Syrian Government Booby Trapping Ammunition

CJ Chivers reports that the Syrian government has been distributing explosive rigged ammunition to rebel fighters

“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.

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.

By the sound of it the Syrian government has not been subtle enough. If done correctly the enemy should attribute catastrophic failures to random faulty ammunition or faulty guns, not booby traps.

[ Many thanks to Jeff for the tip. ]

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Trev

    Project Eldest Son. Vietnam War. Been done before.

    • bbmg

      A good read on the subject:

      As this is an old trick, even if the Syrians were as “subtle” as possible with their planted rounds, sabotage is one of the explanations that would immediately spring to mind when it comes to a blown up weapon.

      In the case reported in the article, no mention is made of what the weapon was, how old it was and in what condition it was in. The fact is that guns occasionally go KABOOM unintentionally due to dodgy ammunition or manufacture. Irregular forces are probably getting their weapons and ammunition from less than reputable sources anyway, and without proper quality control you would expect these accidental cases to be much more frequent than in a conventional military.

      • George

        Great link! My father was in Vietnam in 1968 working for the government and examined two enemy mortar positions that ‘self-detonated’. If he was alive he would get a huge kick out of this information.

        Just like the original intent, the main focus is not on killing enemy soldiers with sabotaged ammo (or rumors to that effect) – rather it is the confusion and uncertainty that is generated when the enemy cant trust their sources of materiel.

        I guess we should be careful about any Syrian surplus ammo showing up 🙂

      • me

        Thanks for the link, great read. Page is a little hard on the eyes though. lol

  • The Syrian rebel forces are getting most of their ammo, secretly, from NATO forces, I find it hard to believe these types of misfires are from the ammunition. In Libya, and Egypt, we heard of no such widespread misfires, leading me to believe that the Syrian government probably has a hand in it. Granted, I’m as liberal as they come (and I hate 99% of all conspiracy theories), but it does make sense that the Syrian regime is doing this. Also, as a person with a Masters in History I have to admit it does follow in Project Eldest Son’s footsteps, and it does make sense that Syria would try and mimic this same program.

    • Partizan1942

      They do not get it from NATO forces but from secret services of countries in NATO (simply because most of the stuff they get is not NATO stuff so the deniability could be kept up

  • Aurelien

    I believe the oldest instance is the SDECE operation in Algeria in the late 50s (i don’t remember the code name).
    After taking out most of the gun/ammo suppliers of the FLN, they began selling the rebels booby-trapped ammunition and weapons, designed to blow the shooter up upon use.

    • bbmg

      From the article linked to earlier:

      “Though obscure, this trick was not new. In the 1930s, to combat rebellious tribesmen in northwest India’s Waziristan – the same lawless region where Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists hide today – the British army planted sabotaged .303 rifle ammunition. Even before that, during the Second Metabele War (1896-97) in today’s Zimbabwe, British scouts (led by the American adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham) had slipped explosive- packed rifle cartridges into hostile stockpiles, to deadly effect.”

      • Aurelien

        Read that after posting.
        Usually it’s pretty fun to see how they run the scam on the other party. The SDECE ops were mostly run as : take out other dealers, then build up a web of fake sellers to provide the enemy with modified or not working weapons.
        Or even get their own shipments tagged by allied navies.

  • Doug

    At this point I’m not sure the Syrian government cares whether or not the booby traps are seen as accidents or sabotage. Either way these stories are going to make freedom fighters think twice EVERY time they pull the trigger.

    • Partizan1942

      So the same islamists in Afghanistan are insurgents/enemy combatants whilst in Syria they are freedom fighters? How so?

      • bbmg

        The phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” was first penned by Gerald Seymour in “Harry’s Game” over 30 years ago, but people have been making this distinction since time immemorial.

      • Partizan1942

        I think what I should have wrote is that if we want to stay impartial and not go into politics than in Doug’s place I would have used “anti government fighters” or “forces opposing Assad’s regime” instead of freedom fighters because these are the same people as the suicide bombers next door in Iraq, so calling them freedom fighter in Siria and enemy insurgent in Iraq is a little baffling to me.

      • tincankilla

        I think perhaps because the nomenclature “enemy combatant” is politicized, too. In the context of Syria, though, these guys are fighting for self-determination against a dictator allied with Iran. That makes them freedom fighters for now.

      • Doug

        PotAto, Potato. I wasn’t trying to be all controvercial about my wording. Not all the “anti Assad regime fighter combatants” are insurgants and otherwise related to terrorist organizations. The freedom fighters I was refering to were the Syrian nationals who are fighting for their own freedom. Sorry I didn’t clarify.

      • Partizan1942

        @ tincankilla
        errrrrr, – no.
        They are trying to overthrow an existing secular regime and they are trying to install islamic rule like in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the northern Caucasus. These people want more power to their individual tribe in countries that have several nationalities and tribes, just like in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, north Caucasus and the Balkans. So there are these two motivations.
        “Freedom fighters” would be a term that could apply if they would fight a foreign power as they do in Afghanistan. In Syria, these people fighting their own president and regime would be revolutionaries at the most, but being that this conflict is not about civil rights but rather about a bloodfeud between two national minorities in the country the Alawites and the Shiites this term does not apply either.
        About Iran backing someone… Iran is not really in a position to back anyone at this time neither militarily or politically. That Iranian regime is hanging on by a thread given the current situation (extreme economic, social and political crisis in Iran). Plus if they were to back anyone, they would back the Shiites. Why? Because they are a Shiite regime. Assad is Alawite and his regime is very secular whereas Iran has a religious, fundamentalist regime. Why Syria’s (i.e. Assads) traditional good relations with Iran before this conflict? Probably just because as an Alawi, Assad wanted to appease and keep the Shiite majority of the Syria’s population happy during the period before this civil war. And of course the other bonding point between the two was Israel.
        So please, for the love of God, please do not oversimplify things. In the part of the world where I am from it is not cool to do that.

  • Icchan

    My one concern with such a plan – at a guess, loading rifle ammo with pistol powder to catastrophic levels – is that unless it’s blatantly marked as DO NOT USE then what’s going to stop the Syrian Army from unknowingly and accidentally using some captured supplies (or simply a logistics screw up) and trashing its own side?

    I’m not saying they aren’t – but I find it a lot easier to believe that the Syrian rebels are scrounging for quite literally everything they can find, and I think we’ve all heard stories about decades old ammo in that finds its way into guns that are in poor condition that tends to detonate rather than burn simply because of chemical breakdown.

    Hanlon’s Razor, corollary: Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity – or Murphy.

    • Jeff

      Yeah, they went over that:
      “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.”

  • Tony

    Project Eldest Son

    • Mike Knox

      I was just about to say that..

    • Bob Z Moose

      …Is how it’s suppose to be done. Not sure if Syrians have anything like the Vietnamese-Chinese distrust that Eldest Son exploited, but guns blowing up tend to mess with people none the less.

      The real question becomes how is the Syrian government forces getting this ammo into rebel hands? Do they booby trap left behind munitions? Are they using special forces (a la Eldest Son) to mix in random bad rounds? It’s one of those things you really want to know…

      • bbmg

        It’s a “civil” war, doubtless the line between the two factions is very blurred, which makes things easier.

  • Lance

    Alls fair in war. We did it in Vietnam the government and Shiite Muslims fighting for survival are doing it. BIG point after the war NEVER buy ammo from the Middle East!!! I personally never buy Chinese and Vietnamese brands of ammo either, who knows get a eldest son round after 40 years never know.

  • I also remember of reading about “doctored ammo” used in african wars (mau mau? South Africa?) where they would put a steel bb, wider than the bullet inside the case. Same result.

    • bbmg

      You’d be able to catch that with a magnet though. You and the rebels/insurgents/freedom fighters.

      • Not if it’s used in steel cased 7.62×39 ammo, which was. 😀
        Maybe you could tell them by weight, but when you load mags upon mag upon mags you start not minding the weight of a single bullet…

      • bbmg

        Fair point, right you are.

        Here’s a thought, if it’s no secret than they’re being booby trapped, why not get creative and fill them with white phosphorus so that someone inspecting a bullet will also suffer the consequences.

        You could also fill the cartridge with a thermite mixture…

  • Lord of War.Literally it looks like the reality today. This title is from the movie which Nicolas Cage lives a man who gets rich selling guns and weapons to warring nations. An opportunistic business man can do it, why not a nation?