I think we can put to bed the suspicions about the Hasaka Spinning Factory.

After this blog placed online the website of the Hasaka Spinning Factory, German journalist Paul-Anton Krüger tracked down the chief engineer of the original project in the early 1980s. He confirms that it is, and always has been, a textile factory.

Here is Krüger’s dispatch, followed by some commentary of my own.

I had been following the posts about Al-Hasakah Spinning Factory with great interest, as the name of the facility and the satellite image had come across my way while I did research on the Syrian nuclear program last May. I was aware about a possible connection to AQ Khan and the planned facility in Libya, but had never gotten to the bottom of the story. After reading an ACW post about Al-Hasakah (AP On Hasaka, November 1, 2011), I browsed through the comments section. One of the readers, “b”, challenged my journalistic ambitions. “B” reiterated that the site is supposed to have had East German spinning machines replaced by newer ones in the early 2000s and added “The Germans should be able to verify that.” Well, I am German, and I decided to do just that, hoping to narrow down the dates when the facility had been built and since when it had been used as a spinning factory. And as it turned out, they were not only spinning cotton there.

Pictures on the Al-Hasakah spinning project website, kindly supplied at ACW, made for a good starting point: Several pieces of machinery carry the logos of their manufacturers. Rieter, Zinsler, Truetzschler– all major suppliers for the textile industry apparently sold equipment to the Al-Hasakah spinning project – and possibly had also installed the machinery there. After a couple of calls, I got to speak to a local representative of one of the companies who is based in the region. He recalled that he had been working there several years ago. According to him, at that time the factory was running and it was “100 percent a spinning mill.” After consulting some of his documents he confirmed that his company had installed machinery there in 2003. And he vividly remembered, how the old spinning machines got thrown out. Luckily enough, I was talking to a real expert in his field, and he confided to me that what the Syrians were scrapping was equipment from Textima, a former state owned company in Karl-Marx-Stadt in the former East Germany (today known as Chemnitz), and from Hergeth, a West German company based in Duelmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, that apparently doesn’t exist anymore.

My next call really bestowed a huge surprise on me: I was trying to dig up someone who had knowledge about the old days at Textima and could possibly help me to find someone who had been involved in installing the spindles in Al-Hasakah. I phoned TEXPROJEKT Industrieanlagen GmbH in Chemnitz, one of more than a dozen companies that survied the breakup of the Textima combine in the early nineties. It was the successor of VEB Textima-Projekt, the Volkseigener Betrieb that had been marketing turn-key projects to the textile industries of fraternal socialist countries. After I mentioned that I was interested in Syria, the assistant connected me to the CEO, Jürgen P.R. Grobe, mentioning “he had some experience there.” What shall I say? After I asked him if he knew something about the spinning factory in Al-Hasakah in Syria, he burst out: “I built that thing!”

Grobe, 62 years old, recalled that he worked there as the chief engineer and project manager. He was responsible for supervising the construction work and the installation of the spinning machines from March/April 1981 until the facility was handed over to the Syrians in April 1984, he told me. He still has a reference on his website to the project. (Click on the Syrian flag and you’ll get a pop up mentioning 3 projects, including the Al-Hasakah project.). According to his account the Syrians first had contracted an Italian company to erect the buildings, but after they didn’t get paid, they left the work unfinished. He then had to rely on a Syrian subcontractor who was more versed in civil engineering than in building industrial facilities. These people were no geniuses, he told me, recalling how the building was erected using prefabricated elements for the walls and huge sliding gates to allow lorries and forklifts to circulate between the buildings.

He described the layout of the facility and the purposes of the buildings to me, before I even sent him a link to the satellite image of the facility. Upon seeing the picture, he reconfirmed that this was the spinning factory that he had built. According to his descriptions, the smaller buildings close to the street entrance were bungalows for the senior management. On the opposite side of the street, the longer, rectangular building housed administrative offices. The large hall holds the spinning machines, more than 75.000 spindles as he recalled, a facility as twice as big as the biggest German plants at that time. While German spinning mills were often housed in existing buildings, there were no space constraints in Syria, as he explained. “We built it on greenfield,” he added, although it probably was more of a sandy place…

The three buildings to the left of the main production hall served as storage, he told me. The one closest to the entrance holds the finished product, while the other large hall holds the stock of raw cotton, he said. The smaller hall between the two holds … raw polyester. The spinning factory produce a cotton-polyester blend — two-thirds cotton, one-third polyester. That, according to him, explains the different sizes of the warehouses. The longer building on the backside of the main production hall contained spare parts and workshops.

He said that he combined machinery manufactured by the West-German company Hergeth with the spinning spindles manufactured by Textima. The air conditioning was supplied by a West German company from Düsseldorf. He recalled that it was a great experience for him as a young engineer to work abroad and to have the opportunity to leave the GDR for a couple of years. His wife and his daughter were allowed to join him for a couple of months. In 1991 when he was working on another project in Lattakiyah, he drove up to Al-Hasakah by car to visit his former landlord. He found the factory working rather poorly – but it was still spinning. Cotton. And Polyester.

Paul-Anton Krüger is a reporter with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung where he is covering (among other issues) arms control and nuclear proliferation

After Krüger contacted Grobe, I was able to download a May 1984 LANDSAT image.  Although the resolution of mid-1980s LANDSAT images is very poor, the Hasaka Spinning Factory is large enough to be visible in it.

The faint blue box in the center of the image is the Hasaka Spinning Factory.  I was able to overlay the image onto a current satellite photograph of the area, using the river and several roads that are visible in both.  Then I sent it to two colleagues, including Tamara Patton, who both concurred. Tamara made the following image overlay.

The LANDSAT image is hard evidence to confirm Grobe’s recollection that the facility was built between 1981-1984, which is consistent with the timeline provided by the Hasaka Spinning Co.  It is also convenient, since AQ Khan’s first documented approach to a foreign customer — Libya, which rebuffed Khan initially — occurred in January 1984, long after Grobe had begun constructing the buildings near Al Hasaka.

It seems clear that Damascus never intended the the Al Hasaka Spinning Factory to spin anything more insidious than polyester.

What should we make of all this.

First, I am not inclined to be too tough on the IAEA, including the “former U.N. investigator.”  We have yet to see how closely the documents in Libya and Switzerland match.  After all, the resemblance may not be a coincidence — perhaps the building in Libya was intended to look like a certain textile factory in Syria?  The IAEA could, of course, have simply called the manufacturers as Krüger did until it found the chief engineer.  Of course, it is easy for a reporter to call around innocently without making waves.

Second, this does not exonerate the Syrian government.  Who it does exonerate is the Al Hasaka Spinning Co, which is quite a rather different entity altogether.  The suspicions raised against the Al Hasaka Spinning Co. have little or no relationship to the very real “Box on the Euphrates” near Al Kibar (Dair Alzour) that most everyone agrees was a nuclear reactor, as well as the three “functionally-related” sites that Krüger mentioned in his 2010 article for Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Third, the saga of the Hasaka Spinning Factory helps illustrate the role of civil society.  The allegation was detailed in public, which led to a rather pleasant collaboration among the publisher of the blog, my colleagues, our readers and one rather enterprising German reporter who took a comment to heart.  It was not easy for me to find the website or scrutinize blurry LANDSAT images.  And I get to work at the Monterey Institute, where we just happen to have an Arabic speaker (Anna Erokhina) and whiz-bang modeler (Tamara Patton) to help out.  And reporters like Paul-Anton Krüger?  Well, he’s among the best in the business for a reason.  The fact that civil society can complement the efforts of the IAEA is not a criticism of the agency.  It’s why we exist.  (And need money.  Did I mention we need money?)

It was important to settle this, once and for all.

Finally, it was important to get to the bottom of this allegation.  I think Desmond Butler and George Jahn did the community a service by putting this allegation into the press.

After all, the allegation was already out among policy circles — once I posted, three knowledgeable sources indicated to me that they were aware of this site. This rumor was already subtly shaping policy even if it remained hidden from view. Remember the second source quoted by the AP — “a senior diplomat with knowledge of IAEA investigations.”  This was very much an active allegation, at least among a certain set.

Imagine if Syria had come clean about the reactor at Al Kibar, as well as the three functionally-related sites.  The Hasaka Spinning Factory would be the elephant in the room.  Officials “in the know” would be whispering that “if you only knew what I knew” and suggesting that Syria was only coming clean because it had another, better path to the bomb.

Information, even false information, does not necessarily have to be part of a formal intelligence product to shape policy. In fact, informal “intelligence” can be more influential.  In 2005, the United States endured a false alarm about an impending North Korea test.  US officials leaked the allegations to the New York Times, which subsequently wrote a post-mortem.  Suspicion of the impending test, Douglas Jehl and David Sanger wrote, “was bolstered by the talk of the reviewing stand, which one American official acknowledged was ‘all over the place,’ even if it was not part of any official briefing.”   As I argued at the time, the fact that the reviewing stand was not part of any official briefing made it more dangerous because the claim was shielded from scrutiny and could be embellished to suit.  Some officials even told Sanger that the non-existent reviewing stand was “luxurious” — a little detail that made for wonderful copy but very bad policy.

The allegation that the Hasaka Spinning Factory was originally intended to house centrifuges might have had exactly the same effect — as long as it remained a bit of gossip, the Hasaka Spinning Factory would confirm the worst suspicions of some policymakers about Syria without being subject to serious scrutiny.  The act of putting the allegation in the public domain subjected it to critical examination, leading to a decisive conclusion on the provenance of the facility.

It is, and always has been, a textile mill.

Late Update | 5:13 pm A colleague suggested, for completeness sake, that I post link to the three preceding posts: Hasaka Spinning Factory, Hasaka Spinning Factory Revisited, and AP on Hasaka.