KAFER ZAITA, Syria — Late in the afternoon on the second day of the intense fighting that raged in Kafer Zaita for much of last week, a massive explosion rocked the small northern town. “Abdullah,” who commands a small unit of rebel fighters, smiled. “I was waiting for that,” he said. “We just sent them a little gift.”
“They” were the army forces who for two days had been attempting to break out of their stronghold in the center of the town, and the “gift” was a truck laden with what the rebels said was 660 pounds of a homemade explosive. The bomb tore a hole in the fortress wall and left a 4-foot-deep crater in the pavement.
Unlike the car bombs that U.S. troops came to fear during the Iraq war, this vehicle wasn’t driven by a young fanatic set on martyrdom. In fact, it wasn’t really driven at all. Rather, it was piloted – by remote control. Its pilot remained safely concealed in a nearby house as he steered the truck around a corner, then accelerated it into the stronghold wall.
The drone truck is among the innovations that rebels known as the Free Syrian Army increasingly are using in their fight to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. With growing financial support and what appears to be a steady flow of weapons, the rebels effectively have created havens from which they launch deadly attacks against regular army and police units.
The rebels’ effectiveness is driving a rising death toll among the country’s security forces that appears likely to hit a record level in June for the second month in a row. As of Monday, the state news agency has announced the funerals of 259 soldiers and police officers who were killed in combat with rebels this month, well ahead of May’s pace, when 404 such burials took place.
There are at least two bomb makers near the city of Hama, one of the centers of fighting in Syria, who specialize in making low-tech drone weapons. One of them, “Ahmer,” a former math teacher, agreed to talk about his creations, demonstrating how the vehicles are steered using a remote-controlled curtain opener. Like everyone else interviewed for this story, he asked that his real name be withheld, out of fear of government retaliation.
“I’ve made two so far, but I can’t afford to make another one right now,” Ahmer said. “They cost about $200,000 apiece.” He showed off a YouTube video of his creation with obvious pride.
Despite some spectacular attacks that have claimed scores of lives in Damascus and generally are thought to be the work of al Qaida-affiliated groups, suicide bombings remain rare here, even as the anti-Assad uprising enters its 15th month. One such bombing occurred a few days ago at a small checkpoint west of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.
A rebel fighter named Mahmoud said the driver had been 17 years old. “His father had four children. He lost three of them to Bashar (Assad), and now this. He has no children left.” Mahmoud did not approve. “In Islam, this is not good. There were other ways to accomplish the attack. It’s a tragedy.”
A five-minute drive south of Kafer Zaita in the town of Ltamneh, Yusef has become a skilled bomb maker as the war has ground on. Before the war he was a farmer, tending a well-kept plum orchard a few miles outside town. Now he seems to have a hand in most all rebel operations in Idlib province, showing his face at meetings with United Nations observers, leading anti-regime demonstrations and fighting battles in pressed khakis and smartly ironed button-down shirts.
Yusef’s latest device is a propane tank filled with a homemade explosive that’s triggered by the same remote curtain opener that’s used to steer the cars. The tank is remarkably heavy. “This will destroy a BMP,” he said, referring to the Russian-made armored personnel carriers that are the Syrian military’s primary way of transporting its troops. “With a little luck, it can kill a tank, too.”
The main component of the homemade explosive is ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer that Yusef has stockpiled in great supply at his orchard. He laces the nitrate with small bits of aluminum, which give the bomb a higher yield, he explained. “I shred the aluminum by putting it through a meat grinder,” he said.
He said he learned how to make homemade explosives long before the war began. “When we were kids, we used this stuff to go fishing,” Yusef said. He repeatedly denied having received any training in his craft, a claim that didn’t seem particularly credible given the sophistication of his weapons.
He said his bomb making was a one-man operation. “After the revolution, I don’t want other people to know how to do this. It could cause problems.”
Driving outside the town, on the way to his orchard, Yusef pulled over to check on one of his bombs, carefully hidden at a bend in the road. “I keep the power supply disconnected,” he said. “That way it will not detonate accidentally. If the army tries to come here, I’ll have enough time to come out and connect it.”
When a group of Libyan fighters passed through Kafer Zaita a few days ago en route to Damascus, they were peppered with questions by rebels eager to find ways to fight the better-equipped army forces. One of the Libyans suggested soaking blankets in diesel fuel and leaving them in the streets: “When a tank rolls over it, set it on fire, with an RPG” – meaning a rocket-propelled grenade – “or a Molotov cocktail. It won’t destroy the tank, but it gets so hot that the soldiers have to get out.” The Syrians listened in rapt attention.
A few days after the battle in Kafer Zaita, Mahmoud and Yusef conferred. Mahmoud had a question for the erstwhile farmer: “If we had some C-4, could you make a bomb out of a remote-controlled airplane?”
Yusef was intrigued. “I’ve never used C-4 before, but I think so. I could set the fuse to detonate on impact.”
They considered the risk of a crash landing, and brainstormed on how to get plastic explosive. Mahmoud promised to do some research and to order a few remote-controlled planes next time he went online: “I can probably get them from Amazon, don’t you think?”
Tice is a McClatchy special correspondent.Twitter: @Austin_Tice.