On April 23, 2014, Houssam Alnahhas slid into the back seat of a car in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep and headed for the Syrian border, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away. A tall 26-year-old medical student with striking gray eyes, he had escaped Syria two years before and was working for a task force training medical personnel in opposition-held areas. But now he was heading back with a mission: to collect evidence of war crimes.
Two weeks earlier, Alnahhas had started receiving reports that barrel bombs were being dropped on towns in the country’s rural northwest. He was used to such news in his work, but this time was different. Usually the crude devices were packed with explosives and shrapnel. But doctors were telling him these latest bombs were releasing poisonous clouds of chlorine gas.
Chlorine gas had rarely been used as a weapon since World War I, and its use in Syria would be a major violation of international norms. Western governments wanted to know if there was proof. And so, over the next two days, he and two of his friends visited two villages that had allegedly been hit—Kafr Zita and Talmenes—to see what had taken place.
The trip was dangerous. They were close to the front lines of the civil war, where rocket, mortar, and sniper fire were common. If agents of the Syrian regime got word of what they were doing, their lives would be in peril: Alnahhas had heard rumors that someone who’d collected evidence from a chemical attack a year earlier had been assassinated while attempting to bring it to Turkey.
But the threat of violence wasn’t the only thing weighing on his mind. Alnahhas knew that many groups—supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the Russian and Iranian governments, online conspiracy theorists—would use any opportunity to insist that chemical–weapons attacks were false-flag operations or outright hoaxes. And since he was acting on his own, without institutional backing, he wanted to make sure the evidence he collected was unimpeachable.
As soon as he crossed the border, Alnahhas started tracking his coordinates using GPS and recording the trip on video. In the two villages, residents described witnessing yellowish-orange smoke rising after helicopters dropped barrel bombs. Doctors explained how they treated victims—women, men, young and elderly people—who were terrified, coughing violently and struggling to breathe. They handed over blood, urine, saliva, and hair samples they had collected.
At the spots where the bombs had fallen, Alnahhas recorded 360-degree video of the surroundings, focusing on identifiable landmarks so the locations could be independently verified. He collected soil samples in small plastic containers, triple-sealing them in clear plastic bags and labeling them in front of the camera.
In Kafr Zita, he gathered pieces of shrapnel and measured heavy, rusted barrels bent, mangled, and peeled apart by the impact and detonation. There were three long canisters, two still lodged inside the barrels, covered in chipped yellow paint, the color often used to mark industrial chlorine gas. The chemical symbol Cl2 was still clearly visible on the ruptured nose of one.
In Talmenes, in the dimming evening light, Alnahhas filmed an impact crater in the backyard of a house. There were dead birds scattered across the ground, and the leaves on the plants and trees were dead, even though it was springtime. The smell of chlorine still hung in the air, causing him to cough and his eyes to water.
“To be honest,” Alnahhas says, “this was the scariest time of my life.”
Syria was one of the first major conflicts of the social-media era. Local access to Facebook had been restricted since 2007 as the government tried to limit online political activism. But by February 2011, when the Assad regime unblocked many social-media sites—either as a nod toward reform or as a way to track its opponents—they had become major forces across the globe, and many Syrians had cell phones with cameras and access to high-speed internet.
Soon afterwards, protests broke out in the south of the country and quickly spread. The government cracked down brutally, and activists, lawyers, medical workers, and ordinary citizens started using Facebook and YouTube—often at great personal risk—to record the violence and show it to the world.
Initial efforts were haphazard, and mostly involved people uploading shaky cell-phone video and using accounts with fake names to protect themselves. But before long the push to document what was happening became more organized and sophisticated. Media offices and local news agencies mushroomed. By early 2012, international organizations had begun training local activists on professional production standards and online security and helping them to record their videos. The idea wasn’t just to release clips to the media, but to gather evidence that could be used to pursue justice in the future.
Volunteers took videos and photos at the scenes of attacks and potential war crimes, compiled detailed medical reports, recorded victim and witness statements, and smuggled reams of documents out of captured government buildings. Civil society groups such as the Syrian Archive and the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre collected millions of pieces of potential evidence—some of it made public, some filed away in protected archives.
The material collected by Syrians allowed people far away from the actual fighting to take part in the investigative efforts too. In 2012 Eliot Higgins, then an unemployed British blogger, began sifting through videos and photos posted from Syria, trying to identify the weapons being used; later he started a website, Bellingcat, and assembled a team of volunteer analysts.
Pioneering the technique of “open-source investigation,” Higgins and his team pieced together evidence suggesting that Syrian government forces were using chemical weapons and cluster bombs, that Russian forces had attacked hospitals in the country, and that ISIS was using small, commercially available drones to drop 40mm grenades onto targets.