How the OPCW’s investigation of the Douma incident was nobbled – Working Group on Syria

1 Summary

  • The creation in 2014 of a new mechanism – the “Fact-Finding Mission in Syria” (FFM) – to investigate alleged chemical attacks allowed the OPCW to bypass the procedures laid down in the Chemical Weapons Convention for investigations of alleged use, and to set its own rules for these investigations.

  • The roles of the Director-General and the newly appointed director of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) are mostly ceremonial. The effective boss of the OPCW is the Chief of Cabinet Sébastien Braha, a French diplomat, and the Principal Investigator of the IIT is Elise Coté, a Canadian diplomat. Although these individuals have obvious conflicts of interest in relation to Syria, the OPCW lacks any procedure for managing such situations.

  • The Technical Secretariat’s excuse for suppression of the Engineering Assessment – that evidence that the cylinders were manually placed rather than dropped from the air is “outside of the mandate and methodology of the FFM” – is fallacious and contradicts OPCW’s published reports on the Douma incident.

  • It was already clear from open source evidence, as we pointed out in an earlier briefing note, that the Interim and Final Reports of the FFM on the Douma incident had been nobbled. Our sources have now filled in some of the details of this process. Specifically:

    • By mid-June 2018 there would have been ample time to draft an interim report that summarized the analysis of witness testimony, open-source images, on-site inspections and lab results. We have learned that the original draft of the interim report, which had noted inconsistencies in the evidence of a chemical attack, was revised by a process that was not transparent to FFM team members to become the published Interim Report released on 6 July 2018 that included only the laboratory results.

    • After the release of the Interim Report, the investigation proceeded in secrecy with all FFM team members who had deployed to Douma excluded. It was nominally led by Sami Barrek who as FFM Team Leader had left Damascus before the on-site inspections began. These FFM team members do not know who wrote the document that was released as the “Final Report of the FFM”.

    • We have learned from multiple sources that the second stage of the investigation involved consultation with Len Phillips, the previous leader of FFM Team Alpha who worked in the OPCW during this period as a self-employed consultant.

  • From examination of three earlier FFM reports on incidents in 2015 or 2017 where Phillips was the Team Leader, it is clear that these reports also excluded or ignored evidence that these alleged chemical attacks had been staged. Specifically:

    • The FFM report on the alleged chlorine attacks in Idlib between 16 March and 20 May 2015 omitted the crucial fact, later noted by the Joint Investigative Mechanism, that the refrigerant canisters allegedly used as components of chemical munitions could not have been repurposed.

    • The FFM report on the alleged sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 omitted the information, later noted by the Joint Investigative Mechanism which had access to the same records, that the recorded hospital admission times of at least 100 patients were too early for them to have reached hospital if they had become casualties at the time the attack was alleged to have occurred.

    • The FFM investigation of the alleged chlorine attack in Ltamenah on 25 March 2017, reported on 13 June 2018, led it to discover a previously unrecorded sarin attack nearby the day before, and to prompt the White Helmets to provide, eleven months later, munition parts that tested positive for intact sarin. The report failed to explain or even comment on how intact sarin could have persisted for so long in the open.

  • This indicates that the suppression of the Engineering Assessment of the Douma incident was not an isolated aberration. In this context it is relevant that the opposition-linked NGOs on which the FFM has relied for evidence since 2014 have dubious provenance, and at least some of them have been set up under UK tutelage.

  • The credibility of the OPCW cannot be restored simply by finding some way to reverse what were purported to be the findings of the FFM on the Douma incident, but only by an independent re-examination of all its previous investigations of alleged chemical attacks in Syria, and a radical reform of its governance and procedures.

  • To resolve the discrepancy between the conclusions of the internal Engineering Assessment and those of the Final Report, a first step would be to make public the assessments of the external engineering experts on whom the Final Report relied. The engineering assessments were based on observations of the cylinders and measurements at the locations where they were found. As the cylinders, tagged and sealed by the OPCW inspectors, are in the custody of the Syrian government, it is feasible to undertake an independent study to determine whether the conclusions of earlier engineering assessments can be replicated. For such a study to be credible, it would have to be undertaken by a panel independent of OPCW, in accordance with methods for reproducible research.

2 Introduction

In response to our release of the suppressed Engineering Assessment, OPCW management produced three explanations in the space of ten days:

  1. The Engineering Assessment “is not part of any of the material produced by the FFM” and Ian Henderson “has never been a member of the FFM”. (Deepti Choubey, 11 May)

  2. Henderson was “on the sidelines of the FFM”, but his report was “a dissenting assessment” and “his findings were considered but were a minority opinion as final report was written” (off-the-record briefings to Scott Lucas and Brian Whitaker, 16 May). The Director-General, answering a question on 6 June, confirmed that the Engineering Assessment “was considered and it was analysed, it was part of the investigation”, thus contradicting Choubey’s email of 11 May).

  3. Henderson was in Douma “to provide temporary support to the FFM” but the Engineering Assessment was excluded because it “came too close to attributing responsibility, and thus fell outside the scope of the FFM’s mandate.” (Whitaker’s “informed source”, quoted 24 May). This was the explanation given by the Director-General in a “Briefing for States Parties” on 28 May: Henderson “was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM” but his report was “outside of the mandate of the FFM with regard to the formulation of its findings.”

These three mutually contradictory excuses bring to mind Sigmund Freud’s story of the defences offered by a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition:

In the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.

This fumbling response to the release of the document casts doubt on the Director-General’s statement that the OPCW first became aware in March 2019 that it might have leaked. No leak investigation was launched at this time. It is however evident that by 14 March 2019 several delegations at the OPCW were aware that there was dissent among FFM team members. A commentary by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the Executive Council on 14 March had blocked the Russian proposal to hold a briefing with “all without exception experts of the OPCW Mission” and commented that “such a briefing could reveal very serious inconsistencies in the anti-Syrian conclusions in the Final Report”. A gloating tweet from the Netherlands delegation that the Russian proposal had been voted down with “only 5 votes in favour” was retweeted by the Canadian and UK delegations.

The explanations by the Director-General of how the FFM took into account the findings of the Engineering Assessment are somewhat contradictory. In a prepared statement on 28 May he indicated that the FFM report used the raw data collected by Henderson’s sub-team but relied for analysis on the assessments of the three “external experts” who analysed these data:

This is what the FFM did with the information included in the publicly disclosed document; all available information was examined, weighed and deliberated. Diverse views were expressed, discussed and considered against the overall facts and evidence collected and analysed. With regard to the ballistics data collected by the FFM, they were analysed by three external experts commissioned by the FFM, and working independently from one another. In the end, while using different methods and instruments, they all reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM Final Report.

In an unscripted panel discussion at a conference on 6 June he appeared to imply that the Engineering Assessment had been considered but rejected as “not fit to the conclusion”.

all the information given by any inspectors is considered but sometimes it is not fit to the conclusion. This information [the Engineering Assessment] was considered and was analysed, it was part of the investigation …

Either of these explanations undermines the OPCW’s credibility. If, as the briefing on 28 May indicated, the authors of the Final Report had excluded the OPCW’s internal engineering assessment from consideration, relying only on the assessments of experts who had not inspected the sites or examined the cylinders, this would have been difficult to justify. If, as the Director-General indicated on 6 June, the authors of the Final Report had considered Henderson’s assessment along with the three external assessments and decided in favour of the three external assessments, their failure to mention the existence of an internal assessment that was discordant with the other three assessments might reasonably be considered fraudulent. We might doubt also that the authors of the Final Report, having excluded the FFM’s own engineering subteam, would have had the expertise required to make such a judgement. The rationale that Henderson’s assessment was outside the mandate of the FFM appears to have been constructed at a later stage as a way out of this dilemma.

If we are to believe the Director-General, all three external engineering assessments independently reached the conclusions in the Final Report that at Location 2:

the damage observed … is consistent with the creation of the aperture observed in the terrace by the cylinder found in that location.

and that at Location 4:

after passing through the ceiling, the cylinder continued altered trajectory, until reaching the position in which it was found.

As noted below, the Director-General has asked “civil society” to “believe in what we do”. A first step towards restoring belief in the integrity of the OPCW’s investigations would be to make the reports from all three external engineering consultancies publicly available.

The Director-General’s briefing does not spell out how the Engineering Assessment was deemed to be “outside of the mandate of the FFM with regard to the formulation of its findings.” The Technical Secretariat’s response to Russian criticisms, dated 21 May, spells out more specifically its contention that to assess how the cylinders arrived at their respective locations was outside the mandate of the FFM:

the FFM report does not elaborate in any part on the “high probability that both cylinders were placed at Locations 2 and 4 manually rather than dropped from an aircraft”. In fact, this type of information is deemed outside of the mandate and methodology of the FFM.

We reiterate that this argument is fallacious, and quote our last briefing note:

OPCW stated that “The FFM’s mandate is to determine whether chemical weapons or toxic chemicals as weapons have been used in Syria.” In Douma this could be reduced to deciding between two alternatives: (1) the gas cylinders were dropped from the air, implying that they were used as chemical weapons; (2) the cylinders were placed in position, implying that the incident was staged and that no chemical attack had occurred. Although to conclude that alternative (2) was correct would implicate the opposition, this would not be attribution of blame for a chemical attack but rather a determination that chemical weapons had not been used.

As Hitchens has noted, the contention that evidence that the cylinders were manually placed rather than dropped from the air would be “outside of the mandate and methodology of the FFM” contradicts explicit statements in the Interim Report and the Final Report. For instance the Interim Report had stated that “Work is ongoing to assess … how the cylinders arrived at their respective locations”. Hitchens commented that “I don’t think the people who dreamed up this particular escape clause have thought through their ideas very well.” the OPCW has not responded to his request for clarification.

In what appears to be a reference to the Working Group, the Director-General complained on 6 June that:

We are attacked with misinformation, with proxies that produced reports to undermine an official report of the Fact-Finding Mission about investigations in Syria, and I ask you, civil society, to believe in what we do.

The “misinformation” was not specified: we should welcome rebuttals showing, with direct quotations and references to original sources, where we have disseminated misinformation. The suggestion that we are “proxies” is a smear of the kind that we have become accustomed to. As for “civil society”, if that term means anything it would include entities like the Working Group, whose members collaborate in their spare time unpaid to ask questions that academics in the field of arms control and all but a few corporate journalists have failed to ask. We are well aware that most staff in the OPCW continue to work professionally for the organization’s mission of upholding the Chemical Weapons Convention. It should now be evident to OPCW staff, including those in senior management positions, that unless the capture of the Technical Secretariat by the France-UK-US-led alliance of States Parties is reversed, the future of the organization is at risk.

We now report on how the OPCW reports purporting to be the findings of the Fact-Finding Mission investigating the Douma incident were prepared. This is based on combining open source material with information communicated to us by OPCW staff members, whose identities we shall protect.

3 The Fact-Finding Mission in Syria

As we noted in an earlier briefing, the Chemical Weapons Convention (Part XI of the Verification Annex, “Investigations in cases of alleged use of chemical weapons”) lays down strict procedures for investigations of alleged use, and does not empower OPCW management to interfere in such an investigation once the inspection team has been selected and dispatched. In April 2014, when the first alleged chlorine attacks were reported from opposition-held areas, the Director-General decided to create a new operation designated the “Fact-Finding Mission in Syria”, with a mandate “to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic.” This was announced on 29 April 2014, before any meeting of the Executive Council had considered it. The first report of the FFM stated that:

the establishment of the FFM was based on the general authority of the OPCW Director-General to seek to uphold at all times the object and purpose of the Chemical Weapons Convention;

This mechanism allowed the Technical Secretariat to set its own rules and procedures for the investigation of alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The first Team Leader of the Fact-Finding Mission was Malik Ellahi, who had been Political Adviser to the Director-General. After coming under fire in May 2014 when attempting an on-site inspection in opposition-held territory, the FFM resorted to collecting evidence in Turkey, with witnesses and materials provided by opposition-linked NGOs.

In early 2015 the Fact-Finding Mission was split into two: Team Alpha, headed by Len Phillips, and Team Bravo, headed by Steven Wallis. This arrangement was criticized by the Russian envoy to the OPCW who complained on 14 April 2017 that:

Under the mandate defined for [the Fact-Finding Mission], its membership should be approved by the Syrian government, and it should be balanced. For some time, these provisions were observed somewhat, but then the mission was split into two groups. One [Team Bravo], led by Steven Wallis from Britain, works in contact with the Syrian government, while the other one [Team Alpha], headed by his fellow countryman Leonard Phillips, deals with the claims filed by the Syrian armed opposition. This latter group is working completely non-transparently. Its membership is classified, and no one knows where it goes or how it operates. They are allegedly using the same methodology as Steven Wallis’s group, but they are clearly working mostly remotely, relying on the internet and the fabrications provided by Syrian opposition NGOs, and never go to Syria. At least, we are not aware of a single such trip.

In January 2018 Phillips was replaced as leader of Team Alpha by Sami Barrek. In January 2019 both teams were merged and Boban Cekovic, a former inspector who had worked as a decontamination specialist in the Serbian Ministry of Defence before joining OPCW, was rehired to become the Head of the Fact-Finding Mission.

On 23 January 2018 an initiative named the International Partnership against Impunity for Chemical Weapons was launched at a meeting in Paris. A leaked diplomatic telegram from the British diplomat Benjamin Norman indicated that the second meeting of the secret Small Group on Syria (representing France, UK, US, Saudi and Jordan) was to be held on the sidelines of this meeting, following the first meeting of this group on 12 January in Washington at which the US had confirmed its intention to maintain a significant military presence in Syria. On 4 February 2018 an alleged chemical attack was reported in Saraqib. We have commented elsewhere on the anomalies in the subsequent FFM report which concluded that in this incident “chlorine, released from cylinders through mechanical impact, was likely used as a chemical weapon”. The International Partnership against Impunity for Chemical Weapons, to which 38 countries signed up, laid the basis for a UK-tabled resolution passed by the Conference of States Parties on 27 June 2018 deciding that:

the Secretariat shall put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons in those instances in which the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria determines or has determined that use or likely use occurred, and cases for which the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism has not issued a report.

We note in passing that the FFM report on the Douma incident did not determine that “use or likely use” of a chemical weapon occurred, but used the more diffident wording “reasonable grounds”.

On the basis of this resolution the Technical Secretariat established another operation that had not been provided for in the Chemical Weapons Convention, designated the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The newly-appointed director of the IIT, Santiago Oñate, who had been the legal adviser and later special adviser to the OPCW since 2004, cannot be a line manager (under OPCW rules about tenure, he can be employed only as a consultant). This implies that the staff of the IIT report to the Chief of Cabinet. The Principal Investigator of the IIT is Elise Coté, a Second Secretary at the Canadian embassy in The Hague. This is an obvious conflict of interest, as the Canadian government is strongly opposed to the Syrian government and maintains that “use of chemical weapons” by the Syrian government is an established fact for which it should be “held accountable”.

4 The boss: Sébastien Braha

OPCW management are collectively referred to as “the first floor”, where they have their offices. The current Director-General has a mostly ceremonial role (as was evident from his confused answers in a panel discussion on 6 June), and the effective boss of the OPCW is the Chief of Cabinet, Sébastien Braha, who has been a French diplomat since 2006 and served as the deputy French Permanent Representative to the OPCW from September 2014 onwards. On 22 May 2019, when one of us tweeted a screenshot of his Linkedin profile, this profile showed him to be still in this diplomatic post. Within a few days his profile was updated to show that he left his diplomatic post in July 2018 when he took up his post as Chief of Cabinet. Our sources report that even before he took up his post as an employee of the OPCW, he was frequently in the building giving instructions on expectations from his capital to the Technical Secretariat.

5 The Team Leader: Sami Barrek

The timeline of the Final Report records that the Team Leader “redeployed for information gathering activities from all other available sources” on 17 April 2018 three days after the team had arrived in Damascus, leaving the Deputy Team Leader in charge. A posting dated 22 April 2018 by a pro-government Syrian journalist writing as “Military Zonex” had reported this with more details:

the OPCW special mission headed by Mamadou Yerbanga continues its work in Syrian Douma. The previous head, Saami Barek was called off to another mission, to Turkey, due to unknown reasons. Earlier, the Syrian opposition claimed that Bashar Al Assad used chemical ammunition in Idlib. They also said that the ammunition fragments had been sent to Turkey. It is likely that Saami Barek (from Tunisia) is now in Turkey or at the north of Syria to help the opposition in gathering ‘evidences’ to blame the Syrian government in using chemical weapon. The Tunisian is likely to have established contacts with “White Helmets” – the organization, which has many times been caught in making fake videos demonstrating ‘outcomes’ of use of chemical weapon by the Syrian army.

We have confirmed from other sources that the Team Leader who left Damascus was Sami Barrek and that he was subsequently seen in Turkey with the White Helmets. As we pointed out, it is surprising that the Team Leader was suddenly redeployed from on-site inspections to take charge of information gathering activities elsewhere that would have far less evidential value. We have not been able to confirm that the Syrian opposition claimed a chemical attack in Idlib at this time, as Military Zonex reported.

Sami Barrek, originally Tunisian, has a background in analytical chemistry. His affiliation on a paper published in 2009 was with a lab in France. He joined the OPCW as an inspector in January 2010. OPCW employment contracts are term-limited to seven years, though for some inspectors these limits were extended or they were retained on Special Service Agreements (equivalent to consultancy contracts). Some former inspectors were re-hired for up to three years.

The Twitter account @samibarrek was set up in April 2013 but has never tweeted. One of its few followers is @LenP91535865, an account set up in June 2018. Examination shows that this is Len Phillips, the leader of FFM Team Alpha from 2015 to 2017. As Sami Barrek’s account has never tweeted, there is no obvious reason for Phillips to follow it other than to allow private messaging. Phillips’s twitter account @LenP91535865 has two followers excluding a relative and authors of this article: the second follower was Sébastien Braha. As the 48 brief tweets posted by Phillips from June 2018 to May 2019 are unlikely to be of wide interest, the most plausible reason for Braha to have followed Phillips’s twitter account would have been to allow private messaging. Phillips also follows Braha’s twitter account.

We can thus identify what appear to be arrangements for private communication between three people: Barrek, the leader of the FFM team investigating the Douma incident; Phillips, working for the OPCW during 2018 as a freelance; and Braha, the Chief of Cabinet. This itself is not necessarily anything untoward (unless they were using this channel to communicate on OPCW matters) but it leads us to examine the possible role of Phillips.

6 The freelance: Len Phillips

Phillips’s Linkedin biography records that after obtaining degrees in chemistry and engineering he worked for twelve years in the chemical industry. His last job in industry was as a process engineer at the Associated Octel plant in Anglesey, which closed in 2003 with the loss of 100 jobs. In January 2008 he began working as an inspector for the OPCW in The Hague, and was promoted to Inspection Team Leader in January 2011. Phillips’s bio records for this period that he:

Led fact finding mission team and reported on allegations in Idlib, Spring 2015; Marea, August 2015; Khan Shaykhun, April 2017, Ltamenah, 30 March 2017.

These investigations were based on interviews with White Helmets in Turkey and materials that they provided. We have been told that Phillips met regularly in Turkey with James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets. His biography records that after a sabbatical during the first quarter of 2018 he was from April 2018 a self-employed “Chemical investigations Consultant, with particular focus on use of chemicals as weapons”.

On 8 April 2019 Phillips registered a UK company named PhBG Consultants Ltd, with an address in Anglesey. Although the incorporation document records that Phillips is sole director and sole shareholder, the acronym “PhBG” and the plural form “Consultants” in the company name suggest that there may be a partner. The “Nature of Business” registered for this company appears rather close to what an OPCW investigation might commission from “engineering experts”.

66210 – Risk and damage evaluation 70229 – Management consultancy activities other than financial management 71122 – Engineering related scientific and technical consulting activities

Phillips’s Linkedin profile lists two “Interests” apart from his old universities and the OPCW: the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit, and Bellingcat. On Twitter, Phillips appears to interact with Eliot Higgins and follows three other Bellingcat-associated accounts. He follows accounts associated with three opposition-linked NGOs that have provided evidence of alleged chemical attacks to FFM Team Alpha: the White Helmets, the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre Syria, and the Syrian American Medical Society. The first follower of the twitter account @LenP91535865 was Fahad Abu Waleed (@c8ll08TZ3FM6e2s, joined in July 2018), who (front row, third from the right in a group photo) had been based in Douma as a White Helmet and was affiliated to Jaish al-Islam, the opposition group in control of Douma up to April 2018. This affiliation is documented by a Facebook post dated 25 December 2016, in which Fahad commemorated “the first anniversary of the martydom” of Zahran Alloush, the notoriously brutal and sectarian leader of Jaish al-Islam, with the words “my sheikh and higher in the heavens”. We note with unease that of the tweets during 2018 “liked” by Fahad, several were announcements of the evacuation of White Helmets to Jordan and their impending relocation to the UK.

7 The interim and final reports

As we pointed out in an earlier briefing note, when the Interim Report and the Final Report on the Douma investigation were examined together, there were several indicators of interference with the investigation:

  • The Interim Report, released on 6 July 2018, reported laboratory results showing chlorinated organic compounds in environmental samples, but did not include any material from interviews, stating only that “Analysis of the testimonies is ongoing”. As all 34 interviews had been completed by 12 May we would have expected the Interim Report to include a summary of the witness testimony, checked for consistency with other sources including visual evidence. We would also have expected a summary of the results of on-site inspections which had beeen completed by 2 May.

  • After the release of the Interim Report, the timeline of the investigation showed no further activity till September, when “consultations with toxicologists” were recorded, followed by “consultations with toxicologists and engineering experts” in October. While the existence of a suppressed internal engineering investigation provides an explanation for why consultations with external engineering experts were sought at such a late stage, we still have no explanation for why the FFM waited till September 2018 to seek the opinions of toxicologists or forensic pathologists, when the relevant lab results had been received in May 2018.

  • The FFM team, or what was left of it, had redeployed to conduct a new round of interviews in Turkey in October, including five new purported witnesses. No explanation was given for why these additional interviews were sought. We may surmise that the results of the original interviews were disagreeable to those who were by this time running the investigation.

Our sources have provided information that fills in some details of how the investigation was nobbled. An internal note shared among OPCW staff members dated 23 June 2018 stated that:

the OPCW report on the alleged chemical attack in Douma Syria on 7 April is currently under review by management. As it is currently drafted, the report indicates a high degree of probability that the alleged chemical attack was staged by an opposition group.

The note concluded:

I predict that the OPCW simply will not be allowed to issue a report that raises any doubts on the pre-judged guilty party.

What happened at this stage, leading to the release of an unsigned Interim Report with only lab results, was not transparent to FFM team members. From then onwards the investigation proceeded in secrecy, nominally led by Barrek, with all the FFM team members who had deployed to Douma excluded. The Director-General’s statement that Henderson “was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM” could be applied to all these team members; they do not know who wrote what was released as the final Report of the Fact-Finding Mission. It is presumed that Barrek as Team Leader up to the end of 2018 and Cekovic as Head of the FFM from the beginning of 2019 were the formal lead authors.

OPCW staff members have told us that the subsequent investigation involved consultation with Len Phillips, who was frequently seen in the building with Barrek during the summer of 2018. There is indirect corroboration of his role from his Twitter account:

  • The use of Phillips’s Twitter account to follow Barrek suggests that a private messaging channel between these two individuals was set up in or after June 2018.

  • The first follower of Phillips’s Twitter account was Fahad Abu Waleed. As the obscure account @LenP91535865 would not easily have been found by anyone who was not looking for it, this suggests that Phillips was in contact with at least one member of the White Helmets who had been based in Douma. Such a contact would have been relevant to the Douma investigation but not to the FFM’s investigations of earlier incidents in Idlib where Phillips was Team Leader.

  • Phillips’s most recent Twitter follow (and the only UK-based journalist that he follows) is Brian Whitaker, who on 24 May 2019 reported that Henderson had been advised to submit the Engineering Assessment to the IIT, citing an “informed source”. As this information, confirmed a few days later by the Director-General, would have been known to very few people, it is evident that Whitaker’s “informed source” is in the clique responsible for managing the release of the Final Report. The referral to the IIT had been hinted at in a blog post by Scott Lucas posted a few hours after our release of the document on 13 May. On 16 May both Whitaker and Lucas channelled a somewhat different story to the effect that Henderson was “on the sidelines of the FFM” and that his report was a “dissenting assessment”. Lucas had boasted on 17 March that “I have known about [the FFM report on the Douma incident] throughout its development” and on 16 May that “I know how OPCW review process was conducted and what place Henderson’s assessment had in it”. Of the few people who could have provided such briefings to Lucas and Whitaker directly or indirectly, Phillips is a more likely candidate than Braha or Barrek. Phillips has not responded to requests for comment.

8 Distortion of evidence in earlier reports where Phillips was FFM Team Leader

In the light of what we have learned about the role of Phillips in the FFM investigation of the Douma incident, it is relevant to examine his track record in three earlier FFM investigations of alleged chemical attacks where he was the Team Leader: these are Idlib (2015), Khan Shaykhun (2017), and Ltamenah where two FFM reports were issued: one on an alleged attack on 30 March 2017 (released 2 November 2017), and the other on alleged attacks on 24 March and 25 March 2017, (released 13 June 2018).

8.1 Idlib 2015: refrigerant canisters

In March 2015 a series of alleged chlorine attacks began in Idlib. The Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March and 20 May 2015 concluded that:

several incidents that occurred in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015 likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals – probably containing the element chlorine – as a weapon.

Larson has examined in detail the contradictions in the story of the most widely-publicized of these incidents: the alleged attack in Sarmin on 16 March 2015 that led to the deaths of the Taleb family. We shall focus specifically on the alleged munitions.

Images from the sites of these alleged attacks showed canisters of R22 (a hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant) and half-litre plastic bottles containing a purple substance that was later identified as potassium permanganate. Potassium permanganate reacts with hydrochloric acid to produce chlorine; this is a convenient and safe way to produce small quantities of chlorine in a laboratory. R22 itself is non-toxic, with or without mixing with permanganate.

The FFM report included a drawing of the alleged munition, made up of R22 canisters and bottles of potassium permanganate wrapped in detonating cord and enclosed in a steel barrel. It should have been clear to Phillips, as a chemical process engineer, that this device was implausible as a munition, as there is no mechanism for the potassium permanganate to mix with the contents of the canisters before the device is detonated. Binary chemical munitions are designed to mix the precursors in flight or before launch. More specifically, the FFM report omitted a key fact that was later noted by the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s report: the R22 canisters are disposable and their repurposing or refilling would require technical modification of the valve. Phillips’s FFM report did not mention this, though the FFM had been provided with several canisters allegedly used in these munitions. If the canisters could not have been refilled with something else, they could not have been used in chemical munitions either on their own or with potassium permanganate.

8.2 Khan Shaykhun 2017: recorded times of hospital admissions

In the Khan Shaykhun incident on 4 April 2017, a Syrian jet was alleged to have dropped a sarin-containing munition on the town, causing the deaths of at least 70 people who were seen from about 7 am onwards being hosed down by the White Helmets outside their base in a cave complex near the town, and later laid out in morgues. The Joint Investigative Mechanism’s investigation of the incident reported that a flight map (presumably provided by the US military) showed that the Syrian jet had passed no closer than 5 km from the town, effectively ruling out an airstrike as the explanation for the incident. Although the FFM did not have access to this flight map, it ignored other observations that should have cast serious doubt on whether a chemical attack had occurred as described. One of these observations was the recorded times of hospital admissions. The report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism noted that hospital records showed admission times before the alleged attack occurred.

The Mechanism received the medical records of 247 patients from Khan Shaykhun who had been admitted to various health-care facilities, … Analysis of the records revealed that in 57 cases, patients had been admitted to five hospitals before the incident (at 0600, 0620 and 0640 hours). In 10 of those cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours, while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours. The Mechanism did not investigate those discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario or are the result of poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions.”

The FFM had reported that they received “699 pages of records (including autopsies, medical records, death certificates and other patient information)” and that:

The team collected a number of patient records, death certificates, and other medical documents from medical facilities throughout northern Syria, collected from medical NGOs, the Idlib Health Directorate (IHD), and the Khan Shaykhun Medical Centre.

The records from the Idlib Health Directorate covered 292 exposed individuals including 50 fatalities. If most of these fatal cases were recorded as not admitted to health-care facilities, the number of medical records collected by the FFM matches approximately the number received by the Mechanism, implying that these sets of records were largely the same. Whatever may be the explanation for the inconsistency of the recorded admission times with the time of the alleged attack, the failure of the FFM to mention it casts doubt on the reliability and integrity of the report.

8.3 Ltamenah 2017: intact sarin persisting after months in the open

The Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in Ltamenah on 24 and 25 March 2017 dated 13 June 2018 concluded that “sarin was very likely used as a chemical weapon in the south of Ltamenah on 24 March 2017” and that “chlorine was very likely used as a chemical weapon at Ltamenah Hospital and the surrounding area on 25 March 2017”. Witnesses of the alleged incident on 25 March 2017 reported that a gas cylinder dropped from the air had pierced the roof of the Ltamenah cave hospital, causing three deaths. Chlorinated organic molecules had been found in samples from this attack but so had sarin degradation products on the clothes of one of the victims. The FFM attributed the sarin degradation products to secondary contamination from a previously unreported sarin attack the day before in which two munitions had allegedly fallen on agricultural land outside the town.

Environmental samples from the alleged incident on 24 March 2017 were received by the FFM team eleven months later on 19 February 2018, after the White Helmets had been prompted to provide them in an “interview process” that had started at the end of July 2017:

Based on information supplied during interviews, the FFM identified munition parts that were of potential interest in relation to the alleged incident of 24 March 2017 and arranged for their collection by an NGO. As a result, further environmental samples, including remnants of alleged munition parts, were received by the FFM team on 19 February 2018.

Surprisingly, despite the delay in obtaining these samples, they were found to contain intact sarin as well as sarin degradation products. Even if the White Helmets had collected the munition parts immediately after the “interview process”, sealed them and stored them in a freezer till February 2018, they would still have been lying in the open for at least 15 weeks. A review of studies by western defence research establishments shows that intact sarin does not persist in the open for more than one or two days in warm weather. While it is possible that intact sarin could persist for longer than this, for instance between surfaces or adsorbed, the report does not provide any such explanation, or even record the date when these samples were purportedly collected. As chemistry graduates trained to inspect chemical weapons, Phillips and his successor Barrek could be expected to be aware that this was a key point in evaluating whether there had been a sarin attack as alleged.

As no reports or images of the incident on 24 March 2017 appeared at the time, sceptics might doubt that it happened, and might even suspect collusion between the FFM team and the White Helmets in coming up with this explanation, at least three months later, for the presence of sarin degradation products in the samples from the alleged chlorine attack on 25 March. A more plausible explanation for the presence of sarin degradation products in environmental samples from an opposition base on 25 March is that preparations were being made for the incident in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April.

In summary, in the reports of these three investigations by FFM Team Alpha when Phillips was Team Leader, there are indications that evidence favouring staging over a chemical attack was ignored or distorted. This strengthens the case for retracting all these reports, not just the Final Report on the Douma incident, and allowing independent reassessment of the material collected.

9 UK-led information operations associated with alleged chemical attacks

From combining all available information, it is now clear that several entities involved in reporting and documenting alleged chemical attacks have their origin in a covert programme launched by the UK government in 2012. In this programme, like a low-budget theatrical production, the same actors reappear in different roles. For instance Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (HdBG) appears successively as covert agent collecting samples for Porton Down, as independent chemical weapons expert quoted in the media, as the founder of a small business setting up an NGO to collect evidence for the OPCW, and from 2016, described as a “former spy”, in the role of a humanitarian worker coordinating a network of hospitals. It is likely that this programme would have attempted to co-opt OPCW staff, especially UK nationals.

9.1 Ministry of Defence: Targeting and Information Operations

In June 2012 the UK government established a covert StratCom programme on the Syrian conflict, overseen by former Lt-Col Kevin Stratford-Wright in the Targeting and Information Operations directorate of the Ministry of Defence, later renamed as Military Strategic Effects. Stratford-Wright described this programme as “the UK’s largest of its kind since the Cold War”. Metadata revealed that tender documents for provision of media operations for the “moderate armed opposition”, issued in 2013 by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, were created by Stratford-Wright. This contract was eventually awarded to a company named InCoStrat set up by Paul Tilley, another former Lt-Col who had been working with Stratford-Wright in the Targeting and Information Operations directorate.

9.2 ARK, Basma, Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets

An early step was the establishment in Istanbul of a company named Access Resource Knowledge (ARK) by Alistair Harris, a former FCO diplomat, together with a pro-opposition media outlet named Basma. Basma was the media source for the first alleged chemical attack in Homs in December 2012. As the “stabilisation and development” company ARK Group DMCC based in Dubai, ARK has received £19 million from the FCO since July 2015. The “Mayday Rescue” operation headed by Le Mesurier was spun out of ARK, where Le Mesurier worked. According to publicly available FCO expenditure records, a total of £43 million was paid to “Mayday Rescue” between May 2015 and October 2018, not to the non-profit Stichting Mayday Rescue Foundation registered in the Netherlands but to the company Mayday Rescue FZ-LLC established in 2014 and based in Dubai.

9.3 SecureBio and the CBRN Task Force

In April 2012, the company SecureBio set up a year earlier by HdBG became active with a new split of equity, and a separate company SecureBio Forensics was created. HdBG became prominent during 2013 in his overt role as an expert commentator on chemical weapons, and (as he revealed) in a covert role collecting samples from Syria for analysis at Porton Down and its French counterpart at Le Bouchet. He went on to establish a CBRN Task Force that provided apparently fabricated evidence of a chlorine attack in Talmenes to the FFM in 2014. He subsequently became affiliated with the ostensibly humanitarian NGOs UOSSM and Doctors under Fire. Recently he disseminated a story of an alleged chlorine attack in Idlib on 19 May 2018, shortly after it was first reported by a media outlet linked to the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

9.4 UK communicators

We have noted the role of Brian Whitaker in 2012 when he promoted the blogger Eliot Higgins to prominence as a self-taught expert on the munitions used in the Syrian conflict. Higgins would later be acclaimed as the open source investigator who documented munitions found at the sites of alleged chemical attacks in 2013. Whitaker was the first journalist to devote an article to attacking the Working Group, in February 2018 when its only collective output had been a brief blog post. In May 2019 he took on a new role in channelling an “informed source” within the OPCW.

Professor Scott Lucas’s communications in support of UK foreign policy appear to date back to the establishment of his website Enduring America in October 2008, at a time when UK diplomats were privately expressing concern that the incoming Obama administration might seek an agreement with Iran. Lucas persistently attacked two US foreign policy experts, Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett, who advocated a US-Iran rapprochement. He stated in a tweet on 16 May 2019 that he had been “developing info/contacts re OPCW process on Syria since 2013”. In a tweet on 30 April 2019, he revealed that “One of privileges of this job is meeting a lot of wonderful people on ground who, at risk to themselves, want to get story out. So that is why I have ‘facts’, in and beyond OPCW report.” It is not clear what he meant by “this job”, or why anyone whose honest intention was to “get story out” would choose Lucas as an outlet.

10 A next step: replication of the engineering studies

As we have noted, the Final Report recorded that the Syrian government retained custody of the two cylinders used for the internal Engineering Assessment, after they were tagged and sealed by “FFM team members” (presumably the engineering sub-team) on 4 June 2018. With access to the cylinders, and to open source records of observations at the locations where they were found, it should be possible to establish whether the findings of the engineering sub-team can be replicated, and to determine which of the two alternative hypotheses – dropped from aircraft or manually placed – is supported.

Such a study could be undertaken by an international panel of impact engineering experts, hosted by a university department with access to supercomputing facilities, and published in accordance with modern scientific standards for reproducible research so that all raw data and computer code used to generate the results are made freely available. For such a report to be credible it would have to be independent of the OPCW, although the IIT could be invited to participate and to provide the measurements taken by FFM team members at the locations where the cylinders were found. The IIT has no expertise to undertake or assess studies in this specialized field. The forthcoming meeting of the Executive Council would be an appropriate occasion to table such a proposal, on the basis that the proposed replication study will proceed with or without OPCW participation.

11 Role of external engineering experts and toxicologists

The Douma investigation included external consultations with engineering experts and toxicologists. The Final Report does not present the results of these consultations in their original form. The exclusion of the FFM’s own Engineering Assessment raises suspicion that other assessments may have been omitted or distorted. We are sceptical of the Director-General’s statement that all three external engineering consultants “reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM final report”. It is evident also that the opinions of the toxicologists have not been presented accurately. The explanation given in the Final Report for why the victims did not attempt to escape is that they were exposed to “an agent capable of quickly killing or immobilising”. Toxicologists would have been well aware that chlorine from a cylinder on the roof could not have done this, and would have said so. We invite the Technical Secretariat, if it really believes that it can stand by the FFM report on the Douma investigation, to take a step towards restoring the credibility of the OPCW by making public all the reports provided by engineering experts and toxicologists who were consulted during this investigation. We do not expect the Technical Secretariat to do this, and therefore we appeal to those who have access to the records of these consultations to make these documents publicly available.

As we have previously noted, if the Douma attack was staged the only plausible explanation for the deaths of the victims is that they were murdered as captives by the opposition group in control of Douma at the time. The visual evidence of this has been examined elsewhere. In most civilian and military jurisdictions, the duty to disclose a cover-up of such a crime would override any confidentiality agreement with an employer or with another organization.

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12 Acknowledgements

We thank the OPCW staff members who continue to communicate with us, some of whom have provided detailed comments on earlier drafts of this briefing note. We thank Carmen Renieri for open source research on the White Helmets, which made use of archived studies by the late Ursula Behr Taubert.

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10 Responses to How the OPCW’s investigation of the Douma incident was nobbled – Working Group on Syria

  1. Avatar adrian pols says:

    R22, chlorodifluoromethane, a ubiquitous refrigerant used in air conditioning units worldwide. I’ve got a 30 lb cylinder of the stuff I use in various AC units I’m responsible for. Yes, a “Chlorine containing chemical”. How sweet is that?

  2. Avatar Turcopolier says:

    All
    The authors asked me to post this.

  3. Might I enquire about the “R22” mentioned in the report and in your comment?
    The point you raise was also discussed on SST soon after the various incidents occurred, but as far as I remember without mentioning the specific type of chlorine used. –
    1. Apparently the water supply in many parts of Syria is unsafe so for many single or multiple dwellings small tanks of chlorine are kept on the roof to sterilise the tap water. These tanks were often disrupted during the fighting. Would this be the same type of chlorine?
    2. Presumably some houses also had AC units. Would these use the same type of chlorine that you use? If the AC units were disrupted would they contain sufficient chlorine to cause noticeable contamination?
    I hope those questions have not already been covered. If so, I hope you don’t mind them being raised again.

  4. Avatar Castellio says:

    And I’ very glad you did. Thank you.
    It’s necessary information for those who find ourselves arguing against the assumption of Assad’s “proven” use of chemical weapons

  5. Avatar Paul McKeigue says:

    Brief postscript — we’re told that the word “nobble” sounds strange to North American readers. In British English, the original meaning was to do something to a racehorse to prevent it from winning. Its common usage now is to mean interfering with a decision-making body by illegal or unfair means, as in “the jury was nobbled”. This is the precise meaning we are trying to convey.

  6. Avatar adrian pols says:

    The authors specifically mention R22 refrigerant cylinders being used as a delivery method, so I mentioned that, being familiar with it. Every cylinder, commonly looking like an everyday propane tank used on grills, has prominently lettered on it “Chlorodifluoromethane”. It is a non toxic gas which is now in the process of being phased out because it is thought harmful to the Ozone Layer. But it’s everywhere in the world and landfills are littered with empty cylinders which are legally single use containers. It’s not a stretch for the gullible to see that technical name and be fooled.

  7. Avatar Peter C says:

    As the objectivity of OPCW reports can no longer be taken for granted, it would be helpful if somebody could do a similar investigation into their curiously worded assessment of the Skripal situation.

  8. Avatar patrick says:

    Great works for the investigates of this information keep post it your help us Africa to know what is happening globally.

  9. Avatar Fred says:

    EO,
    R22 is a refrigerant used extensively in air conditioning systems. I’ve never heard of it being used in place of chlorine for water purification.

  10. Avatar Fred says:

    adrian,
    “legally single use containers.” This size cylinder is easily rechargable. What country has made the cylinder itself illegal to refill?

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