By Christopher Kingdon
On February 10th a pro-Jabhat al Nusra Twitter account @azoozf Tweeted a photograph of Jabhat al Nusra commanders and possible commanders from other rebel groups planning their February 7th assault on Aleppo Central Prison.
The Tweet translated to “Meeting of field commanders before the assault on Aleppo Central Prison.”
The photograph shows three men crouched around a map of the Aleppo Central Prison area and two men stood behind them; the map was laminated and had a grid overlaid it. One of the men held the map down with his fist.
Charles Lister, a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Doha Center, commented: PT: Worth noting re. the top image – that looks pretty close to a professional military-grade satellite imagery map.
I wanted to examine Charles Lister’s off-the-cuff theory. I turned to Google Earth to see if the image on the map matched what Google Earth displayed of the prison area.
I aligned Google Earth with the map displayed in the picture; this was difficult as as you can see the map is not flat and the curves lead to a sheen developing on the map’s lamination.
I decided to focus on the structure in the bottom-right quadrant of the map and the road leading vertically in the center.
I matched these with Google Earth.
This allowed me to orientate Google map to the angle of the photograph that @azoozf had Tweeted and get a rough picture of the quality of Google Earth’s map.
As you can from the angle of the original photograph and then the Google Earth compass, we look at the picture from a northeast perspective, meaning that the men printed or received the map on a standard NESW perspective.
Next I marked structures visible on the photograph.
Then I matched them with Google Earth.
As I had now confirmed that the images showed the same map from the same angle it was necessary to compare the quality of the map shown in @azoozf’s image with the quality of the Google Earth. To do so, I chose the structure in the bottom-right quadrant of the picture:
And here is the same structure on Google Earth:
As you can tell, the quality of the photograph and Google Earth are almost exactly the same. Furthermore although the photograph and Google Earth have the same shading and shadow.
I then chose to look at the grid overlaid on the map. Using Google Earth’s Ruler tool, I measured the structure in the bottom left Quadrant. It measured to 100 meters (roughly). I then counted that the same building covered two squares in the photograph. Thus it is possible to estimate that each side of the overlaid quadrants are 50m long.
There are numerous tools available within Google Earth or freely online that permit such a grid overlay including earthpoint.us.
In sum, after examining this photograph there is nothing in the photograph that suggests it originated from ‘military-grade satellite imagery’; in fact, the photograph’s quality is, if anything, worse than what is available on Google Earth. The grid overlay is a feature freely available and lamination is a service than any layman can access.
This should come as now surprise. There are numerous articles on rebels using Smartphones and IPads as weapons of war, Syrian Rebels Use iPads and Smartphones to Aid Weaponry, and even videos of rebel groups using Google maps to aim mortars.
I would say, with confidence, that this map did not originate from a foreign military as part of a package of military aid, but rather is a tool that many rebel groups within Syria can access and replicate simply with an Internet connection. However, it is important that we recognize that rebel groups have these capabilities and understand that satellite imagery is no longer purely the domain of governments, but a tool that sub-state groups have and will continue to access to further their military successes, or even terror attacks.
@Arkenstoneblog on Twitter point out that the Syrian Army has long used Google Earth for its assaults. This video from August 30th shows the SAA using Google Earth to prepare for assaults in East Ghouta.
The area shown in the video is at co-ordinates 33.518493°, 36.326536° which is in west Jobar