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INVESTIGATIONS

The bombing of a bus in central Damascus

December 23, 2021

An investigation into the bombing of a military bus in central Damascus

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Initial Summary

  • Place of incident: Damascus governorate
  • Impact site: The intersection of Shukri Al Quwatli Street (Old Convention Street) and President Hafez Al-Assad Bridge
  • Date: Wednesday, 20 October 2021
  • Time: Approximately 06:45 local time
  • Killed: 14 people, both civilians and military personnel
  • Injured: Three people, both civilians and military personnel
  • Type of incident: The bombing of a Hyundai Deluxe transport bus belonging to the Military Housing Organization
  • Munitions likely used: Unverified reports of three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attached to the bottom of a bus, two of which exploded and one of which was later found and disarmed
  • Potentially responsible: Syrian Archive is unable to determine responsibility for the attack. However, The Saraya Qasioun Group claimed responsibility for the operation

Introduction

image63 Aphoto posted by journalist Amin Al Shami.

As will be shown below, two successive explosions detonated in Damascus on the morning of Wednesday, October 20 at approximately 06:45. The explosions damaged a transportation bus belonging to the Military Housing Organization at the intersection of Shukri Al Quwatli Street and President Hafez Al Assad Bridge, killing 14 people including two women and wounding three others.

In the minutes after the explosion, activists on social media and news networks began circulating pictures of smoke rising from the city center as well as pictures of a burning vehicle and the arrival of first responders.

Methodology

Syrian Archive conducted an open source investigation into the incident by:

  • Collecting, archiving, and verifying 72 videos and photos uploaded to social media allegedly showing the bombing aftermath;
  • Analysing these videos and photos to determine the location and time of the explosion;
  • Analysing interviews on news networks of people who allegedly witnessed the incident; and
  • Confirming the identities of those killed and injured in the attack by identifying posts mentioning the victims.

The combined analysis of these sources has culminated in the present investigation report. Considered together, the information gathered helps to establish the incident’s date, time, location, casualties, extent of damage, and potential perpetrators.

For more details about Syrian Archive’s methodology, please see our site.

What Happened?

As will be established in the following analysis, the Military Housing Organization Hyundai County Deluxe Bus number 902904 was following its normal daily route of transporting civilians and military personnel from the Qatna and Al Mezzeh areas to Branch 7 in the Al Wafideen Camp in the Damascus countryside.

Explosion 1

At about 06:45—just as the bus was on Shukri Al Quwatli Street in central Damascus, around 130 metres from the President’s Bridge—an explosive device attached to the bottom of the vehicle exploded.

Explosion 2

A second explosive device, also attached to the bottom of the bus, exploded 20 metres after the first. The second explosion derailed the bus, pushing it off the right hand side of the road so that it crashed into a fence along the Barada river. The bus stopped moving under the President’s Bridge.

Explosion 3

The two explosions set the bus ablaze and its fuel tank exploded. The fuel tank exploded almost immediately after the bus stopped, according to witnesses.

Emergency response

The wounded were treated and the bodies of those killed were recovered immediately after the attack occurred. Videos show that first responder operations—including the recovery of those killed and treatment of those wounded—ended at about 07:14, about a half hour after the explosion. The explosion killed 14 passengers and injured three others, including the bus driver.

When and where?

Syrian Archive chronolocated and geolocated open source information to determine the date, time, and location of the attack.

Chronolocation of the attack.

The attack happened on 20 October 2021 at approximately 06:45, around the same time as sunrise at 06:43, and approximately 30 minutes after the bus’ departure time.

First reports shared online

The first open source photos of the attack were posted on 20 October 2021 at 07:03 to the Facebook page of a local Syrian radio station, Sham FM. The photos show ambulance teams removing remains of those killed from a burning vehicle and the arrival of four emergency response personnel to the scene of the explosion. Two of the emergency response personnel are wearing military uniforms under their first responder jackets.

image10 image68 Source: The Facebook page of Sham FM

In a special report about the attack by the Syrian Satellite Channel that began the same day at 07:14, the channel’s correspondent Jaafar Younes walks along Shukri Al Quwatli Street in Damascus before reaching the two explosion sites, about 100 meters from where the vehicle finally stopped.

The reporter states that the street where the attack occurred is a main thoroughfare often crowded with cars, and the explosion happened around morning rush hour as employees left for work.

image19 A still from a special report about the attack by the Syrian Satellite Channel showing Shukri Al Quwatli Street.

image55 A labeled satellite image from Google Earth Pro of Shukri Al Quwatli Street.

Sunlight analysis

A photo of smoke rising from the area of the explosion in early morning light was taken from the Al Muhajireen neighborhood and uploaded to Facebook at 08:04 on 20 October 2021. The photo capture site and Al Muhajireen neighborhood are located northwest of the impact site with the camera pointing southeast. Comparing the photo to satellite imagery of the area makes clear that the plume of smoke pictured is rising from the President’s Bridge area: the photo shows the Damascus tower and the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. The sun’s position is low in the sky and situated outside of the camera’s frame, left of the hotel and the impact site.

image38 An analysis of a photo posted by journalist Amin Al Shami.

image7 A satellite image showing the site of the bombing at the President’s Bridge and location of the Four Seasons Hotel. Source: Google Earth Pro

According to SunCalc, the sunrise in Damascus on 20 October 2021 began at 06:43 with the location of the sunrise between east and southwest Damascus at 102.56°.

image6 Sunrise information for Damascus on 20 October 2021. Source: SunCalc

image17 image65 A geolocation of the photo posted by Amin Al Shami. Source: Google Earth

image50 The location of the sunrise on the day of the bombing (Orange circle on the right) overlaid with the photo geolocation. The open circles match the explosion site (left) and the Four Seasons Hotel location (right).

The bus and it’s scheduled route

Official media of the Syrian government reports that the targeted bus belonged to the Military Housing Organisation. Quoting unnamed sources, the website ‘Voice of the Capital’ reports that the targeted bus was a part of the military construction services, and that at the time of the attack it had begun its trip from the Al Mezzeh 86 neighborhood towards Adra in the Damascus Countryside.

Russian news agency RIA News published a picture showing the bus number: Army 902904.

image30

Syrian Archive spoke to sources, who requested to remain anonymous, with knowledge of the bus’ schedule and anticipated route. The departure time was set for 06:15. The bus route is from Qatana, through Moadamiya Junction, Al Sumaria, Masakin Al Haras Junction, along the Al Mezzeh Highway, then to Al Raees Bridge, Al Abbasiyyin Square, and Aleppo garages. The route takes approximately 60 minutes and Shukri Al Quwatli Street as well as the President’s Bridge are about 30 minutes from the departure point. An on-time departure at 06:15 would be consistent with an estimated explosion time of 06:45, or 30 minutes after departure.

image25 An approximate map for the bus route, according to sources with knowledge of its scheduled route.

Geolocation of the bus and the two explosion sites

Syrian Archive analysed photos posted to social media showing the site of the bombing and located the burned bus to the sidewalk of Shukri Al Quwatli Street, below the President Hafez Al Assad Bridge.

A geolocation of the photos posted onto Facebook.

The targeted bus and the location of the two craters from the explosions as well as shrapnel, glass, oil, tires, and other damage near the two craters are also shown the special coverage from the Syrian Satellite Channel.

image82 A screenshot taken from the Syrian Satellite Channels special coverage, showing the shrapnel and oil—between the two explosions—from the bus.

About the general impact area

The explosions happened at the intersection of Shukri Al Quwatli Street, one of the main roads in Damascus, and President’s Bridge. This intersection is a vital area because of its proximity to the city center. It serves as a transportation node with buses to and from several neighborhoods in Damascus and its countryside starting their routes near this intersection.

The intersection is also near to the security and military centre of the Syrian government. The bus exploded several dozen meters away from the Former Presidential Guesthouse, which was was previously used by former presidents to receive their guests, and about 500 metres away from the Chief of Staff and Ministry of Defense buildings.

image33 A satellite image of the President’s Bridge and Shukri Al Quwatli Street area. Source: Maxar

The first crater (west)

The Syrian Satellite Channel video shows the crater caused by the first (western) explosion and the apparently resulting damage to the plants on the street’s center barrier.

Source: The Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage

The second crater (east)

The Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage on the attack also shows the crater from the second (eastern) explosion. The second explosion occurred about 20 meters away from the first. This crater appears wider and deeper than the first, but the plants next to the crater appear to have less fire damage.

Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack

This footage also shows shards of glass on the opposite side of the street. Most of the glass is located near the second explosion.

Source: The Syrian Satellite Channels special coverage showing the shards of glass nearer to the second explosion.

Mapping both craters

After analysing the footage from the Syrian Satellite Channel, Syrian Archive identified the first and second explosions as occurring near two light poles located four and five columns away from the bus parking lot. Using these poles, Syrian Archive was able to accurately locate the two explosions:

Syrian Archive was able to identify the location of the first explosion and second explosion as well as where the vehicle stopped.

image11

image23 Source: A picture posted on Facebook of the bus from the President’s Bridge

The fence where the vehicle stopped

The Syrian Satellite Channel footage also captured the damaged, burned bus once the fires had been extinguished. In this footage, the bus rests against a fence bordering a river. The location pictured is at the Barada River fence on Shukri Al Quwatli Street, and where the bus stopped after the explosions. The fence appears blackened and damaged.

Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage showing the damage to the bus and the surrounding area

Comparing the pictures above with previous pictures of that same location prior to the explosions on September 25 and August 4, Syrian Archive concluded that the bus ran off the street and hit the fence, damaging it.

image56 A screenshot from a video posted by the Al Mashhad Channel on YouTube on August 4, 2021. The video shows the Barada River fence intact, on the left.

image73 A picture published by SANA News Agency on 25 September 2021 that shows the fence intact.

The Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage and pictures posted by journalist Amin Al Shami also show tire marks on the road, leading to the river fence.

Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage

Damage to the Bus

The targeted bus is a Hyundai County Deluxe, manufactured in 2008 or 2009 Hyundai County Deluxe.

image9 Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack.

According to the manufacturer’s specifications, this minibus is 6.35 meters long, 2.63 meters high, and 2.035 meters wide. The bus’ fuel tank is located on the left side of the vehicle, behind the driver and between the front and rear tires. The tank can hold 65 liters of diesel fuel.

Here is a comparison between photos of the bus that was bombed and photos of an intact bus of the same model:

Pictures from a video posted by Rajeev Pillai YouTube Channel of a bus similar to the one that was targeted.

image78 A picture of the targeted bus. Source: a video posted by the SANA YouTube channel

A video posted by the YouTube channel Autowini.com_Official shows the bottom of the Hyundai Deluxe bus. The video confirms the fuel tank is located on the middle left side of the bus model.

Source: Video posted by the YouTube channel Autowini.com_Official

This same location on the bus appears to have been significantly damaged in the attack, possibly due to the fuel tank exploding.

Pictures showing the fuel tank location on the left side of the targeted bus. Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack.

However, damage to the bus appears to be most severe on the right side of the vehicle, possibly indicating a bomb location.

image67 Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack

image40 A picture from the bottom of an intact bus of the same model, showing the right underside of the vehicle. Source: Video posted by the YouTube channel Autowini.com_Official

Reported Discovery of an Unexploded Munition

According to a reporter for the Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack, at exactly 07:33—approximately 45 minutes after the explosion—“the engineer units of the Syrian Arab Army discovered a third bomb attached to the bottom of the bus but dislodged. The bomb was dismantled.” The reporter indicates the bombs were attached to the bottom of the bus, on the left-hand side.

image54 Photo showing where the alleged 3rd IED’s location. Source: Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack

Examining photos of the attack aftermath and the various impact sites, Syrian Archive could not identify remnants of explosives. First responders cleaning the bus and the surrounding area reveal fire damage to the bus and no clear indications as to where the first and second explosions occurred on the bus.

Photos of the sidewalk after the bus was moved. Source: Video posted by Syria TV

image75 Photos of sidewalk cleaning operations after the bus was removed. Source: An article from Al Alam

Reports of a third explosion

Media reporting included eyewitness statements. According to a witness in an Al Arabiya Channel video: “The bus was moving and burning, it went off the road and went on the sidewalk and stopped there, then it exploded with a second explosion.” This indicates a possible explosion after the bus stopped at the river fence.

According to a witness who spoke with RT: “While we were under the President’s Bridge—and about ten meters before the bridge—the explosion occurred in the bus, which could accommodate 24 passengers. After the explosion, the bus was heading towards us. We went towards the bus to treat the wounded and we were surprised by the sound of a second explosion. No one dared to approach the bus after it was on fire.”

Considering these statements together with the two craters discovered and linked to the attack—discussed above—it is possible the bus suffered three explosions in total. The extensive damage documented to the bus’ fuel tank on the left side of the bus—also discussed above—indicates one of these may have been the bus’ fuel tank exploding.

Pictured below, a traffic sign next to the charred bus appears heavily burnt, indicating the left side of the bus was actively burning hot at some point after it stopped moving and before first responders could extinguish the flames.

image1 A picture of the left side of the bus showing where the fuel tank located in the middle-left of the bus exploded. Source: Video posted by SANA on YouTube

Victims

According to media sources, the bombing killed 14 people and wounded 3 others. Syrian Archive has compiled a list of the people who were reportedly killed or injured in the attack, which we will not publish here. It may be made available as appropriate and by request.

Potentially Responsible

A group named Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the bombing. At this time, Syrian Archive cannot independently verify Saraya Qasioun’s existence or claim of responsibility for the attack.

The group, reportedly “operating in Damascus and its countryside,”said in a statement that it targeted an overnight military housing bus with explosive devices planted under the vehicle, killing 14 people and wounding others. The group emphasized that it will continue to carry out such “significant” operations inside the areas under control of the Syrian government. The group says this and other attacks are in response to daily massacres committed by the Syrian government and its allies in northern Syria.

According to its public relations official, the group self-identifies itself as a group of revolutionaries operating in Damascus and its countryside that began operations in 2019. Saraya Qasioun has claimed responsibility for 19 operations (i.e., bombings, shootings) in Damascus and its countryside, including the 20 October 2021 attack. Of these, 14 were in the heart of Damascus. Saraya Qasioun made these claims on its Telegram account. Most of the attacks were allegedly conducted by planting IEDs on individuals or checkpoints.

The group did not provide unique and verifiable photos or videos confirming any of these reports. The group’s public relations officer justifies the lack of such publicised photos in an interview with Radio Al Kul, claiming the photos would put their members on the ground at risk.

Opposition groups question the existence of Saraya Qasioun claiming they are affiliated with the Syrian government. However, Saraya Qasioun are referenced in a number of reports including those by the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research, Harmoon Centre for Contemporary Studies, and other news reports.

In July 2020, Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi conducted an exclusive interview with Saraya Qasioun. In the interview, the group says that they were “established at the beginning of 2019, beginning their operations in April of that same year.” The group also says that their “work is concentrated in the governorate of Damascus and its countryside”, with the aim of eliminating the sectarian system, targeting all its “symbols and pillars” as well as any agents or militias supporting the system.

A screenshot of the statement released the day of the bombing by Saraya Qasioun on its Telegram.

image81 A photo of posts on the Saraya Qasioun Telegram channel of the bus before and after it was damaged in the explosions. These photos were posted on the day of the explosion, 20 October 2021.

Both photos appear to show the same bus that was targeted in the attack on 20 October 2021: image8

Previous attacks using placed IEDs, also called “Sticky Bombs”

During the Syrian Satellite Channel’s special coverage of the attack, a correspondent suggested that the explosion was carried out using so-called “sticky bombs”—a commonly made claim.

According to the website Al Hurra, there were eight similar explosions in 2021 before the October 20 bombing, all apparently caused by explosive devices planted on cars or buses. The attacks reportedly happened in these locations: “Khalid Bin Al Walid Street, El Galaa Park in Al Mezzeh, Bus station in Bab Al Musalla, Marjeh Square in central Damascus, and the area of Tishreen Stadium and the Umayyad Tunnel.” Syrian Archive is unable to verify these bombings.

Using open source information, Syrian Archive compiled a list of similar attacks, mostly using “sticky bombs,” in Damascus and the Damascus countryside. Syrian Archive was unable to verify these attacks or their perpetrators:

7 November 2019: An overnight bus belonging to the Syrian government forces was bombed by unknown assailants near the Republican Guard residences in the Qudsaya area in the Damascus countryside. The military passengers were injured in the attack. The bus bombed in this attack is the same type of bus bombed in the 20 October incident. However, the damage from the November 7, 2019 incident appears to be less and the bus did not catch on fire.

image72 A picture of the bus bombed in November 2019. Source: An article from Enab Baladi

10 February 2020: An explosive device detonated in a pickup truck behind Al Jalaa Park in Al Mezzeh in Damascus, injuring one person.

25 February 2020: An explosive device planted in a civilian Toyota pickup truck exploded in the Umayyad Tunnel in Damascus injuring a person.

15 December 2020: An explosion of an IED occurred in the Sumariyah area, west of Damascus. There were no casualties, only damage to the surrounding area. According to Einab Baladi, more than eight bombings occurred in the Syrian capital in 2020.

March 2021: An explosion occurred in the Al Dahadeel area of Damascus, killing a civilian. According to Syrian government media, an explosive device planted in the car of a civilian exploded, killing the driver.

25 July 2021: A device exploded near Damascus’ southern corridor. Syrian government forces dismantled another device. There were no recorded casualties according to ‘Voice of the Capital’.

4 August 2021: An explosion of a Republican Guard bus (similar in model) at 07:30 on the road between Republican Guard housing and the Demmar project. The attack killed two and wounded three Republican Guard soldiers.

According to the Syrian News Agency (SANA), the explosion was from a short circuit, which caused the bus’ fuel tank to explode. ‘Voice of the Capital’ reports that the explosion was caused by a sticky bomb. The group “Harras Al Din” claimed responsibility for the bombing. The group—according to the BBC—is active in the Idlib countryside in northwestern Syria and has adopted several operations in different governorates. The group started as a jihadist faction of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS). After HTS announced its withdrawal from Al Qaeda in 2016, the group separated from HTS.

image66 A photo from the August 4 bombing- Source: An article by Enab Baladi

image21 A photo from the August 4 bombing- Source: The twitter account @TheSyrianTweet

In the photo above from the August 4 bombing, damage on the left side of the bus—near the fuel tank—is visible.

image4 A photo from the August 4 bombing- Source: An article from ‘Voice of the Capital’

Unverified attacks claimed by the Saraya Qasioun group

In addition to the attacks mentioned above, the group Saraya Qasioun has claimed responsibility, through social media, for similar attacks done in the past two years around Damascus and the Damascus countryside. Syrian Archive was unable to verify these attacks and their perpetrators.

4 April 2019: Two members of the Republican Guard were targeted in the Ain Tarma Valley. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the targeting.

16 April 2019: A Political Security officer and official in the Recruitment department was targeted in Qudsaya with an explosive device planted in his car. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

24 April 2019: A member of the State Security Branch was targeted south of the capital with an explosive device planted under his car. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

22 July 2019: A leader of the National Defense Militia was targeted in the Al Midan Area, Aisha River, south of Damascus with an explosive device planted under his car. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

9 November 2019: The Kafr Batna military security checkpoint was targeted with an explosive device planted at the checkpoint. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

16 December 2019: A leader of the National Defense in the southern region of Damascus was targeted with an explosive device planted in his car. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

19 December 2019: The Hamouriyeh Square checkpoint in Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside was targeted with an explosive device. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

24 December 2019: A senior assistant in the Region 227 Branch in the Asal Al Ward rural area in Western Qalamoun, Damascus Countryside was assassinated. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

1 January 2020: The military point in the Telfita area in western Qalamoun in the Damascus countryside was targeted. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the operation.

26 February 2020: The explosion of a device planted in a car near the Baath Party division in the Qatana area in the Damascus countryside. The attack targeted an officer in the Palestine Liberation Army. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

13 March 2020: Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for several attacks on a commander in the Fourth Division in the Beit Jinn Ara and on a member of the SaaSaa Branch with small arm weapons. This was followed by the targeting of the Jaramana police station with an explosive device and the targeting of a National Defense Militia officer.

2 July 2020: A military security checkpoint in the Saqba area of Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside was targeted. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

6 July 2020: A commander in the Fourth Division was targeted in the Wadi Barada area by an explosive device planted in his car. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

18 July 2020: Intelligence agents from the General Intelligence Department (State Security) were targeted in the Aisha River area with two explosive devices. Saraya Qasioun claimed responsibility for the attack.

23 September 2020: An education officer from the Political Security Branch in Jabal Al Sheikh was targeted. The Saraya Qasioun group claimed responsibility for the attack.

20 November 2020: A leader of the Tiger Forces was targeted. An explosive device was placed in his car. The Saraya Qasioun group claimed responsibility for the attack.

15 August 2021:The targeting of the Ain Affa checkpoint of the Military in Western Ghouta with RPGs and machine guns. Saraya Qasioun—the group allegedly responsible for the Damascus bombing near the President’s Bridge—claimed responsibility for the attack.

Conclusion

Syrian Archive verifies that at least two explosions, reportedly caused by IEDs also called “sticky bombs,” damaged a Military Housing Organisation bus at the intersection of Shukri Al Quwatli Street and the President’s Bridge at approximately 06:45 on Wednesday, 20 October 2021. The attack killed 14 people, both civilians and Syrian military personnel. The attack also left three people injured, including the bus driver. The explosion burned the entire bus and damaged the fence that borders Barada River. Syrian Archive cannot independently verify exactly who is responsible for the attack, but a group named Saraya Qasioun has claimed responsibility.

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