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Al-Jinah Mosque

Al-Jinah Mosque

US airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria: Architectural assessment confirms building targeted was a functioning mosque, US misidentification possibly the cause for civilian casualties. 

18 April 2017

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Summary

Forensic Architecture has undertaken an architectural analysis of the March 16th 2017 US Airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria. We conducted interviews with survivors, first responders and with the building’s contractor, and examined available and sourced videos and photographs in order to produce a model of the building both before and after the strike. Our analysis reveals that, contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence. We believe that the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.

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The Incident

On the evening of March 16th 2017, a major unilateral US drone strike targeted Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Al-Jinah, in the province of Aleppo, Syria. According to witnesses, the strike took place when close to 300 people were in the building. Most were gathering for the Isha’a night prayer while 50 others remained in the smaller “winter prayer hall” where a religious seminar had just finished. The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, claimed to have recovered the bodies of 38 civilians. Five of them were children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 42 dead but the actual death toll might still be higher.

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US Statements

The US Central Command claimed responsibility for the airstrike, stating, “US forces conducted an airstrike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting on March 16th, killing several terrorists”. It wrongly identified the mosque as a “partially constructed community meeting hall”; wrongly located it in the province of Idlib; and claimed that there was no indication of civilian casualties. The Pentagon has later released an image showing the destroyed mosque and insisting it “deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo.” This statement omits the fact that the targeted building also was a mosque that was in frequent use by locals.

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Forensic Architecture

In engaging with this case, Forensic Architecture focused on the architectural questions raised by the strike: What was the function of the building targeted? What can its architectural characteristics before the strike, and the state of the ruin afterwards, reveal about the incident? Where civilian casualties to be expected in such a building?

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Method of Investigation

Forensic Architecture constructed a detailed model of the building before and after the strike. In order to obtain the necessary information to do so, we undertook remote interviews with the mosque’s original contractor, several survivors of the US attack, and the director of the rescue operation Mohammad Halak of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets). We then cross-referenced and confirmed our findings against available photographs, videos and satellite imagery of the building, and further commissioned several photographic surveys on the ground. In the preparation of this report Forensic Architecture was in continuous contact with Bellingcat, who helped provide much of the source imagery, and with HRW, who worked with us to corroborate finds, identify munitions, and locate witnesses. We have also benefited from research and advice provided by Airwars.

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Findings

Our report, presented as a video (above), confirms that the building was not a “partially constructed community meeting hall” but a large, functional mosque. The concrete and cinder block building was divided into two parts, north and south, separated by an entrance, a passageway and stairwells. It had two levels, with the upper level still incomplete in parts.

On the ground floor, the south part of the building contained the main prayer hall. The upper floor above it was still incomplete. The south part of the building was damaged in the strike but remained largely intact.

The northern part of the building contained a set of typical auxiliary functions of a mosque: a communal kitchen with a dining area, the toilets, a ritual wash area and the secondary, smaller prayer room, also know as the “winter prayer room”. A residential flat used by the Imam and his family was located above these functions on the upper floor of the northern part of the building. This part was completely destroyed in the strike.

As a result of the strike, the passageways connecting the two parts of the building were partially blocked by rubble. The stairwells connecting the ground level with the upper floor were also destroyed.

Witness testimonies and photographs of the building taken before the strike show that there were no doors separating the “winter prayer room”, the main passageway and the wash area. These rooms were accessible, as well as acoustically and visibly exposed.

Given that the building was open to the public, that a large number of local residents were free to move through and around it as they gathered for prayer, and that there was a publically accessible religious lesson with 50 people present, raises doubts regarding the likelihood that an Al-Qaeda meeting was taking place in the building at the time.

The architectural reconstruction has also allowed us to understand the sequence of events that took place in and around the mosque following the strike. The strike began when two bombs completely demolished the northern part of the building. The layout of the rubble in the deep craters is consistent with ground penetrating bombs. In order to escape, worshippers in the main prayer hall in the south part of the building had to climb over the rubble that partially blocked the doorways and passageways and destroyed the stairs. While people exited the building and immediately afterwards they were targeted by further missile strikes. Examining images of munitions remains, Chris Cobb-Smith (who assists Forensic Architecture on weapon analysis), Bellingcat, and HRW’s experts identified the munitions fired outside the mosque as likely to be Hellfire missiles. This is consistent with an anonymous US official who, when speaking to the Washington Post, confirmed that “the attack involved two Reaper drones, which fired more than four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound guided bomb in a follow-up strike.”

Sharing screens in a Skype call with Halak, the head of the rescue team, we identified the location of the casualties pulled out of the rubble. There were eleven people injured and eight killed as a result of the first two blasts within the northern part of the building, he said. They included the Imam’s wife, Ghassun Makansi, a fourteen-year-old boy named Mohammad Khalad Orabi, and his ten-year-old brother Hassan Omar Orabi. The rest of the casualties were caused by the secondary missile strikes outside the building. We identified traces of missiles on a nearby road and these traces support witness testimonies regarding the secondary strikes on evacuees.

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“Exchanging architectural plans and photographic analysis with people on the ground we managed to reconstruct a detailed model of the mosque. We believe that the US forces that targeted the building misidentified the nature of the building, leading to high levels of civilian casualties.”

-Omar Ferwati, FA Project Coordinator

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Resources

While undertaking this investigation, we exchanged information with Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and Airwars.

Video footage without voiceover and subtitles as well as the Arabic/English timecoded script is available upon request from Forensic Architecture.

Our video report is also available on our YouTube channel.

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This analysis was produced at Forensic Architecture’s own expense.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia
  • Omar Ferwati (Project Coordinator)
  • Nick Masterton
  • Simone Rowat
  • Sarah Nankivell
8 Feature

PRELIMINARY RESULTS: Kassel_6.April.2006

PRELIMINARY RESULTS: Kassel_6.April.2006

A counter investigation into the murder of Halit Yozgat

Commissioned by the People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”, Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (HKW), Initiative 6 April, and submitted in evidence to the NSU trial, Higher Regional Court in Munich


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1 Introduction

On the 6th of April 2006, Halit Yozgat, 21 years old, was murdered while attending the reception desk of the Internet café owned by his father, İsmail Yozgat, in Kassel, Germany. The murder was later attributed to a neo-Nazi group referred to as the National Socialist Underground (NSU). At the time of the killing, a secret service agent of the State Office for Constitutional Protection, (Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz) of the German state of Hessen named Andreas Temme (AT) was present in the café. In his interrogation by the police and in the subsequent NSU trial in Munich, AT denied being a witness to the incident. The court found that AT was present at the back room of the Internet café at the time of the murder and that from his position it was possible to have not witnessed the killing.

In November 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by the organisers of the People’s Tribunal ‘Unravelling the NSU Complex’ to investigate this aspect of the case.

In order to undertake this analysis, Forensic Architecture constructed a life-size model of the Internet café and undertook a full reenactment of the incident. This took place at the House of World Cultures/HKW in Berlin between the 6th and 11th of March 2017.

The main question that this experiment came to address was: did Andreas Temme tell the truth about the incident?  Could he have witnessed the murder?

Witnessing in this context refers to a sensory contact with the incident. More precisely, the questions posed by this investigation were: could AT have heard the gunshots from his position in the back room, could he have seen the body as he left the café through the front room, and should he have smelled the residue of gun powder lingering in that room?

Several other questions arose in the process: did the police, the court and AT’s employers at the State Office for Constitutional Protection act in good faith when accepting his testimony and, if not, why?

Based on an examination of leaked police files, interviews with witnesses, spatial, aural, and olfactory reenactments and simulations, the project thus set out to examine not only the killing but also its possible cover-up and the protection of Temme from within the State Office for Constitutional Protection as a crime in its own right.

 

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2 Methodology

We began by examining all available records — police reports and archives that included a police reenactment video, photographs from the crime scene, and computer and telephone logs — as well as plans, aerial and ground level images, and written and spoken testimonies. We examined transcripts of AT’s testimony in court. We have conducted our own measurements on site and interviewed witnesses.

Thereafter, we plotted out several possible scenarios across multiple timelines, identifying key characters, spaces, objects, and time frames. Within the physical model, we reenacted a number of different scenarios in order to determine the feasibility and plausibility of each timeline.

We also undertook three sensory tests, on which this brief preliminary report will concentrate:

2a Vision

The body of Halit Yozgat was first discovered by his father, İsmail Yozgat, when he returned to the café a few minutes after the murder. The father described the body of Halit as lying face down behind the reception desk. He produced a number of sketches (including some at the request of Forensic Architecture) depicting the body’s position. AT testified that he did not see the body when bending over to place a coin on the reception desk before leaving the café. AT performed a reenactment at the request of the Hessen State Police to support his testimony. A video of this reenactment was ultimately leaked and made public online. Aided by motion detection software and analogue measures we examined and modelled this reenactment video to establish the precise positions and movements of AT’s body, particularly of his head. We have thus recreated AT’s moving field of vision digitally within a computer model and with cameras (Go-Pro and digital camera using 33mm lens) attached to the head of an actor in a reenactment within the life-size model. This series of experiments were undertaken with the aim of investigating whether, even by AT’s own account, witnessing was possible.

2b Sound

The judges at the NSU Trial in Munich accepted that AT had been at the back room of the café, at a position known as PC-2, while the killing took place in the front room. As part of his testimony, AT, a trained marksman, claimed that he did not hear the two gunshots that killed Halit Yozgat.

Forensic Architecture contracted specialised weapons analysts, Armament Research Services (ARES), to record the sound signature of the weapon and ammunition used in the murder: a Česká CZ 83 pistol using 7.65mm Browning ammunition and a sound suppressor.

ARES sourced a Česká CZ 83 pistol and recorded 5 shots. They have verified that its sound signature and audio level were similar to another handgun of similar calibre — a Colt .32 pistol — using similar munitions. Both weapons offered equivalent peak sound signatures, all ranging from 157 to 158.5dBA.

The Colt .32 pistol was then alternately threaded with dry and wet sound suppressors and 5 shots were fired through each. None of these shots were suppressed below 130dBA.

Using both a digital simulation and life-size reenactment, Forensic Architecture together with a consultant from Anderson Acoustics, tested the audibility of these shots from AT’s position at PC-2.

For the purposes of this test, Forensic Architecture acquired a high-decibel active loudspeaker and located it at the position of the killer. We played the recorded gunshots sent by ARES within the life-sized space and in the computer model. We produced the level of the gunshots at 105dBA, some 25dBA lower than the sound of the shot. This was done under the assumption that if a shot at this level was heard, a louder shot certainly could be.

2c Smell

A gunshot in an interior space leaves a sharp smell of burnt gunpowder. When questioned by the German Federal Police in 2012, AT confirmed he was accustomed to handling guns and could identify the smell of gunpowder. However, he claimed that he smelled no such scent when moving from the back room of the café through to the front room towards the outside.

Forensic Architecture is working with a fluid dynamics specialist, Dr. Salvador Navarro-Martinez, Senior Lecturer at Imperial College, in order to calculate the dispersion and propagation of chemical components from the gunshots within space and time.  Dr. Navarro-Martinez calculated the volume of gases expected to be produced by such gunshots. We simulated this volume using smoke dispersers in order to visualise the dissipation and latency of smell within the space. Digital and analogue simulations were also used to model the fluid dynamics of ‘smell clouds’ in space and time. The findings from these tests were corroborated with a digital simulation that models the particle concentration, and therefore the perceptibility, of the smell of gunpowder.  We also measured the latency and potency of the smell in relation to the timeline constructed from witness testimonies and the police reenactment.

 

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Initial Results

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3a Vision

The reconstruction of AT’s moving field of vision establishes that the body of Halit Yozgat would have been visible to AT at the time he paused to place the coins on the reception desk.

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3b. Sound

In the life-size model, the gunshot sound level was 86dBA at maximum level at AT’s seated position in PC-2, some 40dBA above the ambient sound level in the room and therefore audible.  86dB is the equivalent noise of a freight train at 15 metres away. This level of noise should be clearly audible over an ambient level of 40dBA, typical of living rooms, libraries, or small water streams.

In order to confirm that any additional sound paths present in the physical model would not significantly affect measured results and corroborate our findings, we created a computer simulation using ray tracing digital techniques.

Considering there was an open pathway for noise to travel through the open doorway between the two rooms in the café, it can be determined that the gunshot was audible from the position of AT.

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The above graph shows the measured sound levels at AT’s position by PC-2 (red and orange) as well as the measured background level of noise in the space (blue). The gunshot should have been clearly audible.

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3c Smell

The results of the olfactory experiment are still pending.

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Photo Gallery

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Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia   (Coordinator)
  • Stefanos Levidis
  • Omar Ferwati
  • Simone Rowat
  • Eeva Sarlin
  • Lawrence abu Hamdan (Advisor)

Collaborators

Collaborating Organizations

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MSF Supported Hospital

MSF SUPPORTED HOSPITAL

Attack on MSF supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, Idlib, Syria

15 February 2016


On the morning of the 15th of February 2016, an MSF supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, a small village located south of Ma’arat al-Numan, Idlib Province, was hit by in two separate attacks. Each attack consisted of a number of strikes within a few minutes of one another.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the MSF supported hospital, MSF publicly claimed that the strike on the hospital was ‘very likely’ carried out by Russian or Syrian forces. Their claim was met with denial from both Russian and Syrian governments, with the Syrian UN envoy talking about the “so called MSF hospital operating without permission” and Russia denying any responsibility. The controversy caused by MSF’s claims and the denial of the perpetrators highlighted the urgency to conduct a private investigations into these events. It is in this context that FA was commissioned by MSF to determine the perpetrators of the attack, which killed 25 people.

This work is part of a new collaboration between MSF and Forensic Architecture that aims to develop the independent capacity to investigate and report on hospital strikes worldwide.

Although multiple videos and photos claimed to capture the attack, FA was faced with a bipartite challenge. On one hand, both Russian and Syrian regime planes were carrying out air raids in the area of Ma’arat Al Numan on multiple medical facilities throughout the day; on the other hand, the media attention given to the attack on the MSF supported hospital meant most footage uploaded via news agencies and social media fell under the blanket term of ‘attack on MSF hospital’, even though the footage in question had not captured the attack on the MSF supported facility.

In order to determine which material captured which attack, FA cross-referenced testimony provided by MSF from people on the ground who witnessed the attack first hand, as well as publicly available testimony from the Free Syrian Army Observatory against spatial and temporal details found in the videos. These methods included image triangulation to locate the scene, shadow analysis to corroborate the time of recording, and observing clues as to the characteristics of the fighter planes involved. In doing so, it was possible to produce a clear timeline and map of the different attacks that occurred that day. The balance of probability resulting from this analysis tilted towards the attack on the MSF supported hospital being carried out by the Russian air force, while the attack on the other hospital later that day was more likely to have been carried out by the Syrian regime.

Furthermore, the report illustrates a coordinated strategy involving the systematic targeting of medical facilities, leaving Ma’arat al-Numan and its surroundings critically deprived of much needed medical infrastructure.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman
  • Christina Varvia

Collaborating Organizations

 

 

Inside a Syrian Torture Prison

Saydnaya

Saydnaya

Inside a Syrian Torture Prison


Since 2011 thousands have died in Syria’s prisons and detention facilities. With anyone perceived to be opposed to the Syrian government at risk, tens of thousands of people have been tortured and ill-treated in violation of international law.

In April 2016, Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture travelled to Istanbul to meet five survivors from Saydnaya Prison, near Damascus. In recent years, no journalists or monitoring groups which report publicly have been able to visit the prison or speak with prisoners.

As there are no images of Saydnaya the researchers were dependent on the memories of survivors to recreate what is happening inside.

Using architectural and acoustic modelling, the researchers helped witnesses reconstruct the architecture of the prison and their experiences of detention.  The former detainees described the cells and other areas of the prison, including stairwells, corridors, moving doors and windows, to an architect working with 3D modelling software. The witnesses added objects they remembered, from torture tools to blankets and furniture, to areas where they recalled them being used. The recollections sparked more memories as the model developed.

With next to no daylight, in particular in the solitary cells underground, the prisoners in Saydnaya develop an acute experience of sound. Detainees were made to cover their eyes with their hands whenever a guard entered the room and speaking was prohibited, so prisoners became attuned to the smallest noises.

To capture these auditory memories, researchers developed techniques to solicit “ear-witness testimony” and reconstruct the prison’s architecture through sound.

Witnesses listened to tones of different decibel levels, and were then asked to match them to the levels of specific incidents inside the prison. “Echo profiling” helped to determine the size of spaces such as cells, stairwells and corridors (this involved playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison) while “sound artefacts” simulated the noise of doors, locks and footsteps, helping generate further acoustic memories.

Detainees at Saydnaya are generally transferred to the facility after spending months or even years in detention elsewhere. Such transfers often take place following unfair trials at secret military courts. Others arrive at the prison without having seen a judge and do not know the alleged charges against them or how long they will be detained.

The Saydnaya project is part of a wider campaign led by Amnesty International calling on the Syrian government to allow independent monitors into its brutal detention centres. Amnesty is urging Russia and the US “to use their global influence to ensure that independent monitors are allowed in to investigate conditions in Syria’s torture prisons”.

2016 Digital Dozen logo white

Winner of the Digital Dozen: Breakthroughs in Storytelling 2016 Award

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia (Project Coordination)
  • Ana Naomi de Sousa (Video Filming, Co-directing, Co-production)
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Interviews, Acoustic Investigation, Sound design)
  • Hania Jamal (Interviews, 3D Modelling)
  • Nestor Rubio (Website Design)
  • Stefan Laxness (3D Modelling, Animation)
  • Pierre-Francois Gerard (3D Modelling, 3D Panoramas)
  • Simone Rowat (Video Editing)
  • George Clipp (Video Editing)
  • Gochan Yildirim (Camera)
  • Mihai Meirosu (Sound Mixing)
  • Yamen Albadin (Translation, Assistant Video Editing)
  • Hala Makhlouf (Translation, Assistant Video Editing)
  • Ghias Aljundi (Translation)
  • Samaneh Moafi (3D Texturing)
  • Hana Rizvanolli (Project Assistance)
  • Susan Schuppli (advisor)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (advisor)

Collaborating Organizations & Individuals

  • Amnesty International
  • 1635film-istanbul
  • Vasif Kortun/SALT Galata
  • Fiona Gabbert/Goldsmiths’ University Forensic Psychology Unit
  • Goldsmiths’ University Computing Department
 


Introduction Video  
The Road to Saydnaya
Jamal Abdou describes the arrival into Saydnaya prison. © Forensic Architecture
The Architecture of Sound
Four former detainees describe their experiences of living in Saydnaya prison through the sounds that they had heard. 
© Forensic Architecture