Saturday, October 20, 2012

Syrians Place Booby-Trapped Ammunition in Rebels’ Guns

October 19, 2012

Syrians Place Booby-Trapped Ammunition in Rebels’ Guns


DEIR SONBUL, Syria — The government of Syria, trying to contain a rapidly expanding insurgency, has resorted to one of the dirty tricks of the modern battlefield: salting ammunition supplies of antigovernment fighters with ordnance that explodes inside rebels’ weapons, often wounding and sometimes killing the fighters while destroying many of their hard-found arms.

The practice, which rebels said started in Syria early this year, is another element of the government’s struggle to combat the opposition as Syria’s military finds itself challenged across a country where it was not long ago an uncontested force. The government controls the skies, and with aircraft and artillery batteries it has pounded many rebel strongholds throughout this year. But the rebels continue to resist, mostly with small arms.

Doctored ammunition offers an insidious way to undermine the rebels’ confidence in their ammunition supply while simultaneously thinning their ranks.

“When they do this, you will lose both the man and the rifle,” said Ghadir Hammoush, the commander of a fighting group in Idlib Province who said he knew of five instances in which rifles had exploded from booby-trapped ammunition.

The practice has principally involved rifle and machine-gun cartridges, but also the projectiles for rocket-propelled grenades and perhaps mortar rounds, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen rebel leaders in Syria and many fighters, as well as an examination of shattered rifles and the contents of a booby-trapped cartridge. The tactic is highly controversial, in that it is potentially indiscriminate.

The primary source for doctored ammunition has been the Syrian government, which mixes exploding cartridges with ordinary rounds on the black markets through which rebels acquire weapons, the commanders said.

Some booby-trapped ammunition may also have entered Syria from Iraq, where during the most recent war the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency secretly passed doctored ammunition to insurgent groups, several American veterans and officials said.

The United States runs a similar program in Afghanistan, trying to undermine the Taliban. The United States has provided humanitarian and communications aid to the Syrian rebels, but has refused to supply weapons of any kind.

The practice of manufacturing and surreptitiously distributing tampered military equipment that explodes at unexpected times has a long history, but it is not often publicly documented as it happens. The British and German militaries used the tactic in World War II, and the United States developed exploding Kalashnikov ammunition in the 1960s and leaked it to South Vietnamese guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers.

One classified American ordnance intelligence document, viewed by The New York Times, suggests that the Soviet Union pursued a similar program in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Governments labor to keep their doctored-weapons programs secret, in part because they are potentially indiscriminate and often provide enemy forces with working ammunition, with which the rigged ammunition has been mixed. The tactic can also jeopardize friendly forces, causing casualties or destroying weapons among government troops or proxies — raising political sensitivities and eroding morale.

Nicholas Marsh, a research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo who covers arms and arms trafficking, said that for these reasons, while there are many precedents, the tactic is not widespread.

“The problem with them is the same as with land mines,” Mr. Marsh said. “You can’t be sure who is going to pick up and try to use the spiked ammunition.”

In many cases in Syria, the spiked ammunition found its intended target: fighters seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. The wounding of Muhammad Saleh Hajji Musa, 36, in the highlands of Jebel al-Zawiya, provided an example.

Mr. Musa was part of a group that had surrounded a government checkpoint late this spring and was pressing its attack. As he fired his rifle, he said, there was an explosion between his hands. It knocked him over.

“I thought a shell had landed on me,” he said. Mr. Musa’s face was badly cut, and his right hand was mangled. He spent months convalescing, but he is now fighting again. His hand remains twisted and scarred.

American military and Special Operations veterans who had been involved in the distribution of such ammunition in Afghanistan and Iraq described a variety of steps taken to contain the spread of the most dangerous doctored ammunition to civilians.

In the Pentagon’s programs, they said, some rounds are packed with relatively small amounts of high explosives, enough to jam a firearm permanently. These are used in cases involving ammunition that runs the risk of reaching unintended targets, as when an ammunition crate including the doctored cartridges is shoved off a transport truck to make it appear as if it has been lost.

Other rounds carry a lethal high-explosive charge. These are used when the ammunition is expected to remain in narrow possession, as when exploding cartridges are inserted into the magazines of dead enemy fighters on the assumption that their fellow fighters will find those magazines and use them later.

The legality of such tactics is uncertain. The Pentagon declined to comment on its doctored-ammunition programs in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to provide any information to you about this,” Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote by e-mail.

The officials and veterans who spoke about the tactic did so anonymously because the practice remained classified.

It is not known whether the Syrian government has distributed explosive rounds of varying power. But analysts and fighters alike agreed that as time passes, such programs often become less effective because insurgent forces become wise to the deception. This appears to be happening in Syria.

At the time he was wounded, Mr. Musa said, rigged cartridges were not recognized by fighters. Now rebels are familiar with the markings on many doctored cartridges, he said, and are able cull them.

This was made evident by rebel leaders in Kafr Takharim, in the north. When asked about the doctored ammunition, they provided a suspect 7.62x39-millimeter cartridge, the standard ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles. Its head stamp suggested original manufacture in 2006.

The cartridge’s provenance was not clear. Arms analysts who reviewed a photograph for The Times said the stamp was not commonly seen on ammunition circulating through conflicts. One said it appeared to be Iranian. Another, Nic R. Jenzen-Jones of Australia, said it was probably Syrian.

The propellant inside the cartridge had been replaced by a cinnamon-colored substitute with white granules. Bob Gravett, a private explosive-ordnance disposal consultant who has documented exploding cartridges in previous wars, said the powder resembled granular TNT, perhaps spiked with sugar to increase its flammability.

Rebel commanders said that Syrian Army officers who had defected and informants inside the government had told the rebels that Syria’s military was manufacturing the rigged cartridges and had begun distributing them about nine months ago.

“They have people who specialize in such things,” said Abu Azab, who commands a fighting group in the mountains.

Fighters also said that black markets had been salted with rocket-propelled grenades that were duds, that had the propellant in their booster motors removed and replaced with an inert substance, or that had exploded when launched.

Moreover, they said some mortar rounds killed mortar crews in a violent roar and flash when dropped into the tube — another possible form of booby trap.

That tactic has been a staple of American efforts to kill or dissuade insurgent mortar teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, said three American veterans with experience with such rounds, and it helped stop incoming fire on American outposts.

Abu Azab, the commander in Jebel al-Zawiya, suggested that the Syrian government’s booby-trapped ordnance program, while it might evolve, was less effective than it had been.

“We stopped buying that stuff from the markets, and we get what we need now by capturing it,” he said, but added, “We do still have some ammunition that we bought a long time ago.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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