National Security

How to Build an Army in Your Basement

From homemade rockets to car bombs, take a look at the weapons that Syria’s rebels are using to defeat Bashar al-Assad.


Syrian rebels mill around an open lot under a blue sky; off camera, a group chants "God is great." The spoils of a recent raid are laid out before them -- a collection of T-55 tanks and the BMP series of infantry fighting vehicles. A number of rickety pick-up trucks idle in the background, perhaps the vehicles used in the attack. The rebels have wielded heavy machine guns to the truck beds -- constructing an impromptu mechanized unit with which to wage war against President Bashar al-Assad's army.

Syria's 21-month uprising has devolved into a no-holds-barred civil war, where each side has reached for any tool that helps it kill its adversaries more efficiently. And they're not just using the standard weapons of war: Both the rebels and Assad's army have adopted a variety of do-it-yourself weapons to continue the fight. Some are the backbone of the Syrian insurgency, while others are as dangerous to the operator as to their target.

Truck-mounted weapons are one of the mainstays of this conflict, with rebels employing DShK heavy machine guns, KPV heavy machines guns and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons for this purpose. The DShK and KPV heavy machine guns are usually found mounted on the BMP vehicles and BDRM-2 armored cars, both widely used by the Syrian government forces. In many cases, they have been taken from those vehicles once they've been disabled or destroyed.

The ZU-23-2 is a more powerful weapon, capable of firing large, 23mm shells over a greater distance. It has proved itself as a deadly anti-air weapon: An October report from the Institute for the Study of War estimated that it has been responsible for 90 percent of the aircraft brought down in Syria.


Rocket-based weapons have recently appeared in the rebels' arsenal. The most common is the Type 63 multiple rocket launcher, a Chinese-made weapon that fires 107mm rockets with a range of up to 5 miles, making it one of the longest-range weapon available to the insurgents.

Until the end of September, these weapons were almost completely absent from the videos released by Syria's rebels recording their operations. But over the past six weeks, that has changed dramatically: Videos purportedly filmed in the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia have all showed the insurgents wielding these weapons.

Other, more unusual instances of truck-mounted rocket launchers include this example of a rocket pod, normally used by aircraft, firing S-5 rockets. These rockets, while currently a rare sight in videos from Syria, were one of the favorite weapons of Libya's rebels.


VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device), otherwise known as car or truck bombs, are one of the most controversial weapons in the rebels' arsenal. The New York Times reported in September that an unwitting prisoner was used to drive a truck loaded with explosives toward a checkpoint near Idlib, believing it was part of a prisoner exchange.

This weapon is devastatingly simple. As the above video shows, insurgents simply fill vehicles with explosives, in this example including unexploded bombs, and drive them close to targets before detonating. In another case, a suicide car bomber killed at least 50 Syrian security men by exploding himself in the town of Sahl al-Ghab.

Both IEDs and VBIEDs were the scourge of the U.S. military in Iraq, and it may not be a coincidence that these weapons have now shown up in Syria. Some of the groups using these tactics supported the insurgency in Iraq: Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated group that has claimed responsibility for a large number of these attacks, is perhaps the most prominent example.


One of the most effective DIY weapons used by the Syrian opposition is the IED, which has allowed the Syrian opposition to take on armored vehicles and effectively turn certain areas into no-go zones for troops in unarmored vehicles. As the use of IEDs increasingly limits troop movements, New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers wrote that the situation meant "the Syrian army is finished."

IEDs come in different shapes and sizes: Gas cylinders filled with explosives can make a simple bomb, while metal tubes with a concave end can be manufactured into an armor-piercing projectile. They can also be detonated using a variety of methods: by wire, radio, or cell phone -- all methods easily accessible to the opposition.


Syrian insurgents have also began to use a variety of DIY weapons, the most common being pipe bombs. An example of the simple manufacturing process is shown in the above video: A metal pipe, filled with explosives from sources such as unexploded bombs and artillery shells, is detonated using a simple fuse.

In an attempt to increase the range of these weapons, Syrian opposition fighters have also been using oversized slingshots to launch them over longer distances, but as this video -- where a pipe bomb fails to clear the wall from which it's launched behind -- proves, that comes with its own risks.


The production of rifle grenades -- a grenade that can be attached to, and launched from, the end of a rifle barrel -- demonstrates Syrian rebels' ability to produce more sophisticated weapons. The above video demonstrates the manufacturing process: Fuses are manufactured for the grenade, the rifle grenades are cut into shape on a metalworking lathe, and then the insurgent provides a demonstration of how to use the rifle grenade.

This video demonstrates one of the key advantages the rifle grenade has over a standard grenade or pipe bomb: a much longer range, a great advantage in an urban combat environment such as Aleppo.


Since their earlier sightings in June, DIY rockets appear to have become one of the main long-range weapons used by the insurgents. Their significance was reflected in this recent video showing Aleppo Military Council head Col. Abdul Jabbar Aqidi visiting a Syrian opposition rocket factory. Although not manufactured in quite the same volume, DIY mortars have also made an appearance. These weapons have been crucial to providing the Syrian opposition with both direct and indirect explosive firepower.

It's difficult to be certain of how effective and accurate these weapons are. Some videos show occasional accidents (for example, here and here) posted online, demonstrating that these are not the most reliable weapons in the opposition arsenal.


This unique video demonstrates the ingenuity of the Syrian opposition, as well as some of the risks they take to procure explosives. It begins with Syrian opposition members digging up unexploded PTAB 2.5m cluster bomblets -- an extremely dangerous job, considering how unstable unexploded cluster bomblets can be. The rebels then remove the fuses and tail fins from the bomblets, and replace the fin with fittings that allows them to be screwed into a rocket. A newly manufactured fuse is then screwed into the warhead, completing the rocket.

What we are seeing here is not just cluster bomblets being repurposed as warheads, but a manufacturing process that creates both a specialized fitting and an entirely new fuse.


There are also a number of weapons that appear to be one-offs -- for example, the above air-powered Molotov cocktail launcher. Other examples included a prototype of a grenade launcher, a shotgun based pipe-bomb launcher (seen in action here), a DIY recoilless gun, and a multi-caliber pipe gun.

Some of these weapons are extremely unsafe -- for example, take this shoulder-mounted mortar launcher. Toward the end of the video we see several examples of the weapon being fired, and the last of those examples show the mortar becoming stuck in the end of the barrel, causing the rebel to drop the weapon and run away before the detonation.


In late August, activists began posting videos online of what they described as "barrel bombs" -- barrels filled with explosives and shrapnel that were dropped from helicopters. In one report, a Syrian military defector described building more than 100 of these bombs, which an analyst described as doing roughly the same damage as a 1,000-pound bomb.

In late October, a series of videos filmed inside a Syrian Air Force helicopter showed barrel bombs being dropped. Odd as it may seem for a professional army to use such weapons, Assad's forces aren't the first to resort to such tactics: There have been reports of them being used in both Croatia and Sudan. With a limited number of ground attack helicopters, barrel bombs may be Assad's way to get maximum firepower out of his Mil Mi-8 helicopters, which are used primarily for transport.

The List

Why Do We Keep Digging Up Dead World Leaders?

Exhuming the remains of the powerful rarely changes what we know about their deaths.

On Tuesday, a Palestinian medical team cranked open the West Bank grave of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, took samples of his remains, and handed the evidence over to European experts to determine whether Arafat was poisoned -- by Israel, the theory goes -- before his death in 2004. "This will bring closure," Arafat's widow observed, "We will know the truth about why he died."

But that answer won't come for at least another three months, according to Palestinian medical officials. And even then, the results could very well be inconclusive. Polonium-210, which a Swiss lab detected on Arafat's clothing this summer, decomposes quickly. And if the long history of exhuming world leaders is any guide, the macabre exercise rarely proves the conspiracy theorists right. Here are seven of the most famous examples.


In 2008, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced a curious new project: a commission to exhume the remains of the 19th century military and political leader Simón Bolívar and determine whether the inspiration for Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution had really died from tuberculosis in 1830. Chávez's suspicion? Elites in Colombia and Venezuela had assassinated Bolívar to prevent him from uniting Latin America. "How the oligarchs fooled us," Chávez marveled, "how the historians who falsified history fooled us."

Chávez opened Bolívar's grave in 2010 with characteristic flair, displaying the independence icon's skeleton on national television. But the results of the investigation, unveiled in 2011, proved the Venezuelan leader wrong. Experts found toxins that may have contributed to Bolívar's death, but suggested they may have come from medicine. "We could not establish the death was by non-natural means or by intentional poisoning" Venezuela's vice president explained. Chávez was unmoved. "They killed Simon Bolívar," he insisted, even while admitting that he didn't "have proof" (the Venezuelan president is now building a mausoleum for his hero).


The circumstances surrounding the death in 1850 of Zachary Taylor -- one of eight U.S. presidents to die in office -- are admittedly bizarre. As the History Channel tells it, Taylor "gulped down a large quantity of cherries and iced milk" at an event associated with the construction of the Washington Monument and then chased it with "several glasses of water" after returning to the White House. He died several days later after suffering from a stomach ailment that his doctors suspected was a bacterial infection of the small intestine.

In the early 1990s, the author Clara Rising, convinced that Taylor had been poisoned because of his opposition to slavery, persuaded a coroner in Kentucky, where Taylor is buried, to exhume the former president's remains. But medical officials determined that Taylor died from any of "a myriad of natural diseases which could have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis." Rising too had difficulty accepting the lack of evidence of foul play. "His political enemies benefited from his removal, whether they removed him or not," she declared.



When Chilean President Salvador Allende (pictured above) died in a 1973 coup, the military junta that seized control of the country announced that the Marxist leader had fatally shot himself in the head in his besieged presidential palace with a submachine gun given to him by Cuba's Fidel Castro, according to an autopsy. But doubts about the official narrative swiftly surfaced; within days of Allende's death, his wife suggested that her husband might have been murdered by the military, and Castro embraced the theory. Later, a doctor who was with the president on the day of his death insisted that Allende had killed himself, while a Chilean medical examiner backed the assassination hypothesis.

In early 2011, a Chilean judge ordered an investigation into Allende's death as part of an inquiry into human rights abuses under Gen. Augusto Pinochet. After exhuming Allende's remains, foreign experts concluded that Allende had indeed committed suicide using the AK-47 he'd received from Castro. After four decades of conspiracy theories about Allende's death, the second autopsy had confirmed the first.


Wladyslaw Sikorski, the leader of Poland's government-in-exile during World War II, perished in a plane crash near Gibraltar in 1943. A British investigation at the time blamed the incident on jammed controls, but speculation swirled for decades that Sikorski had been assassinated prior to the crash -- perhaps even on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin or British leader Winston Churchill.

Polish authorities exhumed Sikorski's remains in 2008, but investigators soon concluded that the general died of the kind of multiple organ failure that people typically suffer in a plane crash, and uncovered no evidence that he was poisoned, shot, or strangled. Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which had launched the probe, refused to accept that the plane had simply malfunctioned, quickly moving on to its next suspect: sabotage.

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When the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted from power in a 1989 revolution and executed by military firing squad along with his wife Elena (both pictured above), Romanian authorities quickly buried the couple in the Ghencea cemetery in Bucharest -- under crosses with false names to prevent the tombs from being desecrated.

The hasty interment prompted Ceausescu's children to question whether their parents were really buried in Ghencea and request the exhumation of their remains as part of a five-year lawsuit. They eventually won their case, and DNA tests confirmed their parents' identities in 2010. Valentin Ceausescu, whose doubts had kept him from visiting Nicolae and Elena's graves for years, reburied his parents at the same cemetery.


Asif Nawaz, Pakistan's army chief and a prominent proponent of democracy, died in 1993 while jogging, in what the Pakistani military described as a heart attack. But his widow suspected that he'd been poisoned, and the Pakistani police ordered an exhumation after scientists in the United States found arsenic in the general's hairbrush. The autopsy, however, confirmed that Nawaz had suffered a heart attack.

The results didn't convince Nawaz's brother Shuja (a frequent FP contributor and no conspiracy theorist). "The mystery remains till someone comes forward from within the US government at that time or from Pakistan," he wrote in 2008.


The investigation into the death of Turgut Özal, a Turkish prime minister and president, could prove to be the exception to the rule. When Özal passed away in 1993 while in office, Turkish officials cited heart failure as the cause of death. But his wife Semra soon suggested that her husband, whose efforts to create a Turkic union and end the Kurdish insurgency had earned him enemies, had been poisoned by lemonade that he drank at the Bulgarian Embassy in Ankara.

Turkish investigators have since exhumed Özal's body, and Today's Zaman reported over the weekend that forensic tests have discovered four different poisonous substances in the former president's remains, including DDT and DDE at 10 times the normal level. But the official report on his death has yet to be released.

Even if Turkish authorities find that Özal was poisoned, the record of high-profile exhumations validating conspiracy theorists is spotty at best. Just this month, scientists determined that the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who has now been exhumed twice, did not die from mercury poisoning, as some suspected. After coming up empty so many times, you'd think we would learn to just let the dead rest in peace.

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