White Helmets collaborating with terrorists? We sort fact from fiction (Part 1)
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Many people are taking to social media in an attempt to tarnish the image of the Syrian Civil Defense Organisation, better known as “the White Helmets”, who help victims in combat zones.
Social media users have been sharing several different amateur videos as “proof” for conspiracy theories claiming that the White Helmets are actually undercover Islamist terrorists who collaborate with jihadist groups. We gathered these videos and analysed them to sort the fact from fiction.
The White Helmets are Syrian rescue workers who operate in zones under rebel control. They participate in all kinds of rescue operations, especially after bombs and air strikes. They claim to have saved close to 100,000 people since the start of the war. They are known for documenting the conflict through photos and videos that they share on social media.
READ ON THE OBSERVERS >> ‘White helmets’, the Syrian men and women braving bombs to save lives
Originally, the White Helmets were an independent organisation made up of volunteers. Today, the organisation is funded by multiple foreign governments, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan, as well as by private donors. The organisation says it runs on a budget of $26 million (equivalent to about 21.5 million euros). These days, the rescue workers are paid about $150 (around 120 euros) per month if they work full-time, according to American magazine Newsweek.
For the past few months, however, the White Helmets have been the target of a smear campaign on social media, mainly led by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Social media accounts, especially those belonging to conspiracy theorists and media with pro-Russian leanings, accuse the White Helmets of being allies of jihadist rebel groups. They also claim the White Helmets are carrying out a comms war with the Syrian regime.
These critics of the White Helmets have offered a large number of amateur photos and videos as proof of their accusations.
The following articles and videos have been widely shared with the aim of discrediting the White Helmets.
- An “investigation” by Anna news, an Abkhaz news agency known for its pro-Assad stance, called “White helmets, the mask of terror”.
- “Netflix and the White Helmets, hand in hand with al Qaeda”, a video posted on Hands Off Syria, a pro-Assad, pro-Russian YouTube channel.
- “'They don't care about us': Syrians on White Helmets' true agenda”a video broadcast by Russia Today, the Russian TV channel financed by the Kremlin.
- Several different articles published on blogs Clarity of Signal (examples here and here) and 21st Century Wire. These two websites each have an entire section on what they call the “hidden side” of the White Helmets.
We chose not to include testimonies from residents in Aleppo gathered by Russia Today and Anna News because they are impossible to verify.
The “articles” posted on Clarity of Signal include a large number of screengrabs showing Facebook profiles of men said to be White Helmets. The site offers these screengrabs as proof that at one time or another, these men took up arms and fought for rebel groups. These profiles have since been deleted, so we were not able to investigate the claims further.
We carefully selected 21 photos, videos and documents that people have frequently been sharing as alleged proof of collusion between the White Helmets and jihadists, or as alleged proof that the organisation has been staging its rescues as photo ops.
In this first part of our investigation, we will examine allegations of collusion between the White Helmets and jihadist groups. In the second part of our investigation, we will examine images that some say offer proof that the White Helmets have been staging rescues and sharing fake photos.
Accusation: “White Helmets celebrated the taking of Idlib alongside armed groups”
A series of videos purports to prove collusion between the White Helmets and armed groups. The videos show a member of the White Helmets celebrating the capture of Idlib on March 28, 2015. He’s pictured next to victorious combatants who are shouting “Allahu akbar”. At one point, the White Helmet brandishes a flag resembling that of the Islamist group Al Nusra.
On this flag – below the traditional profession of the faith – is the name Jaysh al-Sunna, a rebel group that participated in the coalition known as the Army of Conquest (or Jaysh al Fatah), which conquered the city. Another member of the coalition was the Al Nusra Front. However, this flag isn’t Jaysh al-Sunna’s official flag, so it is hard to tell what group these fighters really belong to. Especially because on this day, fighters from different groups came together to celebrate.
CScreengrabs of two videos, which you can watch here and here, filmed in Idlib, Syria on March 28, 2015.
The man in this video is wearing clothes associated with the Syrian Civil Defense Organisation: the famous “white helmet” and a fluorescent green vest on which is written “Civilian Defense - Sarmin” [a town located to the east of Idlib].
“Civil Defense, Sarmin”, reads the writing on this man’s safety vest. (Screengrab by France 24.)
The White Helmets were indeed on the ground the day that Idlib was taken, as shown in two other videos published on March 28, 2015 on a YouTube channel bearing the emblem of the Free Syrian Army.
In the first video, the journalist questions a White Helmet, who explains that he and his team are in the midst of “evacuating the citizens that the government used as human shields.”
“We haven’t finished yet,” he adds. “There are still many people buried under the rubble.”
In the second video (warning: this video contains shocking and disturbing images), the same journalist is at a roundabout where several different fighters are celebrating their victory. Behind them, a White Helmet (identifiable by his uniform) poses with his foot on a dead body, his fist pumping the air.
A few seconds later, the White Helmet who appears in the first series of videos appears on screen and walks towards the group of people standing by the dead bodies.
Screengrabs with red circles added by France 24.
Several White Helmets did celebrate the capture of Idlib alongside fighters from the Army of Conquest, a coalition of rebels including some jihadist groups, on March 28, 2015.
Accusation: “White Helmets helped jihadist groups carry out executions”
Two videos taken from websites and films made by conspiracy theorists show the White Helmets attending an execution and then hurrying towards the body to put it on a stretcher and take it away - as if they had agreed with the executioners ahead of time that they would take care of the body once the execution was carried out.
>> “Al-Nusra executes a civilian, the White Helmets watch and then take away the body”
The first video, which was published online on May 5, 2015, shows a man being executed in Haritan (a suburb located to the north of Aleppo). It was published both on YouTube and LiveLeak, though the YouTube version has since been taken down.
Video published on LiveLeak. Screengrabs captured by France 24.
A man recites two verses from the Koran and then another kills the victim. About ten seconds later, three White Helmets hurry towards the body. When the video ends, it looks like they are getting ready to put the body on an orange stretcher.
The person who posted this video to LiveLeak said that it shows an execution carried out by Al Nusra.
The day after this video was published, the White Helmets released a press statement. Here’s an excerpt:
On May 5, 2015, the Civilian Defense team was contacted by a court of law in Haritan and told that there was a body in the street, behind the main mosque in Haritan.
The Civilian Defense deployed a team to go pick up the body. The team arrived at the site around 11:35am and came across an execution, which happened at around 11:40am.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to find the legal act announcing that this execution would take place. According to this document, the execution was a punishment for an act of aggravated assault.
On May 5, 2015, Dar al Qadaa, a network of Islamic courts founded in July 2014 by the Al Nusra Front announced the execution of a man named Ahmed Hamoud in Haritan. In the tweet announcing the execution, they also tweeted a link to a video, which has since been deleted.
However, the person who uploaded the execution video to LiveLeak claims that it is the same video that Al Nusra shared on Twitter and that he copied it before it was deleted.
According to bloggers who document the Syrian conflict and media outlets close to the opposition, the court of law in Haritan was under the command of both Al Nusra and other armed groups such as Jaish Al-Muhajirin wal Ansar, “a group mostly made up of Chechens, which, at the time, was close to Al Nusra”, according to Thomas Pierret, a researcher who specialises in Syrian armed groups. (Pierret is a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the largest governmental research organization in France, and at the Institute for Research and Studies of the Arab and Muslim World in Aix-en-Provence).
This group announced that it had taken control of the city in October 2014. In 2015, the Haritan court stoned to death two women accused of adultery, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in a report published on August 5, 2015.
We can confirm that the court of law in Haritan was at the time under the control of Al Nusra and that three White Helmets did intervene after an execution at the request of an organisation linked to this group.
However, in their statement, the White Helmets underlined the fact that “the presence of volunteers in no way shows complicity or encouragement of the execution”.
“We condemn unequivocally the murder of civilians no matter who the culprit is,” the statement continued.
>> “The White Helmets celebrated while extremists carried out an execution in Deraa”
Another video shows a similar scene in Deraa, a town in southern Syria close to the border with Jordan. Three seconds after the fatal gunshot, at least three White Helmets rush towards the body of the victim and carry it away on a stretcher. The crowd around them seems to be celebrating the event.
Russia Today says on its website that the execution was carried out by “rebel militants.”
In a statement published on May 18, 2017, which was later deleted (link to an archived version), the White Helmets say that this incident occurred on May 16, 2017.
The statement says that its members disposed of “the body of a person condemned to death by the local courts for the crime of murder”, at the request of a “civil tribal council” in the town of Jasim, located in the Deraa governorate. The statement claimed that the White Helmets “removed the bodies immediately after the execution to prevent new violence”.
In the statement, the White Helmets emphasised that respect for the dead and the maintenance of public order are part of the organisation’s goals. However, they also announced that two volunteers would be suspended for three months for failing to respect the obligation to neutrality clearly laid out in the organisation’s code of conduct. They did not specify if the two people suspended were among the three White Helmets who appear in the video.
It’s not possible to establish with certainty who sat on the civil tribal council in this small town in May 2017. So while it seems clear that the White Helmets did intervene at the request of a local authority carrying out a death sentence, it’s not possible to establish whether or not an armed group was involved in this situation. Moreover, in this region in southern Syria, “most institutions are independent of armed groups. The influence of the jihadists there is actually quite weak,” says researcher Pierret.
Accusation: “The White Helmets work with the Islamic State group”
“This Aleppo Video Proves White Helmets Work for ISIS,” wrote the person who published this video, which has been viewed more than 250,000 times. This video is a clip taken from a propaganda film published by the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) in February 2015. [Screengrab and red circles by FRANCE 24]
An excerpt from the propaganda film “Inside Halab”, which was published in February 2015 by Al Hayat, the media arm of the Islamic State group, showed the hostage John Cantlie in the streets of an eastern suburb of Aleppo. It is not clear when this video was filmed. Cantlie praises the terrorist organisation and denounces the American airstrikes. At 3’30, you can see three White Helmets in uniform in the background of the video.
The video suggests that the White Helmets were able to carry out rescue missions in the zone in 2015, a claim which we were not able to independently verify.
However, Raed Al Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, told news website The Daily Beast that the only true ‘no-go zone’ in Syria for volunteers are the areas controlled by the government.
In a statement published on January 26, 2017, the White Helmets group admitted that it had “assisted members of organisations like the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State group”, as well as government soldiers and members of foreign militias.
In 2014, Raed Al Saleh admitted that they mostly carried out their work in “zones that have been liberated or those under the control of the Islamic State group. Those are the zones where there are bombings”.
We do not have proof that the White Helmets collaborated with the IS group while carrying out rescue missions.
But, even if that were to have happened, the White Helmets wouldn’t be the first NGO to “negotiate” with the terrorist group in order to help civilians living in areas under its control.
In a statement published on March 11, 2015, French medical charity Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said that they had negotiated agreements with various “commanders from the Army of Mujahideen, the Islamic Front, Al Nusra, different factions of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [later known as the Islamic State group], among others.”
The humanitarian organisation said that these negotiations were necessary because of the urgent medical needs of the population as well as the impossibility of getting authorisations from the Syrian government. However, Médecins Sans Frontières stopped all “collaboration” with the IS group after 13 members of its personnel were taken hostage by the terrorist group in 2014.
Pierret does not think that it is a problem that the White Helmets works in a zone controlled by the IS group.
“They are carrying out rescue work,” he said. “The civilians are there and they have the right to help. If there were images of White Helmets bringing in weapons, that would be a very different story.”
What the White Helmets have to say
The France 24 Observers reached out to the White Helmets about these photos and videos.
A spokesperson for the organisation said that they “would not be able to respond directly to all of the links that [the France 24 Observers] sent, because a large number of them have no basis in reality.”
They are the result of an intense disinformation campaign in which, every day, new allegations are published. The objective is to discredit our documentation of Russian war crimes in Syria, which we do carry out while saving the lives of our countrymen. Their aim is also to enable the Assad regime and its allies to call our volunteers terrorists and to target them in violation of all international conventions.”
We recognise that there have been rare isolated incidents during our five years of activity, concerning a tiny fraction of our 4,300 volunteers, during which our Code of Conduct and our values have been breached. We’ve always taken rapid measures to manage these incidents, including the expulsion of certain volunteers and full cooperation with credible judicial institutions in Syria.
“You can’t operate in these zones without the authorisation of armed groups”
Pierret says that having agreements with armed groups is the only way that the White Helmets can carry out their humanitarian work:
Amongst the White Helmets, many have a general sympathy with the opposition […] The group also maintains practical accords with armed groups. But it is stupid to reproach them for it […] : you can’t operate in these zones without the authorisation of armed groups […]. Considering the extent of their activities in Syria, these questionable cases are few and far between. It’s not like there are images showing White Helmets killing children; they are not being accused of atrocities or transporting weapons.
These allegations and videos [claiming that the White Helmets work for terrorist groups] are nonsense. The Russians have poisoned the debate. […] It’s just a distraction, a propaganda operation.
Pierret discounts accusations from certain social media users that the White Helmets are “comms tools for armed groups”:
What kind of communication are we talking about? If we’re talking about civilians being bombed, it is a reality. It isn’t these armed groups that are bombing Idlib. Here, the goal is to take war crimes [committed by the Syrian government and Russia and documented by the White Helmets] and discount them as just comms from the White Helmets.