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A Brief Open Source History of the Syrian Barrel Bomb

July 8, 2015

By Eliot Higgins

Over the last 3 years one weapon has come to represent the brutality of the Syrian military’s campaign against its own people, the so-called “barrel bomb”. While now it is widely accepted as being a key part of the Syrian military’s arsenal there was a time when barrel bomb use in Syria was still somewhat of a mystery, with the use of barrel bombs being dismissed by supporters of the Syrian government as nothing more than a fantasy. Over the months and years since the first use of barrel bombs in Syria it was possible to collect compelling evidence through social media and open source investigation, and to track the use of barrel bombs over time.

On August 22nd 2012 two videos from the town of Batbo, Aleppo, were published on YouTube, showing the remains of what was described as a “hand-made bomb dropped by a helicopter”.

At the time there was a great deal of confusion about what this could be. It seemed incredibly crude, a metal container filled with black powder and pieces of metal rebar, with handles welded to the outside of the container. The idea that a professional air force would throw such crude devices from a helicopter seemed bizarre. Some suggested they were disarmed rebel IEDs that had been reused by the Syrian air force, others that the videos were fakes.

But more of these strange munitions began to appear. On August 28th 2012 a video from the Idlib region showed another example.

This was described as a barrel dropped from a helicopter, and seemed not dissimilar to the earlier device filmed in Idlib. The following day, on August 29th 2012, Al Arabiya news ran a report describing barrels filled with explosives being dropped on Homs.

In this report it was claimed that oil barrels were being filled with 200kg of TNT, and that the fuse ignites when it hits the target. Since that report was aired, and despite repeated claims, it appears there’s virtually no examples of barrel bombs that are actually made from oil barrels. Early examples used a variety of containers, with sections of pipe appearing to be one of the more popular choices, so in one sense the term “barrel bomb” is actually a misnomer, as more are made from pipe than barrels.

Despite a growing number of videos showing the remains of what were now becoming increasingly known as “barrel bombs”, there was still a great deal of resistance from certain groups and individuals to the claim that the Syrian air force would use such devices. Russia Today’s regular contributor Evgeny Khrushchev wrote in his article “Barrel Bomb Baloney” (now deleted from the Russian Today website but archived here) that barrel bombs were “the latest spin of the Al-Qaeda psychological operation against the Syrian government”, adding “the terrorists and jihadists for hire have resorted to a disinformation campaign to discredit the authorities”. However, more evidence of barrel bomb use continued to be published online, including one set of videos that confirmed their use by the Syrian air force.

In these videos, apparently recorded on the mobile phone of a member of the Syrian military, rows of barrel bombs are shown lined up in the back of a transport helicopter as it flies over Syria. In the above video, a wick fuse is lit by one of the men on the helicopter, just before it’s pushed out of the rear of the helicopter. This video was significant not only because it showed barrel bombs being used by the Syrian military, but it also helped develop a better understanding of how the bombs functioned. Despite the earlier claim in the Al Arabiya report that the bombs detonated on impact a wick fuse suggested something different. If the wick was too long the bomb would crash into the ground, with a possibility that the fuse would become separated from the bomb, resulting in it not exploding. If the wick was too short then the bomb would explode before hitting the ground, which explained some of the unusual videos coming from Syria showing unexplained mid-air explosions.

As with many videos from Syria there were claims the videos were faked, or not filmed over Syria, but by using the occasional shot in the videos of the towns and villages the helicopter passed over it was possible to match those towns and villages to specific locations in Syria using satellite imagery from Google Earth, confirming the videos were filmed in Syria. In January 2013 images from the captured helicopter base near Taftanaz showed barrel bombs in storage, further confirming their use by the Syria military.

1

In late 2013 there was a significant change in the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian military. Videos and photographs began to be shared online showing much larger barrel bombs than had been seen before, and being used in much larger numbers. Initially there were various designs used but quickly one design was adopted by the Syrian military and used across Syria in large numbers. Thanks to their widespread use it was possible to collect images of the new design barrel bomb, for example, this video still showing one in mid-air.

2

This shows the barrel bomb has three tail fins, a metal plate at the front of the bomb, and something sticking out of the side of the bomb. By examining other images it was possible to establish more information about the new design. In the below image the metal plate can be see more clearly.

3

This metal plate is in fact the impact fuze, with metal rods along the outside of the bomb holding the plate away from the bomb, with explosive det-cord sandwiched in between. The tail fins act to stabilise the bomb as it falls, ensuring the fuze plates are facing downwards, making the new design far more reliable than the crude wick fuses used in earlier designs of barrel bombs. But why three tail fins, and not four?

4

In the above image, showing a pair of barrel bombs loaded into the back of a transport helicopter, we can see the three tail fins gives enough clearance for the bombs to be pushed out of the back of the helicopter without the tail fins scraping along the floor of the helicopter. Wheels are also visible on the bottom of the barrel bomb, and these wheels can be seen more clearly in the below image.

5

This image shows another design element that’s consistent in this new design of barrel bomb, the metal bar with two large bolts that’s in the rear of the bomb. This appears to be used to hold in place a metal plate that holds in the fill of the bomb, likely as it’s not possible to weld shut a barrel bomb filled with explosives.

This new design appears to have replaced all earlier designs of barrel bombs across Syria, and allowed the Syrian government to use its transporter helicopter fleet to intensively bomb opposition held areas of Syria with this more efficient type of barrel bomb. Then, in April 2014, a new type of barrel bomb was used.

The first attack occurred in the town of Kafr Zita on April 11th 2014. Videos from the attack showed victims of all ages with breathing difficulties, and over the next two weeks at least 8 other similar attacks were reported. Videos and photographs of the remains of barrel bombs used in these attacks showed a similar design of barrel bomb casing as seen in earlier videos, but with the addition of a gas cylinder inside the bomb.

The above video provided some information about the new design. It uses the same barrel bomb casing, but rather than being loaded with explosives the end of the gas cylinder has explosive det-cord wrapped around the end. The below example shows the remains of a cylinder where the det-cord detonated.

7

This ensures a minimum amount of gas is destroyed in the explosion, and shows more thought went into the design of these bombs than just throwing a gas cylinder into a barrel bomb. Images from the attacks also showed the chemical symbol for chlorine on the gas cylinders used, with locals reporting the strong smell of chlorine, and following investigations into the attacks the OPCW concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that chlorine was used three villages in April 2014, affecting between 350 and 500 people and killing 13.

Despite the OPCW’s report, and an ever increasing body of evidence of their use, chemical barrel bomb attacks are still being reported in Syria, and while the world does nothing to stop them it seems, along with explosive barrel bomb attacks, they’ll continue.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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30 Comments

  1. Edward

    Syria would first need uranium, which they don’t have. I think America is the only country to use depleted uranium and that was in Iraq. It is used as a tank buster or bunker buster. Depleted uranium is very hard and dense and can “bust” through armor that normal weapons cannot .
    The Americans used it in Iraq to do that, unfortunately it caused many birth defects among innocent civilians.

    Reply
    • boggled

      Edward, maybe you should have read the Wiki article on Depleted Uranium before making a misleading comment.

      In it it states – The Russian military has used DU ammunition in tank main gun ammunition since the late 1970s, mostly for the 115 mm guns in the T-62 tank and the 125 mm guns in the T-64, T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks.

      And also – Only the US and the UK have acknowledged using DU weapons.

      Just because someone does not admit to using it, does not mean they did.
      And Moscow’s government has had a long history of denying or not admitting to atrocities they have committed.

      Gulags – took forever

      Afghan war – only admitted they were there when Stingers were sending Cargo 200 back to Russia in the thousands and soldiers families demanded answers

      Hitler and Stalin collaborating to divide up Eastern Europe in each countries imperialistic actions – only recent to the Russian people but widely known or assumed in the ‘free world’

      Etc.
      Top three nations with DU stockpiles – USA and Russia are about equal, then France.
      Assad having many RU weapons and ammunition already, are you so sure they did not give Assad, their buddy and only other non RU nation with a Russian base on it other then Crimea?

      AS far as Iraqi civilians and their birth defects, it is not conclusively proven that is the only reason.
      Saddam repeatedly used various WMD on his own people and others.
      He stockpiled Uranium in various forms in inadequate storage facilities alongside population centers.
      It also could be as simple as Iraqi’s drinking a tainted water supply that was failed to be cleansed by water treatment facilities.
      Saddam was not very thorough in his building up his infrastructure, even in Baghdad, since he had to use his money to build his multi billion dollar palaces.

      Yeah, I know Wiki has a lot of words and it is hard to pay attention to every detail, and is not always 100 percent correct, but a lot of things there are correct and more correct and less misleading then your comment.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
      • boggled

        error or addendum – Just because someone does not acknowledge they used DU ammo does not mean they did or did not use DU ammunition. Just it was never investigated if they did or not in their conflicts. It only recently began being investigated in the Kosovo and Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

        Reply
      • Bob

        Hitler and Stalin collaborating to divide up Eastern Europe in each countries imperialistic actions – only recent to the Russian people but widely known or assumed in the ‘free world’

        Really? Anyone who has studied World War II knew this. Oh and only just to the Russian people? Funny, when ever I’ve discussed World War II with my Russian in-laws they are well aware of it. The spin on why it was done differs between who I’m talking with but they knew. And my in-laws aren’t roll-over believe everything the government says either. I know the Russian government lies, as I pointed out in another post but I think you really are showing your prejudice towards them.

        Reply
        • boggled

          Bob just a couple excerpts –
          Despite publication of the recovered copy in western media, for decades, it was the official policy of the Soviet Union to deny the existence of the secret protocol.[226] The secret protocol’s existence was officially denied until 1989. Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the signatories, went to his grave categorically rejecting its existence.[227] The French Communist Party did not acknowledge the existence of the secret protocol until 1968, as the party de-Stalinized.[191]

          and

          The Soviet-occupied territories were converted into republics of the Soviet Union. During the two years following the annexation, the Soviets arrested approximately 100,000 Polish citizens[177] and deported between 350,000 and 1,500,000, of whom between 250,000 and 1,000,000 died, mostly civilians.[178][d] Forced re-settlements into Gulag labour camps and exile settlements in remote areas of the Soviet Union occurred.[117] According to Norman Davies,[184] almost half of them were dead by July 1940.[185]

          From Wiki page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact

          I am glad they are aware of their history and you are also.
          I said recently, to me, this fits recently even though it is 35 years ago they fessed up.
          It took them almost 45 years to own up to the facts of their government’s atrocities including the murder of probably close to 100 million people during Stalin’s rule.
          Die hard Russians still deny the actual facts of Holodomor even when presented cold hard facts because the Kremlin, the only one they trust for facts which still makes one wonder why, has not said the facts of Holodomor that the world presents are true.

          Yes, I do have a prejudice against the Kremlin and especially those currently in charge.
          Against the Russian people I do not.
          It was just a small example of the continuing cover ups that the Kremlin goes to to cover up -brainwash with Kremlinese – its aggression, occupation campaigns, and illegal wars.

          And now Uncle Vova wants to glorify Stalin and erase his atrocities again.

          http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/gulag-museum-to-reopen-but-proof-of-stalin-crimes-removed-director-says/517046.html

          http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118306/kremlin-trying-erase-memories-gulag

          Fare thee well

          Reply
          • boggled

            Another article along a similar vein that shows the current threat and future secrecy of the Kremlin and its secret police and denying of actions taken by those in power in a blatant attempt to hide the crimes of the past can be found at by searching for –
            Russia’s ’new approach’ to Stalin and extended secrecy about his victims

            KHPG supplies a wealth of articles in a factual manner.
            I encourage you to take some time browsing there.

            Fare thee well

      • Ebward

        May visit Allah visit your sphincter with the peni of a thousand horned goats. Praise be to Allah.

        Reply
        • boggled

          Ebward, Are you attempting to show what a peace loving, turn the other cheek, kind of people Muslims are?
          If your an example of the hatred inbred into a lot of Muslim hearts, then I am glad I am not Muslim because I have love in my heart for all religions and races.

          Your curse has as much chance of coming true as for me to grow wings and fly.
          Nice to see in you an example of a peaceful Muslim.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
      • boggled

        Edward, one thing not mentioned in your video but is very relevant is the fact that DU is used in creating ARMOR as well as ammunition and after many of Saddam’s vehicles were destroyed, the civilians took various pieces of those vehicles for mementos or trophies for protection or other various reasons with that residue from ammunition or actual DU armor plating.

        They brought these into their homes even though they were told not to.
        Probably they assumed they were something of value that could be sold and everyone was lying that said it was a danger to their families health to have in possession.
        Maybe like in the Star Trek Next Generation episode someone dropped a DU piece down into a water well and that infected the whole community with forms of radiation sickness.

        It may have also been an intentional terrorist act in those cities to kill off the anti Bathist civilians.
        Terrorists and homicide bombers have no qualms about murdering off civilians by the thousands and millions if they can, especially if those are Riddah or apostates to the terrorists own radical Muslim beliefs.

        I am sure you remember homicide bombings happened regularly in Iraq even after Saddam was hung for his crimes.

        It may have been a good thing if NATO and the coalition groups did buy it back, but they could not get it all.

        Your documentary is a propaganda piece that fails in looking at those issues and other issues.
        They have a targeted enemy, the USA military, and that is who they are going to create stories to implicate, instead of looking at the actual facts.
        They are creating a fictionally lala land with the intention of attempting to bring the USA down a notch or two on being the main Superpower and the fact that Russia is not even in the top 5.
        If you read Mark Rhodes and Roger’s comments they are actually factual and can be proven, the rest of the comments appear to be either sheeple who believe in conspiracy theories or actual part of the Kremlin or terrorists antiUSA propaganda army.
        By you promoting that documentary you are either one of those and also a denier of actual provable technological and scientific facts.
        So which one is it?

        Fare thee well

        Reply
  2. johny

    Saudy terrorr regime killed 60 civilians on market place by USA bomb. So we call to refuse USA bomb ?

    Barel bom are less efective from low attitude to direst hit of terrorist.

    But FSA terrorist used civilains like human shield.

    Reply
    • Mad Dog

      FSA terrorist? Really? Seems like the terrorist is Assad. He is the one who really started this by firing on civilians who just wanted a better society. He is the one dropping chemical bombs on civilian targets. He is the one refusing to let in humanitarian aid to helpless civilians surrounded by his army. Perhaps the definition of terrorist needs to be revisited. I just love it when folks just come on supporting the thugs who continue to run their country into the ground. Saddam, Assad, the Taliban, even Putin these days. As you can see from some of the vids, these guys don’t really care where their barrel bombs land…..that is terrorism.

      Reply
  3. johny

    FSa thug hell canon killed hundreds civilians acoording Human right. Any news about hell canon?

    Reply
  4. Darrin

    More conspiracy,how about Bellingcat doing a piece on Regensburg cannons that have killed hundreds..I expect not.Hypocrites.

    Reply
    • boggled

      Darrin, the very inaccurate Hell cannons and their variants are guilty of civilian deaths.
      Like you say, that level is in the hundreds.
      The rebels however have been using them effectively to also destroy mostly military targets and buildings.
      Many of which have no civilians nearby.
      It has been a fairly good working piece of artillery, and the targets have been military with a minor (compared to Syrian military) amount of civilian casualties.
      The barrel bombs, scuds, and other devices used by Syrian military have killed over 100k civilians.
      The Syrian military is targeting rebel groups and the civilians around those groups intentionally planning on as many mass casualties as possible.
      And in that, the groups are different
      100,000 civilians by Assad’s tactics versus less then 500 civilians by the rebels.

      The rebels are not adding chlorine to their Hell Cannon artillery, but the Assad regime is for mass casualty effect in the largest possible area.

      If you want more info about the Hell cannon and its variants, maybe you should look to Wikipedia.

      Why should Bellingcat do an updated expose on the Hell cannon?
      Just for your information, BrownMoses blog which is previous work by Mr. Higgins, I believe, has some articles on Hell Cannons.
      Regardless, the reason for the murder of thousands of Syrians is the barrel bombs, and the use of chlorine by the Syrian military makes that issue much more important.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
        • boggled

          Nice, you resort to insults when you do not like evidence that contradicts your own personal beliefs.
          Sorry your beliefs are wrong, you cannot changed facts or evidence.
          Unless you live in some dictatorship like those under Assad, and then you can only change the facts to those that listen to you.
          Sorry you were brought up thinking the Assad regime was a nice loving bunch of government officials promoting liberty and freedom for all, when the actual facts scream the opposite.
          Barrel bombs and scuds are methods used by the Assad military.
          They have killed over 100k civilians there and intentionally targeted those civilian neighborhoods.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
          • Darrin

            And you show your ignorance in the so called rebels you support, enough said I believe.

          • boggled

            Darrin, nice you believe.
            People of the USSR believe Stalin was a great guy for many years due to Kremlin propaganda.
            You make your choice on history.
            Will your children be happy with the choice you made of denying facts and evidence?
            Would your children be happy that as your house is destroyed by termites, that you stood up and said because your Imam said termites are created by the USA and not real?
            Ignore evidence and facts because you like the way Assad can spin lies, that is your choice.

            Fare thee well

  5. MBobrik

    Unbelievable how (for a lack of better word) backwards those people are. Muzzle loaded cannons and “bombs” made of a chunk of pipe with hand-lit fuses. soooo 1450’s. One day they will discover a lathe and we are all doomed 🙂

    Reply
    • boggled

      To be honest, I am kind of surprised a government such as Syria that had so many different types of Chemical and Biological agents in thousands of tonnes, probably a lot of handmedowns from Saddam, could be using barrel bombs and ancient scud missiles.

      It is one thing for the rebels and civilians to be improvising to defend themselves, a whole other thing when you see a government’s military whose leader is worth 10 billion – or more – using improvised weaponry as well.
      I mean really, Hamas has to have a few thousand rockets stored in hospital basements and UN charter schools in Palestine.

      These are crazy times in a crazy world.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
        • Mad Dog

          Well, actually, if you feel something is BS, you have every right to post the reasons why you feel that way. Of course, you can’t do that in Syria or Mother Russia or China, but you sure can here. So, how about some good reasons Darrin.

          Reply

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