Incident ID: DHA20001
Coordinates: 14.614879, 44.362052
Incident Grading: Confirmed
Time: Shortly before 2359 AST
- On 31st August, shortly before midnight, a Saudi-led Coalition (SLC) raid targeted a compound north of Dhamar city at 14.614879, 44.362052.
- Multiple buildings within this compound were destroyed and multiple munitions were used during this airstrike.
- The SLC claim they were not informed of the purpose of this location and stated they believe it was a legitimate military target. However, the ICRC state they had visited this site multiple times before this strike and the UN Panel of Experts had reported this location was being used as an informal detention facility in 2018.
- Former detainees claim that military activity may have been taking place at this location.
The majority of these sources were located by conducting time limited searches on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and search engines using the terms “prison” and Dhamar in both English and Arabic. Further searches were conducted for college “كلية” and university “جامعة”. Relevant information is listed in the “Sources” below this report.
This airstrike appears to have affected multiple buildings in a compound just north of Dhamer City, located at 14.614879, 44.362052. Satellite imagery taken on 2019/01/30 shows that all buildings in this compound, save for a warehouse of some kind, appear to be undamaged. Historic satellite imagery shows light damage to the southernmost building and the warehouse, but does not show wide-scale destruction. The most recent high definition imagery we were able to view was taken on 2019/02/24 and previewed on TerraServer.
This location also clearly fit with footage released by the SLC depicting this strike.
What was the location being used for?
Multiple sources name this location as having been a college or university of some kind, including social media posts from users who appear to have been in Dhamar. At least one post explicitly stated that this location was a community college which had been turned into a prison. Mwatana specifically named this location as being the Dhammar Community College.
A large number of sources (see: Sources below) claimed that this location was being used as a detention facility of some kind, including those interviewed at the location.
An ICRC statement made it clear that this building was being used as a detention facility. This statement also said that the ICRC had visited the location, and that its findings are “discussed confidentially with the concerned authorities”. This may imply that the Saudi-led Coalition were informed of the nature of this location.
In a report released in January 2018 United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen investigated Dhammar Community College, which they noted was being used as an informal place of detention by the Houthis. They stated that one of the major reasons that detainees continued to be held at this location was the “inability of the leaders of the Houthi-Saleh forces and the leaders of the “resistance” forces to agree on a local prisoner exchange” (para 176). They also noted that the total number of detainees in the facility varied from 25 to 100.
Considering this information, it appears that this location was previously the Dhammar Community College before it was taken over by the Houthis and used as a detention center. The information has been publically available since at least January 2018.
Was there military activity in the area?
According to statements from former detainees, this location had been used to repair weapons, and that there had previously been airstrikes on this location. Satellite imagery from before this strike does indicate some level of damage to this location, primarily to the warehouse on the east side of the compound.
The Saudi-led coalition claimed that this location was being used to store drones and missiles. They also claimed that the video of the strike depicts secondary explosions that indicate explosives were being stored on site.
At the time of writing the SLC had only posted a partial video of the strike, showing a single munition detonating. Despite the SLC’s claim, the footage did not seem to show anything which could clearly be identified as a secondary detonation, as opposed to the primary explosive effect of the munition.
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Most sources agree this strike took place on 2019/09/01, however the first posts on social media about a strike at this location were actually posted a few minutes before midnight on 2019/09/31. These posts, and images from the scene, indicate multiple munitions were dropped over a period of time. Therefore we believe this strike began on the 31st August and continued over midnight into 1st September.
The first report we found of SLC aircraft in the area was posted at 2330 AST, and claimed that SLC aircraft were flying over Dhamar.
The first mention of an airstrike itself was at 2358 AST. The Tweet indicated that the events described were happening “now”.
Later Tweets in the same thread clarifies that there were “multiple raids” which hit the “University of Dhamar”. It should be noted that multiple sources state this location was a College before being used as a detention center by the Houthis.
Due to these posts we believe this strike began shortly before 1158 AST. This is consistent with a preliminary report from Mwatana, which found the strike started around 2345 on 2019/08/31, as well as with statements from local officials.
The compound at which this strikes took place appears to have contained eight large buildings (No.1-8), three smaller buildings near the gate (No. 9-11), and a water tower (No. 12). We have numbered these in the image below.
Bethan McKernan, who visited the site and investigated this strike on behalf of The Guardian, told Bellingcat that the prisoners were housed in the south west side of building 1, the guards quarters were in building 3, and building 8 was used for classes.
We can see in the graphic below that buildings 1, 2, 3 and 10 have been destroyed.
Building 5 appears to be intact.
In this video we can see that the water tower, building 12, appears to be intact, but that building 4 does appear to have sustained some damage to its north side.
In the image below we can see that building 6 appears to be intact, but that building 7 has been destroyed. We already know that the undamage portion of building 8 was destroyed due to footage of the strike released by the SLC.
We can therefore be confident that buildings 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 were destroyed or damaged and that buildings 5, 11 and 12 do not appear to have been damaged. Bethan McKernan stated in email correspondence with us that building 9 was undamaged.
Layout of compound. Destroyed or damaged buildings marked in red. Lightly or undamaged buildings marked in green. Unknown status marked in white. (courtesy of Google/MaxarTechnologies)
Who were the casualties?
Multiple sources indicate that many of the casualties were detainees at this location. The ICRC stated that every single detainee at this location, totalling about 170, was either wounded or killed in this attack.
The initial Mwatana investigation indicated that at least seven children were also detained at this location, of whom at least four had been killed in the strike. This, and other reports, claimed that the detainees included both former combatants and civilians detained by the Houthis. There were reports that those kept here were shortly to be released as part of a prisoner swap. We also identified multiple social media posts from family members mourning their relatives who had been killed in this strike, some of which explicitly state they were detainees.
It could not be established using the currently available sources how many of the casualties were detainees and how many were guards or military personnel.
At the time of writing most estimates put the total number of fatalities at around 100.
Washington Post: “over 100”
ICRC via the Guardian: “over 100”
Aljazeera: “about 100”
UN OSESGY: “at least 60 killed and 50 injured” with 68 people still missing
Mwatana report: 96 fatalities and “likely still dozens of bodies under the rubble”
As buildings were hit in this airstrike it does not appear that there were any clear craters. However, the buildings show some marks that may have resulted from the penetration of munitions through the roof.
At the time of writing no images of any munition fragments had been posted.
All sides agree this was an airstrike. As such this incident can be regarded as confirmed.
In a statement a day after the strike, the SLC maintained that this location was a legitimate military target. They appeared to deny that the location they targeted was a detention center, and said the only location they were aware of is located 10km south of the location struck. The SLC claimed not to have been informed that this location was a detention center, and that it was not on a U.N.-coordinated no-strike list.
“We also advertised on another operation targeting the military abilities of the Houthi Militias, that hit a military location in Dhamar, that was approximately 10km away from Dhamar City. It is a storage facility for UAVs and components for air defence missiles that the Houthis transport from the port of Hodeidah to Dhamar and then to Sa’ada and Amran, which are considered to be the main areas where Ballistic missiles and UAVs have been launched from.
What you see on the screen is the target was to the North of the city, in an area that has no residential areas or vital infrastructure, except the main road. During the planning of this operation we took all procedures necessary. The military target is used for the storage of UAVs and air defence systems.
The Houthis first declared that the coalition targeted a community college, in the morning they declared that this site was where prisoners were being kept. The coalition took all procedures necessary to make sure this location was not on the no-strike list, this signs (in orange) show the locations that were identified by the UN as on the no-strike list.
As you can see, we have showed the storage facilities, that thee Houthis claim was a prison. The only prison that exists in Dhamar is known to the coalition and has already been identified by the UN and other NGOs operating in Yemen. The Prison is to the north of the city of Dhamar and is 10km away from the location we targeted.
The NGO buildings are highlighted in Orange (2.5km, 3.2km)
The coalition follow a no-strike list in Yemen, like you can see, this is the geolocation of Dhamar prison and on the right you can see the full details which the coalition have. Any location on the no-strike list follows this.
The targeting process followed all necessary requirements including time, an acceptable type of munition and the protection of the main road from south to north.
Here, we display to you the targeting process, showing that we took all the steps necessary and used the right munition, the evidence of this is that the main road remained in tact and was not affected, neither were the vehicles on the road through this. There were multiple secondary explosions at the location, like you can see from missiles and UAVs.”
We geolocated the place that the SLC claimed was a prison and identified a matching building at 14.562490, 44.393919. Although the SLC claimed this location was 10 km away from the site they hit, it is in fact 6.7 km away.
Comparison of building at 14.562490, 44.393919 and location the SLC claimed to be a prison.
We also confirmed that this location was a detention center using videos taken within this location.
Panoramic of video titled “#Witness .. Violence inside the central prison in Dhamar and Houthi militia shoot prisoners” (satellite imagery courtesy of Google/MaxarTechnologies)
We have already noted earlier (see: “What was the location being used for?”) that at least two international agencies, the UN Panel of Experts and the ICRC, were aware that this location was being used as a detention center. Although the ICRC did not explicitly say the had informed the SLC, they did say their findings had been shared with the “concerned authorities”. The UN Panel of Experts report was published publicly in January 2018.
Multiple officials made statements condemning this strike and claiming it was a crime.
Shortly before midnight on 2019/09/31 a strike by the SLC took place on a Houthi detention center just north of Dhamar city. Multiple buildings within the targeted compound were destroyed and reports claimed over 100 people were killed. The ICRC stated they had previously visited the site and discussed their findings confidentially with ‘the concerned authorities”. The UN had previously noted this location was being used as an informal detention facility. However, the SLC claimed that they were not aware that this location was being used as a detention facility and that it was not on a UN-coordinated no-strike list.
The SLC also claimed that this location was being used to store weapons and as such was a legitimate military target. Statements from former prisoners do indicate that this site may also have been used for a military purpose. However the SLC claim that video of the strike depicts secondary explosions does not appear to be conclusively supported by the video they released
2019/08/31 - 2351 - Tweet reporting SLC jets over Dhamar
2019/08/31 - 2330 - Tweet reporting jets over Dhamar
2019/08/31 - 2358 - First social media post reporting strike
2019/09/01 - 0003 - Tweet reporting strike in Dhamar
2019/09/01 - 0049 - Tweet indicating multiple munitions utilised
2019/09/02 - Post stating community college had been turned into a prison
2019/09/04 - Video from location of strike
2019/09/05 - Facebook in memoriam post
2019/09/07 - Facebook in memoriam post
2019/09/10 - Facebook in memoriam post
2016/11/13 - Video from location Saudi Arabia identified as Dhamar Prison
Mwatana preliminary report
Jan 2018 UN Panel of Expert report
Washington Post report
Faz video report
RT video report
AJ video report
UA TV report - panoramic shot and statement from SLC
HD but abbreviated video of SLC presentation
HD but abbreviated video of SLC presentation
eXtra News video - longer SLC statement & video of strike