By Malachy Browne & Christiaan Triebert
It seemed too outrageous that such a place would be bombed, but if it were true it might be a war crime. It was the middle of the night in Libya. How could we verify the claim?
When Dataminr, a social media monitoring service, alerted our team on the evening of July 2 to Twitter reports of an airstrike on a migrant detention center in Tajoura, Libya, outside Tripoli, our Visual Investigations unit scrambled to find out more.
Initially, though we had been monitoring the renewed civil war in the area, it seemed too outrageous that a migrant center would be bombed. But if it were true, it would be a big deal, possibly a war crime, and the consequences to people held in the center could be catastrophic.
It was the middle of the night in Libya. How could we verify those claims quickly?
Here are some of the steps we took.
First, we wanted to know where this happened. We searched Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat using the Arabic spelling of Tajoura.
Pictures of wounded African refugees and migrants being treated in a medical facility were being shared by Libyan local media accounts.
One picture of the alleged airstrike stood out. Evan Hill, an Arabic-speaking reporter on our team, verified that the logo painted on the building belonged to the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, an agency of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord in Libya. These visual clues suggested the terrible reports were true.
We searched YouTube and Facebook for archival videos of the facility, and found this one of a party with migrants to which the D.C.I.M. invited representatives of various embassies in Libya, including those of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The video allowed us to confirm the location of the center in Tajoura by comparing the details of the facility to old satellite imagery on Google Earth.
We quickly marked the visual details with colored boxes to share the location confirmation on Slack. This method of determining the exact place where a photo or video is taken, called “geolocation,” is a key verification practice for our unit.
We also found a Facebook live stream from the location showing bodies being taken out of the center. “A lot of damage, and a big massacre,” the narrator said in Arabic. Soon after, an official Facebook page of the D.C.I.M. posted harrowing photos of the damage and victims’ remains.
So within an hour or two we were able to confirm where the airstrike happened and analyze the visual evidence. We consulted with our Middle East editor, Herbert Buchsbaum, and sent an overnight briefing to Declan Walsh, our Cairo bureau chief, who, in the morning, interviewed sources in Libya and wrote a detailed story on the attack.
Once that initial news article was published, we began a deeper, longer-term investigation, one that would end up revealing a bigger story.
Maxar Technologies provided a new high-resolution satellite image of the area captured the morning after the attack.
A curious detail sent us down a new path of inquiry: The image showed another, smaller airstrike to a building less than 100 yards from the detention area.
In a news interview filmed the night before, one witness to the attack said that, before the detention area was hit, an airstrike hit a weapons area “where we work.”
Could we verify his claim? And could the weapons depot be the building with the small hole in its roof?
Working with Sally Hayden and Sara Creta, two freelance journalists who have been documenting the dire conditions in Tajoura and at other Libyan detention centers, we spoke with witnesses to the attack and former Tajoura detainees.
Several other sources confirmed the presence of the weapons depot, and sent us photos of detainees wearing military fatigues standing next to or washing trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.
Some migrants told us they were conscripted to fight with a pro-government militia that ran the compound.
Using visual clues such as the distinct gate, reference photos and satellite imagery, we were able to confirm that this military vehicle was inside the weapons depot.
In a similar way, using photos from its Facebook page, we were able to confirm that a pro-government militia known as the Katiba al-Dhaman, or Security Brigade, was active on the compound.
Could it have been this weapons depot that was targeted on July 2?
We scoured Libyan media to find out more, and stumbled upon a set of photos claiming to show the weapons depot after the airstrike.
In one of these photos, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Times reporter and former Marine, recognized a Soviet-made anti-aircraft gun amid the tangled remains of a burned-out pickup truck.
Sunlight can be seen coming through a hole in the ceiling — the very same hole that sparked our interest in the first place.
Then we obtained surveillance camera footage from the compound showing the whole sequence of events. This confirmed the reports that the weapons depot was bombed first, at 11:28 p.m.
As smoke and debris spill out, people appear to flee.
In WhatsApp voice messages, witnesses told us that people inside the detention center tried to escape but were stopped by guards who shot at the windows and told them to go back inside.
Eleven minutes later, at 11:39 p.m., an airstrike directly hit the detention center. More than 100 people were confined inside. At least 53 were killed, the U.N. said, and many others were wounded.
The next day, a spokesperson for Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the military strongman who launched an offensive on Tripoli in April, confirmed that his forces had hit the depot in an airstrike and blamed the militias loyal to the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli for using migrants and refugees as human shields.
A spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency, which supports migrants and refugees detained in Libya, told us that 3,800 people are currently being held at centers like Tajoura in active conflict zones.
The agency said that despite its pleas to European and other countries to move the people to safety, Italy is the only one that recently relocated refugees from Libya.
In the days before publication, we tried to get a comment from the European Commission, but its press officers declined to respond.
On July 3, the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, issued a statement saying that the European Union had sought to evacuate migrants and refugees from the front lines.
On July 9, two days before we published our investigation, the Libyan authorities running the Tajoura detention center released the surviving detainees.
With the U.N. unable to house them, hundreds set off down the road, onto the streets of an active conflict zone.
A week later, migrants and refugees are back at square one, sitting ducks at a military facility, as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees official said the Tajoura detention center was being “refilled” again.
Answering basic journalism questions like “where” and “when” can be hard when there is no immediate access to the incident location.
But a wide array of digital tools and methods — such as satellite imagery, social media posts and geolocation — allowed The Times’s Visual Investigations unit to prove some key claims and disprove others, and uncover new information about this potential war crime.
Reporting was contributed by Evan Hill, Sally Hayden, Haley Willis, Sara Creta, Husen Gdora, Barbara Marcolini and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.
Malachy Browne is a senior story producer on the Visual Investigations team, which practices a new form of explanatory and accountability journalism combining traditional reporting with advanced digital forensics.
Christiaan Triebert is a journalist on the Visual Investigations team, which combines traditional reporting with advanced digital forensics.
The New York Times