Friday 17 May 2013

Was The Attack In Saraqeb Chemical Weapons, Or Something Else?

Yesterday the BBC published a series of reports on alleged chemical weapon attacks in the town of Saraqeb on April 29th.  I've looked at this attack in the past, and with the information from the BBC report I've put together the following detailed report on the attack.  I've summarised the attack, and examined the devices used and the victims of the attack in as much details as possible.

Summary of events in Saraqeb

The following events are mainly based of reports by Ian Pannell, who visited Saraqeb in mid-May.

Shortly after midday April 29th the town of Saraqeb was attacked from government position, reportedly 8km away.  A unknown number of projectiles hit the town, possibly artillery rounds or rockets.

A helicopter was spotted high above the town, with eyewitnesses reporting at least two “canisters” were dropped from it.  The canisters left a smoke trail as they fell through the sky, and in one video seems to indicate it was producing light, as if it was on fire.

The devices landed in the garden of Marian Khatib, and outside the town, by the side of a road.  Mariam Khatib's family was affected by the gas when they went to investigate the canisters, as well as opposition fighters who went to assist them.

Witnesses claim that shortly after the canisters landed casualties began to arrive at Saraqeb hospital.

Doctors told the BBC eight people were admitted, some of whom had been driven to the hospital by car.

The victims were later taken to the hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey, where one victim, Mariam Khatib, died.  Reports claims that between 11 and 13 victims were taken to the Reyhanli hosptial, with no further details given.

Samples from the scene were reportedly taken to Britain, France, Turkey and America for testing.

Later reports would claim Turkish doctors found no presence of sarin gas in the victims blood samples.

Devices used in the attack

Eyewitnesses report two devices being dropped by helicopters, both producing trails of smoke, with video of one of the devices appearing to show it was burning as it fell (1:18)

One device landed on the outskirts of Saraqeb, with "eyewitnesses describing a box-like container with a hollow concrete casing inside."

You'll note in the video civilians seem unconcerned about coming very close to the remains of the device, with no immediate ill effects apparent.

The smell at the scene of the attack is described to the BBC as being very strong
"It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn't breathe at all. Your body would become really tired."
In this video it's stated "These are smelly, and a lot of them were used.".

Witnesses claimed inside each device there were two canisters, with one of the recovered canister shown in two videos.  Firstly this video (0-30s)

Then this example of the same canister, inside a large jar

The canister is also featured in this photograph

You'll note 4 holes with black marks around them on the body of the canister, which may relates to the burning seen in the video of one of the canisters being dropped.

This canisters match devices recovered from a scene of a earlier attack in Sheikh Maghsoud (details here), which shared a number of other similarities with the Saraqeb attack.  Photographs from the scene of the attack shows greyish-white powder covering the area, for example

Mohammed Aly Sergie reported some details of the Sheikh Maghsoud attack provided by witnesses

"Phosphorous type chemical" would suggest either smoke or burning, as we've seen in the Saraqeb attack, and it seems clear white powder was everywhere at the scene of the attack.  There's also reports of the device being dropped from a helicopter, with a small number of casualties.

What's also interesting is this photograph from the Sheikh Maghsoud attack, and for more than one reason

Here we have the upper body of two of the canisters, and they've had what's known as a "fly-off lever" reattached to them.  A fly-off lever is what you see on a hand grenade, and it is released when a ring pull is removed, which then allows the lever to rotate over the top of the device due to a spring load, releasing a securing pin that renders the device live (more details here).  The fly-off lever may or may not detach, and in this example it appears they have, as they've been put back on the upper body of the canister backwards.  This indicates the canisters are in fact some form of grenade.

Another interesting point is that while the upper body on the left is a match to what we've seen in Saraqeb the upper body on the right appears to be a different design.  It appears that in both this attack and the Saraqeb attack two unknown types of grenades have been placed inside a container, along with an unidentified white/grey powder, and then thrown out of a helicopter after being armed.

There's one more piece of evidence that points to these items being some kind of grenade.  This photograph, taken by Jeffry Ruigendijk, shows a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter carrying one of the weapons in question

Here's a close up where you can see the finer details

We can see that this matches what has been seen in Saraqeb and Sheikh Maghsoud almost perfectly, the only detail I can see that is different is the fly-off lever appears to be black (although that might just be the reflection of his attire), and the presence of the ring pull.

A large number of people have been attempting to find out the specific type of grenade this is, and so far no-one has been able to come up with an answer, so the contents of this is currently unknown.

One thing that seems widely agreed is these are not something you'd use to deliver a deadly chemical weapon like sarin, VX, or any other kind of lethal agent.  It seems these grenades are key to understanding the events in Saraqeb and Sheikh Maghsoud, and it seems extremely likely that the use of these grenades indicates that lethal chemical agents were not used in these attacks.  It possible that two different types of grenades were used, and the symptoms are the result of two different agents, but at this point that's pure speculation.

Update September 4th Since I wrote this article I have now established through a variety of sources that the smoke grenades were placed inside a breezeblock/cinderblock, then inside a box, and that what was dropped from the helicopter.  The grey-white powder is actually the shattered remains of the breezeblock.

Victims of the attack

There appears to be some confusion over the number of victims, with the BBC being told by doctors there were 8 victims, two women, one child, and five men, but with later reports from the hospital the victims were taken too in Reyhanli, Turkey, claiming up to 13 people were treated
Medics tested the blood samples — which were taken from some 13 victims of an attack that included white powder in the northern village of Saraqeb on April 29 — at the Reyhanli hospital on the same day, but did not find anything unusual, they said.
Three videos from Saraqeb showing the victims, shown below, were posted online, as well as video footage from the BBC

Using this video footage I have attempted to identify separate victims that were treated in Saraqeb.

Female victim 1

Unknown female.  Possibly the wife of Mohammed Khatib, see female victim 2 for more details.

Female victim 2

Mariam Khatib, mother of nine children, three of which were also casualties of the attack.  According to the BBC report one of the devices dropped from the helicopter landed in her garden
"A canister was released from a helicopter and Mariam Khatib came running to the courtyard and called her son, Mohammed and told him there was a canister with white smoke coming out of it" says Mariam's nephew, Maed Barish.
"She immediately became unconscious and fell down, as did Mohammed and his wife. Fighters came to help the family but they were also affected by the smoke."
The BBC reports Mariam Khatib was the worst affected, with videos showing her unconscious, with dilated pupils, with doctors claiming she had signs of chemical exposure.  I believe she is in the background of this clip, with the man in the foreground claiming the following
I was not present then, but the FSA members came here and said that those chemicals were dropped on the southwestern side of the town. The injuries varies from bad to minor. The symptoms include constriction of the pupil, forth around the mouth, complete loss of consciousness as result of (inhaling) the smoke. The smoke was smelly, and the guy who rushed to help the victims lost consciousness when he got to the site. 
The BBC also reports Mariam Khatib was taken to a hospital on the border with Turkey

Four patients were taken to a hospital near the border.
Dr Jumaa Samadi, who treated them, says they were all given decontamination showers and atropine to treat their symptoms before being sent to a hospital in Turkey. By the time they arrived, Mariam Khatib was dead.
"The symptoms she displayed - unconsciousness, vomiting, pinpoint pupils - they all correspond to poison gas exposure," he says.
"They often match organophosphate poisoning. It has many derivatives, one of which is Sarin gas."
Mariam Khatib is the only recorded fatality of this attack.

Female victim 3

Mariam Khatib's daughter, according to the BBC report.  In the footage in the BBC report she appears to have a distended tongue, but in the footage from Youtube it appears that may not be the case, although the angle makes it difficult to be sure.

Male victim 1

This uniformed victim is retching, and spitting out liquid.  Possibly one of the opposition members who went to help the Khatib family.

Male victim 2

Unknown identity, no obvious symptoms.  The doctor with him in the video explains the symptoms he's seen, symptoms such as froth around the mouth, convulsions and constriction of the pupil, which he says suggest sarin use.

Male victim 3

Possibly Mohammad Khatib, Mariam Khatib's son.  In one video he's shown with froth coming from his mouth, and in apparent discomfort, and in two other videos (1, 2), shown with a drip, receiving oxygen.  If this is Mohammad Khatib he's interviewed by the BBC 2:24 into their report

Today Mohammed lives in a tent outside of town. He says he is too afraid to return to the house, too distraught by what happened there.
Speaking for the first time he says he still feels weak and exhausted.
"It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn't breathe at all. Your body would become really tired."
"You'd lose all senses. You'd feel like you were dead. You couldn't even see. I couldn't see anything for three or four days."
Male victim 4

Unknown victim, appears to not have severe symptoms in the video he's featured in.

Male victim 5

An unknown uniformed male in distress, possibly another of the opposition fighters who went to help the Khatib family.  Clearly in great discomfort and retching, at 11s he is uttering the shahadda, and as 43s he's raising his index finger.  The shahadda is often recited when someone expects to die, often with an index finger raised.

Male victim 6

Mariam Khatib's younger son, featured in the BBC report at 2:07, with the BBC report stating they "apparently suffered respiratory and visual problems, and appear to have constricted pupils.".

Conclusions and questions

I think what's most interesting about the Saraqeb attack is the similarities between that and the Sheikh Maghsoud, with the same deliver method used, with the same type of devices used, and similar symptoms being reported.  The presence of what appears to be some sort of gas grenades, maybe two different types, seems to strongly suggest these are not attacks using lethal chemical agents, such as sarin, VX, etc.

Could two types of non-lethal crowd control type agents be combed in the "boxes" thrown from aircraft, causing severe responses in those exposed to them?  It also seems the white powder in the boxes in both the Saraqeb and Sheikh Maghsoud attacks aren't particularly potent, or even dangerous at all judging by the photographs and video of them.

According to the story of Mohammad Khatib he responded to his mother calling him to investigate the device that landed in the family's garden, exposing him and his wife to the same gas his mother was exposed to.  In their cases they appear to have fully recovered in a few days, while his mother died.  Without knowing if there are any underlying medical conditions it's unclear why that happened, but the question is how likely it would be for them to survive exposure like that if it was a lethal chemical weapon?

It's clear that the Syrian opposition fighters who responded to the attack were also seriously affected by exposure, but there's no reports of any deaths beyond Mariam Khatib, and it appears all the victims were exposed to same chemicals at the same site, so how realistic is it to say they could all survive the attack if it's a lethal chemical weapon like sarin?   It's also interesting to note that sarin is odorless, with a strong odor being reported at the site of the attack.


Obviously this is a complex issue, so if anyone has any evidence or theories they'd like to share I'd be very interested if you posted them in the comments below.  As more information comes out on the attack I'll keep this post updated.

Thanks to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, and Nic Jenzen-Jones for help with this post.

Related posts
Jabhat Al-Nusra Photographed With "Chemical Weapons"
Comments On The Use Of Chemical Weapons In Syria
Video Claims To Show A Chemical Bomb Dropped On Al-Bab
A Great Example Of How Not To Write About Chemical Weapons And Arms In Syria
Links Between Alleged Chemical Attacks In Saraqeb, Idlib, and Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at


  1. Thanks for this really hard work :)

  2. Probably amateur psy-ops with military issue crown control grenades embedded in some smelly insecticide powder - e.g. 1,4-dichlorobenzene.

    1. The reason for this is to scare the populace out of a location. The resulting mass hysteria explains a lot of the symptoms.

      This is also possibly a reason that incendiary cluster-bombs are used. They look scary and don't really have military value in the locations I've seen them deployed.

  3. Good Job and as usual the white foaming in the mouths in some of the videos dont usually show nor tell us that its based on any CWs.

    Its rather as i found it out a medical condition.

  4. I notice one thing.
    The JAN fighter carries a pair of handcuffs together with the grenade. So, he is like a policeman.
    I don't think that JAN waste time smuggling handcuffs into Syria.
    Is not likely that that fighter has looted a dead syrian policeman or a conquered police station, and has finded that device (an anti-riot grenade)?

  5. Hi, Eliot! Thanks for this work. I'm coming back to it late in the game, for the ACLOS page for the event. Seems to me this article is a bit of a trainwreck. Not your fault, entirely. The pieces handed out just don't go together right.

    Let me see if I get it right: regime forces dropped two "bombs," each with two al-Nusra Front gas grenades inside a concrete/cinderblock box? And that's inside an outer box that might be constructed from WP, as the box glows and smokes just like it on the way down, and seems totally gone after landing. It allowed the box-of-canisters bomb to show up on video as the thing falling out of the helicopter, like they say, but otherwise sounds pretty weird. And helicopter means regime, so hey, certain comfort in that, weird or not.

    And these grenades poisoned those people with Sarin, Erdogan and Fabius have been clear to tell us. This when the other signs suggested to you "these are not attacks using lethal chemical agents, such as sarin, VX, etc." I agree, to the extent the event is even seen.

    The white powder is the smashed inner bomb box, they say, and not any toxic or Sarin-mimicking powder you could put in a bag. SANA and officials said rebels tossed powder from bags in peoples' faces, and rebels briefly said bags of powder were dropped from the helicopter (glowing and smoking?). Now there are no bags of powder or relevant powder in their explanation at all.

    And there was never a story for the other method SANA and officials cited on May 1: a gallon jug of unknown liquid (among at least two such jugs) that killed five rebel hostages in a a house in Saraqeb, bodies taken straight to Turkey. Note also that five + 8 = 13, equaling the discrepancy reported in Turkey between 8 and 13 patients (and/or corpses?) passing through. (too much imagination, maybe, but better than too little)

    1. Sorry, forgot to sign. And to note our research is incomplete, and the site is down mostly right now, for maintenance, but should be back to 'down occasionally' pretty soon.
      - Adam

    2. " al-Nusra Front gas grenades" is a bit of a misnomer based off the work done by Alfred Hackensberger inside Syria trying to track these down. That points towards them originating from the Syrian military, but also the grenades being basic smoke grenades, with one person claiming a crowd control agent was present.

      I don't think there's really any evidence of the outer box being constructed from WP. WP reacts with oxygen, so when would it be removed from it's oxygen free container? It's not like they could just take it out in a helicopter, because they'd have a huge chunk of burning WP in their hands.

      To me it seems like two gas grenades were placed inside a cinderblock, which itself was in a box of unknown construction (probably nothing fancy), and ignited as they were dropped from the helicopter, so you can see them producing light and smoke as they fall. When it hit the ground, the cinderblock was smashed to dust and small fragments (visible both at Sheikh Magshoud and Saraqeb).

      Problem is, this doesn't seem to really match with a Sarin attack for a number of reasons, and the victims in Saraqeb are directly linked to one of the two containers dropped, so it's not like there were other munitions linked to those injuries. It's all very confusing, in away made even more confusing by the fact the same sort of attack happened twice.

      Also, why go to all the trouble of flying a helicopter over Saraqeb to just drop those two packages? Is that all that helicopter was doing on that day? The more I think about it, the weirder it gets.

    3. Al-Nusra gas grenade, shorthand, maybe dated. The dropping object seems to just be WP was my point. Unrelated to anything else but maybe screening for the army offensive that day. Still the canisters-in-a-box bomb is WTF. The one impact seems to be at the highway intersection way north of town, would kill no one. I haven't placed the al-Khatib spot yet.

    4. BTW I just now saw the Hackensberger info. Nothing but words from peoples' mouths. Most of what I just typed I'll take there. So it's questioned, as it would have to be, obviously. But I still consider "al-Nusra gas grenade" fair shorthand, and not dated.