Postol: The New York Times Video Analysis of the Events in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017: NONE of the Cited Forensic Evidence Supports the Claims

[I just received this from Theodore A. Postol (professor emeritus of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) regarding claims put forward by the New York Times and others about Syria. Note full report is PDF at bottom.] 

May 30, 2017 

The New York Times Video Analysis of
the Events in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017:
NONE of the Cited Forensic Evidence Supports the Claims

Theodore A. Postol
Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


On April 26, 2017 the New York Times released a video titled How Syria and Russia Spun a Chemical Strike.  This video provides extensive forensic evidence that the New York Times used to develop its conclusions about an alleged nerve agent attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.  In this report, I show that NONE of the forensic evidence in the New York Times video and a follow-on Times news article supports the conclusions reported by the New York Times.

The forensic evidence and analytical claims in all of these reports can be traced back to a single source, an organization called Bellingcat.  This organization represents itself as “specializing in analyzing information posted online.”  As will be shown in what follows, not a single claim made by Bellingcat is supported by the forensic evidence it used to reach its conclusions.

The particular evidence of concern in this report are claims made by Bellingcat about three sites that were attacked by air on April 4, 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun with general-purpose bombs.  Bellingcat’s claims about forensic evidence of an alleged sarin release in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017 are addressed in my previous report, The Human Rights Watch Report of May 1,2017 Cites Evidence that Disaffirms Its Own Conclusions About the Alleged Nerve Agent Attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria on April 4,2017, issued on May 8, 2017.  This earlier report shows that Bellingcat’s claims of forensic proof for the sarin release site is based on evidence that does not exist.

This report shows that NONE of the bomb-damage areas identified by Bellingcat and shown in the New York Times video show any indication of bomb damage from 500 to 1000 pound bombs.  That is, the data from a composite panoramic view that is the foundation of the Bellingcat and New York Times analyses is clearly and unambiguously inconsistent with the claims of bomb damage from before and after satellite photographs used in the same analyses.  In fact NONE of the forensic data claimed by Bellingcat and the New York Times as evidence of general-purpose bomb damage on April 4 supports the conclusions that are said to have been derived from the forensic data.  In all, when these false claims about information provided in the forensic data are brought together with the claims about a sarin release site, the conclusion is inescapable that all of the evidence referred to by Bellingcat in the New York Times contains no forensic proof to support their narrative.

Thus, the narratives put forward by the New York Times, and the closely related Human Rights Watch report of May 1, are all based on forensic evidence and conclusions that are unambiguously false.

The specific problems with the forensic analysis produced by Bellingcat are as follows:

1.       The composite panoramic view that forms the foundation of their analysis is alleged to have been recorded on April 4, 2017 shows that the wind is blowing in the opposite direction from the reported weather in Khan Sheikhoun on that day.  This is not a minor issue.

If the wind was blowing in the opposite direction on April 4 as shown in the panoramic view, the sarin from the alleged sarin-release site would have drifted into open fields and would not have reached any populated areas for more than half a kilometer.  As such, there would be no casualties from a sarin release at this location as alleged by the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and Bellingcat.

Given the small size of the container (containing no more than 5 to 10 liters) that was alleged by Bellingcat as carrying sarin, and the large distance between the nearest populated area and the sarin-release site, even with near ideal weather conditions for a deadly sarin dispersal, there would have been essentially NO casualties from the sarin-release in any densely populated areas downwind.

2.       The three areas where Bellingcat claims bomb damage occurred show NO evidence of bomb damage consistent with the observed bomb-debris clouds that indicate the delivery of 500 to 1000 pound bombs.

3.       One of the bomb damage sites (bomb damage area 2) is not along the line-of-sight determined by the panoramic view as claimed by Bellingcat.  As such, the location of this bomb damage site contradicts the data from the panoramic view that was allegedly used to find it.

4.       Video of an alleged bombing of a target in March 2015 in Khan Sheikhoun shows a large area of heavy bomb damage that is completely inconsistent with the minuscule or nonexistent bomb damage in the three bombed sites on April 4, 2017 allegedly found by Bellingcat

The bomb-damage video from March 2015 shows a bomb-debris cloud that is much like the large bomb-debris cloud 1 allegedly produced on April 4, 2017.  While the area bombed in March 2015 shows extensive and unambiguous severe bomb damage, the area where Bellingcat alleges bomb damage at site 1 on April 4 shows only minuscule or no bomb damage.  This raises very serious questions about the veracity of Bellingcat’s claims about the forensic evidence of bomb-site damage.

5.       The before and after satellite images used by Bellingcat were taken 44 days apart between February 21, 2017 and April 6, 2017.  This means that even if there were bomb damage seen in the April 6 images, it would not be possible to uniquely identify that damage with the April 4 attack.

6.       Although the New York Times video shows a bomb debris cloud in March 2015 and a completely demolished site associated with that bombing, it appears that nobody performing the analysis of the forensic data asked why in one case a bomb debris cloud was associated with a large area of heavy ground-damage and in all of the other cases that were identified from images of bomb debris clouds there was no evidence of bomb-damage.

7.       These findings suggests that New York Times management did not check the accuracy of the facts supporting the narrative of events on April 4, 2017 that the Times has been publishing, and continues to publish.