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INVESTIGATIONS

Airstrikes on Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus

November 24, 2020

Investigation reveals two bombs hit the station and building complex in Kafranbel pushing them out of service

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Initial Summary

  • Place of Incident: Idlib: Kafranbel
  • Location Hit: The Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh
  • Date: 7 December 2019
  • Time: Between 08:40 and 08:45
  • Deaths or Injuries: None reported
  • Type of Incident: Airstrike
  • Munitions: N/A
  • Potentially Responsible: The Syrian Government is likely responsible for the strike

Introduction

Housed within the same building complex, the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh are focused upon providing and amplifying necessary information to those in the Idlib governorate as well as supporting afflicted populations in the area. However, both organizations were targeted twice last year between September and December, 2019 with cluster and barrel bombs. Two years after the death of its founder Raed Al Faris, we examine the latest strike on Radio Fresh on December 7, 2019, which destroyed the headquarters of the radio station and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel.

Methodology

Syrian Archive conducted an investigation into the incident, consisting of three parts:

  1. A local investigations team collected 6 separate testimonies from eyewitnesses and persons who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the airstrike as well as took photos and video of the incident location;
  2. Syrian Archive researchers secured, analysed, and verified 61 videos and images uploaded to social media networks claiming to show the incident; and subsequently
  3. Analysed satellite imagery of the location from before and after the strike as well as flight observation data from the day of the incident.

The combined analysis of these sources culminated in the present investigation report.

Complementing each other, they provide information regarding the strike’s date and time, location, casualties, and extent of damage. Examining all information available on the strike, the investigations team developed an understanding of the incident and the parties potentially responsible.

For more details on Syrian Archive’s methodology, please visit our site.

Background on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh

image4 An image provided by the investigations team of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus from before the incident.

According to Osama Al Ahmed, a member of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ board of directors interviewed by Syrian Archive’s investigations team, the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus was established in Kafranbel towards the end of 2012 in an effort to not only organize and support residents in the town but also to provide mental support to those living under fire in Idlib. The Union houses a number of offices for organizations supporting civilians in Kafranbel and greater Idlib. In addition to media organizations such as Radio Fresh and Al Mantara Magazine, the Union houses organizations that support civilians. The Child Foundation Office, for example, supports around a thousand children annually through psychological and educational programs accredited by the United Nations. The Mazaya Foundation, with seven centers in and around Kafranbel, specializes in supporting and empowering women through professional training courses. The Union also houses the Dafa Office, an organization which supports adolescents and runs five centers around Idlib. Alongside these organizations, the Union runs offices for training, human resources, and planning and logistics with about 670 people working for the Union and its affiliated organizations.

image29 An image from before the incident provided by the investigations team showing the soccer field neighboring the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh buildings.

Radio Fresh is a radio station established on October 15, 2013 by Raed Al Faris and a group of activists including Hammoud Junaid and Khaled Al Essa. The purpose of the station, at first, was to warn residents of coming airstrikes. However, Radio Fresh has developed in also reporting on the challenges of daily life in Idlib and the human rights violations committed in and around the governorate. According to the director of Radio Fresh Abdullah Kalidou, “the Radio is the voice of the people.”

image8 image1 Images taken from Google Earth Pro showing Kafranbel and its surrounding villages as well as the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex.

The station includes news and educational programs as well as critical and satirical talk shows. Radio Fresh additionally trains and hires young journalists to report from abroad and in Syria. Broadcasts from Radio Fresh reach most of the Idlib governorate as well as the western countryside of Aleppo and the northern Hama countryside. Although supporting the community, the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh’s operations have been forced to stop a number of times after previous attacks on their headquarters and staff.

Previous Attacks on Radio Fresh

image25 An image taken by the investigations team of Kafranbel.

Since its inception, Radio Fresh has been attacked a number of times by local militias and the Syrian government. Fares Ali, director of programs at Radio Fresh, told the investigations team that the station has often been subject to “major crises,” which have at times curtailed or completely stopped staff from working at the station. The first of these crises, according to Fares Ali, occurred in late 2013 when the dominant militia around Kafranbel at the time threatened the station and its staff forcing them to stop broadcasting their program “Syrian Dialogue.” In addition to talk shows, dominant military factions have at times banned the station from broadcasting music. These militias, opposed to the station’s broadcasting, have threatened to raid the Radio Fresh’s offices and completely prevent it from broadcasting again if the station did not follow their guidelines.

A Facebook post by Radio Fresh from 2013 explaining that there would be a temporary halt in broadcasting as Daesh stole the station’s equipment.

Interviewed by the investigations team, Mahmoud Al Suwaid, a staff member of the station, detailed that staff were kidnapped and equipment was stolen on December 28, 2013 by Daesh, which forced the station to shut down for a significant period of time. After reopening with the withdrawal of Daesh, the station was raided again on January 10, 2016 by the Al Nusra Front, which confiscated the station’s equipment preventing it from broadcasting.

According to station staff, Radio Fresh was later raided again by Jund Al Aqsa in May 2016. The militia stole the station’s equipment, preventing it from broadcasting for three months. Jund Al Aqsa allowed the station to begin broadcasting again on June 13, 2016 under the pretense of the station’s admittance to “false communications.”

In addition to attacks on the station itself, Raed Al Faris, Radio Fresh’s founder, was arrested twice on December 30, 2014 and on January 1, 2016 by dominant militias in Kafranbel at the time. He was subject to multiple assassination attempts before he and Hammoud Junaid were killed by unidentified individuals in Kafranbel on November 23, 2018.

image3 A still from a video uploaded by Radio Fresh showing the moment of the attack on the station and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus on May 23, 2019.

The director of Radio Fresh Abdullah Kalidou told the investigations team that since the beginning of the recent aggressive military campaign in the southern countryside of Idlib, the station has moved the majority of its equipment and personnel to a safer undisclosed location outside of the city. Shortly after Radio Fresh’ move, regime forces on May 23, 2019 allegedly hit the station with long-range missiles that damaged the outside of Radio Fresh’s original headquarters. On December 7, 2019, the original headquarters were targeted again severely damaging the offices.

What Happened (and When)?

image28 An image taken by the investigations team of the Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex after the incident.

On December 7, between 08:40 - 08:45 Saturday morning, a helicopter targeted the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus with two barrel bombs. As a result of the strike, the Union suffered from extensive damage to its building with the offices and equipment of civil society organizations housed in the Union destroyed. The strike rendered the building unusable and out of service.

image72 A still from a video posted by the activist Hadi Al Abdallah showing a barrel bomb being dropped on the Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex

Coverage of the strike began the morning of December 7, 2019 at around 08:45 with alerts from Halab Today and Radio Fresh of regime helicopters dropping two barrel bombs on the station and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus. Videos posted by Ghassan Al Hamwi and Jamil Al Hassan, shortly after the incident, allegedly show the moment of the bombings on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus.

image11 A geolocation of a video showing the strike on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh. The satellite imagery is from Google Earth Pro and the geolocated image is a still from a video posted by the activist Hadi Al Abdallah.

image20 The shadows from buildings shown in a video uploaded by activist Hadi Al Abdullah match the sun’s position on December 7 at around 08:45 in Kafranbel as calculated by the SunCalc tool. This further corroborates the time of the incident reported by local journalists and detailed by witnesses in interviews with the investigations team.

Alongside images showing the damage to the Union, a video posted by Radio Fresh shows the crater where a munition hit the building complex. Around 35 meters away from the station, the crater, according to Syrian Archive’s investigations team that visited the location of the incident, was one and a half meters wide and sixty centimeters deep. The video additionally shows damage to a school that stands at the outer walls of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus.

image15 Satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro showing the location of the station and the crater (in red) from one of the munitions dropped on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus.

Footage uploaded by the Kafranbel Media Center, activist Hadi Al Abdullah, Halab Today, and Radio Fresh show the severe damage to the Union as well as confirm the time of the strike.

image5 A still from a video posted by the Kafranbel Media Center showing the damage to the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex.

In addition to open sources, Abdullah Kalidou, director of Radio Fresh, confirmed in an interview with the investigations team that the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex was directly targeted using barrel bombs. Kalidou additionally claimed that the bombs were dropped by a helicopter belonging to the Syrian government. He said the first barrel bomb fell directly onto the Radio Fresh headquarters at 08:42, while the second bomb fell at 08:43 onto a building neighboring the headquarters and often used by Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus for trainings.

image12 An image taken by the investigations team of the Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus building complex after the incident.

The time and location of the strikes were also confirmed in an interview with Osama Al Ahmad, a member of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ board of directors. Al Ahmad described the strike as severely damaging the Union’s offices as well as its training and education center.

image19 A still from a video provided by the investigations team of the destruction around the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus. This still shows the school neighboring the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in the background.

Additionally, the Syrian Network for Human Rights published an alert on December 7, 2019 confirming that a helicopter belonging to the Syrian government dropped barrel bombs near the vicinity of the Radio Fresh headquarters.

Satellite imagery of the Union from before and after the strike showing the damage to the buildings.

Syrian Archive’s investigations team visited the incident site to confirm the extent of the internal and external damage to the Union and the station.

Damage to Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus

A 3D reconstruction of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ building complex after the airstrike. To build this reconstruction, Syrian Archive collected a variety of drone footage posted online of the attack site. This footage was then organized by frame and location. The organized footage was inserted into a photogrammetry software to recreate a 3D model of the incident site. The recreation of the incident site allows the investigations team to better assess the damage to the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and surrounding buildings.

Syrian Archive’s investigations team documented, through videos and images, the internal and external damage to the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh. Taking photos and videos of their own, the investigations team compared them with open sources, interviews with radio and union staff, and old videos of the facility to gain a complete picture of the damage.

image9 An image taken after the strike by the investigations team of Radio Fresh’s office in the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus.

Faris Ali Al Sheikh, the deputy director of programs at Radio Fresh, was interviewed by the investigations team. Al Sheikh detailed that since the targeting on May 23, 2019 the majority of the technology necessary to broadcast were moved to a safer location. Nevertheless with some staff still working from the original headquarters, the Syrian Civil Defense and flight observatories in the area notified the radio staff of a potential attack on Kafranbel. According to Al Sheikh, after these warnings, the staff still at the original headquarters evacuated. The headquarters were empty at the time of its targeting. Al Sheikh reported the station’s furniture, cameras, training equipment, office materials, and main generator were destroyed. This is shown in the videos and images taken by the investigations team of the incident site.

Images taken by the investigations team on the ground of the outside of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus building complex.

Although the radio tower on top of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus building is shown still standing, it is surrounded by rubble and collapsed buildings. Videos show the street running past the buildings as covered in rubble with the roofs and ceilings of the surrounding structures collapsed. Columns with exposed rebar and crumbling concrete reveal the extent of the damage suffered by the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh from the airstrike.

Images taken by the investigations team on the ground of the inside of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus building complex.

Internally, the buildings were destroyed and rendered unusable. Images show the Radio Fresh offices with walls destroyed and the floor covered in rubble. The rest of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus’ offices are shown in a similar condition. The rooms, as described by officials and local reporters, were destroyed beyond repair with collapsed ceilings, broken walls, and ruined equipment. Almost all of the offices in the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus were destroyed or severely damaged from this strike including the news editors’ offices, the accounting office, the generator room, and a soccer field adjacent to the buildings. From this strike, the infrastructure for Radio Fresh and a number of other civil society organizations relying on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus were destroyed pushing a large number of these organizations temporarily out of service.

Flight Data Analysis

To further verify the incident, Syrian Archive cross-referenced information from open sources and interviews conducted by the investigations team with flight observation data from a spotter organization, which documents sightings of warplanes by partner observers in cities throughout Syria. These observers collect data about the aircrafts such as the type of plane and the direction the plane is flying. Although there may be misidentifications of aircraft in the flight data, additional information such as witness statements and social media posts can corroborate the identified aircraft and its course. Data for flights occurring briefly before, during, and after the time of the incident around 08:45 near Kafranbel was analyzed.

Flight observation data shows Mi-8 (Hip) military helicopters, used frequently by the Syrian government, taking off north from Hama Military Base (56 km south of Kafranbel) at both 08:25 and 08:33. A Mi-8 helicopter was then spotted flying north over Kafranbel at 08:39. Shortly thereafter at 08:42 and 08:43, an Mi-8 helicopter was seen circling over Kafranbel. MI-8 helicopters were then seen circling over Kafranbel at 08:52, 08:56, and 09:01. With the common practice of circling by war zone aircrafts indicating a target acquisition and/or preparation for an imminent strike, the circling by MI-8 helicopters over Kafranbel corroborates both the estimated time of the incident as around 08:40 to 08:45 and claims that the Syrian government may be responsible for the incident.

Although the data provided matches claims by local journalists, witnesses, and social media posts that the strike was done by a helicopter belonging to the Syrian government, there is no direct evidence currently available that one of the observed helicopters was involved in the strike on Kafranbel. However, the presence of Mi-8 helicopters above the town increases the likelihood that an airstrike occurred on the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and Radio Fresh during the times shown and corroborated by witness testimony and open sources. Given that the majority of the aircraft spotted over Kafranbel around the time of the strike were primarily used by the Syrian Air Force, it is also likely that the Syrian government is responsible for the airstrike on December 7.

Radio Fresh After the Incident

image24

A still from a video taken by the investigations team in the new headquarters of Radio Fresh.

The Radio Fresh station and team are operating now from an undisclosed location to prevent further disruptions and attacks to the station’s operations, according to interviews with Radio Fresh staff. However, radio staff member Jamil Ali Al Sheikh confirmed that some staff are still broadcasting from Kafranbel as they believe that the radio came out of that city and “must remain in it, whatever the circumstances.”

Conclusion

Through the information outlined above, Syrian Archive was able to confirm that an airstrike hit the Radio Fresh and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus building complex on December 7, 2019 at around 08:40-08:45. The strike destroyed the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus and pushed Radio Fresh, and a number of other civil society organizations housed in the Union, out of service. Given the limitations of the investigation, Syrian Archive is unable to definitively identify those potentially responsible for the strike although statements by witnesses and flight observation data point towards the Syrian Government as likely responsible.

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