Leaked document revives controversy over Syria chemical attacks

A leaked document which contradicts key findings of an official investigation into chemical weapons in Syria has surfaced on the internet. Described as an "engineering assessment" and marked "draft for internal review", it appears to have been written by an employee of the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the international body charged with the investigation.

In April 2018 dozens of people were reportedly killed by a chemical attack in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, and western powers responded with airstrikes directed against the Assad regime.

In March this year, after a lengthy investigation, the OPCW issued a report which found "reasonable grounds" for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon in Douma and suggested the chemical involved was chlorine gas, delivered by cylinders dropped from the air.

Although the investigators' brief did not allow them to apportion blame, use of air-dropped cylinders implied the regime was responsible, since rebel fighters in Syria had no aircraft.

The 15-page leaked document takes the opposite view and says it is more likely that the two cylinders in question had been "manually placed" in the spot where they were found, rather than being dropped from the air. The implication of this is that Syrian rebels had planted them to create the false appearance of a chemical attack by the regime.

The document has caused excitement on social media among those who see it as discrediting the OPCW's official investigation. It was posted on the internet by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media which not only defends the Assad regime against accusations of using chemical weapons but also disputes Russia's use of a nerve agent against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Britain last year (see previous blog posts).

Who is Ian Henderson?

The document appears to be genuine and purports to have been written by Ian Henderson, a man whose connections with the OPCW stretch back more than 20 years.

The OPCW was established in 1997 and during its first year of operation Henderson, originally from South Africa, was one of 13 people appointed as its first "P-5 level inspection team leaders".

It's not clear, though, that Henderson has worked for the OPCW continuously since then. The OPCW regards itself as a "non-career" organisation. It doesn't like employees to stay for more than seven years and consequently hires most of them on fixed-term contracts.

Around 2014 Henderson is understood to have been working for the OPCW as a consultant on Syria, and later on contingency planning. 

In February last year, about six weeks before the Douma incident, a "Temporary Working Group" set up by the OPCW's Scientific Advisory Board met for the first time. A published account of the meeting shows that Henderson – who it described as a OPCW Inspection Team Leader – gave a talk about contingency planning for Challenge Inspections (CI) and Rapid Response and Assistance Missions (RRAM). A training exercise for RRAMs had taken place in Romania the previous December.

The exact nature of Henderson's involvement in the Douma investigation is still unclear ... and a matter of dispute. 

The leaked document presents its findings as an assessment by "the engineering sub-team" under Henderson's leadership. In a commentary on the document, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media says the engineering sub-team carried out "on-site inspections in April-May 2018" and that Henderson was "the engineering expert on the FFM" (the officially-designated Fact-Finding Mission).

However, the Working Group says that when it contacted the OPCW's press office it was told “the individual mentioned in the document [i.e. Henderson] has never been a member of the FFM”. The Working Group adds: "This statement is false."

Whether Henderson was formally a member of the Fact-Finding Mission (or not) is an important question because it affects the status of the document he produced. If he wasn't a recognised FFM member, this could help explain why the document's findings were ignored in the official report.

Access to data

Whatever his actual position, though, it's clear that the "engineering assessment" in the leaked document was carried out with the OPCW's blessing, since Henderson's team had been given access to data compiled by the Fact-Finding Mission. The document says: "The studies on the two cylinders were conducted using sources of information available to the FFM team." It also makes clear that Henderson was allowed to consult experts outside the OPCW. 

But why, if he was not a member of the FFM team, would his OPCW bosses have let him do that? It does look rather odd.

One story circulating in the chemical weapons community (though not confirmed) is that Henderson had wanted to join the FFM and got rebuffed but was then given permission to do some investigating on the sidelines of the FFM. The suggestion (again, not confirmed) is that this was a way of extending his contract at the OPCW. If true, it might explain how he appeared to be working with the FFM while not (according to the OPCW press office) actually being part of it.

In a preliminary report on Douma last July, the FFM said further work was needed in connection with the two cylinders and the related damage: "A comprehensive analysis by experts in the relevant fields will be required to provide a competent assessment of the relative damage." 

The experts' analysis – indicating that the cylinders could have been dropped from the air – was eventually presented in the FFM's final report, published on 1 March.

On 27 February – just two days before the final FFM report was published – Henderson handed in his own report offering contrary conclusions.

Exactly how the FFM reacted on receiving it at such a late stage is still to be revealed, but they clearly didn't see fit to hold back the report in order to incorporate Henderson's findings.

Meanwhile, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, together with their supporters on social media, have seized on this as evidence that the OPCW "has been hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US". The OPCW certainly has a lot of explaining to do, but the reality may turn out to be rather less dramatic than that.


UPDATE: On 16 May, in response to media enquiries the OPCW issued the following statement:

The OPCW establishes facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic through the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which was set up in 2014.

The OPCW Technical Secretariat reaffirms that the FFM complies with established methodologies and practices to ensure the integrity of its findings. The FFM takes into account all available, relevant, and reliable information and analysis within the scope of its mandate to determine its findings.

Per standard practice, the FFM draws expertise from different divisions across the Technical Secretariat as needed.  All information was taken into account, deliberated, and weighed when formulating the final report regarding the incident in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic, on 7 April 2018. On 1 March 2019, the OPCW issued its final report on this incident, signed by the Director-General.

Per OPCW rules and regulations, and in order to ensure the privacy, safety, and security of personnel, the OPCW does not provide information about individual staff members of the Technical Secretariat 

Pursuant to its established policies and practices, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is conducting an internal investigation about the unauthorised release of the document in question.

At this time, there is no further public information on this matter and the OPCW is unable to accommodate requests for interviews.