#BreakingSyria: Missiles Fired From Iran Strike Targets in Syria

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched six missiles into Syria, allegedly targeting ISIS positions

(Source: GoogleMaps, background; @FarsNews_Agency/archive, right)

Note from the Editor: @DFRLab partially reported this story previously.


Forces from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired missiles into Syria and allegedly targeted terrorists responsible for an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran, that killed many people. On September 30, at least six missiles were launched at eastern Syrian territory. Iran referred to the target as a terrorist headquarter. This attack was a highly publicized, although Iran’s military involvement in Syria has typically been low profile.

As early as October 1, photographs and video footage started to appear on social media. This newly surfaced open-source data suggested that not all details of the launch were revealed by the media, including that at least one of the rockets likely suffered a catastrophic failure soon after it was launched. The IRGC Aerospace Force released photos of targets it destroyed a few days after the missile and drone attacks inside Syria, which allowed for the geolocation of the targets.

As opposed to achieving a significant military victory, this operation was likely intended to make a statement to the Iranian public as well as regional stakeholders, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Iran’s Justification

The official statement presented by Fars News suggested that the assault was a response to the terrorist attack on September 22, 2018, allegedly by ISIS and ethnic Arab separatists from Ahvaz, which killed 25 people. Despite calling itself independent, Fars News is widely considered to be a “semi-official” news agency of the Iranian Government.

Iran reportedly launched the missiles at 2:00 a.m. local time, and the missiles flew 354 miles to hit an area close to the border town of Abu Kamal, Syria, where Islamic State militants were known to operate. According to Fars News, these strikes caused heavy damage to the militants’ positions and infrastructure in Syria.

The Iranian government alleged that the assailants were jihadist separatists supported by Gulf Arab allies of the United States. Iran reiterated this claim by adorning one of the missiles with the words “Death to the House of Saud,” referring to the ruling family in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

On October 1, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported it had observed violent explosions on October 1, 2018, in the ISIS -controlled enclave on the banks of the Euphrates River in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor.

Open Source Analysis

On October 1, Fars News published a video report of the launch, providing first visual evidence of the missile strike.

The semi-official Fars News agency identified six missiles used as Zolfaghar and Qian variants, which have ranges of 750 kilometers and 800 kilometers respectively. A number of independent Twitter users also shared assessments that corroborated this identification. These missiles have sufficient range to reach Emirati and Saudi targets, as well as U.S. bases in the region. The footage of the missile prior to launch suggested that these claims were likely true.

Visual comparison of the missile visible in the surfaced video with the pictures of the missiles at a demonstration. (Source: Twitter / @FarsNews_Agency/archive, left; American Security Project/archive, right)

The news report also provided a visualization of the attack on a map, giving an initial lead for the geolocation of the area.

Top left, an IRGC Brigadier General shows off a map of the strike. Top right, a GoogleMaps image of the location from where the strike was launched. Bottom, an approximate trajectory of the missiles over, leaving the origin in Iran at right, passing over Iraq, and hitting the target in Syria at left. (Source: @FarsNews_Agency/archive, top left; GoogleMaps, right; LiveUAMap/archive, bottom)

The video report showed an unidentified location that resembled a test launch facility. A hill chain in the background served as a landmark to find the exact location. Google Earth 3D terrain allowed to find approximate launch sites in the area.

Geolocation #1 that used the IRGC video to identify the launch site. (Source: @FarsNews_Agency/archive, top; GoogleMaps, bottom)

The main purpose of this area remains unclear. WikiMapia suggested that it was a military facility and a few users left comments that identified it as a launch site. Soon after, other pictures and video footage appeared on Twitter, providing imagery of the launch from different angles.

Geolocation #2. Photos of the launch. Top Left: (Source: Twitter / @FarsNews_Agency), Bottom Left: (Source: Twitter / @AlSuraEnglish), Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).
Geolocation #3. Photos of the launch. Left: (Source: Twitter / @FarsNews_Agency), Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

All of the surfaced photos and videos coincided with the area located on the satellite imagery, confirming the location to be roughly 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) northwest from the city Kermanshah in western Iran.

Additional videos also surfaced that claimed to have recorded one of the Qian-1 missiles crashing minutes after the launch. Nonetheless, using only this footage, it was impossible to confirm reliably the type of rocket.

A video compilation recorded the launch of four missiles and showed one of them suddenly landing and exploding in the horizon. The hills visible in the first seconds of the video appeared similar to the terrain geolocated in the Fars News video report. Due to the low quality of the video and limited geolocation details, the location of the video could not reliably be verified.

Geolocation #4 showing the possible location of the launch. (Source: @aldin_ww/archive, top; GoogleMaps, bottom)

A second video allegedly showed the aftermath of the missile malfunction, after it crashed on local Iranian farmland. A post by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan claimed that at least one of the missiles exploded moments after it was fired, landing on the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Kermanshan. Because of the low visibility caused by the nighttime, the video could not be geolocated and verified. The video did not appear in any reverse image searches for various frames of the video, which suggested that it was likely authentic. The same video footage was shared by a variety of independent Twitter users.

An initial scan of the area using daily satellite imagery did not provide any conclusive results. No clear burn marks from the crashed missile were found.

Confirming The Strikes

On October 2, 2018, Iranian media outlet Tasnim News Agency shared three sets of new drone imagery, presented as proof of a successful offensive operation. Tasnim News Agency claimed that these images were taken by an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over the target area in eastern Syria.

Tasnim News agency provided images of three targets but reported that six missiles were launched. The before and after pictures from the attack showed three residential houses in what appeared to be a rural area. Some independent analysts suggested the targets were in the Hajin area. @DFRLab verified all three locations by using high resolution satellite imagery and cross-checked it with daily satellite imagery.

The first targeted building featured a highly distinctive shape and a courtyard with light colored tiles. The tiles stood out in the satellite imagery, making the building easy to geolocate.

Geolocation of the first target, based off footage from Tasnim News Agency. (Source: TasnimNews/archive, left; GoogleMaps, right)

The comparison of daily satellite imagery confirmed the destruction. The September 26 and October 3 satellite images were the clearest due to minimal cloud coverage. In the latter image, the building showed changes to the structure, which suggested the IRGC Aerospace Force imagery was genuine.

Confirmation of the destruction of first target. Slight changes in the October 3 image suggested that the house seen in the imagery was bombed. (Source: Planet.com)

The second destroyed target was geolocated at the end of the same street as the first target, only a few hundred meters away.

Geolocation of the second target using the drone footage from Tasnim News Agency and cross-referencing it with GoogleMaps. (Source: TasnimNews/archive, left; GoogleMaps, right)

Similar changes to the second target were observed when comparing daily satellite imagery from the same period of time.

Confirmation of the destruction of the second target. Slight changes in the October 3 image suggested that the house seen in the imagery was bombed. (Source: Planet.com)

The third target was located in between the first and second targets, only a few hundred meters from either. The intersection visible in the photos served as the primary reference for geolocation.

Geolocation of the third target, again using the Tasnim News Agency footage and cross-referencing it with GoogleMaps. (Source: TasnimNews/archive, left; GoogleMaps, right)

The daily satellite imagery was not as clear for this building as for the first and second. Only minimal changes were observed in a comparison of the imagery. Nonetheless, the shadows on the building in the October 3 Planet satellite image appeared to have changed, suggesting a change in the structure.

Confirmation of the destruction of target #3. Slight changes in the October 3 image suggested that the house seen in the imagery was bombed.(Source: Planet.com)

All the Iranian targets were less than one mile from one another, and all targets were only one mile away from the center of the town of Hajin. Here are all three Iranian targets geolocated south of Hajin in southwestern Syria.

The before and after comparison did not show any damage inflicted to the nearby buildings, suggesting that one missile per target was launched. The fact that only three targets were shared added additional doubt as to whether all five missiles, not including the one known to have failed at launch, successfully reached their destinations.

Conclusion

The culprits responsible for the Ahvaz attack in Iran on September 22, 2018 remain anonymous and unverified. Iran cited ISIS as the main organizers of the attack, which led to a missile strike on September 30, 2018. The effectiveness of the strikes cannot be determined, as no casualties were reported. A number of videos suggested that at least one of the missiles crashed minutes after launch, although limited geolocation data in the videos prevented a conclusion with absolute certainty.

The imagery released by the IRGC provided more information about the strike on Hajin. This information, however, did not convey the actual purpose of these buildings. It also remains unclear how many of the six missiles reached Syria, as only three targets were struck in the Hajin area.

The strike was likely intended to convey a message rather than to inflict significant damage. First of all, the IRGC wanted to show that Iran is actively involved in the fight against terrorism. Secondly, it also wanted to demonstrate that Iran can field weapons capable of reaching both U.S. and Saudi military bases in the region. Lastly, Iran signaled that it is actively involved in the Syrian conflict, despite Israel protesting its involvement.

This incident was significant as it was an escalation of Iran’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, and it remains unclear whether the action was carried out in coordination with Assad. No active response from Syrian authorities, or Israel, have been reported as of now.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor Iranian military operations and other involvement in the Syrian conflict.


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

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