Investigation into the weapon system:

‘Here we place everything
under a magnifying glass’

Whoever wants to know everything about a missile system must make a great effort to find practical, accessible and, above all, reliable information. Moreover, one source is no source, so that means we have to validate, validate and validate again.

For the investigation into the weapon system that was used, the well known seven questions need to be answered are: who, what, where, when, which, how and why. In this investigation only the question of ‘when’ has been established irrefutably: flight MH17 crashed on 17 July 2014. The remaining questions require intensive investigation, according to Gerrit Thiry (team leader) and Susanne Huiberts (operational specialist) of the National Criminal Investigation Service.


The most significant complication: the crime scene is located in a war zone. For the forensic investigation the police investigators are forced to limit themselves to only the material that was brought back from Ukraine to the Netherlands: debris, soil samples and other materials.


The bar is set much higher

The Dutch Safety Board (OVV) concluded in October 2015 that the aircraft had crashed due to the impact with a Buk missile, which would suggest that the type of weapon has been clearly established. For the criminal investigation, the evidential standard is set much higher than for the OVV. The hearing of the criminal case in court requires that all sources used need to be publically accessible. For that reason, the disclosure and assessment of these sources requires extra attention within this investigation.

“Everything we investigate is a point of discussion”, says Thiry, “we have nothing of which we know for sure whether it is true and genuine. After all, we are dealing with a conflict involving several parties. These parties may have an interest in manipulating or contaminating material. Therefore, we continuously ask ourselves what could be the interest of a source to distribute certain information.”

For instance, the team investigates the reliability of a source and verifies if self-appointed experts are indeed experts, rather than amateurs. That is why several experts have been heard. When different sources point in the same direction, investigators can take a step forward. These sources are, for example, sources from industry, several states and ‘open sources’ on the internet.

“Everywhere we carry out a number of checks”, says Thiry, “furthermore, it is also a matter of exclusion: finding out what it surely could not have been. At the end of the day, despite all these limitations, we manage to find our way. If you can’t do it one way, you have to find an alternative.”

June 2016

The Venturi is located at the bottom side of the Buk missile and emits the gases from the propellant, similar to the exhaust of a car. This Venturi was found at the crash site in Ukraine.

Intentional or not?

An important question for the criminal investigation is whether a missile can be launched unintentionally. Did anyone accidentally push a button which caused the missile to be launched? Or can this only be done by means of a conscious act? And how exactly does the weapon system select its target?

For this reason, the investigators must know as accurately as possible how the weapons system functions and how to operate it. But where can you get a Buk missile that can be examined thoroughly? And how do you lay your hands on a user manual with a step by step explanation for the untrained criminal investigator?

“A difficult task”, Thiry observes, “ever since the seventies, missiles have been manufactured for war purposes and have been exported to numerous countries. These were the hey-days of the Cold War. Specific technical details are strictly confidential.”
“In addition, the corresponding manuals are not freely available”, adds Huiberts, “it’s completely different from, let’s say, putting a cupboard together for which you can find an endless number of manuals on the internet, cut down to the wishes of the handyman.”


Sometimes, limited information can be found on the internet, as part of an article, for example. “But then you still do not understand what it means, because it is a very specific professional field”, states Huiberts, “on the other hand it is not enough either to find interpreters to translate these texts. First they need to get familiar with the jargon, learn to understand the abbreviations and decipher everything step by step. This takes a lot of time and energy.”


What’s more, the investigators need very specific information. “The end user only wants it to work and is not interested in knowing exactly how it works, whereas we tend to look at some of these issues through a magnifying glass.”


No second chance

As to its extent and also because of its political weight, this investigation is unequalled. “That puts a heavy responsibility on our shoulders, because we will not get a second chance when we screw up”, says Thiry. “The last thing we want is that we make a procedural mistake. For the purpose of a court case we need to be able to prove everything twice over.”

“Everything here lies under a magnifying glass”, Huiberts affirms, “now we are more focussed than ever. Our profession is aimed at finding the truth, just like in other cases. But this case is unique, if only because the crime scene is not exactly located in our back yard.”

Fortunately, progress has been made in the investigation. Huiberts asserts that “we are writing history as we speak and I do realise that everything that we lay our hands on is important for the history of the future.”