A video currently circulating on the internet, purporting to show the explosion on 21 March that killed Sheikh Muhammad al-Bouti in a Damascus mosque, raises many questions about the death of a man who was more familiar to Syrian TV viewers than anybody other than President Bashar al-Assad.
The regime accorded his death massive coverage in the official media, far more than any other single event since the uprising began more than two years ago.
It said the heavily-guarded sheikh was assassinated by a suicide bomber who blew himself up in the mosque in a huge explosion that also killed around 50 students and Sheikh al-Bouti’s grandson, leaving many others badly injured.
That version of events is not borne out by the video, the authenticity of which has not so far been seriously challenged.
A flash, a bang, some smoke
The video clip shows Sheikh al-Bouti sitting at a desk in the al-Iman mosque in central Damascus apparently addressing religious students, as he was reportedly doing at the time of his death.
As he is speaking, there is a small explosion in front of the desk. It produces a flash, a bang and some smoke, but is not strong enough to disturb the desk or to shake the camera.
Although there is still some smoke, no obvious injuries are visible. The sheikh is also strong enough to sit back up without using his hands to push himself upright – they are busy straightening his turban.
At that point, just five seconds after the explosion, a man dressed in dark clothing moves forward in front of the camera and approaches the sheikh, blocking him from view.
He appears to do something to the sheikh and lays him back sideways to our left, leaving him slumped and inert as the man himself moves off camera to the left, after an appearance lasting only five seconds. He does not reappear.
Five more men then move forward around the desk and pull the sheikh up and away to the right. By now he is already limp and is bleeding heavily from the mouth and from a wound to the left side of his head.
The video ends at that point, after just 29 seconds.
While the sheikh’s voice is audible – at the moment of the blast he is saying: “That’s not a problem…” – and the explosion is also heard, the subsequent scenes are acted out in silence with just a low crackling sound.
The video has many disturbing and peculiar aspects to it. It raises numerous questions, and leaves them unanswered.
No panic or chaos
A few facts are clear. It is definitely Sheikh al-Bouti in the video, giving a talk. And 29 seconds later, he is either dead or mortally stricken.
But by what?
The blast itself clearly did not kill him outright. While he may have sustained injuries, they appear to have left him shaken and dazed but not disabled.
It was not a big explosion. His desk and the books and papers on it were not disturbed. Had the bomb been under the desk and inflicted internal injuries, the desk would have been blown over.
The blast seems to have gone off some distance in front of the desk, and the men who subsequently approached him walked through that area apparently unruffled, with no sense of panic or emergency.
Their movements, and those of the man in dark who first approaches the sheikh, have a strangely choreographed feel to them. They appear detached and almost professional.
There is nothing of the panic and chaos that accompanies big bomb explosions in crowded places.
Much hinges on the actions of the man in dark, which cannot be seen clearly. He is clearly not moving in to provide first aid to the sheikh. He does not run around the desk to help him. He approaches from the front, does something to him, lays him to the side, and moves away.
From his movements, seen from behind, he does not appear to be either shooting or stabbing the sheikh with force. He could be sliding or injecting something into him. If so, it is done very calmly and professionally.
What is clear is that as that man moves away, the sheikh is dead or dying.
The other men who then move in make no attempt to attend to him or investigate his injuries, they just heave him up and drag him away.
From the evidence in the video, it is inconceivable that such a small blast could have caused the death of around 50 other people, as reported by the state media – but also, curiously, by the opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The implication of the video is that the sheikh was the only victim, since the men who approach him after the explosion are there within a few seconds and come from the direction of the blast.
On the day of the event, Syrian TV carried pictures of the aftermath, mainly shot outside or on the steps of the mosque.
Images from inside showed some superficial debris, but not the kind of structural damage or bloodbath that would be expected from a huge bomb killing 50 people in an enclosed space.
The regime’s account was that the blast was the work of a lone suicide bomber who had infiltrated the students attending Sheikh al-Bouti’s talk.
But the video shows a group of men, one of them wearing a suit, working together to remove the sheikh’s body swiftly, apparently in coordination with the man in dark who had moved away.
The implication seemed to be that the sheikhs’ killing was the work of the regime – an accusation immediately levelled by the opposition at the time and repeated by many of those drawing attention to the video.
But why would the regime kill an elderly, highly distinguished Sunni cleric who had stood by it through thick and thin and castigated the rebels as terrorists and mercenaries?
His murder was condemned not only by the regime, but also by the opposition.
Commenting on the video, the head of the opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, himself a Damascus preacher, described it as “a clear act of premeditated, cold-blooded murder – may God punish those who killed him.”