#BreakingSyria: Mass Graves in Raqqa

Recently discovered mass graves show the scope of human loss in the city of Raqqa during ISIS rule

Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Live Leak / seerc).

After planting their black flag and declaring the city of Raqqa the capital of the “Islamic State” in 2014, ISIS militants murdered large numbers of people and dumped their bodies in mass graves throughout the city.

In October 2017, as Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) and Coalition mounted operations to take the city, ISIS used civilians as human shields and murdered hundreds of others who tried to escape to liberated areas under SDF control.

On June 22, a special unit under the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, founded after the city’s liberation, published pictures of a recently discovered mass grave containing at least 50 bodies. @DFRLab investigated these pictures and analyzed satellite imagery to provide further insight into the situation in Raqqa.

Newly Discovered Mass Graves

On June 22, 2018, Orient News published photos of a newly discovered mass grave in Raqqa. According to the source, the grave was discovered on Thursday, June 21, 2018, near the old Al Raqqa bridge, and contained dozens of bodies. These same photos were published on a few activist Facebook accounts in following days. Reverse image searches did not provide any results older than June 22, suggesting that the photos were genuine.

Photos of mass graves outside of Raqqa, Syria. (Source: Twitter / airawars).

According to Orient News, these graves contained the remains of dozens of victims who perished during the battle of Raqqa. The news report said that this new mass grave was found near Raqqa Old Bridge, giving an initial lead for geolocation of this site.

@DFRLab confirmed the location captured in the pictures to be north of the Raqqa Old Bridge, at the north-west corner of a road junction.

Geolocating the newly discovered mass grave in Raqqa. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Orient News).

Google Maps satellite imagery from January 7, 2017 already showed the excavated graves. It is highly likely that this site was prepared well in advance of the final push to liberate Raqqa, also known as the the Battle for Raqqa, that started on June 6, 2017. A small tower structure from the photos and the buildings around it clearly matched the satellite imagery.

Comparison of January 7, 2017 and September 23, 2016, Google Maps satellite images. (Source: GoogleMaps)

Meanwhile, satellite imagery from Planet helped to verify the period when these graves were dug. Analyzing the changes in terrain through monthly Planet.com satellite imagery, it appeared that the graves appeared at some point between December 2016 and February 2017.

Comparison of satellite imagery between December 2016, January 2017, and February 2017. Coordinates: 35.9389032,39.0094657. (Source: Planet.com)

Other Known Mass Graves

Another mass grave site was excavated in April 2018, near Al-Rasheed Stadium in central Raqqa. The stadium was converted into the central prison for ISIS in the Raqqa region during the almost four yearlong occupation of the city. Site 11, as it was known, was used by the terrorist group to incarcerate and torture individuals who had been arrested by the group in the city and surrounding countryside. A video posted on May 31, 2018, showed the area and workers unearthing bodies of the victims.

Special unit working on exhuming dead bodies near Al-Rasheed Stadium in central Raqqa. Top: (Source: YouTube / AlShahid).
Geolocating the mass grave. Bottom: (Source: GoogleMaps); Top: (Source: YouTube / AlShahid).

A few photos of workers removing the bodies were posted earlier on April 21, 2018.

Special unit exhuming dead bodies. (Source: Twitter / @Raqqa_SL).

These photos suggested the location to be the same area near Al-Rasheed Stadium. The surrounding buildings clearly matched the buildings from the May 31 video.

Confirming the location of a mass grave. Left: (Source: Twitter / @Raqqa_SL); Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Top Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The Google Maps satellite imagery from January 7, 2017 already showed the fresh graves. Even though this imagery did not provide a clear date for when the graves were dug, it suggested that it happened at some point between September 23, 2016 and January 7, 2017.

Comparison of January 7, 2017 and September 23, 2016, Google Maps satellite images. (Source: GoogleMaps)

Satellite imagery from Planet helped narrow down the possible period of the digging to between November and December 2016.

Comparison of satellite imagery between November 2016, December 2016 and January 2017. Coordinates: 35.9389032,39.0094657. (Source: Planet.com).

According to various sources, this mass grave alone could hold the remains of up to 200 victims.

The Park

The last and the biggest mass grave was located in the Panorama park. The park was established in 2005 and served as a popular local attraction. According to Google Maps satellite imagery, the park was likely transformed into a mass grave between September 23, 2016, and January 7, 2017.

Comparison of January 7, 2017 and September 23, 2016, Google Maps satellite images. (Source: GoogleMaps).

Satellite imagery from Planet helped narrow down the possible period for when the mass graves were dug to between November and December 2017. The exact number of bodies present in this grave remains unknown.

Comparison of satellite imagery between November 2016, December 2016 and January 2017. Coordinates: 35.9389032,39.0094657. (Source: Planet.com).

Here is a map with detailed locations of these mass grave sites.

Conclusion

Teams of workers and volunteers continue the long clean-up and reconstruction phase of post-ISIS Raqqa. For every discovered and recognized grave, a family can find closure over the whereabouts of a loved one and an opportunity to provide the deceased family member with a proper burial. Regrettably, some victims will not be identified due to technical constraints in the city.

In recent months, both Syria and Iraq have discovered mass graves in areas previously occupied by ISIS. The special unit under the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee has put much effort into locating mass graves in the city and exhuming dead bodies. As part of these efforts, 900 bodies had been exhumed from mass graves around Raqqa by May 2018.

The recently uncovered mass graves in the ex-stronghold of ISIS shed some light on the brutal four years of terror that the local civilians had to endure.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor the humanitarian situation in Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.