Jeffrey LewisTourist Trip To Halabiye

One of the unique features of the AlKibar (Dair Alzour) probable-reactor site is that it is located near a (somewhat offbeat) tourist attraction. I even joked that a visit “seems like a good use of my grant money.”

I didn’t expect one of you to actually do it. A reader, on a visit to Syria, took a day trip to Halabiye. He has decided to share his observations and photographs:

As you might know, close to the reactor there is an old Byzantine fortress called Halabiye (Frank Pabian mentioned it in his presentation). Tourists only seldom visit Halabiye, but still some travel-guides mention it, so a visit to the fortress was not too obvious. I tried to see how close I could get to the reactor, in the end I was 1.5 km away. This whole area is really, really far off and lies about 60-70 km away from Deir ez-Zour, which also is seldom visited by tourists. Every Syrian I told I was going to Deir ez-Zour immediately asked why I would want to visit such an ugly “$#&%hole”. After all it is a six hours drive from Damascus and a three hours drive from Palmyra. On holidays lot of Syrians villagers picnic near the fortress. As they apparently had never seen a foreigner before, I quickly became the attraction of the day.

So here my impressions and thoughts on the Al Kibar site:

First let me state, that I think it indeed was a nuclear reactor. I know many people question this and their main argument is that the site is not defended in any way.

This notion is wrong. There are simply no visible defenses. Actually the area is so far off that little defenses are necessary, climbing up the cliffs there is extremely exhausting, difficult and takes a long time. I almost fell twice when climbing up the hill of the castle. Security forces would have plenty of time to thwart any “misguided” hikers. Ten soldiers or so garrisoned inside the canyon and some light barriers would be more than enough to keep away any any intruders.

Additionally I can confirm that the site is defended even if a bit differently than people would expect. There were three men simply hanging around next to the bridge. Our taxi driver offered to take us across the bridge to photograph the castle from the other side (where the reactor is located). Then suddenly those guys approached our driver who told us: “Wait I will do this for you”

They started questioning him with one of them taking out a small book to take notes. When we were going further down the bridge to the other side of the river our always amiable driver asked us aggressively “What do you want there? There is nothing there”. That was the only time he talked to us in such a manner. My friend and I took three pictures on which those suspicious guys are visible — the one tying his shoes was the guy who took out his notebook. They monitored us very closely until we went back to Deir Ez Zour.

In my opinion all of that really makes sense, the Syrians would never be able to stop a concentrated Israeli attack on a pin point target. Hiding it was the only way to go. Of course that was a big gamble, which they lost. Putting an old Russian SAM next to it, which would have been eliminated in a matter of minutes anyway would have been the most stupid thing to do. Constructing a SAM station anywhere is like painting “here is an important installation” in big red letters into the desert for all satellites to see, especially in such a remote region.

The pumping station (above) seems to be somewhat hidden, too. A big earthen wall makes it impossible to see it from the ground. The fortress is situated on a big hill and you can inescapably view the pumping station from the top of it, even if from a distance of two kilometers. I did photograph it, unfortunately the weather was rather misty making the picture a little blurred. I was lucky enough to capture a man standing behind the pumping station, he gives a clear indication of the size of the building. When considering the earthen wall hides the lower part, it also gets clear how tall the building actually is. (Editor’s note: The man is the dark speck to the viewer’s left of the building.)

Another point is the position of the building itself. I photographed a different canyon (above) behind the castle. The canyon where the reactor was located probably looked similar before construction started. Flattening the ground and lying the foundations for such a giant building like an reactor is a major task which simply would not make sense for a normal construction. There is more than enough free, even space right next to the Euphrates only two kilometers down the river (where the cement factory, pictured below,is located)

This is also why the “water treatment” plant is suspicious to me. Why build such a plant kilometers away when there is enough space right next to the river and right next to the main road? Laying kilometers of water pipes in Syria’s hottest region is no fun either. But who knows perhaps the Syrian’s converted this facility into a real water treatment plant later on.

There are some ruins on the other side of the Euphrates (the reactor side) but our driver stated he could not pass the river over that very rickety pontoon bridge. The bridge, despite being partially made of wood, can carry cars, however. I photographed a van crossing it, interestingly with a “Danger” sign on it (below). Apparently it was forbidden only for us.

There seems to be a frequent truck traffic to the cement factory, so steady supply of the reactor using trucks would not be noticeable. In fact, I recall that Frederick Forsyth, in The Fist of God (his novel about Saddam getting the bomb), describes an asphalted road and a steady flow of trucks asthe most pressing problem when concealing a nuclear factory (in The Fist of God, the Iraqis disguise the plant as a car dump).

A lot of people claim the photos from the briefing could have been taken anywhere but the whole atmosphere and colors were just spot on. OK, I know this argument is anything but objective, but the photos of the presentation and my travel pictures correspond rather well (see the screenshot).

Another major claim of skeptics is the lack of support structures. Syria has an history of underground sites. And more important, why should such structures have to be 10m away from the reactor? In the age of fiber optics control stations could be placed kilometers away. Even storage sites could be placed far away, due to the many lorries there transports to the reactor would hardly be noticeable. It again reminded me of Forsythe. In The Fist of God, analysts don’t recognize a nuclear factory as such because its facilities are placed so far apart. I photographed a vast building which looked a little out of place, because of its tower-like structures and sheer size. The inscriptions says “workshop for gypsum and decor”. Of course, it could be just that but still one should not discard the idea the Syrians may have “outsourced” some of the necessary structures to buildings like this one or the alleged water treatment plant.

There seems to be a lot of cooperation with the DPRK in general. In Damascus I once saw a North Korean delegation (above), which I unfortunately could only photograph from behind. I tried to ask a colleague, but he said the subject was not appropriate to discuss.

[Note: I asked “Why did you conclude the Asian men were from the DPRK?” Our reader responded: “The guy in the uniform walked past me very closely. I could see a Kim Il Sung pin, which North Koreans are obliged to wear, on his chest.”]

I hasten to add that I take the photographer at his word; the pictures certainly look accurate.

I made text and image edits where necessary to avoid making trouble for certain people. Which brings me to a very important point:

I want to discourage, in the strongest possible terms, readers from doing anything illegal or that might otherwise endanger yourself, your host or people around you. Many governments have no sense of proportion when it comes to the line between what is innocent behavior in a free society — taking pictures of public events; using your intellect to draw conclusions — and espionage. Recent events in Iran and North Korea demonstrate this too clearly for my taste.

So, please don’t go taking silly risks. We can leave that to the professionals.


  1. scud

    I read the title too fast and thought it said “Tourist Trap”.

    As if one needed a thickening of the plot: an analyst from the Middle East, fairly well versed in these matters, claims in semi-public debates that (s)he is very confident, based on alleged conversations with intelligence services in the region, that this was in fact a “missile factory”.
    Whatever that’s worth.

    And Jeff: the travel advice is well taken. There is a healthy competition on this blog to bring the best info to the community, but actions are best left to the pros.

  2. Yale Simkin (History)

    scud mentioned an analyst who :is very confident” that this was a “missile factory”.

    If that were the fact, then one would have to accept that all the ground images from the “mole” and the post-attack images are ALL bogus.

    If the images are real, then a gas-graphite reactor is the ONLY sensible alternative.

  3. Yale Simkin (History)

    Our brave correspondent reported:
    Actually the area is so far off that little defenses are necessary, climbing up the cliffs there is extremely exhausting, difficult and takes a long time. I almost fell twice when climbing up the hill of the castle. Security forces would have plenty of time to thwart any “misguided” hikers. Ten soldiers or so garrisoned inside the canyon and some light barriers would be more than enough to keep away any any intruders. … the Syrians would never be able to stop a concentrated Israeli attack on a pin point target. Hiding it was the only way to go.

    This is as I pointed out a couple of years ago –

    The site is remote, and in godforsaken wilderness.
    That does not mean that people don’t go down the river nor that tourists travel the area for the archaological and historical value.
    The Syrians would know that it cannot be invisible from above, but would at least want it unintrusive from the ground and far as possible from Israel. They would want it near bridges and near at least small settlements.

  4. Philipp Bleek

    This is both fun and substantively interesting, but whoever did this took substantial risks, and without the benefits of diplomatic cover that most spooks get. Can you imagine how this might have played over very differently if those three gentlemen on the bridge had noticed they were being photographed and asked to see the camera? On that note, kudos to Jeffrey for the cautionary note at the end.

  5. Andy (History)

    After reading this post, it won’t take Syrian intelligence long to figure out who wrote it and took the photographs. So, some advice to whoever did: Don’t go back to Syria anytime soon.

  6. Nathan (History)

    Heh, Syrian Intel might not be the only one you want to stay away from. After pulling off something like that, there may be a few agencies in the west who may want a cuppa and a quiet chat.

  7. Azr@el (History)

    As a general advisory:

    One man’s bit of sport on holiday can rapidly turn into the sort of misunderstanding that leads to celebrating birthdays behind bars. When you’re in another person’s country tread lightly and best behaviors, the james bond pantomiming can really go over poorly on some crowds.

  8. Arrigo (History)

    At least all the photos in the post have been photoshopped and the EXIF values are meaningless protecting the photographer.

    I hope I wasn’t the only one thinking about this avenue…

  9. Carey Sublette

    Hiding it was the only way to go.

    For completeness I will note that there is a third option, which happens to be a DPRK specialty: hardening the site (mostly through burial) so that conventional air attack cannot destroy it.

    The DPRK did not do this with their own reactor, but they seem to have done it with just about everything else having to do with the military.

    The primary reason that Syria (and the DPRK) did not try this route for their reactor is probably that it is very expensive and technically much more difficult, adding years to the project schedule.

    And even a buried reactor is not completely safe from attack. Its operations could be harassed by periodic attacks on access points, but destroying it would require some sort of raid with ground forces.

  10. Matt Hoey (History)

    Very impressive and quite awesome in fact. Though it makes my last vacation look pretty lame. We went up to New Hampshire for the weekend. I will have to show this to the bride.

  11. Allen Thomson

    Yale reminds us that,

    > If the images are real, then a gas-graphite reactor is the ONLY sensible alternative.

    Which is the central issue and from which much more flows. That “much more” has received much less discussion than it should have.

    As for the touristic pictures, I’m in awe of the boldness (if not the prudence) of the tourist. Kinda reminds me of the exploits of certain US defense attaches during the Cold War.

  12. Azr@el (History)

    If a nation were attempting a crash program (no attempt at using a civilian program as a cover)for a deliverable strategic deterrent then with a mid level tech base you’d assume they wouldn’t try to go for gas graphite reactor but rather a simple graphite thermal reactor of the molten salt variety. Corrosion would be a nightmare but they be breeding low Pu240 plutonium and have trit as a byproduct and the low cost of the reactor would balance out the short operational lifetime. Using molten salt would result in a thin case/pipe design that lends itself to concealment.

    Without going into too much detail, if a nation were to attempt to replicate a mid generational US design, one of the weak driver double hollow tritium boosted cores with a beryllium reflector that used the primary holhraum as the tamper; i.e. non symmetric explosive driver on the outside of the primary hohlraum, and a multi-shell spherical super style secondary, then a 20-50 MW thermal molten salt reactor with yield 2-5 200kt weapons per annum.

  13. Rwendland (History)

    You don’t need to go anywhere exotic to run into spook problems – it has happened to EU folks elsewhere in the EU! There is the famous case of the eight British and Dutch plane spotters found guilty of espionage for taking photos at a Greek Air Force public open day! 20-year maximum sentence. Eventually they got of on appeal, but it seems military plane spotting was unheard of in Greece in 2001. Go careful.

  14. Rwendland (History)

    Azr@el, does molten salt give a neutron economy that permits natural uranium fuel – a key attraction of the GCR? I thought the experimental ones used more exotic fuel, but maybe that was because of the idea of powering a plane with one.

    Carey, doesn’t an entirely buried reactor give you a large cooling problem? The Yongbyon cooling tower may be relatively small, but still a challenge underground. Near the sea or a large river could work, but those areas usually attract people, so hard to make entirely invisible.

  15. Yale Simkin (History)


    Carey was not suggesting that burying would make it invisible. He was suggesting an alternative to the Anonymous Tourist’s thought that “Hiding it was the only way to go.”

    Carey was discussing that a hardened site was also a possibility, but that the drawbacks may have deterred the Syrians and NKs.

    Cooling may or may not be an issue – if invisibility is not essential.

    The Syrian reactor apparently was not going to use a cooling tower.

    According to the gov. presentation there was a buried water reservoir and the river water pumping system. That should be more than adequate for a dozen or two megawatts(t).

    The Syrian reactor was already pretty much underground. Completely burying would seem possible.

    It appears though, in this case, that simply insetting it low enough to be easily shielded by the canyon and berms plus not having a looming structure looking totally out-of-place suited their needs. (A definite miscalculation)

    Carey also pointed out that the necessary interfaces with the outside world are weak points. The pumping stations would be a real vulnerability.

  16. Yossi

    I’m glad that a technical discussion of this topic is renewed after a long dry season. The arms control community is a kind of academic enterprise and should exercise its right to academic freedom.

    The ACW reader providing these nice pictures seems to be internally hard pressed to prove to himself that the official story is correct. He seems to be only partially aware of its critic but this is to be expected in view of the unreadability of D’s work notes. A good re-write is in order and was promised.

    Various things can be said about the hazy suggestions made above but they require more time for analysis. Just a little remark, the water treatment plant is connected by pipe to Surat Al Qabr, the city 10km to the north. The reason for this distance is probably that these old purification plants stink like hell and breeds insects.

  17. Tim Brown (History)

    “Nobody has ever found anything that was successfully hidden,” someone once wrote.

    The Al Kibar reactor construction site was not successfully hidden.

    It was discovered, not by the non-proliferation community, but by some combination of the Israeli and US Intelligence, and was bombed by the Israelis before it was completed.

    Looking back on the affair, the level of naïveté on the part of the Syrians is astonishing. Did they really think they could build a reactor disguised as an ancient fort in the middle of nowhere, and it would not be noticed by government imagery analysts with access to a growing constellation of imaging satellites?

  18. Allen Thomson

    > Looking back on the affair, the level of naïveté on the part of the Syrians is astonishing. Did they really think they could build a reactor disguised as an ancient fort in the middle of nowhere, and it would not be noticed by government imagery analysts with access to a growing constellation of imaging satellites?

    As I understand the USG story, the building was noticed sometime prior to 2007, but there was no agreement as to what it housed. It was only with the Israeli acquisition of the ca. 2002 ground-level photographs early in 2007 that the reactor was identified. Gen Hayden said that, in any case, the US would have converged on the reactor explanation after seeing the water lines being laid to the Euphrates in mid-2007. Maybe so, but those were late days.

    Making the IMO dubious assumption that the Israelis wouldn’t have bombed a reactor that had gone critical, a case can be made that the Syrians almost got away with it.

  19. Azr@el (History)

    Rwendland, the main determinant of neutron economy is the primary moderator, which in this case would be graphite as in the GCR. The carrier/coolant/breeding fluid, i.e. the molten salt, would have some moderating effect but it would be a second order concern.

    Most of the work in the field of molten salt reactors has been geared towards taking advantage of its high thermal density and good neutron economy; aircraft propulsion, thorium breeder reactors, etc… But there’s no show stopper with respect to using them as plutonium breeders running on .7% U-235. They would actually excel at this role as a result of being able to have onsite separation and sequestering. Recall that this technology is over 50 years old, very economical, proven and yet has never gone mainstream. Consider it a bit of forbidden alchemy.

  20. Y. (History)

    Spiegel has a story about the bombardment of Al Kibar:,1518,658663,00.html

    Little new information about the site itself, but it alleges Syria has a large amount of Iranian Uranium meant for its (destroyed) nuclear program.

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