As darkness fell over the Bus Depot in Antakya, south-east Turkey, the Doctor, the Fighter and the Law Student stood in a corner speaking rapidly into mobile phones. Minutes later, a black Mercedes saloon with tinted windows pulled up alongside and all three got in.
The men had been sent by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on a mission to purchase essential supplies and bomb-making equipment in Turkey. One of dozens logistics teams dispatched to Turkey each week by the FSA, the men form part of the rebels’ desperate attempt to keep improvised munitions flowing, in a bid to counter the regime’s better equipped soldiers and militia. On entering the car, the driver, a young man, turned and said to the others: “I’m Pizza Boy: I deliver everywhere and anywhere! What’s it to be today? Explosions, communications, defence equipment?”
“We need various things,” said the Fighter.“Then you need Big Uncle,” replied Pizza Boy.
The Mercedes travelled a few blocks before coming to rest in a busy street. The Doctor got out. “I’ve arranged to meet a contact here and buy antibiotics and blood,” he explained before disappearing.
The car then sped on through the dark streets. Ten minutes later the two men who had stayed in the car got out at a dilapidated building close to the city centre where they were greeted by a tall, thickset man in his 50s. Hassan “Big Uncle” Assaf, greeted them and took them to a sparsely furnished sitting room. On the table were samples of two of the main items they had come for: green phosphate powder and a bag of explosive pins, needed to build improvised artillery shells, rockets and bombs.
“Everything we buy here in Turkey is legal,” Hassan said. “That’s how we have to operate. The green powder is widely used as fertiliser, the pins are extracted from the bullets for hunting rifles, and the aluminum powder is a construction material.”
Sitting beside Hassan was the Mechanical Engineer, Emre Abu Isra, who designs many of the improvised weapons.
The logistics team would take the materials across the border, he explained, where they would be delivered to a “The Candy Factory,” a makeshift workshop which produces 200 shells and 20 rockets a day, destined for the front line in Aleppo.
The next morning they gathered at a small shop, the back of which was packed with military supplies. There they bought 20 radios and a 50kg barrel of aluminium powder to make armour piercing bombs.
Then, with Pizza Boy at the wheel, they headed for the “Candy Factory” in Syria.
In one such factory, a teacher turned FSA commander placed improvised weapons on the carpet of his living room floor, designed for killing humans, he said. For destroying tanks the rebels use a bomb built into an iron barrel filled with the aluminum and fertiliser mix. “This is a small one,” he said pointing at a rusty barrel two feet in length and one foot in diameter. “We place it in the ground and attach a trigger. When a tank passes, the trigger is pulled and boom, no more tank!”