Anatomy of a Massacre Part I: The March

Mapping the Execution of Syrian Army POWs at Tabqa Airbase

 

Part I: The March

 

Introduction and Tabqa Falls

 

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Click the center of the map once, then navigate to the left pane and click each numbered step in order to review how, when, and where the Tabqa  airbase massacre unfolded. Each number corresponds to sections within the text.

 

 

i. Introduction

 

On August 27, the Islamic State executed an estimated 160 Syrian army soldiers captured at Tabqa military airbase and surrounding desert settlements.

On August 28, an Islamic State fighter confirmed the authenticity of a video documenting the march, transport, and execution of these prisoners of war. *

According to this video, at about 12:00 pm on August 27, Islamic State gunmen stripped and marched prisoners captured at desert settlements roughly 20 to 30km southwest of Tabqa airbase approximately 12km north to grain silos under their control.

From capture to kill, Islamic State captors humiliated and tortured their prisoners, stripping them, marching them barefoot across the desert, beating and insulting them. They were labeled “Nusairi herds,” to be “driven to their doom.” The video title, referencing the Quranic Surat Al-Anfal [verse 57], seeks religious justification for the systematic dehumanization of ‘Alawite captives made “livestock,” and “enemies of God.”

Roughly two hours later, as determined by measuring shadows cast by sunlight, captors herded prisoners into vehicles for transport about 93km east from the grain silos gathering point to killing grounds at Thoul Nayel, an inactive archaeological site approximately 5km east of A-Raqqa. Transport vehicles filled with prisoners arrived from the grain silos, and other unknown sites, until sundown.

At 6:30-7:00 pm, more than eight Islamic State fighters shot to death approximately 160 Syrian army prisoners of war. They were lined facing southwest, on their stomachs, at the base of a dirt embankment at Thoul Nayel. Afterwards, a solitary gunman walked alongside dying and dead men, firing into anyone who looked alive.

This two-part report maps the locations and chronology of the Tabqa airbase massacre. We reconstruct the events, as they are recorded, using open sources, including commercial satellite imagery and Arabic-language news and social media.

In summary, the mass execution was logistically intensive, sectarian, and terrorizing.

  • As many as 20 Islamic State fighters in 10 vehicles stripped, marched, and drove roughly 160 Syrian army soldiers from settlements 20-30km southwest of Tabqa airbase, to killing fields approximately 5km east of A-Raqqa, over 100km away.
  • The operation lasted at least seven hours, from about 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
  • Islamic State fighters and media systematically insult the ‘Alawite faith to dehumanize captured Syrian army soldiers, called “Nusairi herds” and “livestock.”
  • The Islamic State sought spectacle, terror, and anger by documenting the humiliation, torture, and execution of Syrian army prisoners of war.

In Part I, we map the long march north of captured Syrian army soldiers from desert hamlets southwest of Tabqa airbase, to nameless grain silos for transport to an execution site east of A-Raqqa. In Part II, we geo-locate the execution site.

 

1. Tabqa Falls:

The Fall of Tabqa Airbase, Regime Forces Flee, Al-’Ajrawi Falls, Escape to Sites 1 and 2

1.1. The Fall of Tabqa Airbase: Interrogation, Execution, and Fighter Accounts

Location: Tabqa military airbase, 35°45'27.23"N, 38°34'41.88"E

 

Interrogation and Execution

August 24: Tabqa military airbase, the last regime outpost in Syria’s north-central A-Raqqa province, falls to the Islamic State.

At least 500 Syrian army soldiers and Islamic State fighters die in the five-day battle for Tabqa airbase. Roughly 600 to 700 Syrian army soldiers flee the fallen airbase, running southwest, in the direction of the regime-held town of Ithriya in Hama province.

An unknown number of officers and soldiers do not escape, falling into the hands of the Islamic State. On August 28, the Islamic State releases a video of the interrogation and photos of the subsequent execution of those Syrian army officers and soldiers captured within Tabqa airbase.

Although it is unknown how many Syrian army soldiers captured at Tabqa airbase were of the ‘Alawite faith, Islamic State video and photo media label all captives part of the “Nusairi army,” regardless of sect.

 

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The sectarian label “Nusairi,” derived from the name of Muhammad Ibn Nusair, the ninth-century founder of the ‘Alawite faith, is systematically applied throughout Islamic State media documenting the capture, torture, and execution of dozens of regime soldiers and officers captured in Tabqa airbase on August 24. The term “Nusairi” is today used to imply ‘Alawites are non-Muslim.Translation: “Nusairi officers and soldiers captured in the battle of Tabqa military airbase.”Source: The Islamic State. August 2014.

 

Isolating professedly ‘Alawite prisoners, Islamic State fighters question at least one prisoner on film admitting ‘Alawite descent at an unknown location at or near Tabqa airbase. Uploaded to YouTube on August 28, the interrogation footage is entitled Assadist militia prisoners of Tabqa airbase in the hands of soldiers of the Islamic State and a talk with one of them.”

 

In this video, roughly 20 men, some stripped, others clothed, sit in a squalid room. Islamic State captors, perhaps calling from a high window, target one prisoner in an unbuttoned military uniform. He is covered in dust, and barefoot.

 

[Approximate translation:]

Captor 1:

How many have you killed–how many have you raped?

Prisoner:

None… I was at the airbase… I never left the airbase.

Captor 1:

You never left Tabqa, huh? Are you a Nusairi–an ‘Alawite?

Prisoner:

Yes, ‘Alawite.

Captor 1:

Who’s your father? Do you know your father?

Captor 2:

Pig!

Captor 1:

You know your father?! No, you don’t! How could you know your father? Your mother made you on a one-night stand! … Why do you fight for a tyrant? Why do you kill Muslims–why?!

Captor 2:

Son of a dog!

Captor 1:

You’re a dog, you enemy of God. Get back here! [Throws metal rod at turning captive.] … God willing we’ll slaughter you and send you back to hell.

The video ends. Piecing together Islamic State photographs separately released on the same day, at least one group of eight officers and soldiers was loaded into a truck, driven outside the captured airbase and shot in the backs of the head as they knelt on the ground.

 

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At an unknown date and time, at least one group of officers and soldiers captured at Tabqa airbase on August 24 is packed into a dusty truck for transport to an unknown execution site. Translation: “Prisoners of the Nusairi regime from Tabqa military airbase.” Source: The Islamic State. August 2014.

 

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Syrian army officers and soldiers captured at Tabqa airbase are shot in empty desert. Translation: “Liquidation of a group of officers and soldiers from Tabqa military airbase.” Source: The Islamic State. August 2014.

 

Open Syria has no other information about where or when these men died. In Section 1.2, we return to tell the story of the soldiers and officers who managed to escape the fall of Tabqa airbase, and for a brief time, the Islamic State.

A Fighter’s Account

One week after crushing the Syrian army in A-Raqqa province, the Islamic State delivers a sanitized video statement on the battle for Tabqa airbase, entitled “A video tour inside the Tabqa Military Airbase after its liberation.” The video is narrated from the perspective of an Islamic State fighter. He omits many details, including twin Islamic State suicide bombings that failed to breach the base’s defenses.

 

 

 

[Approximate translation:]

Screen: 

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. 

“A video tour inside the Tabqa military airbase after its liberation”
   
Fighter: 

 

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The Islamic State fighter narrating the video statement on the capture of Tabqa airbase speaks in mostly classical and Modern Standard Arabic. Open Syria detects a north Syrian accent. Source: The Islamic State. “A video tour inside Tabqa Military Airbase after its liberation.” August 2014.

 

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Prayers and peace be upon our lord Mohammed, the seal of the prophets and the messengers. By the will and at the order of Allah the Almighty and Most High, the Islamic State conquered the 17th Division, the 121st Regiment and the 93rd Brigade. 

The order came from the war leadership of the Islamic State to prepare to storm Tabqa military airbase. 


We began with reconnaissance, led by soldiers of the Islamic State army from A-Raqqa province, reconnaissance by land, and by air, using unmanned aerial vehicles.

 
 
Thanks be to Allah, the Almighty and Most High, we prepared the attack, and laid siege to the airport from its four sides. Then, after three days of siege, we stormed the airport. 

The operation proceeded in stages. 

The first stage was taking the airplane checkpoint, the first to be captured.

 

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The “airplane checkpoint” lies at the entrance of Tabqa airbase, at 35°47'37.28"N, 38°34'46.04"E. Source: Bing Maps. The Islamic State. “A video tour inside Tabqa Military Airbase after its liberation.” August 2014.

 

Then we began, in the second stage, we took the main gate, which is the airport's most important gate, for taking out heavy guns to hit (the town of) Tabqa.

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The main gate of Tabqa airbase, now under the black flag of the Islamic State. Source: The Islamic State. “A video tour inside Tabqa Military Airbase after its liberation.” August 2014.

 

Cameraman: This is the gate of the airport after the Islamic State gained control of it ... remnants of (inaudible). Here are the tanks of the Nusairi pigs.

 

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Regime vehicles lie smashed. Islamic State fighters apply the sectarian term “Nusairi” to refer to Assad’s armies. Source: The Islamic State. “A video tour inside Tabqa Military Airbase after its liberation.” August 2014.

 

Fighter: 

... After two days, we prepared ourselves for the big raid, which was the storming of the airport's general headquarters. 

Then the soldiers of the Islamic State, thanks be to Allah, the Almighty and Most High, undertook the raid, a successful raid, that led to the complete liberation of the airport, thanks be to Allah, the Almighty and Most High.

These are the planes, which Allah, the Almighty and Most High, granted to us through our conquest. We've turned these spoils, captured from the unbelievers, from weapons used to destroy Muslims, to kill women and children, to weapons in the hands of the Islamic State.

 

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A pair of regime MiG 21-B war birds, now spoils of the Islamic State. Source: The Islamic State. “A video tour of the liberation of Tabqa airbase.” August 2014.

 

Cameraman: Allah is Greatest, and Glory to Allah. These are planes of the Nusairi regime that were used to kill Muslims, now spoils of the Islamic State.

Open Syria now returns to tell the story of the hundreds of Syrian army soldiers who fled the fall of Tabqa airbase, from their retreat, to their capture and execution.

 

1.2. Regime Forces Flee: Southwest to Ithriya and the Road to Al-’Ajrawi Farm

Locations: Tabqa Airbase, 35°45'27.23"N, 38°34'41.88"E; Al-’Ajrawi Farm, 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E

Southwest to Ithriya and the Road to Al-’Ajrawi Farm

August 24: As an unknown number of soldiers and officers are shot in the desert at or near Tabqa airbase, the 600 to 700 Syrian army soldiers who escape the victorious Islamic State head southwest.

Arabic-language news media suggest they flee in the direction of the regime-controlled town of Ithriya in Hama province, about 83km southwest of Tabqa airbase. The retreating soldiers stop at a small desert settlement known as Al-’Ajrawi farm. Wikimapia and OpenStreetMap locate Al-’Ajrawi farm at 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E, roughly17km southwest of Tabqa airbase.

The story does not end here, as the Islamic State intends to find and destroy all Syrian army forces fleeing Tabqa airbase. The running men are pursued to Al-’Ajrawi farm, where a new siege and battle begin.

 

1.3. Al-’Ajrawi Falls: Captured Retreating to Ithriya

Locations: Al-’Ajrawi Farm, 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E; Ithriya, 35°21'45.31"N, 37°47'25.58"E

Captured Retreating to Ithriya

August 24–August 25: Arabic-language news and social media orient Open Syria’s effort to locate where Syrian army soldiers are captured after the battle for Al-’Ajrawi farm.

In summary:

  •  ~60 Syrian army soldiers successfully escaped the Islamic State siege of Al-’Ajrawi farm, arriving in the regime-held town of Ithriya, ~67km southwest.
  •  Hundreds fought or hid at Al-’Ajrawi farm and/or other villages on the road to Ithriya.
  •  Of men fighting, hiding, or running, ~160 were captured by the pursuing Islamic State.
  • The ~160 Syrian army soldiers captured at or near Al-’Ajrawi farm were stripped to their undergarments, marched barefoot across the desert, and executed on August 27.
  • The collective fate of hundreds of Syrian army soldiers who fled Tabqa airbase to Al-’Ajrawi farm and surrounding desert settlements remains unknown.

 

[Approximate translation:]

Russian Radio Arabic reports on September 1, 2014:

 “The [Syrian army] was forced to withdraw 600 soldiers, four planes, and ammunition stocks to Al-’Ajrawi village, where they remained until 12:00 am [on August 25]. Then, they withdrew in the direction of Ithriya village, an army checkpoint. ISIS followed, capturing approximately 200 soldiers.”

Other reporting claims prolonged resistance at Al-’Ajrawi farm and other nearby villages. Deutsche Welle Arabic reports on August 28, 2014:

“Regime forces that had withdrawn from Tabqa airbase before it fell to the Islamic State on Sunday are still fighting at Al-’Ajrawi farm … about 50 escaped to safety in Hama province last night, but there are still hundreds of soldiers hiding in villages or fighting at Al-’Ajrawi. Of those men are the tens who were executed last night.”

Regime reinforcements allegedly deployed to rescue their captured comrades, yet failed to arrive in time. Al-Hayat reports on August 29, 2014:

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights later explained that ISIS executed tens of regime forces that had withdrawn from Tabqa airbase. They were captured hiding between Tabqa and [Ithriya] … a regime convoy failed to reach this group in time.”

By the morning of August 25, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) tentatively reports the fall of Al-’Ajrawi farm to the Islamic State. On August 28, SOHR estimates 60 Syrian army soldiers reach the safety of Ithriya. Approximately 160 do not; they are captured and killed.

The fate of the other 380 to 480 Syrian army soldiers who fled Tabqa airbase is unknown.

 

1.3.1: Site 1 Clashes: Mapping Al-’Ajrawi Farm Imagery and Islamic State Media

Locations: Al-‘Ajrawi Farm: 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E; Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line: 35°40'33.66"N, 38°20'15.45"E; Site 1, 35°39'31 N, 38°19'14 E

August 25–August 26: Open Syria concludes that all or part of the battle for Al-‘Ajrawi farm occurred near a location we label Site 1, on what we call the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line, roughly 9km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm. Area satellite imagery reveals transmission towers recorded in Islamic State media on the battle for Al-’Ajrawi farm are actually located about 6km southwest of the besieged settlement.

Mapping Al-’Ajrawi Farm Imagery and Islamic State Media

The following map pins mark Al-’Ajrawi farm and sites where the Islamic State recorded battle with regime forces.

 

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Islamic State photographs documenting the capture of Al-’Ajrawi farm likely occurred near Site 1 Clashes, ~9km to the southwest. Open Syria arrives at this conclusion based on the locations of (1) a unique transmission tower cluster line in Islamic State photos, marked here as the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line; and (2) a nearby settlement in largely uninhabited desert, marked as Site 1.

 

Open Syria presents satellite imagery informing this conclusion. First, photographs of Al-’Ajrawi farm from 2012 reveal six-crossarm transmission towers.

 

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Al-’Ajrawi farm, at 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E, ~17km southwest of Tabqa airbase. Source: Mapbox.

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Note the construction of six-crossarm transmission towers at Al-’Ajrawi farm, as compared with three-crossarm towers photographed in satellite imagery and Islamic State media on the capture of Al-’Ajrawi farm. This indicates a battle and capture site other than Al-’Ajrawi farm. Source: Mapbox.

 

Islamic State photo media documenting the capture of Al-’Ajrawi farm show fighting at a three-crossarm transmission tower line proceeding in two-unit tower clusters. Satellite imagery reveals that this tower line, which Open Syria calls the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line, lies roughly 6km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm. As apparent in satellite imagery, the construction of the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line is distinct from Al-’Ajrawi farm six-crossarm towers. This observation indicates a different battle and subsequent capture site.

 

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Source: The Islamic State. Translation: “A photo report on the liberation of Al-’Ajrawi farm: From within the Tabqa military airbase invasion.” August 2014.

 

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A three-crossarm tower blurred in cannon flash. Observing satellite imagery of Al-’Ajrawi farm, we notice settlement transmission towers are built with six rather than three crossarms, suggesting a different battle and subsequent capture site. Translation: “Striking Al-’Ajrawi village occupied by the Nusairi army with a 23mm cannon.” Source: The Islamic State. “A photo report on the liberation of Al-’Ajrawi farm: From within the Tabqa military airbase invasion.” August 2014.

 

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Satellite imagery reveals three-crossarm transmission towers only proceed in two-unit clusters ~6km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm. Therefore, although the photo caption indicates fighting at Tabqa airbase, cannon fire documented at this location likely occurred ~20km to the southwest, closer to Al-’Ajrawi farm. Finally, since three-crossarm towers point two crossarms right, northward, the photographed ZU-23mm cannon points southeast, at targets within its 2,500m effective range. Site 1, ~9km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm, and ~800m southeast of three-crossarm, two-unit tower clusters, is thus where Al-’Ajrawi farm clashes may have occurred. Translation: “A 23mm gun hitting the Nusairi army inside Tabqa military airbase.” Source: The Islamic State. “A photo report on the liberation of Al-’Ajrawi farm: From within the Tabqa military airbase invasion.” August 2014.

 

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Comparing transmission towers photographed in area satellite imagery with towers recorded in Islamic State media, Open Syria concludes that all or part of the battle for Al-’Ajrawi farm occurred ~6km to the southwest.

 

In addition to satellite imagery, Open Syria considers the fire position and effective range of the ZU-23 23mm cannon photographed in Islamic State media only meters from the identified Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line. Since three-crossarm transmission towers along the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line point to crossarms right, northwest, the photographed technical must have been firing its cannon at targets southeast, within its 2,500m effective range.

The above clues point to Site 1, a settlement about 9km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm, and 800m southeast of the Two-Unit Tower Cluster Line. It appears that some or all of the Islamic State photo media presented above was actually recorded at this site, in the direction of Ithriya. Site 1 may be the location of the last stand of the remaining Syrian soldiers before their capture by the Islamic State.

 

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Site 1: ~9km southwest of Al-’Ajrawi farm at 35°39'31 N, 38°19'14 E. Al-’Ajrawi farm clashes and subsequent prisoner captures may have occurred here. Source: Author. Google Earth. Bing Maps. The Islamic State.

 

1.3.2. Escape to Site 1: ~9km Southwest from Al-’Ajrawi Farm

Locations: Al-’Ajrawi Farm: 35°41'37"N, 38°24'21"E; Site 1, 35°39'31 N, 38°19'14 E

~9km Southwest from Al-’Ajrawi Farm

August 25–August 27,12:00-1:00 pm: Syrian army soldiers fleeing the siege of Al-’Ajrawi farm may have arrived at Site 1 sometime after midnight on August 25. Between August 26 and the morning of August 27, Islamic State forces may have captured an estimated 160 Syrian army soldiers at this location.

Section 3 will explore in detail what happened at Site 1, as events unfolded the afternoon of August 27.

 

We continue Part I: The March, here.

 

Notes

 

*Approximate translation: “Lions of the Islamic State drive Nusairi herds to their doom_Strike fear in those who are behind them.” Open Syria refers to this video as “Strike Fear.” In Section 2, we analyze this video to uncover how, when, and where the Islamic State massacred an estimated 160 Syrian army soldiers. Although “Strike Fear” has been removed from most hosting sites, Open Syria obtained a copy for analysis.

 

All translations are the author’s own. On the origin and modern usage of the term “Nusairi,” see Van Dam, Nikolaos. The Struggle for Power in Syria. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.

 

The Qur'an: English Meanings. Jeddah: Al-Muntada Al-Islami, 2004, p. 161.


Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.