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Outgunned Syria rebels turn to homemade bombs

As Syria government forces launch brutal attacks on rebel-held towns in Idlib province, the insurgents increasingly depend on a campaign of bombings and kidnappings.

April 01, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • Syrian rebels detonate a homemade bomb on a road to disrupt access to their part of Idlib province.
Syrian rebels detonate a homemade bomb on a road to disrupt access to their… (Frederic Lafargue, AFP/Getty…)

IDLIB, Syria — Scattered around the house that Abu Nadim once shared with his wife and five children are hints of its former existence: a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, a baby's crib, a woman's purse.

Now the four-room home is a bomb-making workshop.

Bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, containers of peroxide and acetone and powdered aluminum cover the floor, along with boxes of wires, PVC pipes, computer parts and cigarette ash, as if someone had wandered through without thought for an ashtray.

Abu Nadim, 42, has a teddy-bear face and a left hand that's wrapped in blue fabric and missing three fingers, casualties of a grenade experiment that went awry. He holds his cigarette between thumb and stub.

Once it became clear that the lightly armed rebels who are fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad were no match for tanks, the taxi driver, like others, turned to bomb-making videos made by Palestinians, Lebanese and Afghans.

He sent his family to live with his brother-in-law and started making bombs.

When the armed resistance began, the rebels envisioned their revolution as an iteration of the Libyan model: a steady, if slow, battle to the capital backed by foreign military support. But in the absence of weapons, foreign aid and an organized defense, more and more it appears to be following a different model of insurgency, predicated on bombings and kidnappings.

"We used to see people in other countries put on suicide vests and blow themselves up; now we understand it comes as a result of oppression and torture and killing," said Abu Nadim, whose home is in the village of Binnish. "If the situation continues like this and no one helps us, then it is possible that the young men will turn to suicide bombings."

The rebels have been using homemade bombs for months, but they have begun to depend on them even more in the last month as the government has turned its attention to regaining control here in Idlib, a rebellious northwestern province bordering Turkey, after months of gradual progress on the part of the rebels. The brutal attacks on one rebel-held town after another have left them scattered and even less able to defend themselves.

How successful these bombs have been in taking out their targets is unknown; rebels can provide only a few videos to back up their claims of destroying multiple tanks and killing dozens of government thugs. In one video uploaded in early March, two explosions go off as a tank drives along a highway. One of the rebels can be heard referring to a hard-hit city, "God is great, for your sake, Homs, for your sake, Homs." But through the thick debris cloud, the tank keeps driving along.

Still, it could signal a new stage in a conflict with few alternatives.

The feeling here is one of desperation — and steadfast defiance.

"They are planning to retake the region piece by piece," said Abu Hamdo, a member of the Revolution Command Council in Idlib. "But there is no going back, because if they catch us we are dead, and if we fight them we are dead."

But just like their shortage of weapons, a dependence on bombs has caused a shortage of fertilizer, powdered aluminum and igniters the rebels now try to procure from Turkey, which leaves their operations days or even weeks behind as they wait for supplies to make it across the border.

"If it wasn't for bombs, the revolution wouldn't have continued until now, because there is such a shortage of weapons," said Ameen, one of the rebels in Binnish. "If it wasn't for the bombs, the entire population here would have already fled to Turkey."


In the principal's office of an empty elementary school in the nearby village of Sarmeen, under a wall-length mural of a quaint countryside, sat four bombs made of gas canisters cut in half, with metal lids that made them look like fat mushrooms.

It was the latest design from the Free Northern Militia, which was working on lining the streets leading into the village with bombs, to strike at tanks launching an attack they knew was imminent.

"When we first went out in protests, we had hope for foreign support, but that hope was dashed. We had hope for buffer areas; that was dashed. We had hope for support for the Free Syrian Army, and that was dashed," said the militia's 25-year-old leader, Bilal Khabeet, who like Free Syrian Army members is a military defector. "A rifle and 120 bullets, that's all I have. Once they are finished, I am finished."

Sarmeen had already been invaded five times. During the last attack, the rebels said, they destroyed five tanks and killed dozens of soldiers, claims impossible to verify. Because of the strong defense they launched, they said, they doubted that the army was done with them.

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