Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Nice: When exactly did the terror attack happen?

Update July 30th: the question can be considered as solved. A video covering the crime scene from 300m distance confirms that the fireworks ended at 20:19. At 22:36 it shows people on the Promenade suddenly fleeing from somewhat. At 22:56 and 23:12, the streets are emptied.

So the video confirms that the time of Sandra Bertin's report, 22:35, is the time of the terror arrack. And it belies Richard Gutjahr's claims that it happened 23:07 or "shortly after 23:00". Gutjahr has meanhwile corrected the time from 23:07 to 22:35 (see first update below), but the video belies also his claim that the attack occurred during the fireworks.

Update: in a recent interview, Richard Gutjahr has surprisingly changed his account. See below.

Sandra Bertin (AFP)

Two weeks after a truck killed 84 people in Nice by driving over them, the exact daytime of the terror ride is still not clear. This is most remarkable because the incidence was witnessed by thousands of people and authorities and the media ought to be able in the meantime to report the time of the crime up to the minute. But media reports in the immediate aftermath vary from 22:30 to shortly after 23:00, and the uncertainty hasn't improved since. Here's an excerpt:

22:30  Valery Hache, AFP photographer
           Nice Matin
           Die Welt 
           Washington Post

22:30-23:00 Le Figaro

22:45  New York Times

22:45-23:00  Le Monde

23:00  Spiegel

23:07  Richard Gutjahr, ARD

The last source, the German TV journalist Richard Gutjahr, is the most reliable one insofar as he was in Nice, witnessed the last seconds of the terror ride from the balcony of his hotel room and filmed it with his mobile phone in a now famous video. He probably extracted the time from the metadata of the video.

All sources agree that the truck was going very fast, so it is incomprehensible why Le Figaro and Le Monde report a time span of 15 and 30 minutes. There are also countless private witness accounts, most of them pinpointing the attack at around 23:00.
So far, this hotchpotch has not been clarified by any official, no police president, no mayor, no prosecutor and no politician. The world had to wait for a medium rank police officer to learn of more details. Sandra Bertin from the Nice police department is responsible for the surveillance footage and hit the headlines by uncovering a row between the national government and the local law enforcement. She claims, among other things, to have been urged by the interior ministry to destroy crucial surveillance footage, which she refused to do. Instead she went public in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche and revealed details, finally:

Je me rappellerai toute ma vie de cette heure-là : 22h33. J’étais devant les écrans du CSU avec les équipes. Nous recevons alors des policiers municipaux positionnés sur la Promenade le signalement d’un camion fou. Nous récupérons tout de suite son image à l’écran et nous demandons son interception. Le camion était lancé à 90 km/h, sans phares, sans qu’on l’entende à cause du bruit. Il contourne le barrage de la police municipale. Les équipes n’ont pas pu l’arrêter. On ne crève pas les pneus d’un 19 tonnes avec un revolver! A ce moment-là, d’autres policiers municipaux sont en civil dans la foule, qui se retrouvent face à lui. S’ils avaient été armés comme nos collègues de la police nationale, une de nos revendications, ils auraient pu le stopper. Le poids-lourd se retrouve finalement face aux policiers nationaux, qui tirent et le neutralisent. Il est 22h34.

So she basically says that the truck's terror ride began at 22:33 and ended at 22:34. Two days later, Le Monde published excerpts of her report, leaked by the national police and causing confusion at the newspaper.

Le premier policier cité est national, et il court après le véhicule : « Vingt-deux heures trente-cinq minutes et quinze secondes : visualisons un agent de la police nationale à pied courir derrière le camion. » Puis c’est au tour immédiatement d’un agent municipal : « Vingt-deux heures trente-cinq minutes et vingt secondes : visualisons un agent de la police municipale à pied courir derrière le camion ; le véhicule se situe alors à l’intersection de la promenade des Anglais et de la rue Meyerbeer. » C’est-à-dire au niveau du premier point de contrôle tenu par la police nationale.

The said intersection (Promenade des Anglais/Rue Meyerbeer) is exactly the location captured in the Gutjahr video, i.e not far away from the final position of the truck. But there is a yawning 32-minutes discrepancy between Bertin's 22:35 and Gutjahr's 23:07.

So what's going on here? It's Bertin vs. Gutjahr. We have a 22:30+-5 minutes version and a 23:00+-5 minutes version. It appears that one of them must be utterly wrong. This is most astonishing because Gutjahr is a professional journalist and Bertin is a professional video analyst.

One circumstance might help to clarify the confusion: the fireworks. All media reports and private statements agree that the attack occured shortly after the fireworks ended, ranging from five to fifteen minutes afterwards. The determination of the end of the fireworks might verify either Gutjahr or Bertin.

Gutjahr himself says that the fireworks lasted from 22:15 to 23:00. However, there is a video of the complete fireworks which lasts only 18 minutes. Gutjahr probably included the preparations and made a rather rough estimation. So 22:15 seems to be a reasonable lower bound for the begin of the fireworks. Adding the 18 minutes duration of the fireworks video and the 5 minutes minimum until the attack delivers a lower bound of 22:38 for the attack. The fireworks were certainly finished before 23:00, so Gutjahr's 23:07 is a reasonable upper bound for the attack.

The bulk of evidence seems to validate Gutjahr and falsify Bertin. But Bertin's report is most detailed and based on primary evidence - the surveillance videos - so it looks odd that she could be so wrong.

Or is it possible that both Gutjahr and Bertin are right; that they are talking about different incidences; and that the official narrative has to be rewritten? If so, Le Monde sits on a bombshell and ought to tell the public more about Bertin's terror timeline  - soon.

Update: In a recent interview, Richard Gutjahr all of a sudden has changed the time data of his early reports: now he claims he filmed the truck at 22:35 when the fireworks were still ongoing.

Having initially wanted to produce a Snapchat story of the festivities, Gutjahr was stood on his hotel balcony filming the fireworks at 10:35pm when he noticed people running and screaming in the street below him.

"I saw something was wrong – something just didn't fit the image," he said.

"I happened to have my camera in my hand because I was still Snapchatting the fireworks, so not knowing what to expect, I turned the camera from vertical view to the horizontal position and used the phone's regular camera to film. I didn't want this to be on Snapchat."

It is absolutely certain however that the fireworks were finished when he took the famous video footage. First, there is no firework noise audible in the video. Second, there is a video of the end of the fireworks showing that no panic has erupted at this point. Third, it is known from another video that a rock band was playing just when the truck ploughed through the crowd - the band certainly didn't start before the fireworks were finished.

So why did Gutjahr change his account?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Black Powder or Nitroglycerin: what made the pressure cookers explode?

Part 1 - the nitroglycerin-contaminated soup can lid


I can’t believe we are excluding explosives as expertise in this case - with this exclamation Judy Clarke protested the lack of interest on behalf of the prosecution for the nature of the explosives used in the Boston bombings at a pre-trial status conference in June 2014. The prosecution complied with her request and summoned David McCollam as an expert, a "chemic forensic examiner assigned to the Explosives Unit" of the FBI. He testified on March 26, 2015. You can download his statement here.

After talking about his career, credentials, and current job McCollam is asked to explain explosives in general. He makes a distinction between high explosives, like TNT, C4, dynamite or nitroglycerin, and low explosives like black powder or, notably, smokeless powder - we'll come to that later. He explains that low explosives have a detonation velocity below the speed of sound, whereas the velocity of high explosives is much higher than that mark.

He is then asked what residues of explosives the FBI found at Boylston Street and in Watertown and states that it was "low-explosive, pyrotechnical, firework-type material", i.e. the black powder type. He doesn't say if any other explosives, like smokeless powder or high explosives, were found at the bomb sites, and he's not asked for that - we'll also come to that later.

He is then asked if traces of the low explosive used at the Marathon were found in the Norfolk Street appartment, which he confirms.

In the cross-examinaton defense lawyer Timothy Watkins first asks him for some places where the black powder was found, like gloves etc. After that, he introduces a FBI photo showing the content of a drawer in the Norfolk appartment, concentrating on a lid detached from a soup can with an adhering black substance. And now the testimony takes a surprising twist:

For the first time the public here learns of high explosives in relation to the bombings - and it is the defense bringing the subject on the table, not the prosecution! Another one of these weird moments at the trial - what is happening?

A second look reveals that Watkins has established a contradiction between McCollam's statement in the direct examination - that smokeless powder belongs to the class of low explosives - and what he admits here, i.e. that nitroglycerin, a high explosive, is part of a "double-based smokeless powder". A little research reveals quickly that the "double based" is crucial:
From the aspect of the bomb technician, it is most important to understand that a single-based smokeless powder will only function as a low explosive. However, double and triple based smokeless powders may function as a high explosve, by initiating them with a detonator rather than a heat source. If used in this manner, they may achieve a velocity of detonation (VOD) of approximately 15000 ft/s, similar to dynamite.

Paul L. Laska: Bombs, IEDs, and Explosives
Watkins doesn't go deeper into the subject. It is all the more interesting that the day before Miriam Conrad already showed a similarly keen interest in the can lid during the cross-examination of Christopher Derks, a FBI agent who participated in the search of the Norfolk appartment:

This raises some interesting questions:

Why did the prosecution ignore this piece of evidence?
Why was the defense eager to pick it up instead?
Why did McCollam classify smokeless powder as a low-explosive in the initial examination when in fact it might belong to both of the categories, depending on the composition - especially as a high-explosive variant was found in Tamerlan Tsarnaev's home?

A fourth question may help to solve this riddle: has this nitroglycerin/ethyl centralite substance, the high-explosive double-based smokeless powder, been found at the bomb sites?

The fact that McCollam testifies that "low-explosive pyrotechnic material" was found at Boylston Street doesn't mean that no residues of high-explosives were found. He is not being asked for and doesn't explicitly exclude it. It appears that he knows that smokeless powder was found there, but fiddles around with its high-explosive nature to downplay its significance and the possibility that there were different bombs involved - other than the firework-powder filled backpacks of the Tsarnaevs. But Watkins doesn't let him get away with this play.

It should be noted that in the first reports after the bombings smokeless powder was mentioned as a probable explosive, alongside black powder (Daily Mail, NBC, and others).
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's bag was not the black nylon backpack the FBI initially searched for. Video footage shows that his bag didn't contain a pressure cooker. I have argued on this blog that it was impossibly the epicenter of the second bomb. The nature of the "real" bomb seems to become increasingly clear: most probably it was a pressure cooker filled with high-explosive smokeless powder based on nitroglycerin, contained in a black backpack, and exploding on the patio of the Forum restaurant.

Does the can lid in the Norfolk appartment prove that the Tsarnaevs were involved in the "real" high-explosive bombs? No, not at all. It might have been planted there by the same people who want to make the Tsarnaevs the patsies for the Boston bombings. The prosecution has provided no evidence that the brothers acquired smokeless powder on any occasion.

In the next blog entry - Part 2 - I will deal with the question if the black powder that was presumably inside the Tsarnaev bags would have been able to have the devastating effect of the Marathon bombs.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Causa Tsarnaev: testimony of Michelle Gamble, March 30, 2015

This is the transcript of the testimony of FBI photographer Michelle Gamble, including initial sidebar, direct examination, cross examination, re-direct examination, and re-cross examination. It was released on April 26, 2016, as part of the trial transcript of March 30, 2015.

An analysis of the testimony is here.