Sept 6 raid in Syria: New location clues emerge, with imagery

Where in Syria did those Israeli planes attack on September 6? Rumors have been swirling for weeks, though without any positive identification. That didn’t stop us from playing the guessing game on September 23, identifying a possible site based on “information” leaked to the press.

It now looks likely I guessed wrong. First, on October 19, ABC News had a “senior US official” describe the location thus:

The official said the suspected nuclear facility was approximately 100 miles from the Iraqi border, deep in the desert along the Euphrates River. It was a place, the official said, “where no one would ever go unless you had a reason to go there.” [...] The official described the pictures as showing a big cylindrical structure, with very thick walls all well-reinforced. The photos show rebar hanging out of the cement used to reinforce the structure, which was still under construction.

If you look at the map of Syria, there is just one spot where the desert touches the Euphrates; it’s about 80 miles from the closest border, or 100 miles from the border if you follow the Euphrates. It is also the location of some extensive on-demand DigitalGlobe imaging from July 2007, as shown by the orange squares below. Somebody wanted to get a better view of that area.

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Finally, just today, the Washington Post reports what it believes to be the precise location, quoting a former UN weapons inspector working for the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which this blog has covered in the past when they mapped Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. WaPo names the exact location, but does not provide imagery itself:

Photographs of the site taken before the secret Sept. 6 airstrike depict an isolated compound that includes a tall, boxy structure similar to the type of building used to house a gas-graphite reactor. [...] The facility is located seven miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah, in the Dayr az Zawr region…

As for how reliable this location is:

U.S. and international experts and officials familiar with the site, who were shown the photographs yesterday, said there was a strong and credible possibility that they depict the remote compound that was attacked. Israeli officials and the White House declined to comment.

With those caveats out of the way, where would this location be? ISIS’s website doesn’t have any images up as of this writing (it likely commissioned those DigitalGlobe images taken in July 2007 [Update: See ISIS's imagery at the end of this post]), so let’s go looking at what Google Earth has to offer…

On closer inspection, it turns out all of Syria got much improved Spot Image image coverage in Google Earth since last time I looked a few weeks ago. [Update: This imagery was added yesterday.] And sure enough, if you head 7 miles due north from Ab Tibnah (found via a simple search in Google Earth), you land in the only area where the desert reaches the banks of the Euphrates. And there, on the eastern bank, is an unmistakable candidate nuclear reactor building, 45m x 45m in size, apparently still under construction.

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This new Spot Image imagery is not yet in Google Maps, so you can see the difference with what Google Earth showed just a few weeks ago, when we first went hunting for the location soon after the September 6 air raid. Here’s the view in Google Maps still today:

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Isn’t the march of technology a great thing?:-)

(I do wish we’d get a more complete accounting of what imagery is updated and when, though. Google’s Geographical treasure hunts are all good and well, but don’t substitute for a sober list of updated data.)

What incongruities are left? The ABC article mentions a cylindrical object, whereas the WaPo article talks about a tall boxy structure. Possibly, this is because the Spot Image images are a bit older. Where did my own previous guess go wrong? Dayr az Zawr is not just a town, but also a large administrative region. I assumed the mentions were of the town and calculated from there. That said, the initial leads that were reported in the Times of London turned out to be completely wrong. That’s what you get when you have spies as sources…:-)

[Update 13:41 UTC: ISIS's website now has the PDF report with the DigitalGlobe imagery, taken on Aug 10, 2007. Here it is:

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