The Al Ghouta Chemical Attack Dataset- FINDINGSAugust 21, 2023
On 21 August 2013, Syrians in Al Ghouta believed in the potential of social media documentation to bring global witnesses to the atrocity and prompt an urgent response to it.
Ten years ago, early morning rockets bombarded several neighbourhoods in opposition-controlled East and West Ghouta. Some carried and released the nerve agent sarin gas, “one of the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents.” In the seconds and minutes after impact, exposed victims began to experience health effects. United States officials attribute the loss of more than 1,400 lives – among them hundreds of children – and injury to thousands of others to this one attack. Survivors continue to suffer long-term consequences.
The earliest footage in our dataset depicting people who appear to be victims of toxic poisoning was uploaded to YouTube on 21 August 2013 at 03:50 in the morning, Damascus time. What followed was an unprecedented – and as-of-yet unparalleled – inundation of social media documentation from hundreds of different sources.
Our findings exhibit for this attack a contradiction between real-time availability of overwhelming documentation on the one hand and still-pending commensurate reaction on the other. Nevertheless, social media documentation of the Al Ghouta sarin attack is a distinctive and pivotal evidentiary resource in three key ways.
Online, open source documentation of this attack is unparalleled.
The breadth and depth of social media documentation of the 2013 Al Ghouta sarin attack is to our knowledge unequalled. It is the most- and best-documented attack in the Syrian Archive.
By our records, with 564 materials it is the most-documented attack on social media since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. This attack has been documented by around three times the number of verified open source materials than the next-most documented incident of chemical weapons use in Syria: the 4 April 2017 sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykhun with approximately 200 materials.
Beyond the quantity of footage, this attack was documented by a truly remarkable diversity of sources present ten years ago in Al Ghouta: journalists and other professional documenters but also everyday people, medical providers, and local activist networks. Our dataset includes open source materials uploaded by 145 distinct user accounts.
Together, these documenters captured a range of essential information that would feature on any investigator’s ideal collection plan:
- 327 materials documenting at least one indicator of toxic chemicals, including dead animals without visible injuries and discoloured gas or dust;
- 56 materials documenting military, security, or armed forces;
- 38 materials documenting the chemical impact sites;
- 35 materials documenting what appear to be the remnants of chemical weapons, at least 6 of which appear to show manufacturer markings of some kind;
- 7 materials documenting weaponized vehicles and weapons systems of some kind;
- 7 materials documenting the launch of munitions allegedly linked to the attack; and
- 4 materials documenting the moment of attack or impact.
A sample of the essential information documented in the dataset including munition remnants (33.520702, 36.357548 and 33.525338, 36.362195), gravesites (33.528877, 36.359371), dead animals near impact sites (33.524219, 36.359541), geolocated to different points in East Ghouta.
Open source documentation also covers key locations including impact sites, potentially relevant military sites, medical facilities where victims were treated, and mortuaries and burial sites for fatalities.
This documentation is exceptionally graphic, underscoring the exceptional human impacts of chemical weapons use.
The breadth and depth of available documentation is mirrored by the magnitude of loss and the profound suffering that have resulted from this attack – both of which can be seen in the collected open source materials.
Integral to legal prohibitions on using toxic chemicals as weapons of war – as well as bans on developing, producing, and stockpiling them – appears to be a fundamental recognition of their inherent nature to cause indiscriminate and acute human suffering. This nature is clearly reflected in the dataset: the collected materials are exceedingly graphic and include meticulous documentation of the destruction that toxic chemicals wreak on the human body.
Nearly every material in this dataset – 460 – provides information about casualties of the attack. For around half of the analysed materials – in 291 instances – Syrian Archive researchers tagged that material as “graphic” because of how it depicts impacts to children.
A core objective for this project was to log all information indicative of chemical weapons use, according to our research and consultations with experts on toxic chemicals and their weaponisation. The majority of these chemical indicator tags are medical symptoms or behaviours anticipated from people suffering certain medical symptoms. Observable, human impacts are documented hundreds of times across the collected materials.
|Symptom||Number of times observed in the dataset|
|Washing skin, bodies, clothes||92|
|Itching or burning skin||3|
Among the open source materials analysed for this Al Ghouta sarin gas attack dataset, medical facilities are shown 214 times, mortuaries 160 times, and gravesites 28 times. More than any other locations – except for impact sites – these sites for treatment and of loss are central to the collected footage. 224 materials document medical care in the process of being administered.
The documentation also provides glimpses into the psychological toll of this kind of attack. The materials show hundreds of instances of people in emotional distress, expressing grief, stress and disbelief following the attack. As a man from Zamalka said: “what I saw was unbelievable, people just were dropping dead on the streets. I went back to my house to see my children suffocating.” As another witness described: “people are trying to help each other but keep falling…I never thought I would make it out alive.” Said by another: “I never thought I would witness such tragedy.”
This documentation will endure any wait for accountability as publicly available evidence.
Syrian social media documentation resonates with purpose. This purpose is exceptionally clear in documentation of the sarin gas attack on Al Ghouta.
The 2011 protests in Syria were broadcast across social media platforms. While uplifting the movement, users also turned their cameras on security forces to document tear gas, beatings, and bullets. When conflict escalated, footage showed increasingly egregious levels of violence, serving as visual allegations of severe and potentially illegal acts under international law. Social media became a crucial tool in calls for global witnesses and global intervenors to respond to the atrocities being filmed. While it happened on the ground, then, the conflict transpired online nearly contemporaneously.
As the conflict advanced and allegations of serious violations of international law continued to accumulate without meaningful intervention, Syria became less and less accessible to international investigators, obliging authorities to “look elsewhere for relevant information to build cases.” International authorities turned to frontline documenters who filmed their surroundings and conflict events with these officials in mind and who worked hard to meet the highest investigative standards.
Reflecting this dynamic: after toxic nerve gas spread into Al Ghouta neighbourhoods at around 02:00 in the morning local time, people there began to film and share footage online almost immediately. At least 102 materials documenting the sarin attack on Al Ghouta were posted to social media within the first 6 hours. At least 250 materials were uploaded to social media in the first 24 hours following the attack, including pleas for help from medical personnel treating the victims.
These documentation efforts are remarkable not just for the overall amount and quality of content produced but also for the high number of near-contemporaneous online updates from dozens of different social media users during that first 24-hour period.
A histogram showing the number of materials documenting this attack uploaded each day, from 21 to 31 August 2013.
In the years after, however, the documentation dynamic appears to have begun to shift online. This attack on Al Ghouta was relatively early in the conflict. Online claims in recent years allege the destruction of gravesites and other physical evidence since government forces regained control over the areas of Al Ghouta impacted in the 2013 attack. Earlier this month the United Nations Security Council heard that Syria is failing to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, raising questions as to whether it retains an illegal stockpile. As observed by our colleague Mohammad al-Abdallah of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) back in 2014, “lots of people have lost their hope in documentation efforts…after, say, chemical attacks weren’t met with real accountability, people no longer really believe in documentation.”
Even so, Syrians continue to document the conflict online, every day. Via online documentation, the world has witnessed over 3,652 days of conflict in Syria since the attack on Al Ghouta. The 21 August 2013 sarin gas attack remains the most-documented incident on social media, and accountability is still in-progress.
Online documentation of this attack continues to be leveraged for advocacy and memorialisation; this dataset shows that new footage has been shared on the attack’s anniversary every year since. Criminal investigations into the attack are open in Germany, France, and Sweden, prompted by complaints submitted with support from Syrian Archive and our partners the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Open Society Justice Initiative, and Civil Rights Defenders.
Social media has platformed so much documentation of a sarin gas attack striking Al Ghouta on 21 August 2013 from so many different sources that ten years later we are still finding new information and improving our analysis. A “real” accountability response to this atrocity is now more than a decade in the making, but proof of what happened will always be publicly available, meticulously documented, and secure on our servers.