Doubts about Authenticity Momentous Syria Interview Under Fire
German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer filmed an interview with an alleged rebel commander near Aleppo. The claims made by the commander -- that the US was supporting al-Qaida -- made headlines around the world. But was the interview authentic?
The interview lasted around 10 minutes. It was filmed in the picturesque setting of a stone quarry near Aleppo and caused a stir around the world. Even the Russian foreign minister is reported to have mentioned it in a telephone conversation with his American counterpart. In the video, an alleged commander in rebel-held eastern Aleppo made statements that strangely confirmed the war propaganda being propagated by the Assad regime -- that America is indirectly supporting al-Qaida and that the rebels are opposed to aid deliveries to civilians. But indications are mounting that the interview may not have been authentic.
Jürgen Todenhöfer, a former member of German parliament with the conservative Christian Democratic Union party and a prominent author, conducted the interview. Todenhöfer has claimed that his interview partner, whose face was masked entirely, was a commander with the Syrian radical group formerly known as the Nusra Front, a group that renamed itself in August and split again from al-Qaida. Abu Al Ezz, as the man is introduced in the video, claims that the rebel group has been armed with modern anti-tank weapons by the United States. "We've had" officers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even from Israel "here during the siege." The interview subject also said the rebels were opposed to aid deliveries to the besieged civilians in East Aleppo, saying: "If a truck comes in anyway, we will arrest the driver." It is an astonishing statement. It was the radicals themselves who were largely responsible for breaking through after Assad's troops encircled Aleppo, making food deliveries possible in the first place. This engendered considerable popularity for the Islamists, even among their ideological opponents.
Even more puzzling than the contents of the interview is the site where it is alleged to have been filmed. Which side of the front it was actually filmed on is crucial in terms of determining the video's credibility. During the drive into the quarry, a voice altered in editing to hide the person's identity can be heard saying, "I mean, if they need to do anything bad, we're stuck." The sentence fragments suggest they are entering dangerous terrain. Problematic, though, is the fact that a young man in an army uniform, and without a beard, is walking in front of the car. Such is the normal appearance of Assad's soldiers, but not that of Nusra fighters.
Then they enter a cave to conduct the interview, and at the end of the interview, Todenhöfer's masked interview subject describes in detail their current location. "We are at the foremost reconnaissance station in the Sheikh Said area. This area is under our control. The regime soldiers are located behind the houses and in Al Majbal." The video then cuts to the team driving out of the quarry. In the distance, you can see the prominent silhouettes of two towers and several buildings. It's a former industrial complex that is currently the site a heavily armed Assad army control post.
But there's a problem with this account. There is no quarry in Sheikh Said. The district is located in the eastern half of Aleppo, which is besieged by Syrian troops and Shiite militias and is hermetically sealed off by heavy artillery, tanks and snipers. Not even a pedestrian would be able to get into the area from government-controlled territory without being detected, let alone men in a vehicle.
On the other side of the front line -- e.g. the area under the control of the government groups -- there are, however, three stone quarries. They are located near the ensemble of buildings that stick out in the video. But it would be nearly impossible for a Nusra commander to be interviewed there -- he would be immediately shot.
After Todenhöfer was made aware of these inconsistencies, he published a "clarification" on his Facebook page on Wednesday. The meeting, he wrote, took place in no-man's-land between the fronts. "We never claimed anywhere that the interview took place in rebel-controlled area." Yet his interview partner clearly said that they were in Sheikh Said.
Todenhöfer went on to say that the interview hadn't actually taken place in Sheikh Said at all. Rather, "we actually filmed the interview near Khan Tuman," a town about 10 kilometers southwest of Aleppo. The town has seen bitter fighting in recent weeks and months and parts of it are under the control of militias loyal to the government while rebels hold other sections. It lies outside of the Aleppo siege ring. It is possible that a Western journalist could reach the town with a bit of luck and good contacts -- and it is also home to rock quarries. But in the interview, the disguised man clearly said that they were in Sheikh Said and he wasn't contradicted on camera. That means that one of the two isn't telling the truth, the masked man or Todenhöfer. Moreover, from the cave where the interview took place, a peculiar rock formation can be seen, the same one that was filmed as Todenhöfer drove up to the site.
Hours later, Jürgen Todenhöfer clarified his clarification. This time, he wrote: "It is at the moment unclear whether our quarry lies beneath Sheikh Said, as Abu Al Ezz states in the interview, or in Khan Tuman, as has been stated by our middle man. It's irrelevant which of the quarries it was, since the mentioned quarries were not under government control on the day of our interview."
It is, to be sure, a lot of quarries to keep track of, but the question is not at all irrelevant because Todenhöfer's claim is inaccurate. The quarry that was filmed during his approach is under the control of Assad's troops. The fact that the Syrian president's troops and those of his allies are particularly active in the area was confirmed by a mid-August Russian television report. In the report, Assad troops can be seen, along with tanks firing their weapons, and pro-government forces have made additional advances since then. The quarry is very clearly under regime control. And in the background of Todenhöfer's video, one can again see the extremely unique collection of two towers and high buildings that are clearly identifiable on Google Earth.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that Todenhöfer's video was spliced together using material from two different quarries, even if the video suggests the contrary. If you take a closer look at the second quarry near Khan Tuman that Todenhöfer identified as the new location of the interview in his first clarification, another detail becomes apparent: The almost 100-meter-long, smoking garbage dump in the middle of the quarry, which can be seen in the published video, cannot be seen in high quality images of the Khan Tuman quarry. The fact that high-resolution images of the Khan Tuman quarry exist at all is the result of a fateful irony. In mid-September, rebels claim to have shot down an Iranian Shahed drone. Some of the images from the drone could be saved and one of them is a bird's-eye view of the quarry in which Todenhöfer, in his first clarification, claims to have met his masked interview partner. The image of the quarry was obtained by the German tabloid Bild. The fact that there is a large garbage dump in the other quarry near Sheikh Said is because garbage from the overpopulated western half of Aleppo is taken there. Both western Aleppo and the Sheikh Said quarry are under government control.
It can be safely asserted that at least part of the video was made in the quarry located in territory held by the regime. But it is almost impossible that Todenhöfer could have met there with a real commander from the radical group that used to be called Nusra and is now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the video could have been filmed in the Khan Tuman quarry because the distinctive elements from the images are not to be found there.
Important Places and Dates
Just as curious as the contradictions surrounding the site of the interview is the alleged commander Abu Al Ezz himself. He speaks with the accent common in the surroundings of Aleppo, but he apparently knows nothing of the battles that have taken place in the region nor of the most important places and dates. There was years of fighting in the area of the army's most important bases in the region and everyone in rebel-held areas is familiar with the vast "Bastion 46." Just last year, Nusra Front itself drove a moderate rebel group out of the base so it could use it itself. But the alleged Nusra commander calls it "Bastion 47" in the interview. Then, Abu Al Ezz mentions the huge, former infantry school in northern Aleppo that was stormed by rebels in January 2013. But Abu Al Ezz said it happened "two years ago." Furthermore, he doesn't use the formulations common among Islamist radicals. His choice of words makes him sound more like a member of Assad's Baath party.
The fact that he initially introduced himself in the video as a member of "al-Qaida Egypt," a detail that didn't make it into the German translation, completes the image of a man who repeats the Assad regime propaganda about Nusra, but who has little idea about the organization he is said to belong to. Plus, he is wearing a rather large golden ring, which is severely frowned upon by radical Sunnis such as members of Nusra. Todenhöfer says of the ring that it is quite common for Muslims in Syria to wear jewelry.
The contradictions surrounding both the site of the interview and the man interviewed are numerous. One possible explanation for them comes from a dozen refugees from the small village of Haraybel who all said the same thing after being shown the video. Abu Al Ezz may be masked in the video, but his voice can be clearly heard. The refugees say that his real name is Ahmed Ezzu Sheikh al-Dai'a and that he comes from the village of Haraybel, which is located on the regime-controlled side of the front. Ahmed Ezzu, they say, is not a member of Nusra Front -- indeed, prior to the Syrian uprising, he led a life that had very little to do with religion. They say he was the local drug smuggling kingpin and endured several stints in prison. Like many criminals, he accepted the regime offer after 2011 to give up his criminal ways and join the state security services. He became a powerful "Shabiha" say former neighbors and distant relatives who have fled Syria -- a "ghost," as those fighters are called who belong to militias supporting Assad.
Until recently, his Facebook profile showed a somewhat corpulent man in a military uniform instead of in -- seemingly brand-new -- jihadist garb as Todenhöfer's interview partner is wearing. Jürgen Todenhöfer's video has also spread through northern Syria. Because people there likewise quickly noticed the contradictions in the video, they immediately began searching for the interviewee's true identity. Just hours after the name of Ezzu the Shabiha began making the rounds, the photo on his Facebook profile was blocked.
Looking for Answers
There are no other images or videos of Ahmed Ezzu Sheikh al-Dai'a of the kind that exist of many other Shabiha leaders. The witnesses from his village think they know why he may have been a good choice to play the role of a radical leader: He kept a low profile, they say, and was just a criminal and not an ideologue. On this point, they are in agreement with Jürgen Todenhöfer. In his clarification, Todenhöfer said his interview partner was a "soldier of fortune" and that he had joined Nusra because it "pays better."
But if Todenhöfer and his team "know practically everything about him," as he wrote, and were able to "research his identity in-depth," then they must have realized that they could hardly have been speaking to a rebel leader in rebel-controlled territory. The terror group denied having had anything to do with the interview.
In his first clarification, Todenhöfer angrily wrote: "The fact that my critics choose to believe the political leadership of a terrorist organization more than me is messed up!" He wasn't at all bothered by the Nusra denial. He said he had expected such a reaction from the terrorists. After all, they would not have approved of a simple commander speaking in that manner.
Of course, it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility that Jürgen Todenhöfer may have driven through the siege ring in a car. It is also theoretically possible that a Nusra commander risked almost certain death to speak with Todenhöfer on enemy territory. That is why SPIEGEL sent questions about the inconsistencies to both Jürgen Todenhöfer and his legal representative Michael Nesselhauf on Friday and again on Saturday. Neither of the two answered our questions.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the quotes from the official English version of Jürgen Todenhöfer's clarification posted on his Facebook page.