Was an explosion caused by a Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) caught on tape -- showing a beam of light coming down from the sky in the split-second before the enormous blast? No, that's not true: Although this footage of an explosion is real, the momentary appearance of a beam of light is an illusion created by the video recording technology of the camera. The momentary bright vertical band is an artifact called a "rolling shutter effect," created by the way a video camera records footage by scanning the scene from top to bottom -- or in this case, from side to side.
This video footage, from 2015, was labeled as showing a controlled detonation by the Iraqi popular mobilization units (PMU) of an ISIS vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in Baiji, Iraq. The alternate angle of the explosion filmed from a closer position does not show this illusory effect at the moment before the explosion -- there was no beam of light that came down from the sky.
The earliest footage of this incident, shot from the closer position, was posted online as early as November 1, 2015, as can be seen in a r/CombatFootage Reddit thread titled, "The moment an SVBIED is destroyed by the Iraqi PMU in Baiji." This post includes a thumbnail image and link to a now-disabled YouTube account. A video clip of this incident resurfaced on Instagram on June 9, 2023, when it was posted twice (here and here) by @mountaincultivator. One video was captioned:
Pattern: noticed. I turned comments off to keep it from getting flagged. I left comments open on my original post. Go nuts. #censorship #conspiracytheory #conspiracy
The original Reddit post has text captions on the video that read:
I noticed this beam of light just before the explosion.
The Instagram post was captioned:
What is it?
This is how the post appeared at the time of writing:
(Image source: Instagram screenshot taken on Wed Jun 14 20:59:45 2023 UTC)
These two postings on Instagram play heavily on the idea that the videos are being censored, therefore the term "Directed-Energy Weapon" and DEW were not spoken or written. Instead @mountaincultivator used markup red circles to highlight words in screenshot images -- the logos of Direct TV, The SoCal Energy Group and Weapons Inc. Tulsa -- as well as stock photos of dew on plants to communicate the purportedly highly censored terms to his audience.
This fact check will focus on the technical source of what appears to be a light beam but is simply a technical illusion. It will not focus on DEW, which are real and use varying wavelengths of concentrated electromagnetic energy, only some of which are visible to the human eye. (U.S. Government Accountability Office Fact Sheet on DEW here.)
Not all details are known
This fact check also will not pin down the exact details of this explosion -- the date it happened, the exact location or the original source of the video. Lead Stories was unable to verify some of the subtle differences in the captions of various postings. Backtracking through seven years of war footage, many clues led to dead ends with a notification that the website is gone or the Facebook or YouTube account had long since been deleted.
Captions describe the video as showing either a suicide bomb or a controlled detonation of a VBIED, and the location as Baiji or near Samarra, Iraq. In late October 2015, Baiji had just been taken back from ISIS control (October 30, 2015, Map of Iraq .png). A video posted on Twitter (embedded below) on November 8, 2015, was captioned, "VIDEO: Iraqi PMU destroy #ISIS VBIED near Samarra, #Iraq."
The composite image below shows the November 1, 2015, Reddit post that contains a thumbnail image of a now-deleted YouTube video. The post was captioned, "The moment an SVBIED is destroyed by the Iraqi PMU in Baiji." The Twitter video above has the same medallion logo in the upper left corner. The icon is a rotating medallion that consists of the cameraman silhouette of the Military Media Team (below left) and the flag (below right) of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), a paramilitary group of militias that operate as part of the Iraqi armed forces. The PMU Facebook page linked in a November 14, 2015, Daily Mail article about the explosion has been replaced with a new page at the same Facebook URL. The new page was created October 17, 2022, and does not contain the content that had been posted in 2015.
This explosion was filmed from at least two different angles by two different cameras. The Instagram video is tightly cropped, but in the uncropped version of this video (on YouTube here) one person can be seen walking in the middle of the lane (circled in red below) -- that is the cameraman who is filming the second video (outlined in red below). When the blast happens, that cameraman falls to the ground (at six seconds into the YouTube video). This fall is captured in his own footage (three to seven seconds into the Twitter video), which shakes and points skyward and then to the gravel on the road.
The rolling shutter effect
Just before the explosion, only one of these videos shows what looks to be a beam of light coming down from the sky. This source of that illusion is a rolling shutter effect caused by the way modern cameras capture images. The shutter does not open wide for a fraction of a second as with a traditional camera. Instead, the rolling shutter scans across the frame continually, with an action similar to a document scanner (explained in depth here by Smarter Every Day).
The rolling shutter artifact is frequently observed in photographs during lightning storms. When the lightning flashes brightly, that moment of the scan will show a different exposure. The borders of these exposure changes are always aligned with the movement of the frame scan, either a perfect vertical or horizontal bar (animation here by Mick West of Metabunk). This artifact is created by the camera and never existed in the photographed scene. The entire sky may have been lit brightly but the artifact only shows the moment during the scan when the lightning flashed. The composite image below shows examples of a vertical and horizontal rolling shutter artifact.
(Image source: Lead Stories composite image with Globalskywatch.com and YouTube screenshots taken on Thu Jun 15 13:41:19 2023 UTC)
The beam demystified
The composite image below shows the same scene as it appears on YouTube and Instagram. Even though the footage is shaky and the horizon line is not level (demarked with gray) -- the scanning of the camera's shutter is always perpendicular within the frame (demarked with a vertical gold bar) a momentary brightening was recorded at the moment in the scan when, but not necessarily where, there was a flash. The rectangular inset shows the true position of the explosion which occurred within the same second. This indicates that the rolling shutter of the camera missed capturing the image of that flash at the center of the explosion by a fraction of a second as it scanned toward the right. The second camera that recorded the explosion did not record a similar effect.