SAA10010 - Sabr Valley strike

June 13, 2019

Incident ID: SAA10010
Location: Village of al-‘Eram, Sabr, Beni Ma’ath, Sahar, Sa’da
Coordinates: 16.96188889, 43.61472222
Incident Grading: Confirmed
Date: 2015/06/03
Time (AST): 17:00 AST

KEY FINDINGS:

- It was possible to identify the location of an airstrike on the village of al-’Eram using open source photographs taken in the aftermath of the 2015/06/03 attack.

- The attack, which took place in a rural and isolated area with limited communications, yielded restricted open source material. Due to the earthen construction of the buildings that were destroyed, it is difficult to ascertain the precise points of impact. No craters could be clearly identified in the reviewed sources.

- Despite this, satellite imagery taken before and after the strike clearly show the area where a number of structures — identified as between seven and nine houses — were destroyed. This imagery matches photographs taken on the day of the strike.

- A month after the attack, Amnesty International also travelled to the village and was able to further photograph and film the site. This material further establishes the circumstances of the attack, matches existing open source materials, and confirms that multiple strikes took place.

- Open source reports indicate more than one strike targeted the residential cluster in al-Eram. We did not identify evidence that there were any military personnel present nor military facilities that were located there.

DISCOVERY PROCESS:

Searches were conducted using English and Arabic variations of “Sabr,” “valley,” “Sa’da,” and “Yemen,” as well as descriptive keywords such as “airstrike,” and “bombing.” Once images appearing to be related to the strike were found on social media, a reverse-image search was conducted on Google, which yielded other sources where the same images appeared, along with additional material in some cases. A list of sources can be view below this report.

WHERE?

This incident took place in what we identified as the al-’Eram village, a small rural community located in the Sabr valley about 15km west of Sa’adah, the provincial capital, and 45km south of the border with Saudi Arabia. Sa’adah governorate, a Houthi stronghold, is one of the areas worst affected by the war in Yemen, and has borne the brunt of Coalition strikes since 2015.

Location of strike in relation to surrounding area (courtesy of Google/DigitalGlobe)

The village of al-’Eram lies in a valley; higher elevation can be found roughly to the north and south. Based on satellite imagery accessed via Google Earth Pro, the village is accessible only by way of unpaved roads.

Satellite imagery (shown below) accessible via Google Earth Pro shows the destruction of the cluster of buildings occurring sometime between 2015/05/17 and 2015/12/22.

Left: satellite imagery on 2015/05/17. Right: satellite imagery on 2015/12/22

Photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the attack are limited. However, two posted on Twitter in the hours after the attack can be matched to locations on satellite imagery.

Images posted on Twitter allegedly showing the aftermath of this attack

After joining the photographs together using a process called “stitching,” a more comprehensive panorama of the location is created.

Stitched panorama of images from this Twitter post

Several factors indicate these photographs face west. First, the landscape function of Google Earth Pro, which projects elevations, clearly matches the backdrop of the panorama.

Top: panorama allegedly showing this location looking west Bottom: Google Earth Landscape view looking west. Note that Landscape view shows general elevation, and does not clearly show rocky projections and other smaller geographical features (courtesy of Google/DigitalGlobe/Copernicus/Airbus)

Second, according to local reports, the attack reportedly took place in the afternoon — 1700 AST according to Amnesty. According to Suncalc.org, the sun at that time would be shining from a northwest point in the sky. The stitched panorama shows sunlight coming from the upper right — the northwest.
The photographer appears to be standing in what could be a path or roadway that was may have been delineated at least in parts with stone (it is also possible this delineated one or more of the structures within). Forward and to the right are sections of the village, while the destroyed houses are apparent directly in front of the camera, ringed by what remains of the path or roadway. By drawing direct lines to two peaks visible in the panorama to the suspected camera location on Google Earth, we can use them as points of reference and say with confidence that this is the location depicted in that panorama.

Screenshot from Suncalc.org showing the location of the sun at the time of the alleged strike

The photographer appears to be standing in what could be a path or roadway that was may have been delineated at least in parts with stone (it is also possible this delineated one or more of the structures within). Forward and to the right are sections of the village, while the destroyed houses are apparent directly in front of the camera, ringed by what remains of the path or roadway. By drawing direct lines to two peaks visible in the panorama to the suspected camera location on Google Earth, we can use them as points of reference and say with confidence that this is the location depicted in that panorama.

Top: Google Earth Landscape view showing lines to peaks. Middle: panorama of site of attack with lines to peaks. Bottom: satellite imagery of this location taken on 2017/10/24.  (courtesy of Google/DigitalGlobe/Copernicus/Airbus)

It should be noted that the building which the left-hand red line runs through appears to have collapsed, been removed, or was destroyed in reported secondary strikes after this image from Twitter was taken. We can tell this because satellite imagery taken after the strike does not appear to show such a tall building remaining at this location.

Photograph of bombing

Another image, posted on several Arabic language news sites following the attack — along with images of victims and the two images seen above — appears to capture the immediate aftermath of at least one strike. The smoke cloud that appears to be rising is consistent with an explosion. The lighting in the photograph is similar to that in the panorama, as is the elevation backdrop, but the photograph is taken from a position further to the north-east, along a direct road which appears to lead to the attack site.

Image allegedly showing moment of strike

It should be noted that the sun is in the top right — appearing from the northwest as it would around 1700 AST in the afternoon. Due to the unique skyline, we can be confident it does show the same area, at the same time of day as the other images, strongly suggesting this image is indeed from this incident.

We believe that the most likely place that this image was taken was at 16.965435, 43.634175. In order to identify this we looked for a place to the east of the location of the airstrike which had the following features:

1. The skyline needed to match the image. Although it is not immediately obvious, the skyline does change depending on where the observer is standing in the valley.

2. A fork in a dirt road with two trees in the center

3. A bund-line crossing the road diagonally north-west to south-east

4. A dense cluster of trees on the south side of the track, with an open area to the north of the track

Since this village is located in a valley, the search area was greatly reduced to covering the valley floor. After extensive searching of the tracks running along the base of the valley, only one location, approximately 2 km to the east of the site of the bombing, matched all these features.

Note that in the graphic below we have brightened the image to show more details in the foreground, and have used two satellite images so that all the features can be identified. It should also be noted that there is a measure of uncertainty in this geolocation, and that it could only be confirmed beyond doubt if further images taken from this location emerge, or if this location was physically visited.

Top: image allegedly showing strike. Bottom left: satellite image from 2015/01/07. Bottom right: satellite image from 2015/12/22 (courtesy of Google/DigitalGlobe/Airbus). We have used two satellite images to make sure all the features are visible

Amnesty Investigation

On a trip to the bombing site, Amnesty identified the coordinates of the attack as 16°57'42.8"N 43°36'52.7"E, which matches the location identified above.We were further able to match satellite imagery of these coordinates to photographs and video taken by Amnesty during their visit.

Top: still from Amnesty video at 02:48. Bottom: Google Earth Landscape view of location looking south. Note that the skylines match and the shape of the gullies in the ridge-line match exactly.

Additional images were provided to us by Amnesty from this investigation. The same structures can be seen in both the Amnesty image and the images posted to Twitter.

Top: image provided by Amnesty. Bottom: images posted to Twitter allegedly showing the aftermath of this strike. Note that the lower image has had the brightness increased to reveal details in the foreground.

WHEN?

Date

All sources agree this incident took place on 03 Jun 2015, and there are no apparent reports of such incidents at this village prior to that date. Multiple social media posts — mostly containing the same set of photographs, including graphic images of dead children — made on 3 June 2015 indicate the strike took place on that day.

Time

At least one initial report referenced the attack taking place in the “afternoon.” Analysis of available imagery taken after the attack — including in the immediate aftermath of one apparent strike — indicates the attack took place in the late afternoon, when the sun was lower in the sky, appearing from the northwest.

This appears to be roughly consistent with the sunset time from Sa’da that day, where the sunset would have been at 1835.

Time of sunset in Sa’dah from timeanddate.com

Amnesty International, after visiting the village and speaking with residents, reported that the attack took place at 1700 AST local time. This time generally matches the sunlight analysis conducted above, including a photograph that appears to have been taken shortly after at least one of the strikes shows similar lighting.

Taking the above into consideration, the most likely time we could identify for this airstrike would be around 1700 AST.

WHAT DAMAGE WAS DONE?

Imagery taken directly after the attack is limited, but shows wide scale destruction of the targeted structures. The buildings in this area have almost without exception, been rubblized, indicating multiple munitions were dropped.

Based on satellite imagery, by the end of 2015 the cluster of buildings was gone, matching photographs taken in the immediate aftermath.

TO WHAT?

All sources reviewed by us identify the structures destroyed as houses — there is no open source information that suggests they were anything other than residential buildings. The only variation can be found in descriptions of the number of houses destroyed: early reports — for instance in Yamanyoon — describe the “total destruction” of 7 houses. Amnesty later put the number of houses at 9. A review of satellite images indicates the structures that were impacted adjoined one another, which may explain discrepancies in how they were counted.

Left: satellite image taken on 2015/05/17. Right: satellite image taken on 2015/12/22 (courtesy of Google/DigitalGlobe/Airbus)

TO WHO?

Open sources from the immediate aftermath of the strike are limited, but graphic imagery posted on the day of the attack clearly shows a number of fatalities. There are no indication that any of the casualties were military personnel. A large number of the victims were children. Images posted on Twitter and various Arabic language news sites also appear to show dead children after transport to a different environment, possibly a hospital, morgue or other structure. We could not identify any open sources indicating the presence of armed individuals, weapons or military vehicles.

Among the survivors who spoke to Amnesty International was Salah Basrallah, a farmer who said 21 members of his family were killed, among them his wife and six of his children. He recounted the attack to Amnesty:

“My brother Saleh and his wife Alya, my wife Amina Mohamed, my mother Fatimat Hadi,
my six children and my brother’s children were all killed. A total of 21 were killed in my
family. At the time of the strikes, I was at the farm, outside the village. My wife was in
the house, my children were playing outside. I heard the airstrike and I came to find my
house had become a mound of rubble. We did not find some of the dead until days later.
We had to dig in the rubble to look for the bodies while the planes were still flying
overhead after the airstrikes.”

Amnesty noted: “what is clear is that a large majority of the victims were civilian women and children. Even if Huthi fighters were among those killed in the attack, their presence in and of itself would not make these homes military objectives. An attack targeting the fighters would need to take into account the presence of so many civilians. Carrying out the strikes when so many civilians were present would likely make it a disproportionate attack.”

Another survivor, Ghaleb Dhaifallah, told Amnesty that his 11-year-old son was killed:

“At the time of the airstrikes, I was at a friend’s house around 200 meters from here.
There were four strikes. There was a gap of one hour between the second, third and
fourth attack. My eldest son Mu’az was killed, he was 11 years old. He was injured by
shrapnel in the head and died on the spot. He was playing with Sadeq Hamoud’s four
children, my uncle’s two daughters and some other children they all died on the spot.
About 12 of them were not buried in the rubble. The rest were under the rubble. We had
to dig for a long time to find the bodies. I swear there were no arms depots here or any
[Huthi] leader here. It’s just a place where normal citizens live.”

There are very few vehicles present in photographs taken in the aftermath of the attack. A white pickup does appear in the panorama above, as does a motorcycle in several photographs showing child victims of the attack.

Death tolls:

  • A 03 June, 2015 report in OFQ News put the death toll at 30, including at least 8 children, but indicated the toll would likely rise. On 4 June, the same site reported a death toll of 30.
  • A 04 June, 2015 report posted to Motabaat’s website estimated that at least 35 had been killed. The report said that only 11 bodies had been recovered, while 24 — three men and “the rest women and children” — remained under the rubble.
  • A report on Yamanyoon stated the death toll was 52, including at least 8 children. This report noted that rescue operations were still ongoing.
  • In an apparent reference to the attack, Reuters on 05 June, citing Houthi-controlled news agency Saba, reported that “48 people, most of them women and children, were killed in air strikes on their houses in the Houthi heartland in the rural far north adjoining Saudi Arabia.”
  • Amnesty later reported that 55 “residents” were killed and a further nine injured. Among the dead were 35 children and 11 women.

WHAT DO PARTIES TO CONFLICT SAY?

The SLC

  • The SLC does not appear to have commented on this attack.

The Houthis

  • The Houthis do not appear to have officially commented on this attack.

WHAT BOMB WAS USED?

CRATER

Open sources did not indicate any discrete impact sites, though the scope of damage suggests multiple detonations. Determining impact sites was made more difficult by the material of the buildings that were destroyed, which crumbled.

REMNANTS

Amnesty investigators were showed “remnants of MK 80 series bombs,” which residents said had been encountered while sifting through the rubble.

Image shared by Amnesty
Fragments shown to Amnesty during their investigation

A munitions expert identified that these fragments appear to be portions of the pop-out wing from a GBU wing assembly, although the exact GBU model could not be identified. A GBU kit is a guidance system including a seeker and wing assembly that can be added to iron bombs, including the Mk 80 family, to make them guided munitions.  The size of the fragments indicate that they are likely from one of the larger GBU models, possibly for a 2000-lb bomb.

Top: GBU-24 (note: we could not confidently identify exactly which GBU these fragments are from, the GBU-24 is simply being used as an example) Bottom: fragments allegedly recovered from site of attack

WERE FIRST RESPONDERS TARGETED?

Yamanyoon reported that Coalition aircraft carried out “a series of raids” that led to the destruction of 7 houses.

Motabaat reported that victims remaining in the rubble “could not be recovered because of renewed shelling of the area by hostile aircraft.” It is not entirely clear if these additional attacks took place some time later, or if they are distinct strikes elsewhere but closeby.

Survivors told Amnesty that “several consecutive airstrikes” hit Al-’Eram, “and that the strikes had continued while rescue efforts were underway to look for bodies and survivors in the rubble.”

The extent of the destruction as well as the above reports indicate that multiple munitions were dropped on this location. It is not known what exactly these munitions were targeting.

WAS IT AN AIRSTRIKE?

Local reports indicated the attack was an attack consisting of several strikes, and Amnesty International confirmed this. The recovery of remnants of air-dropped munitions further confirms that this was in fact an airstrike.

CONCLUSION

Open source information strongly indicates that on the afternoon of 2015/06/03 an airstrike took place at 16.96188889, 43.61472222. Multiple buildings were destroyed and the extent of the destruction, as well as witness testimonies, indicate multiple munitions were dropped. Many of the casualties appear to have been children. Open sources did not indicate any military activity or presence at this location.

SOURCES

1. International Organizations

  1. A report from Amnesty International.
  2. A brief update from MSF.

2. English Language Media reports:

  1. New York Times
  2. Stratfor (intelligence company).
  3. Reuters
  4. Al Jazeera

3. Arabic Language Media Reports:

  1. Motabaat
  2. Yamanyoon
  3. OFQ News (3 June)
  4. OFQ News (4 June)

3. Videos:

  1. Video posted by Amnesty International, beginning at 2:40.

4. Social Media Posts:

https://twitter.com/AlMayadeenLive/status/606159705103319040

https://twitter.com/Kaled1234bdr/status/606184424179253248

https://twitter.com/ahmadhasannemy/status/606518929339641856

https://twitter.com/YT_POST/status/606186332285771777

https://twitter.com/E_alseraji/status/606185218605588480

https://twitter.com/HussainBukhaiti/status/606220204146888705