How I tracked down a militia group on the Israeli/Syrian border without knowing anything – and how you can too.

How can I, a broke Jew living in San Francisco with almost no knowledge of Arabic, make a difference to anybody in a warzone? As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Well, I have the will and here is the way.

Open Source Investigation

“Open source investigation,” is using tools on the internet that a bunch of people contribute to in order to create an investigation that others can contribute to. For example, let’s say you discover this video on Youtube and you think that your friends would enjoy it, so you post it on Facebook. Then one of your friends finds this video on Youtube and she thinks that her friends would enjoy it, so she posts it on Facebook. Then a mutual friend on Facebook watches both videos on his Facebook and realizes THIS.

That is how open source investigation works.

Another example would be if ISIS put up a propaganda video on Youtube. People watched it and took note of the weapons that ISIS was using in the video. Then they watched other videos and see what weapons ISIS was using in those. By using this information people could put together a map of where ISIS gets its weapons from.

The ISIS example is just one way that open source investigations can be used. Open source investigations could be used for any field imaginable; from piecing together human trafficking networks, to documenting the effects of climate change, to learning about global music trends.

How to Start an Investigation

There are some great tutorials on website called, Bellingcat. If you are interested in open source investigation you should go there.

The tutorials on Bellingcat showed that creating an open source investigation was a piece of cake. This made me very skeptical. But it looked interesting and fun so I decided to give it a shot. Here is how it went.

Finding something to investigate.

I am interested in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict so I decided to start there. I went on to Twitter and in two minutes I found this tweet:

Here is the video from the Tweet:

This video appears to be showing off some rebel-held territory. As this was a test investigation, I decided to come up with some questions that may have been relevant to real investigation.

  • Which militia was filming this? There are about eighty billion militias in Syria right now.
  • Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really in the Hamidiyah area?)
  • When was this video made?
  • What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Which militia was filming this?

This video and the text surrounding it was in Arabic but that was not a problem. First off, I noticed it was part of a playlist put together by some group. I guessed this was the rebel group that made the video. This is the group’s logo:

The Criterion Brigade logo.

Upon using Google Translate, I found the that the rebel group called themselves the “Criterion Front.” 30 seconds of research gave me a photo with the caption, The Criterion Brigades (aka Alwiya al-Furqan) display their military prowess in various convoys and parades in towns near Damascus, Syria. The Criterion Brigades is one of the larger armed groups allied with the Islamic Front who are taking the fight to Assad’s regime.

OK so now I’m going to presume that the Criterion Brigade/Alwiya al-Furgan made this video and it might have been made somewhere within driving distance to the Damascus area. I could have been wrong about both those things but it gave me a starting point to find the answer to the next question.

Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really filmed in the Hamidiyah area?)

The description of the video that Google Translate gave me was, A quick tour of the Mujahideen Brigades in the town of Al-Furqan Hamedia liberated on the border Alasraúalh.

Google Translate is terrible at grammar so I could only use it for key words. Al-Furqa is the Criterion Brigade. Hamedia is probably Hamidiyah which is where the Tweet said this video was from, and it’s probably on the border of Alasraúalh. Where is Alasraúalh?

Alasraúalh

Oh I get it. Alasraúalh is Israel.

That made it easy. The border between Israel and Syria is not very big. There are a lot of Hamidiyahs and a lot of ways to spell Hamidiyah so searching using the name was not successful. However, after going along the Israeli/Syrian border in Google Earth, I found a tiny village called “el Hmidaiah.”

el hmidaiah

That had to be it. el Hmidaiah was also right on the Israeli/Syrian border. Now that there was a little context to the video, I wanted to verify it’s authenticity. Were the Criterion Brigade really where they said they were? A lot of times militias and the Syrian Army lie about where they are – even in videos – especially in videos.

I got lucky when I randomly chose this video because the camera man seemed to be trying to prove that the militia was where they said they were. He even paused on some road signs. Unfortunately, the glare on the signs made them unreadable. No worries, I had Photoshop. I turned these signs:

shop1

Into these signs:

shop2

The cameraman also showed two signs that said Damascus was 43km away and KH Anarhabheh was 6km away. A quick check on the map showed that el Hmidaiah would have been in the area of these signs. However, there was a big problem: where was the village? Where was el Hmidaiah? On the map el Hmidiah looked a lot more densely packed than what the video showed. Where exactly was this video filmed?

treeline

I looked for clues in the video. In the video there was a huge flagpole in the middle of an intersection. In front of the intersection there was a field with some buildings in it. In the back of the intersection there was a field with no buildings in it. The left of the intersection had a road lined with trees. There was also a water-tower close to the trees. Most importantly, the layout of the intersection was a roundabout with an island in the middle of it, rather than a simple intersection. el Hmidaiah did not have an intersection like this.

However, using Wikimapia I followed the road south from el Hmidaiah and found a place that almost matched the description.

intersection

Just like in the video, buildings were in a field on one side but not the other, trees lined the road going out one side of the intersection, and there seemed to be something that looked like a large flagpole in the middle of the intersection. But other things were off. Mainly, the island in the middle of the intersection wasn’t round enough and the buildings didn’t quite match up. Also, the video showed more buildings than there were in the satellite photo. So I changed source’s satellite.

intersection2

That was more like it. I could see that this was a more updated photo because the road to the right had been completed. In the first satellite’s photo the road was under construction. Either right before or during the civil war, the Syrian government must have developed this area.

To further investigate this area in the map, I used Panoramio, a website that shows pictures taken from any area of the world. I found these two pictures of the intersection with Panoramio:

41052086

52622836

Both pictures showed the flagpole, and the second picture showed street lamp that matches the layout of the street lamps in the video. Just to triple-check that this was the intersection in which the rebels made the video, I used Google Earth. Google Earth has an option to see 3D terrain. It’s terrible at showing 3D buildings and trees, but great for viewing mountains. To compare the video with Google Earth, I positioned my viewpoint in Google Earth to where I thought the cameraman was in Syria.

video_mountan

Video facing southeast.

video_mountan2

Google Earth facing southeast.

video_mountan3

Video facing northwest.

video_mountan4

Google Earth facing northwest.

video_mountan5

Video facing southwest.

video_mountan6

Google Earth facing southwest.

So this video did not show that the militia was in the village of el Hmidaiah, but it did show that the militia was close by. That is a very important difference in a warzone.

When was this video made?

A lot of times militias and armies will use old footage to prove new gains. The army will say that they took over a village today and prove it by showing footage from 2012. Very little of the information in this video would matter if it was filmed in 2012.

In searching for the video’s date using some extreme googling, I found that the name of the village shown in the video was called, “al-Rawadi.” I remembered a sign in the video saying, “R ARRADI.” A search for “R ARRADI” brought up nothing, but things got very easy once I searched for “al-Rawadi.”

The most interesting thing a search for “al-Rawadi” brought up was a video put up by a different poster that uses the Islamic Front’s logo. (The Islamic Front is an umbrella group of militias that the Criterion Brigade is a part of.) The video was posted on September 2nd 2014. This new video showed what might have been a different militia fighting a battle in the intersection, as well as them taking down the giant Syrian government flag.

This newly discovered video put the video I was investigating into a whole new light. The new video was posted 11 days before the one I was investigating. To really find when either video was filmed I would have to go down a couple more rabbit holes. I didn’t feel like doing that because this was just a test investigation and I want to see the sun sometimes.

What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Since I didn’t want to spend the time to conclude the investigation, I cannot publish a solid conclusion. Although I can say that there is some intense stuff going on down by the Golan Heights, and it’s almost certainly being done by The Islamic Front. The Criterion Brigade is probably involved as well.

Conclusion

I am incredibly impressed by the scope of what I can do with an open source investigation. It was interesting to see militia groups running around the border of the Golan Heights. However next time I investigate something, I would like it to be something worthwhile – something that could make a difference to anybody trapped in a warzone.

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