Jeffrey LewisHayden on Al Kibar

CIA Director Michael Hayden recently provided an extended discussion of the timeline leading up to the identification and destruction of the probable Syrian reactor at Al Kibar:

Thanks to some outstanding intelligence work, we were able last year to spoil a big secret, a project that could have provided Syria with plutonium for nuclear weapons. I’d like to cover it here because it’s an excellent example of how CIA and our Community colleagues attack the problem of nuclear proliferation.

It was reported in the press last April, and you’re probably familiar with its outlines. We knew that North Korea and Syria had been cooperating since the late 1990s in the nuclear field. The depth of that relationship was revealed in the spring of last year, when we identified a nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in the eastern desert of Syria. It was similar to the one at Yongbyon in North Korea, but with its outer structure heavily disguised.

The situation became critical late last summer, when we judged the facility could be nearing operation. The Al-Kibar reactor was destroyed the morning of 6 September 2007. The Syrians immediately cleared away the rubble and every trace of the building, stonewalling the IAEA when asked to explain. Their cover-up only underlined the intense secrecy of this project and the danger it had posed to a volatile region.

I want to focus briefly on two important aspects of this intelligence effort: the quality of tradecraft, in terms of collection and analysis, and the value of collaboration, both with colleagues in our government and with foreign services.

More than anything else, our work was a classic example of multidisciplinary, blue-collar analysis. We had a group of officers who started working overtime on this issue in April 2007 and kept at it for months. Virtually every form of intelligence—imagery, signals, human source, you name it—informed their assessments, so that they were never completely dependent on any single channel.

For instance, a report from a foreign partner initially identified the structure at Al-Kibar as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea. But even without that piece of the puzzle, it wouldn’t have been long before we reached the same conclusion. We had previously identified the facility on imagery as a suspicious target. When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor. We would have known it was North Korean, too, given the quantity and variety of intelligence reports on nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus.

Still, our analysts were open to alternative possibilities at every juncture. Early on, they applied a methodology that laid out the inconsistencies in each competing hypothesis. They carefully examined whether the building might be for another purpose, like a conventional power plant, or a water treatment facility. In each case, the arguments simply didn’t add up. The reactor hypothesis was the most difficult to refute with the available evidence.

We then stepped back and tried to turn the basic premise on its head: OK, we’ve got a nuclear reactor in Syria built with North Korean help, but is it necessarily for a Syrian program? Might it have been built by North Korea for its own use, to secretly replace the Yongbyon reactor they had pledged to shut down? We took that hypothesis and worked very hard on it, but the mainstream theory held sway.

Finally, this was a success reached through close collaboration across agencies, departments, and governments. Dedicated officers at CIA, DIA, the Department of Energy, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and NSA came together as a team, each bringing a specific expertise to the table. And this was an intelligence problem that required a wide range of knowledge. I already mentioned all the different forms of collection, but it also drew from a remarkable diversity of analytic firepower—everyone from nuclear technology and weapons experts to political and leadership analysts.

Our foreign partnerships too were critical to the final outcome. These relationships aren’t a matter of occasionally passing along a report that may or may not be useful. They’re more akin to working together on a complex equation over a long period. Each tries to solve a variable that in turn helps a partner solve another, and so on until we’ve cracked the case. That’s what good intelligence is all about.

The account is filled with the heroism and good judgement of the Agency — much as one might imagine the Company would like to tell the story. I am inherently suspicious of such accounts.

One thing that leaps out is the inferential nature of the evidence that links North Korea to the project. We know North Koreans were involved but judgements about the importance of North Korean assistance seem to rest on the resemblance of Al Kibar to Yongbyon, which itself was in many ways a copy of earlier reactor designs.

I wonder if we aren’t underestimating how much the Syrians might have been able to do on their own and, by extension, how other states might succeed in building Yongbyon-like reactors with minimal foreign assistance or partners other than Pyongyang.

I wonder: Could a Syrian after-action review reasonably conclude that North Korean involvement compromised the secrecy of the project, while providing non-unique technical assistance that might have been obtained in less obtrusive ways?


  1. Joseph Logan (History)

    Your modesty would probably not permit saying so, but the analysis on this blog both in the posts and in the comments over the months was a very good example of the potential for crowdsourced analysis to complement such intel, and it was both less intrusive and free.

  2. J House (History)

    We must wonder what the IC ‘take’ was from HUMINT and SIGINT prior to the Israeli attack on the facility…did CIA or Mossad have someone in the Syrian program besides the individual that took photos at the complex?
    From what source did the Syrians plan to get the uranium to run the reactor?
    The NORKS? Saddam? (after all, Saddam was sitting on 500 tons of unenriched uranium prior to the war, and UN inspectors had already been removed from Iraq). True, no evidence has surfaced to implicate Iraq, but Saddam would have had the motive and means to assist the Syrians.

  3. Yossi, Jerusalem (History)

    When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor.

    Interesting. About 4.4km from BoE there is a 75 m^2 pump house with 3 large pipes entering the river on concrete pads (lat 35.670811, lon 39.843394). This pump house is a little smaller than BoE’s but I wouldn’t say BoE’s cooling system made little doubt it was a nuclear reactor. Unless of course the Syrians have a nuclear reactor every few kilometers on the river bank.

    There are many other strange points in the CIA story so I remain very skeptical.

  4. Gump (History)

    It’s been over a year since the attack on the facility and IAEA still hasn’t issued a report yet. Am I correct? Are they dragging their feet?

  5. Allen Thomson

    I, too, have a wonderment: just what was it that the US intelligence community succeeded in doing that General Hayden is so proud of?

    The US saw The Box but didn’t know what was in it; the Israelis eventually told the US what was in it; the US then put together an intensive interagency effort that did — what?

  6. blowback (History)

    A few months ago there were claims that US Intelligence knew nothing about this until the Israelis bombed it, now we are expected to believe that the CIA knew about it all along.

    Reading through Hayden’claims one bullshit line jumped out:

    When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor.

    If that was a “massive cooling system”, I am a pink fairy!

    BTW, when is ISIS going to receive a report on the IAEA visit to the Box?

  7. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Allen Thomson have a good point here.

    Before getting the ground photos the Israelis and CIA were not sure it was a nuclear reactor. After the photos were procured it was trivial to deduce it’s a nuclear reactor. What was the great feat which deserved distributing medals ?

    Moreover, it seems that only after the Syrians razed BoE’s remains the US public relations machine started grinding. If they needed this act to confirm their suspicions they certainly had weak evidence. The Congress public briefing was performed only after threats of withholding budgets and the reason given, that mighty Asad might start a war is not completely convincing.

    On the other hand if the CIA had to quickly fake data that would stand the scrutiny of IAEA and probably Russia or Arab countries that’s a medal deserving feat. The ground photo showing BoE in the middle of the “boxification” process looks like a crude fake but the others probably required a lot of work.

    Why go to such lengths? Maybe to cover a blunder of a close ally, maybe to improve the agency’s public image, maybe they had to come out with something Congress would like to hear.

    Blowback noticed the same sentence I cited above, probably because there are so few factual anchors in Hayden’s explanation. With the Syrians having peace talks with Israel and all spies already executed or safely outside Syria I would expect more information released.

  8. Major Lemon (History)

    Intelligence gathering is usually a painstakingly slow process. Congratulations US Intelligence however in the end of course it was the Israelis who were left to flatten the joint.

  9. ataune (History)

    There are 2 political messages out of what he is saying, The first, intended, is that the US was the initiator of the attack via its proxy; the second, un-intended, reveles that US intelligence community is already aware of the IAEA conclusions.

  10. Yossi

    Allen Thomson have a good point here.

    Before the ground photos acquisition the Israelis and CIA were not sure BoE was a nuclear reactor. After the photos were procured it was trivial to deduce it’s a nuclear reactor. What was the great feat that deserved medals distribution ?

    Moreover, it seems that only after Syria razed BoE’s remains the US public relations machine started grinding. If they needed this act to confirm their suspicions they certainly had weak evidence. The Congress public briefing was performed only after threats of withholding budgets and the reason given, that mighty Asad will start a war is not completely convincing. Catching red handed a member of the Axis of Evil one would expect a field day in Washington but this didn’t materialize.

    On the other hand if the CIA had to quickly manufacture evidence that would stand the scrutiny of IAEA and probably Russia and/or the Arabs that’s a medal deserving feat. The ground photo showing BoE in the middle of the “boxification” process looks like a quick and dirty job but the others probably required a lot of intelligence work.

    Why go to such lengths? Maybe to cover a blunder of a close ally, maybe to improve the agency’s public image, maybe they had to come out with something Congress would like to hear. It’s possible the agency really believed there was a nuclear reactor out there that they missed for years but lacking concrete evidence choosed to create it.

    Blowback noticed the same sentence I cited above, probably because there are so few factual anchors in Hayden’s explanation. With Syria conducting peace talks with Israel and all spies probably already executed or safely abroad the release of more information would be expected.

  11. mark hibbs (History)

    Gump: I looked into this and did a piece about that subject. That was about a month ago. Our information was that there were some not-too-happy IAEA governors who wanted the IAEA to discuss this at the board meeting beginning coming Monday. It’s apparently not on the board agenda after all. I’ll be in Vienna next week and maybe find out why not.

  12. Rwendland (History)

    Preliminary IAEA tests show no graphite dust found in the area, according to AP. Hayden must have known these prelim results were about to come out, so why go on a publicity jaunt just beforehand?

  13. Andy (History)

    A couple of points as one who was an initial skeptic that the BOE was a reactor:

    1. Rwendland, the lack of graphite is not surprising at all. The post-strike imagery shows the concrete reactor containment vessel was largely intact, which was probably an intentional targeting decision made by the Israelis. Reactor graphite is contained inside the steel vessel which is inside that containment vessel. So the fact that IAEA sampling did not detect graphite debris is perfectly consistent. Had the reactor containment and vessel been penetrated by the attack, then things would be quite different.

    2. In an effort to discount that this structure was what the IC claims, some commenters here and elsewhere are going to extraordinary argumentative lengths. The lack of clear “smoking gun” evidence (or at least the perception of such) is decried on one hand, yet alternative theories lacking any evidence whatsoever are seriously entertained with no criticism at all. Arguments that the IC simply must have fabricated evidence as part of some kind of conspiracy make such bias clear. It would be nice if skepticism were applied a bit more evenly.

    3. Related to the previous point is a lack of compelling competing hypotheses. The BOE was something – something big, strangely constructed, half buried, utilizing tons of concrete way beyond what is needed for any typical structure, and secret enough that Syria would take the quick and dramatic steps it did after the strike. What fits the evidence we do have better than a reactor? I have yet to hear a convincing alternative. In fact, Director Hayden notes that competing hypotheses were examined, which would be SOP for a conclusion with such major policy implications, particularly coming on the heels of the Iraq fiasco.

    4. Speaking of Iraq, the IC’s conclusion on this WMD issue after the failure of Iraqi WMD intelligence lends this conclusion additional credibility. The history of intelligence failures demonstrates why. After each failure, the intelligence community pendulum swings to ensure that failure does not occur again. In short, the IC overcompensates. For example, after the IC’s surprise at the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the community overcompensated and seriously considered the possibility of a Soviet intervention in Romania based on the barest and weakest of indicators. Such overcompensation takes place, to a greater or lesser extent, after every intelligence failure and Iraq is no different. So to have a such a definitive judgment on Syrian WMD – and not just WMD, but a covert nuclear program – is quite extraordinary coming on the heels of Iraq.

    5. The importance of the water piping actually makes sense to me. Assume for a minute you have a bunch of intelligence that the BOE is, in fact, a reactor. The missing critical element is something that cannot be hidden – cooling. Without cooling it can’t be a reactor. The piping, in my judgment, was the final element. Its configuration is consistent with the purpose of cooling – two pipes, one leading to an upstream intake and another leading to a downstream discharge. Yossi, I looked at those coordinates you posted in your comment. There is only an intake and it’s adjacent to storage tanks and an agricultural area – the configuration is quite different.

    6. Finally, Jeffrey, on your question about underestimating the Syrians. That is indeed something to look at, but consider the relative immaturity of the Syrian nuclear program. Their only reactor is very small, was not indigenously built and is only about ten years old. That puts its completion near the beginning of construction of al kibar. Syria has not received nearly the same kind of nuclear assistance that North Korea received in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for example. I think Syria would have had difficulty on its own. Related to your question, though, is another – Could a Syrian after-action review reasonably conclude that enough knowledge was gained from North Korean involvement in al kibar to allow a Syrian-only repeat?

  14. Allen Thomson

    > underestimating the Syrians

    A couple of specific questions come to mind: Do we have any information on the Syrians’ ability, ca. 2002, to a) fabricate the pressure vessel and b) make the graphite moderator?

  15. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    A largely indigenous program is only one plausible alternative — the other involves assistance from Russia or others. From the first half of 2003 721 report:

    Russia and Syria have continued their long-standing agreements on cooperation regarding nuclear energy, although specific assistance has not yet materialized. Broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities to expand its indigenous capabilities and we are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern.

    To be clear, my working hypothesis is North Korea, too. But there are little inconsistencies in the evidence as presented that don’t seem to add up (small deviations from Yongbyon to AlKibar; the tendency to exaggerate circumstantial evidence about North Korean participation). To some extent, there will always be little questions. But I don’t think we should rush to conclude that North Korea was so deeply involved that we overlook structural problems.

  16. Shay Begorrah

    Andy (forgive the familiarity) while your inferences seem sound your first point regarding the lack of graphite dust seems strained:

    “The post-strike imagery shows the concrete reactor containment vessel was largely intact, which was probably an intentional targeting decision made by the Israelis.”

    Could you explain why the Israeli’s would choose to adjust their attack strategy so as to rule out confirmation of the casus belli?

    It seems very odd.

  17. Josh

    Like Andy, I was initially a BoE skeptic, and for the most part, I wish I’d written his comment, above.

    One point of difference: it’s not clear that the Israeli Air Force would or could have made an intentional decision to spare the reactor vessel. If anything, one imagines they would have wanted to err on the side of more destruction. Even with modern precision-guided weapons, one can’t exactly carve Michelangelo’s David.

    Perhaps this will help address Shay Begorrah’s concern. But even if one were to suppose that Israeli planners had some reason to try to spare the reactor vessel itself (Concern about the possible presence of fuel rods, maybe? It’s doubtful), the IAEA’s subsequent ability to confirm the presence of the reactor probably would not rate very high on their list of concerns.

  18. Andy (History)


    My sense is that some of the exaggeration (real or perceived) about NK participation may be due to the limited information the IC released, which is mostly imagery-based (both ground and satellite). Hayden talks about what a multi-disciplinary effort it was, yet the verifiable public information we have is pretty one-dimensional. So I suspect, though obviously don’t know for sure, that there is substance behind the NK claims that remains classified. I do think you’re right, however, that we shouldn’t rush to conclude or blindly take the IC’s claims at face value.

    I do think, however, that this example highlights a problem the IC has when making public judgments. Those judgments are made on the basis of the totality of evidence which is often quite different from what is publicly released. This can make the IC appear to claim facts not in evidence. An alternative is for the IC to match the confidence of public judgments to the public evidence, but this approach has its own problems.


    The Israeli goal was to prevent this reactor from coming online and producing plutonium. That goal did not require breaching the containment structure and pressure vessel. In addition, there was the probably remote possibility that fuel was already in the core. Given those two factors, penetrating the core provided no real benefit (from the Israeli POV anyway) along with the possibility of clear downsides. Finally, there is the simple fact that the containment vessel was not significantly breached. Had Israel wanted to, they could have, though Josh’s implication they might have missed is certainly possible.

    I also agree with Josh on Israeli concerns about IAEA investigative efforts. After Iraq’s EMIS program and Iran, Israel doesn’t exactly have much faith in the IAEA. Besides, Israel has never shown much regard for world opinion on matters it believes are essential to its security.

  19. Allen Thomson

    One thing to keep in mind is that the BOE site certainly became a high priority for US optical, IR and radar satellite imaging starting no later than April, 2007. There are multiple satellite overpasses each day which, in turn, means the US should have a very good idea of what the Syrians did immediately after the strike. And, after the new roof went up in (apparently) November, what kind of traffic was going into and out of the site.

    All of which says the US and friends should know whether the Syrians dug up, broke up and hauled out the core structure or left it in place. And if “hauled out” is the case, there’s a good chance that the destination of the debris is known.

    The US might want to consider having another media show covering that.

  20. Yossi

    Andi and Josh, I think you should resume being BoE skeptics. I don’t have now the time to elaborate so please bear with me.

    The IAEA Graphite samples – We are talking about several hundred tons of graphite bricks. Note that it’s difficult to really clean wide land areas of fine dust when a few microscopic particles of nuclear grade graphite are enough to incriminate you. There are probably winds even in Syria.

    The graphite bricks had to be transported to BoE, loaded into the reactor and survive the attack contained inside the vessel. All this without significant scattering. Now they had to be removed carefully (or buried) before BoE dismantelment and demolishing with explosives. I don’t say it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult.

    Compelling competing hypotheses – One is theoretically enough: BoE was a CW/missile mating facility which may contained a large chemical reactor, heat exchangers and a cooling system that was supposed also to flood the place with water on emergency.

    The USIC overcompensating after mistakes – They are not academics doing research, their job is to create large scale conspiracies, successfully. If they are caught they are supposed to be more clever next time not give up.

    The water piping – Between BoE and the river there was only one pipe, probably intake.

    Please read again the Dreamer analysis.

  21. Gump (History)

    Can anyone share which additional sites IAEA would like to investigate in Syria?

  22. Hairs (History)

    To Allen Thomson:

    I’ve no idea what the Syrians’ capability is with regards to manufacturing graphite, but I don’t believe it would be a significant constraint. If I shamelessly lift from Wikipedia, then we can see that during WW2

    “…German investigators came to the conclusion that graphite could not be used with natural uranium to produce a nuclear chain reaction. The purest graphite available to them at that time was a product from the Siemens Plania company, which exhibited a neutron absorption cross section of about 7.5 mb. Compared to that the graphites used in CP-1 exhibited average thermal absorption cross sections of 6.68 mb (AGX, National Carbon Company), 5.51 mb (Speer Carbon Company), and 4.97 mb (AGOT, National Carbon Company).”

    In this context, CP-1 refers to Fermi’s Chicago pile, which very definitely DID function.

    For more modern comparisons, nuclear graphites now typically have a microscopic absorption cross-section of around 4 mbarns at thermal energies. Also, modern graphites tend to be isotropic (i.e. similar similar properties in all directions), which makes for more efficient and safer designs. But if you’re only after a FUNCTIONAL design, then you’ve only got to re-create what is effectively a 1940’s technology.

    Since the biggest influence on the graphite’s cross section is the level of impurities, it stands to reason that a a feedstock with low impurities should be sufficient to get you nuclear grade graphite. This either means getting low impurity petroleum coke (used for a lot of industrial graphite production), or else going to feedstock that is inherently less contaminated, such as acetylene.

    Actual production of graphite is far from my field, but I don’t believe there are any significant technological barriers to prevent a semi-industrialised nation such as Syria producing their own nuclear grade graphite.

    Of course, whether they actually do (or have done) is a very different question…

  23. Yossi, Jerusalem (History)


    From the Dreamer analysis: one of the additional sites IAEA would like to investigate in Syria is probably: lat 35.552237 lon 39.810688

  24. Hairs (History)

    To Allen Thomson:

    Regarding the reactor pressure vessl, I think this would be even less of a constraint than the graphite.

    Taking the 05 Oct 1956 copy of “The Engineer” as my reference, Calder Hall was designed for ca. 90 MWe i.e. somewhat larger than Yongbyon or (a presumed) Syrian version of Yongbyon. For Calder Hall’s pressure vessel the decision was to limit the steel to 2 in thickness because that was the limit at the time for full radiographic weld inspection. The completed RPV was approximately cylindrical: 60 feet high and 40 feet in diameter. It was fabricated in 5 major sections, which were lifted into position with a 100 ton crane and then finally welded. Butt welds were radiographically tested, whereas fillet welds were “…examined by crack detection methods.”

    Needless to say, materials, welding techniques, and NDE / NDT of welds have all moved on significantly in the past 50 years. The progress in NDT / NDE is particularly relevant because designs tend to be limited to what you can confidently assert is safe (i.e. although you might be able to join 1m thick sections, there really is no point if you can’t subsequently prove that the joint is defect free, and thus can take the full design loading). Fillet welds in particular are hard to check, and this was probably a constraining part of the Calder hall design.

    Overall, I’d say that (with the benefits of modern materials and techniques) any country with medium level industrialisation could probably build a Calder Hall type RPV. I’m not saying it would be elegant, or even perticularly safe, but a functional RPV is almost certainly possible with little, or no, outside help.

    One final point to recall, the dimensions of the BOE – even with its internal excavations – would not be sufficient to contain a fully-built Calder Hall. So if the BOE was a reactor then it must have been somewhat smaller. This means that, for the same coolant pressure, its RPV would also have been proportionately smaller, and hence easier to build.

    In short, constructing a pressure vessel is unlikely to be a significant constraint in any plutonium-directed nuclear weapons programme.

    General comment on this thread:
    I posted previously that I felt the balance of evidence points to something suspicious. I thought the Syrians’ reluctance / inability to prove what fools we are, and thereby gain a propaganda coup, by openly showing us how it was really a teddy bear factory was especially telling. And nothing in the latest debate changes that. I’m with William of Ockham on this one: the simplest explanation seems to be a nuclear reactor, albeit perhaps only one under construction with no fuel or moderator yet.

  25. Gump (History)

    …unless it was something much more sinister than a teddy bear factory.

  26. FSB

    I am with Hairs on this — the Syrians admitted it was a military complex, but to go from that to a reactor that is about to be started is a long-ass shot.

    We have some pictures of the inside of the BoE.

    Oh, wait, we don’t really know anything about the pedigree of those pictures except that they are likely Mossad.

    And we never got to see the rest of the pics that were promised — something that we could check inside BoE dimensions from, for instance.

    So no graphite, no (confirmed) inside pics, odd water pool nearby etc. etc. Could have been a NK-Syrian CW facility as likely as a nuclear reactor.

    Even if it was a reactor it does not appear that it was anywhere close to being fired up.

  27. John (History)

    I’d love to see some speculation here about why Mohammed Suleiman was just assassinated. This thing keeps throwing out weird curveballs. I for one don’t believe we have gotten to the bottom of it yet. It smelled weird to me from day 1 and it still smells weird. I don’t think we need to be in a rush to offer alternative hypotheses to the IC story even if we don’t entirely buy it. I’ve always been open to Yossi’s idea of a chemical weapons/missile facility myself but have not yet made up my mind what I believe. I am patiently waiting for something more to break on this which will explain all of the little anomalies that don’t quite add up here.

  28. Andy (History)

    Ok, let’s examine the two alternatives most often raised – a chem or missile facility or a combination of both.

    The Scud/missile facility is the easiest to eliminate, so I’ll begin there:

    – The most obvious problem with this theory is the building itself. To begin with, there is only one door that might be capable – just barely, of fitting a Scud missile on a MAZ tel. It’s on the east side of the building – the side closest to a tall embankment – which does not leave enough room for a tel to make the turn to even have a shot at possibly squeezing through the small door. Other vehicles have similar problems because of the missile’s size.

    – Then there is the interior configuration of the building, which we know from post-strike satellite images. That configuration is one large central room with smaller “rooms” along the outside. There appears to be no obvious door or passageways in and among any of these “rooms” that would allow a missile transporter to pass through. Even the large central room (the reactor hall) is not big enough to a tel to turn around so it can exit through the tiny door on the east side (even assuming there’s a similar door into the central hall from the adjacent, outside “room.”).

    – So in the best case the central hall might fit one missile and tel and only if it can fit through the east door and only by driving straight in and backing straight out, which is only possible if the Syrians planned to move the several thousand cubic yards of earth east of the building to allow a straight approach to begin with.

    The configuration of the building is enough, in my view, to rule the BOE out as any kind of missile-support facility, but there are many other problems with the missile theory:

    – Syria has existing well-established missile related facilities – some of them underground.

    – The distance from existing missile and chem/bio facilities – transporting missiles halfway across Syria will likely be detected and expose this “secret” facility.

    I could go on, but that should be plenty.

    Many of the same arguments apply to a chem/bio weapon facility. Syria has existing and extensive facilities and already has warheads. It doesn’t need a secret chem/bio facility because it’s been doing chem/bio work for many decades now. So what purpose does the BOE serve that an existing facility cannot? Syria doesn’t need a “CW/missile mating facility” because it already has at least one – all that infrastructure was developed long ago.

    Proponents of the missile/chem theory for the purpose of the BOE need to be able to answer or provide an argument for a simple question:

    – Why are Syria’s existing facilities inadequate for its missile/chem/bio warfare needs and what capability does this facility provide that is not already available elsewhere? If a reasonable answer can be made, then I would ask why the Syrian’s decided on that distant location and if what we know of the BOE’s construction is compatible to that purpose.

    In the end, I think Jeffrey’s fun theory about a giant swimming pool is more supportable than a chem/bio/missile facility.

  29. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Thanks for that — you’re always perfectly reasonable. Holding alternative explanations up to the same level of scrutiny is precisely what needs to be done.

    It seems incontrovertible to me that the reactor hypothesis is the best explanation for the purpose of the building at this point.

  30. Yossi

    Andy, thanks for the excellent analysis! It’s wonderful to have good feedback at last and I’ll try to answer some of your points:

    * There was barely enough space for a Scud TEL to enter and exit BoE –

    According to the USIC presentation BoE had doors on every side. The main door was on the northern side in the middle of a large open area with a road leading to it. It was about about 5m high and 7m wide.

    The incoming Scud was probably carried on a MAZ 543 or the accompanying reloading vehicle. As you said it’s not a good idea to drive over half Syria with such a slow vehicle (55 km/h) that needs frequent refueling (every 650km). A Scud is about 11-12m long, have a 0.9m diameter and the tail fins are not large so it can be transported in a train. We do see an improvised railroad station near BoE.

    A MAZ 534 is 3m wide and about 3.4m high so it doesn’t need exceptionally large doors to enter. The facility housed one missile at a time and probably worked on it for days or even weeks.

    Note that BoE was 47m X 47m and about 24m high. The central room was large (about 22m X 24m or more?) and the vehicle could enter it from the “side”, erect the missile and let it be lifted and carried to the “deep hole” (aka reactor core) by a winch. A Scud weights about 6-6.5t so it’s not a big deal. Inside the “deep hole” it could safely have the warhead fitted.

    Yes, it was cramped in there but hosting a nuclear reactor would be also cramped, maybe even more.

    In case of accident the “deep hole” was flooded with water, possibly dissolving a lot of dry NaOH kept in barrels and getting heated in the process. This solution would neutralize the CW agents and would then pumped to the Water Treatment Facility for final purification and then dumped in the river near the 3-pipe pump station mentioned above.

    Really knowledgeable people say BoE was a missile production facility so it possibly didn’t have to deal with complete Scuds anyway.

    * Why not use existing bases, e.g. Al Safir?

    Well, the great accident of Al Safir probably didn’t come as a surprise. The Iranian/Syrian engineers working together probably knew that mating a CW warhead with a new Scud variant is dangerous and best done in a special facility so they started building BoE long ago. They didn’t rush until they had a few accidents in Al Safir.

    Why choose a new site? Their existing facilities were too crowded and for safety reasons they needed a relatively isolated place. Older bases were under constant surveillance and they probably hoped to hide in the desert.

    Why did they choose the BoE site? They needed a large water source and a railroad nearby and the old Water Treatment Facility saved them building one and raising suspicions.

    This is a general description of a possible BoE theory. I didn’t go into all the details as this is already a long post. I think this theory is plausible enough to earn a good place alongside the nuclear theory.

    The Dreamer analysis goes further and reveals a wealth of facts indicating BoE was not nuclear. Some examples are:

    * the Syrians tried to buy a nuclear reactor during BoE construction

    * major earthquakes less than 50km from BoE before construction started

    * the “construction photo” is almost surely a fake

    * probably only one pipe went between BoE and the river

    * various structural details that don’t go well with a Magnox

    * some US/Israeli evidence already proved wrong: the El Hamed didn’t visit NK, the Nork presented as nuclear admin is a diplomat etc

    Note, I don’t reject the nuclear theory but it’s certainly less probable than a CW/missile one. The USIC beautiful presentation shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

  31. Yossi

    Is it possible to deny that Syria built a nuclear reactor when everyone saw the famous “core top” photo? The French Foreign Minister mentioned the alleged Syrian reactor in an interview to Haaretz. He seems to think it was a “factory”.

    In the English version the Israeli interviewers suggested that bombing Iran may facilitate a dialogue like Syria started negotiating after BoE was bombed. Kouchner answered: “It is not the same thing. Bombing a very little place, a factory, etc”.

    By the way, Syria offered to start peace talks with Israel long before BoE was attacked. Kouchner should have corrected the interviewers if they really said otherwise.

    The Hebrew version says:

    Haaretz: “In the case that Israel will attack Iran, can she expect a similar international response like the one after the attack on the nuclear site in Syria – i.e. a silent agreement?”

    Kouchner: “This is not the same. There [Syria] a small place was bombed, some factory but what you are allegedly preparing now is a wide and large operation.”

  32. Andy (History)


    Yes, there were doors on every side, but all but one of those doors are only big enough for people, including the door on the north side of the building. The only door big enough for any kind of vehicle is the one I previously mentioned on the east wall.

  33. Yossi


    I should have used Digital Globe images but taking a dangerous shortcut based my argument on the USIC presentation. Please see The Moon of Alabama image breakdown

    The 7th image from the top down is a view of the USIC virtual model. We see two sides of BoE, the right side is north, the left is east.

    The east side view 3 images downwards shows a large entrance that is closed in the upper image. The upper one is probably later as it shows the electric cable going to the Water Treatment Facility. Note that the cable looks straight and not bent under its own weight like in the satellite images, the virtual model is not perfect.

    One can estimate the dimensions of the northern door based on BoE’s dimensions. It seems a MAZ could easily enter and even get out using the reverse shift.

    Please tell me if I made a mistake.

  34. Yossi

    A little clarification about USIC models. All image numbers refer to the Moon of Alabama presentation breakdown.

    The USIC presentation includes outside ground views of BoE. All of them except possibly the “steel liner”/“pressure vessel” are views of virtual models. There are two models used. The rotating “nightly” blue/gray tinted “photos” belong to a very crude model with horrible proportions. The reddish brown tinted “photos” belong to a model which is so realistic they may be confused with real ground photos.

    How do we know the realistic views are not real photos? The main indication is the electric cable running to the Water Treatment Facility. In the realistic model (7th from the top) it’s almost merged with a dark geological feature on the hill behind but it’s still possible to identify it. Engineering considerations dictate the cable wouldn’t be straight but bent under its own weight and the satellite/UAV images confirm this. However in the realistic model it’s absolutely straight. The strange tint may lend added support.

    The views belonging to the realistic model are more interesting as they are probably based on real ground photos. Why not show real photos? USIC probably wanted to erase some problematic details: people, date indications etc. Maybe they needed to cover their sources in spite of the long time that passed since the strike. They probably had to create the realistic model anyway while checking the HUMINT so they used it in the presentation also.

    The large opening that was in the east wall was closed later as shown in the previous post. The spent fuel pond being on the east side lends more support to this determination.

    The crude model shows only one small door on the northern side. However a later view of the realistic model (7th from the top) show a very large open door. Note the west wall view of the realistic model (12th from the top) shows something straight and horizontal emerging from the opening’s region, apparently suspended in the air. It’s not clear what it is but it may lend support to the door existence.