russian soldiers, with clearly visible patches bearing their names and intials: V.V. Konobevtsev, I. I. Lagutin and G. G. Gadzhimagomedov.
All the three soldiers bear Ground Forces insignia on their shoulder pads:
We’ve found two social media profiles of Valeriy Konobevtsev on ok.ru. A public, but abandoned (not logged in since June 14 2012) profile says he was born on January 12 1981 and lives in Mozdok (North Caucasus). In the same profile, we see several military photos taken in winter in the mountains:
A similar photo was also published by IS:
We’ve also found an active profile of Konobevtsev, visited on the day this post was published, but this profile turned put to be private.
Another photo shows two uniformed soldiers with patches of the 18th separate motorized rifle brigade:
Video of a destroyed Kamaz truck
Some time after the photos were published, the IS-affiliated Amaq agency also published a video showing a destroyed Kamaz truck:
The title of the video says that it is in this Kamaz on the Raqqa-Ithria road that three Russian soldiers were killed. The video does not show human remains or blood stains. Based on the dispersion of the truck’s parts and a crater in the road, the truck was blown up by a powerful high explosive device:
The video also showed a bag with a pack of Loperamide pills inside:
— Сырно Небака (@Semen_grusha) June 22, 2016
It also shows camo fabric which looks more like a covering than a uniform:
Establishing the exact model of the destroyed Kamaz truck is possible by analyzing several distinct features: Firstly, we see an intact armored sidelight with a gunport:
Such a sidelight is only present on 3-axled armored Kamaz trucks and 4-axled Kamaz-63501AT tow trucks:
Secondly, the video shows a second axle close to the first, which suggests the destroyed truck had 4 axles, not 3:
Thirdly, Twitter user ain92ru noted that the video also showed the remains of a INMAN IM-50 crane which are installed on Kamaz-63501AT artillery tow trucks:
— Ilya A. = Илья А. (@ain92ru) June 23, 2016
Thus, it is evident that the ISIS video shows a destroyed Kamaz-63501AT artillery tow truck.
Analyzing the photos’ filenames and metadata
The published photos have three different filename formats:
- <yyyy><mm><dd>_<hhmmss>.jpg, i.e. 20150424_101058.jpg. According to the metadata of these files, the photos were taken with a Samsum GT-I8190 smartphone;
- a file named CAM00113.jpg, according to the metadata, the photo was taken with an LG-P880 smartphone;
- IMG-<yyyy><mm><dd>-WA<photo_number>.jpg, i.e. IMG-20160405-WA0039.jpg. The metadata has no information.
Both soldier photos taken with a Samsung GT-I819 show I. I. Lagutin, which suggests it is his phone. Two of his photos are related to the 18th motorized brigade:
Two others — to the 291st artillery brigade:
According to his insignia, I. I. Lagutin is a soldier of the 18th motorized brigade.
All soldier photos from the third group (no metadata) likely show the same unidentified soldier of Caucasus ehtnicity:
One of the photos, showing the 18th motorized brigade, was taken in September 2014, likely in Eastern Ukraine. The photo in the mountains was likely taken at the Tarskoye training center. A third photo was taken at the 291st artillery brigade’s base, suggesting that the soldier is from this brigade.
The LG-P880 smartphone which was used to take the photo named CAM00113.JPG likely belongs to one of the soldiers in the photo:
What is the connection between the 18th motorized and the 291st artillery brigade?
Both the 18th and the 291st brigades are part of the 58th army of the Southern military district and are based in Norh Caucasus.
We’ve already reported motorized brigade soldiers accompanying artillery brigades. For instance, in November 2015 we wrote о about a 74th motorized brigade soldier Ayas Saryg-Oool who accompanied artillery near Hama, riding inside the cabin of a Kamaz-63501AT artillery truck. He also published photos showing 2A65 Msta-B howitzers.
As of now, there is no direct evidence that three Russian soldiers indeed were killed in an ISIS counterattack. The photos published by ISIS were taken by I. I. Lagutin, a soldier of the 18th motorized brigade, an unidentified soldier from the 291st artillery brigade and also one of the soldiers shown in the photo named CAM00113.JPG. ISIS also published a video of a Kamaz truck destroyed by an IED, claiming the 3 Russian soldiers were killed in the explosion. Analysis of this video shows that the destroyed vehicle is undoubtedly a Kamaz-63501AT truck. However, the video does not show any human remains or blood.
The Russian reporter Roman Saponkov (who has been publishing dispatches from the area) has denied the ISIS report. He claims Assad’s troops have the same trucks and that he’d seen the destroyed Kamaz on the road even before the IS counterattack:
— Syria frontlines (@SyriaWarReports) June 22, 2016
— Syria frontlines (@SyriaWarReports) June 22, 2016
We cannot confirm that Syrian Arab Army (SAA) indeed employs Kaaz-63501AT tow trucks: since the start of the Russian operation in Syria, we have seen no evidence of these trucks being used by Syrian government forces. However, since the start of the Russian operation, evidence has been mounting of these trucks being used by Russian soldiers in Syria.
Of specific interest is one of the published photos which was taken on September 6, 2014, likely in Eastern Ukraine. It shows Russian soldiers, an APC with a marking of the 18th motorized brigade, as well as a soldier of the 291st artillery brigade. This image suggests that groups of soldiers and vehicles from the 18th motorized brigade and 291st artillery brigade moved into Ukraine together.