Europe’s Secretive Trade in Syrian Phosphates
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: Lighthouse Reports, OCCRP, The Guardian, Daraj, SIRAJ, Mykolaiv Center for Investigative Reporting, CINS, Bivol, IRPI, RISE Romania
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-06-30
Language: English, Arabic, Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, Italian
Authors: Mohammad Bassiki, Oleg Oganov, Bashar Deeb, Charlotte Alfred, Lara Dihmis, Jovana Tomić, Nikolay Marchenko, Lorenzo Bagnoli, and Ana Poenariu. Eva Constantaras, Hala Naserddine, Adam Chamseddine, Hervé Chambonniere, Ahmad Haj Hamdo, Ayman Makieh and Ahmad Obaid also contributed reporting
Lighthouse Reports is a pioneer of collaborative journalism blending traditional investigative reporting with emerging techniques like open source. OCCRP is a network of investigative journalism groups covering crime and corruption. SIRAJ (Syria), Mykolaiv Center for Investigative Reporting (Ukraine), CINS (Serbia), Bivol (Bulgaria), IRPI (Italy), and RISE Romania are leading investigative groups in their countries.
We exposed a booming market in phosphates exported from Syria to European fertiliser companies by a sanctioned Russian oligarch. Our team untangled the complex network of shell companies, shady shipping operators and Syrian war profiteers benefiting from Europe’s appetite for cheap resources, despite their origin.
Using trade data, customs records and open source tools we revealed for the first time Serbia and Ukraine’s reliance on Syrian phosphates, and new shipments to Italy, Bulgaria, Spain and Poland. We documented the tricks used to disguise the trade including a pattern of vessels turning off their radar before they enter Syrian ports.
The investigation was published by media in the UK, Ukraine, Lebanon, Bulgaria and Italy. The investigation’s findings were covered by Agence France Presse and featured in Arabic news bulletins around the region.
One month after the story was published, the EU sanctioned Sanad, the Syrian company transporting phosphates from the mines to the ports for shipping to Europe. We found evidence that the ex-militia turned security company was involved when we discovered a truck with the company logo on a social media post from inside Tartous port. We documented the company’s owners, Assad-linked businessman Ahmed Khalil and a security official named Nasser Deeb, who were also added to EU sanctions after we published the investigation. The sanctions cite their involvement in the Syrian phosphates industry, noting that “the exploitation of natural resources provides revenues to the Syrian regime.”
In Russia, the nonprofit founded by jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny used our reporting to dig further into the Russian companies involved. Their follow-up investigation into the senior Russian officials profiting from the Syrian phosphates trade reached several million Russian viewers at a time when Navalny’s declining health in custody has added fuel to his campaign against corruption, including profiteering from Russia’ brutal military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria.
In Syria, the investigation was repurposed as a training resource for local journalists by SIRAJ – whose mission is to widen access to investigative tools among Syrian journalists and civil society, in the service of bringing some measure of accountability to an extremely opaque and authoritarian country. Several Syrian journalists trained in the investigation’s reporting methods have since embarked on potentially groundbreaking investigations of their own.
Syrian investigative journalist Mohammad Bassiki first spotted a pattern of ships disappearing from automatic identification systems (AIS) as they headed towards Syria from Europe. The vessels reappeared again several days later sailing back to Europe. He confirmed the ships were picking up phosphates in the Syrian port of Tartous during these blackouts by analysing records of vessels and cargo published on the port’s Facebook page. He noticed that data for ships collecting phosphates was regularly removed, and had the foresight to scrape the data as the port took down all these records shortly after.
To continue tracking these shipments, Syrian open source investigator Bashar Deeb scoured open source images of Tartous port. He found images of vessels docked in the phosphates-loading berths in the background of news reports and a dock-worker’s selfie. Satellite images of the berths also helped establish the vessels’ dates of arrival and departure. Deeb used multiple ship tracking services to triangulate AIS data and confirm Bassiki’s initial hypothesis – ships were regularly switching off their AIS before sailing to Syria to pick up phosphates for European countries.
We then extracted and analysed official export data from the UN Comtrade and Eurostat databases to confirm the countries importing phosphates. This data helped us track the growing demand for the Syrian material, which we cross-referenced with the limited records available from Syrian authorities.
Investigative journalists in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Italy and Bulgaria joined us to identify the companies involved. They obtained customs records through sources and freedom of information requests which revealed the role of middlemen and shell companies in the trade. We mined national databases and corporate registries to expose how these proxy companies worked. We also consulted multiple shipping registries to establish the owners of the vessels bringing phosphates to Europe, including some under sanctions themselves.
Context about the project:
The two principal reporters worked on this investigation for two years under extraordinary circumstances. Mohammad Bassiki from Syria started tracking disappearing phosphates shipments as he worked to rebuild a life in Europe and simultaneously establish a Syrian non-profit dedicated to investigative journalism and accountability reporting. Oleg Oganov from Ukraine kept up his pursuit of the Ukrainian oligarchs and front companies involved despite family tragedy during the Covid-19 pandemic and then the Russian invasion of his country. He fact-checked the final draft as Russian troops closed in on Mykolaiv, where he has a non-profit for investigative journalism. After almost a year of Russian bombardment, he continues to work from Mykolaiv relying on power banks amid rolling blackouts.
Access to data was a big challenge. Only a few dozen countries make customs data publicly available; for the purposes of our investigation, we only had this information for Ukraine. For the six other European countries importing Syrian phosphates, we had to come up with other strategies to obtain the data, including through freedom of information requests and sources.
It was even harder to access data about the companies selling phosphates. The Russian oligarch-owned company that controls the Syrian phosphates industry created new companies to operate in the country and denies any connection to them. Syria is a tightly-controlled authoritarian state, but our Syrian reporters waded through the official gazette, leaked documents and open source images to find the contracts and confirm the names of key officials involved. Russian corporate registries are hard to navigate and contain partial information but OCCRP’s highly-skilled research team was able to identify some records of the companies and their Russian staff and owners. Several of the middlemen are located in almost completely impenetrable corporate jurisdictions like the UAE.
The Syrian government’s hostility to independent reporting made reporting on the supply chain inside Syria challenging. Independent ournalists are not able to access the port, the convoys or the mines. Sources are very hesitant to speak and need to be able to communicate securely. Our Syrian reporters are skilled at navigating this context, but also have developed expertise in financial records and open source investigations in response to these severe restrictions on journalism in the country.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
1) This story could not have been done except as a collaboration. A multidisciplinary team from nearly a dozen countries drew upon a large range of data sources in multiple languages/jurisdictions. But collaborations, especially across borders, only work when there is trust, communication and meticulous organisation. Our team met (online) regularly, looked out for each other, and worked together in OCCRP’s secure online workspace.
2) To help all these journalists navigate such a complex investigation, we needed clear, easy-to-use working documents. Combining multiple data sources, we built a database of dozens of shipments from Syria to Europe and identified 15 key journeys where we could establish the full chain of custody. We also developed a company tracker with details of all the importers, shippers, exporters and middlemen and a directory profiling all the companies and key players. These resources enabled us to cross-reference, spot patterns and make connections between findings.
3) It was important to use as many data sources as possible to fill information gaps and verify findings. For example, freedom of information requests were unsuccessful in every country except Bulgaria, while Serbia has useful company-level trade data.
4) But data would only take us so far: there were so many layers of proxy companies that it was hard to identify the final customer of the phosphates without an insider tip-off, which we then confirmed through interviews and documents.
5) Despite its complexity, we wanted the story to be accessible and interesting to a general audience. We kept storytelling front of mind as we reported, looking out for compelling people and details that would be relatable to readers. OCCRP’s visual team also built interactive maps to simply and clearly convey a key piece of the story: the pattern of the disappearing ships.