The Douma chemical weapons investigation and the role of Ian Henderson

Brian Whitaker
9 min readJan 2, 2020

Many of the recent claims about “irregularities” in the OPCW’s investigation of a suspected chemical attack in Syria revolve around an employee called Ian Henderson. His exact role has been a matter of dispute but now leaked documents give a clearer picture.

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In a report last March the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) found “reasonable grounds” for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon in the Syrian city of Douma.

That conclusion was immediately disputed by the Assad regime along with its chief ally, Russia, and various elements on social media. Criticism of the investigation has now turned into a campaign to discredit the OPCW more generally.

One of the main allegations is that the outcome of the Douma investigation was “pre-ordained” by western powers and that OPCW staff who disagreed were systematically ignored, sidelined and over-ruled.

Documents posted online by WikiLeaks — the latest batch appeared on Friday — are said to support these claims, though on the whole they don’t. They give plenty of examples where suggestions or criticisms from staff, far from being dismissed, were actually taken on board.

However, the documents do identify one staff member who clearly had serious issues with his employer. Ian Henderson, a South African, had long-standing connections with the OPCW — he was one of the first inspection team leaders recruited after its formation in 1997 — but in May this year he was suspended from duty and escorted out of the office.

Henderson in Douma

Henderson’s supporters say he was a member of the FFM who has later excluded because of his dissenting views. The OPCW says he was not officially a member of the FFM and, judging by the leaked documents, his bosses regarded him as a loose cannon, meddling where he was not wanted.

There’s no evidence in the leaked documents that he was ever formally recognised as a member of the FFM though he did become quite heavily involved in its activities during the deployment to Douma.

When the FFM arrived in Syria to investigate the alleged chemical attack, Henderson was already in Damascus as a liaison officer in the OPCW’s Command Post there and he continued in that role for five more weeks after the FFM had left.

Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.