How can we be certain, the intelligence game?

In the run-up to the action in the early hours of Sat 14thApril to bomb very specific targets in Syria to send a clear message, not just to Bashar Al-Assad but the world, that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, I have noted with sadness the large number of dissenters questioning the decisions of 3 elected heads of state, who represent the worlds policing body, the P5 of the United Nations Security Council.

Even after the attack, we have the leader of the opposition calling it illegal, questioning the decision making and the evidence to say it was Assad who carried out the horrific chlorine attack on Douma killing countless women and children.

The reports that came out of Douma alongside video released by the Syrian civil defence force, the White Helmets was not the evidence or intelligence the leaders of the USA, France and UK used to make their decision to bomb Syria, it was merely the initiator of a complex, layered process to understand what happened.

For the uninitiated, I am going to describe the sorts of processes that are in place to ensure that our leaders know that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack.  I am leaving myself open to criticism as I cannot go into the real detail of how systems work and what their exact capabilities are, but I ask that people recognise I have used these systems and processes in the past, I have personal experience. Also, intelligence can be wrong but the more independent sources used and the fact here there would be 3 independent national collection and assessment operations reduces that possibility enormously.

The Middle East and Syria, in particular, is a focus for the intelligence capabilities of many countries involved or affected by the conflict.  These will include the USA, UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran and many more. It is a part of the world with a huge volume of intelligence gathering platforms listening, sniffing, watching, reporting every piece of activity. Banks of analysts will be trying to analyse and interpret that activity, 24/7, 365 days a year – the intelligence cycle of direct, collect, analyse and disseminate is unending.

So, starting with the video from the White Helmets it gave a possible activity at a claimed time with a claimed weapon, how can we know it was a chlorine bomb dropped from an aircraft by Assad’s forces?

Once the reports started coming in, the banks of analysts pouring over their intelligence databases will have started to put together the questions they need answering, and looking for information collected that relates to those questions.  The first in this instance would be – was there an aircraft at the claimed time over Douma and if so what type was it, where did it come from and who owned it?

AWACS Airborne early warning aircraft and other capabilities are watching all aircraft movements on a continual basis – they can track hundreds of movements simultaneously and will know if one was there, what type of aircraft it was, civilian/military, fixed wing/rotary wing and possibly even the callsign and model.   They will know where it took off from, the route it took to Douma and where it went back to and the route with the exact times of all activities.

Cross-referencing the movement with signals intelligence data gathered from the aircraft, ships, UAVs and other assets hoovering up all radio traffic and more, there will be recordings of the aircraft’s crew checking in with their air traffic control and operational base. Those recordings will be translated, and translations checked.

So, we now know there was an aircraft in the right vicinity at the right time and we know where it came from and when.  Imagery Intelligence of the base it flew from the moment it took off going back in time will be poured over by imagery intelligence specialists looking for the preparation of the aircraft, the weapons being loaded onto it, the crew joining it and everything that happened prior to it taking off.  That capability exists and can be cross-referenced with capability from partner nations.

It will take time, but the loading of the aircraft will have been photographed. From those pictures an assessment of the weapon can be made – a barrel bomb is not easy to hide from the prying eyes of Western Intelligence. Once that assessment has been made and the number and types of vehicles used to move the weapon to the aircraft identified, the next task is to find the convoy which brought the bomb to the airfield.  Intelligence gathered by the likes of the US JSTARs or UK Sentinel R1 can look for movement from known weapons dumps to the airport over a period of time.  Various possibilities will be identified and will be cross-referenced with detailed imagery analysis of all of these sites and communications to and from the sites. The picture is building.

Human Intelligence (HUMINT) agents on the ground and Signals intelligence (SIGINT) assets will have been tasked to see what they can find out, what are personnel from the bases saying? What are the discussions Syrian military and political decision-makers having? How are they reacting to the international condemnation? What is being said between Assad’s people and the Russians? What are the Russians saying back to Moscow? Information in little snippets will be being fed to the analysts, agents will be talking to their contacts, supercomputers will be cross-referencing thousands of communications.

It is highly unlikely that there will be a report of the clarity, “Hello base, this is the heli, we have just dropped the chlorine bomb on Douma and are returning to base, over.” But what our intelligence will have told us is there was a Syrian aircraft over Douma at the time the alleged incident occurred, that aircraft came from an airfield where an object consistent with a barrel bomb was seen to be loaded.  That object is consistent with one loaded onto trucks from a known chemical weapons storage site. HUMINT and SIGINT will add further context.

Intelligence is an art, scientifically approached, it can be wrong, it never (well rarely) gives a 100% picture, but we can be confident that the picture it does give is pretty close to what actually happened.

What I have described above is not necessarily what happened in the run-up to the decision to attack Syria but it will be in the right ballpark….

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE