(Click here to watch and listen to the video version of this blog entry)
Every so often people reach out to me online and ask for help with something OSINT/GEOINT related. I am always happy to help, especially because it often ends up with me learning something new along the way. Recently I was asked to assist in finding a pool in Mosul, Iraq. I was not given any more information at first so I gave some pointers on how to do it and got curious. Next thing I know I am being given a link to an old YouTube video with some clips where a pool is visible. It turns out it was not just an ordinary pool but one where an ISIS group put prisoners in a metal cage and lowered them into the water to drown them. If you are uncomfortable with this sort of content please skip this blog entry. I made sure to keep the details and photos as minimally impactful as possible but the reality of it might still be too much for some people, and that is ok.
This blog entry contains an explanation on how I went from that initial clip to finding the exact location of the featured pool in a few hours. I will not skip the parts where I got lost and went off track as this is not a tutorial on how to do it but an explanation on how I did it. Geolocating and investigating data is not always a straightforward path and it is important to embrace the mistakes we make along the way.
I have also not included any links or coordinates to anything due to the nature of the content.
As mentioned above, I was given a YouTube link with clips of the ISIS execution. The video itself was surrounded by adverts, and had several details covered by text and banners so I really needed to find something clearer and better quality. Below is a screenshot of the footage to give you some idea of what I am attempting to describe.
As you can imagine the first point of action was to try to find a much better quality of the ISIS execution footage to see if there are any details I could use to help me geolocate this pool in Mosul, Iraq. Long story short, I did find the full video and managed to save it to my computer. If I was not already on some list I am pretty sure I am now!
Unfortunately the footage itself had very little detail on the surroundings but that never stopped me. I gathered six screenshots that I felt contained relevant information of the pool and area around it in order to help me find its location. Below are the images I saved. I censored them but you can still get an idea of what I was working with.
Although at first glance there is not much to start with, if we look closely there are a few useful details that will definitely help me verify the location (once I find it!).
The top image on the left is, in my opinion, the best one so let’s really look into it.
Below you can see all the information I gathered from that one screenshot.
1 – Corner of a building with a roof that overhangs. It has vertical markings on it and seems to be grey in colour.
2 – Cream / orange coloured building. There seems to be some sort of “T” shape marking on it. Some tall vegetation or a small tree in the front.
3 – Narrow path surrounding the pool. A small wall behind, made of vertical bricks. Dark blue and slightly aged. Contains vegetation behind it, probably grass.
4 – Circular shape that goes into the pool. Could be a small structure in the pool such as a fountain or statue, or the border of the pool. The pool in the video will either not be straight edged or will contain something in it.
5 – Pool ladder on the same side as the building (1), a few metres from it.
6 – Tall wall, definitely over 2 metres high. Privacy or protection? There’s some patterns on it.
7 – Big tree. It wouldn’t be interesting if I was looking at the Amazonian Forest but as my target is, allegedly, located in Mosul, a huge city in a semi arid climate location, this is quite striking as trees can be seen on satellite imagery.
As I have mentioned in many of my geolocations before, I do not particularly like going straight to Google Maps / Earth Pro and start scanning the area without having first an idea of “where”, “when” or “what” I am looking for. I already have the “what” but not the “when” or “where”. Mosul is the second biggest city in Iraq and would take quite some time to scan the entire place. Instead I would rather spend some time collecting more data about this incident. Things also change a lot over time so the “when” is vital as well.
In order to find out when this incident happened I started trying to find out when it was first mentioned / shared online.
I compiled a few descriptive keywords of what I was watching in the footage and googled them. I mostly used a variety of combinations of the words “ISIS”, “Daesh”, “cage”, “prisoners”, “pool”, “Mosul”, “Iraq”, in several different languages (never stick to just English!). Afterwards I collected all the articles, videos, online mentions, and started noting down the dates. Although the most mentioned date of the event was June 23, 2015, I actually found an article with screenshots, allegedly published in May 2015.
A little trick I use when looking at dates of published articles online is to inspect the page code as the author could very easily claim the article was published on a date that does not match your evidence.
Below is one of the articles about the ISIS execution, in Arabic, published on June 23, 2015. You can verify the date by right clicking the page and selecting “inspect”. Afterwards either search for the word “published” or start typing “201” or “202” for the correct decade. According to the source code, the article screenshot below was published on June 23, 2015 at 17:30 in a country with a timezone +3 GMT.
At this point I am confident enough that it mostly likely happened in May/June 2015. I could not find any other mention of it earlier than that, and I could not fully verify the May 2015 date so I am going to work with the assumption that it happened within that month. It is good enough.
Now begins the fun part where I needed to find the actual location. The earlier the articles the more reliable they will be as the media has not engaged yet in a very long Chinese Whispers / Telephone game of telling and retelling a story until you end up with very little reliable facts. Almost all the articles that I found from June 2015 mentioned the incident happening in an area of Mosul called “Al-Faisaliyah”.
I jumped to Google Maps and tried to search for “منطقه الفیصلیه موصل” (Arabic) which literally translates to “Al-Faisaliyah district, Mosul”. I was expecting Google to provide me an area but instead I got a specific coordinate.
It was not exactly what I was looking for but I can work with it. I decided to verify that this area is at least the correct one. For that I went onto YouTube and searched once again for “منطقه الفیصلیه موصل”. The top video is about shop owners in the Al-Faisaliyah area in Mosul protesting against a decision to remove their stores to expand the road. I figured that if I could geolocate that video I could at least confirm that Google Maps is pointing to the correct place.
And that is how I ended up doing a geolocation within a geolocation. Fun times.
I will spare you the details about that one but here is the verification of my (not shared) coordinates.
In the figure below you can see a screenshot of the video (top) and a Google Maps image from a car dash camera in the area (bottom). It is a very good match. It is also around 170 metres from where Google Maps told me Al-Faisaliyah area was located so well done Google.
This is where I realised I could have saved myself the trouble and just paid attention to the map the first time around. I noticed that the area was not called “Al-Faisaliyah” on Google Maps but just “Faisaliyah”. This might be obvious for Arabic speakers but I did not realise that the “Al” was removable. Live and learn.
Another useful thing in Google Maps is that (almost) everything is clickable. That means that if I click that “FAISILIYAH” word as seen on the image below, I will get additional information.
And here is, according to Google Maps, the Faisiliyah area in Mosul.
I had to remove the satellite view as it was too colourful to actually see the red border around the area.
Now that I can clearly see the delimitations of the area I just started scanning it around. The pool looks big enough that it would be visible from satellite view so how hard can this be?
A bit of a spoiler half way through; the pool is not even in the Al-Faisaliyah area of Mosul. Keep reading though.
I looked around for a while but got nothing. A few pools here and there but no clear match. This is that point in a geolocation where you start second guessing the entire thing. Was this even in Mosul? Iraq? Wrong date? Where did I go wrong?
Second guessing everything
First thing I did was then trying to assess whether ISIS was even in Mosul in May/June 2015. I then tried to find videos of them in the area and see if I could perhaps geolocate them. At that point I wondered if I really wanted to be added to more watch lists. The answer is no. One day I will travel abroad again and I do not want to be interrogated at the border so there’s that. I was also trying to minimise the exposure to graphic images during this investigation so perhaps I needed another strategy.
I stopped and thought about it for a bit. Mosul is a big city but there is not that many pools around. Where are pools located? Hotels? Rich people’s houses?
I went with the hotel theory first since I can’t just ask Google Maps to point out rich people’s houses in Mosul.
On Google Maps I wrote “فنادق الموصل” which literally translates, from Arabic, to “Hotels Mosul”. I was presented with the list, as seen below.
Starting from the top I checked every single one of them in search of the presence of an outdoor pool, especially in the Al-Faisaliyah area in case I had missed something (I didn’t). I got nothing but then realised something very important; the city of Mosul has changed a lot in the last years so it is possible that there were hotels at the time that are no longer in operation or vice versa. Google Maps will only give me the current results so time to think of an alternative on how to go about this theory. I also wanted to confirm that ISIS was in Mosul around May / June 2015 so I googled that.
I quickly found a very interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about how ISIS took over a luxury hotel in Mosul as their base in June 2015. Screenshot of the article with an embedded video below.
Before you get as excited as I was I just want to let you know our target pool was not even in a hotel so contain your expectations.
I scanned this specific hotel and surroundings so many times on Google Earth Pro, changed the dates over and over again to compare the satellite imagery from around June 2015 but found no traces of an outdoor pool that matched the one I saw in the ISIS video. Back to square one?
Ok, the hotel theory is likely wrong so I had to think about where else would a pool be? Perhaps in a University? Sometimes they have a Sports Complex with pools so I decided to go for it. My theory was not that strong so I just quickly searched “mosul university pool” and checked Google Images. I figured that it was not worth translating as I was not too sure on that anyway.
The result I got can be seen in the screenshot below. It is probably too small to notice but I immediately spotted an interesting image, highlighted in red.
And here is the (censored) image I found. I am sure you can already spot the similarities to the screenshot from the ISIS video but I have marked them all. Number 4 and 6 were out of frame and number 5 slightly hidden but I can confirm it was there.
That was it! I had the place! Kinda. I still did not know where it was located though…
My excitement did not dwindle though. I was definitely in the right direction at last!
I read through the page that had the photo(s) to see if I could get any information about the location. As luck had it the photo was of an American military base in Iraq and they were extremely vague about the location. In fact, apart from being in Iraq I got nothing else regarding the whereabouts. That is ok because now I had the name of the base and I can work with that.
I want to clarify that the only reason I am publishing this information is because the photo is over 15 years old, the Americans left Iraq 11 years ago and this base has long been abandoned.
Finding the Pool
So I set off trying to find information about the base using the codename I found on that page with the photo of the army personnel jumping into the pool. It did not take me long to track an article from 2015 with a vague description of its location.
The sentence I saw said something like “FOB (Forward Operation Base) FakeName sat on the “CardinalDirection” side of Mosul, Iraq, along the “CardinalDirection” of the Tigris River”.
Perfect, I can work with that too.
From there I jumped into Google Earth Pro, set the historical view to August 2015 and navigated around using the cardinal directions I just read. Shortly after I got it.
Here is the pool at last.
After tracking down the location it is time to verify it so let’s really look at the satellite imagery and see if we can match it with what we are expecting to see.
Below you can see the same tree highlighted in green, the wall next to it in pink, the corner of the building in blue, and that circular shaped area of the pool that sticks in, highlighted in red. It is a very good match.
And this is how I went from a small clip from YouTube to the coordinates of the pool where in May / June 2015 ISIS drowned five prisoners, in the span of a few hours. I am not willing to share the coordinates of the actual pool but I can confirm it was indeed in Mosul, Iraq.
I hope you managed to learn something along the way.
Thank you for reading!