A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has resigned from the board of a prestigious science journal after he was accused of spreading conspiracy theories about a chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2017 and a major scientific journal announced that it would not publish a paper he co-authored.
The editors of Science & Global Security (SGS) said in a blog update on October 12 2019:
Having examined the concerns about the peer-review and revision processes for this article that led to the withholding of publication, the Editors have determined they cannot now rectify the problems that were identified, while others are outside of our control — including the manuscript, some comments from reviewers, and the authors’ responses now being in the public domain.
The paper addressed an attack by the Syrian government against the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. Postol and his co-authors questioned the assessment of both the United Nations’ Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), both of which determined that government forces dropped a sarin bomb on Khan Sheikhoun, citing an impact crater found at the scene.
Postol and his colleagues, though, argued that the crater was formed by an artillery rocket with a “small explosive warhead,” meaning that the sarin could have been fired by rebel fighters in Khan Sheikhoun fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Science magazine reported that Postol has also personally claimed that “he believes sarin was not used at all in Khan Shaykhun.”
The paper was cited by Democratic Party presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard on her campaign website to explain her opposition to United States military action against Assad’s government, and it was initially accepted for publication by SGS before critics raised concerns over Postol’s work.
“While on its surface, Postol’s article appeared to revolve around a narrow technical question about whether a rocket or a bomb created the crater in Khan Sheikhoun, the purpose of the article was in fact to challenge the impartiality and competence of the OPCW and JIM,” said Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor at George Mason University who has published several reports dealing with the use of both nuclear and chemical weapons.
The investigative news site Bellingcat, in turn, challenged the assessment by Postol that the crater was created by “a standard 122 mm explosive warhead” attached to an improvised rocket:
Not only does the simulator crater not match any other 122 mm rocket craters we have observed, it doesn’t even match the crater seen at Khan Sheikhoun.
In Postol’s simulation, the rocket impacts a road where the tarmac is simulated as being 10 cm thick, with soil underneath. In the simulation we see that outside the bowl of the crater, the tarmac suffers extensive damage across a wide area. This damage is localised to the northern side of the crater bowl, and ranges from 1 cm to 10 cm in depth.
Nothing like this kind of damage is seen in the actual Khan Sheikhoun crater. The tarmac on the north side of the crater is almost completely undamaged, saved for several cracks.
Following the announcement by SGS that it would not publish his work on the attack, Postol announced that he would resign from his position as a board member for the publication.
“I have no reason to believe ill-intent on the part of the editors of Science and Global Security,” he wrote:
However, I do believe that their decision is wrong and untenable. The editors have made a grievous mistake, as a journal of science, and as a journal that has the goal of providing sound science-based evidence to elucidate crucial issues related to unresolved international security problems.
In one article he claimed that an American intelligence report on the Khan Sheikhoun attack was “directly” contradicted by a French intelligence report. “The discrepancies between these two reports essentially result in two completely different narratives,” he wrote.
There was a very simple explanation for these “discrepancies”, however. The French report referred to a different attack in a different location four years earlier, and Postol later retracted his claim.
In another article about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Postol disputed casualty figures by claiming the wind at the time would have carried sarin from the crater “across an empty field”. In fact it was blowing in the opposite direction. Postol had mistakenly thought a south-easterly wind blows towards the south-east rather than from it and, once again, he issued a correction.
Postol has also been criticized for associating with reputed conspiracy theorists like Maram Susli, aka “Partisangirl.” Susli has been featured on not only disinformation outlets like Alex Jones’ Infowars channel, but state propaganda channels in Iran and Russia. She has claimed that the terrorist groups Islamic State and al Qaeda are one organization that is really a front by the Central Intelligence Agency, and spread the 9/11 “truther” argument.
“I knew [her] to be a chemist because I was watching her on Twitter,” Postol has said of Susli. “I could see from her voice — I didn’t know her and still don’t know her — that she was a trained chemist.”
Postol enlisted Susli for a separate analysis of the chemical attack in another Syrian city, Ghouta, during the 2013 Syrian civil war. But that work was also challenged by another chemical weapons expert, Cheryl Rofer.
“Postol is operating from a naive set of assumptions, based on limited experience in a first-year chemistry laboratory, presumably the experience of his informant,” Rofer wrote in Bellingcat. “The result is a wrong-headed approach to the problem and nonsensical demands of Kaszeta. Nothing in Postol’s argument sounds like it was written by a chemist or someone with a working knowledge of chemistry.”