The “Graying” of the Islamist Massacre in Houla
By Adam Larson, CIWCL co-founderJune 22-24, 2012
Note, 2015: This old article was based on muddled information since sorted out. Most of the Islamist brutality described here was wrongly attributed to the Houla Massacre. Other points stand, to differing degrees. The best visual gathering of actual Taldou victims is this collection of morgue photos first released in 2014 makes a similar but less clear case - it seems they aimed more for the skull and jaw than the throat.
A Familiar Killing Style
Early reports on the Houla massacre of May 25 mentioned the approximately 108 death were caused primarily or exclusively from military shelling. This suggested the Syrian Army was responsible as the rebels didn’t have such weapons. Whatever (debatable) logic even that conclusion has, it quickly emerged that most of those killed were executed up-close in often brutal ways, and that’s something either side was capable of.
Mostly this appears to have been by gunshot, but the work of blades was also evident and mentioned, suggesting something like the Islamist terrorists the government blamed. The Syrian investigation found, as a spokesman said, “the massacre happened due to close fire and sharp tools.” Dr Bashar Al-Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, was allowed to speak on the massacre and said: "… the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse. Most of the killings that took place in al-Houla are due to this kind of assassinations, killing at close range, not killed due to the artillery shelling because artillery shelling would not leave the body of the victims the way you saw them. Here we are talking about the Algerian killing style in the early nineties." The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) method, made famous in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, has been spotted elsewhere in the interim. A French investigation saw it in the Libyan city Az Zawiya, in February-March 2011. A month-long fact-finding mission by six terrorism and intelligence experts to both sides of Libya led to a May 2011 report that noted the Islamo-nihilist fingerprints. The report described the three weeks Zawiyah was “free” before the mid-March re-conquest.
"There were also atrocities committed (women who were raped, and some police officers who were killed), as well as civilian victims during these three weeks ... The victims were killed in the manner of the Algerian GIA: throats cut, eyes gauged [sic] out, arms and legs cut off, sometimes the bodies were burned..."
As rebels fighters swooped on Tripoli and Sirte following the trail opened by NATO, dead men were left copiously in the wake, mostly black-skinned and summarily executed. Their flesh too was tortured in shocking ways, often with eyes removed, faces smashed in, throats slit, hands cut off, arms and legs tortured, run over, bodies burned, and in at least one known case in Tripoli and three in Sirte, the victim's head was sliced off. This might matter as numerous Libyans and their weapons are known to have joined the fight in Syria (Libya's NTC is the one world "government" that recognizes the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government, so this is legitimate in their eyes).
The Western-favored anti-Assad witnesses agreed on much of this brutality, showing some of it in their videos, and blaming it all squarely on Assad’s Shabiha militia. Given the general logic of “bad guy does the bad guy things,” with activists and the alleged witnesses who came to them confirming it, the Western press has stated this as fact from day one. The brutality then became part of the PR weapon against the regime, in addition to a clue of the opposite truth I've just shown it to be.
The media has passed on details supporting the rebel branding: an Al Jazeera English video mentions “women and children bludgeoned, shot and hacked to death.” Reuters reporter Khaled Yacoub Oweis described the Shabiha who “break into homes, slit the throats of women and children or hack them to death.”
It all sounds familiar. In all past cases, a swift government response is the accepted way to put these things down. Except here the government was blamed and its ambassadors were expelled over it. This despite the strong case in support of the their view: eyewitnesses (but no known miracle survivors) and considerable logic, coming through in alternative media reports, the Russian government and media, then in the mainstream German media with Rainer Hermann’s breakthrough FAZ articles. Finally the Western media gave the opposite view some consideration, in little spurts. The black-and-white nature of the crime was undeniable, but people started wondering a bit if we might have it totally backwards. Was it really white and black?
Enter John Williams, BBC News editor, with a startling and widely-noted apparent turnaround, speaking of “the need to try to separate fact from fiction,” a need one presumes he was currently addressing. He mentioned the rebel agenda, and its on-line communications strategy “to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.” Just for these thoughts, it is an exceptionally good article by BBC standards, but that’s saying so terribly little. Curiously, the clue in question here – the Algerian-Libyan killing style finally carried out on large numbers of children - is one of the victims of this little detour in faux-thoughtfulness.
In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Westernofficials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. It’s not clear if all the Islamist-type methods have been denied here, or only the throat-slashing in particular. It sounds like some uncertainty has led to ratcheting down the rhetoric against the regime, but, he’s also de-emphasizing another ambiguous clue pointing the other way. Note that it’s “Western officials” saying this, but is seemed like a backtrack mixed into a critical piece mentioning agendas and past deceptions. Clearly there is no basic turnaround evident in this widely-hailed “mea culpa.” The sentences above were immediately followed by “while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre,” a still-debatable “fact” denied by half the witnesses (more coming on that). “The details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear,” he said, but there was little doubt it was not by anti-regime Islamists. “The finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia,” Williams writes, but “it's not clear who ordered the killings” carried out by this pro-government militia. To say “the finger” points at Shabiha means the standard “the witnesses,” ignoring half the witnesses completely, pretending only the government and no human beings support the ostracized view.
Williams used the strange and thoughtful-sounding line “stories are never black and white - often shades of grey.” This was appropriated for the title of the main Syria-coverage dispatch by the media-critique group Media Lens, centered on his report. They also latched onto the part that challenged the Islamist methods in their high-profile article. It was something we had gotten wrong, meant to leave one wondering what else (unspecified) we might have wrong. After passing on the dismissal above, and the crappy following sentences, Media Lens noted: These were crucial new claims challenging key aspects of the consensus on Houla - the media had been as one in reporting as established fact the horrific cutting of children’s throats, for example. It now appears that this was a fabrication. It’s supposedly a lie against the regime, but again we learn this from “western officials” bouncing their assessment off the BBC’s editor. That’s a standard route for untrue psy-ops posing as news. Perhaps Media Lens had their lens in backwards that day. As we’ll see below, brutality with blades in Houla was not “fabricated,” but an important fact of the case that’s now been downplayed, damaging further yet our ability to understand what’s happening. To re-establish this fact, we turn our lens to analysis of media, with emphasis on primary source material.
The “Fabricators”If what Media Lens decided were true, who did the fabricating? The Syrian government used the slur against the terrorists it accused. Rebels used the slashing to blame Assad and the Alawite heretics who will pay soon. Possibly exaggerated versions exist on that side, like this from AmericanSyrians.com, (“No doubts: Perpetrators of Houla Massacre were Assad’s Military forces”): In other homes, when they found the male they were looking for, they tied up all of the children, many of them under 10 months old, and forced their father to watch them brutally slaughter each one of them, one by one. Some children were shot in the head and had their brain blown out. Some had their heads bashed with hammers. Some had their throats slit and their eyes carved out of their sockets. The father was forced to watch. Over 50 children were massacred in this way with their parents forced to watch.
In other homes, the women were tied up and sodomized with weapons and various household objects, while the family was forced to watch. Then they were shot multiple times. Then finally, they would kill the males they were looking for.
An “opposition activist” in Houla, Hamza Houli, told the BBC:"The shabiha militias attacked the houses. They had no mercy. We took pictures of children, under 10 years [old], their hands tied, and shot at close-range, from 10cm, just 10cm. By knife they cut their neck, not exactly all his neck, but they make a hole in the neck, a hole in his eyes." One loyalist woman who spoke to Abkhazian news channel ANNA spoke clearly not all from first-hand observation, but a mix of that and things she heard from others. She didn’t get to see the children (most victims remained in rebel/protester hands after their killing) but specifies the following: “They cut the throat of one soldier and threw him from the third floor.” 3:11 "They kidnapped two soldiers. One is called Abdullah. He’s a Bedouin (Shawi) from Deir Azzour, and burned him alive.” (3:35) After a previous kidnapping of workers by one Haytham Hallak, of the major terrorist family in the area, Hallak “killed one of the kidnapped people and injected fuel into the others’ blood and you can find him at the hospital in Homs.” [7:06] Hallak was carrying a cleaver when she saw him on the 25th, according to another source. The “armed men, as she calls them, were thieves, sypphoning off the city’s oil to sell, and they raped a woman and hanged her, then tossed her naked body in the fields. [7:35] “Such people can’t be called Arabs or Muslims. They’re monsters,” she said. [7:47] She does lay it on a little thick, and it’s possible some of this is rumor or even propaganda, but then, this low-level conflict has been going on for well over a year now…
The media never denied the brutality they saw. Suzy Jagger reported in The Australian, May 28, on the body of an elderly man left behind “His corpse was covered in a blanket, his neck revealing a bloody red gash where his throat had been slit.” Channel 4’s Alex Thomson noteda video, not a propaganda report, on a man’s cell phone, “of two children, their throats slit so deeply they are virtually decapitated.” Video and images say it happened. Vox Clmanatis has, along with its harrowing reports from Syrian clergy (in French), a truly horrific image of video stills showing children just mauled in the head and face. The resolution is not great, but we can see there an uncertain eye-centered injury, possibly a bullet exit wound, with perhaps brain matter extruding, what looks very like a toddler with a slit throat, three cases of unclear, bloody facial trauma, and what looks likea sliced off nose. I haven’t yet seen the particular video(s) cited, but I’m sure it’s genuine.
In fact, I have managed to sit through only the most widely-seen video that actually shows any forensic detail (that is, before the bodies were wrapped) of the killed children. Laid across a series of blankets or rugs, are at least 14 dead children here, about 1/3 of the total, toddler to pre-teen (one older girl is specially covered, visible at the very beginning). They’re mostly bloodied but intact, leaving it less than certain what killed them.
An apparently smaller number of adults were laid out nearby, covered. At 2:33, there’s just enough light to make out this pained face has just a red blob - a wet cavity - for a right eye. Another male victim at 2:10 has a bloodied right eye, perhaps also gouged out. The children here all seem to have their eyes and throats intact, as far as I can see. Two older boys had suffered severe head injuries, one would presume from gunfire. The boy in the red shirt has a large hole in his lower face, mouth and chin blown or torn open, possibly from a shot through the back of the head. Another boy in a yellow shirt has the top his skull flayed wide-open, the remaining scraps of his brain hanging out. This is the one body not picked up and flailed around for the cameras.
The boy with the top of his head removed might have been what another rebel witness referred to by a rebel commander who knows exactly what happened where, after a thorough investigation of course. To the BBC:
"The next house they [the Shabiha] entered was the house of Qutayba Abdul Razaq, he survived and his one-year-old daughter was injured. He lost his wife and five of his children. All of those I'm counting died by gunshots, direct fire. They were gathered in one room and shot. There was one kid however whose head was skinned with a knife. The knife was found among the bodies and we have its picture." - Akrama Bakour, Free Syrian Army, Houla
Interestingly, that is the only one he blames on a blade with this family or any of the others he rattled off the same way. He mentions no further instances of slit throats, scooped-out eyes, or anything like that. He's also among the FSA people suddenly in charge of Houla, apparently only after the massacre. Or were they there before the attack as they failed to prevent it?
But the knife part, and all those others above, especially the red text (for child+ Islamo-nihilist brutality), must have been errors or lies. After all, some Western officials said an investigation said there was no such thing.