The Messaging App Fueling Syria’s Insurgency
Are you a Syrian rebel in need of U.S.-manufactured assault rifles, or even a tank? You can buy it on Telegram.
Explosives are among the most concerning items for sale in the markets, raising the possibility the homemade bombs and explosive materials could fuel terror attacks outside of Syria, with merchants offering suicide belts for as little as $50.
John Ismay, a former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, reviewed images of explosive devices and components for sale in the markets for FP. The items “show a sophisticated understanding of [improvised explosive device] construction, with features designed for maximum reliability and destructive effect,” he said.
The markets excel in helping would-be bomb-makers purchase often hard-to-locate supplies. “The hardest part of building any IED in my mind is getting blasting caps and getting [detonation] cord,” said Ismay. Buyers in the Telegram markets appear to have plentiful opportunities to overcome that hurdle: Electric blasting caps were among the most frequently marketed explosive components, with vendors periodically posting imagery of caps available for a few dollars apiece.
Market sellers have made efficient use of unexploded cluster munitions dropped by government or Russian warplanes on rebel areas of Syria. In multiple postings, sellers offered cast explosive taken from what appear to be dud submunitions from Russian cluster bombs, selling the explosive fill and allowing buyers to repurpose it into their own homemade IEDs.
For those with bomb-making skills, the markets advertise a range of different explosive precursors. Among the items on offer are staples of IED construction, including bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer labeled as made by Mert Global, a Turkish company. The arms-tracing group Conflict Armament Research documented Mert fertilizer products in IEDs made by the Islamic State in Tikrit and Ramadi, Iraq. FP made multiple attempts to reach Mert for comment in both Turkish and English but did not receive a reply.
Drums of nitrocellulose, a flammable chemical with a number of legitimate uses in industrial processes but that also can be used to make explosives for IEDs, were common in the markets as well. FP documented images of nitrocellulose drums for sale labeled as the products of Dow Deutschland, Synthesia, and Nitro Chemical Industry Ltd.
Jörg Hartmann, a spokesman for Dow Deutschland, confirmed that the drum featured in the market came from a batch “produced by Dow in July 2016, and shipped from one of our sites in Germany to longstanding and trusted customers in Turkey.” He declined to specifically identify those customers, writing instead that they included “some end users in the ink and coatings industry as well as some distributors who re-sell the product.” Dow ceased all sales of industrial nitrocellulose to Syria in 2011 following international sanctions on the country.
Hartmann said the company is not planning to curtail sales of nitrocellulose to any of its customers in Turkey, writing that the company “do[es] not believe that Dow stopping supplies to the Turkish market would have any impact on the alleged issue” because of the chemical’s widespread availability from other producers. Dow Deutschland said that it is “raising awareness among its contacts in the nitrocellulose market” and has “brought the findings [about the advertisement] to the attention of the Worldwide Nitrocellulose Producers Association.”
Hartmann added that “it is not unknown for empty drums to be recycled for secondary use.” FP could not independently verify that the Dow nitrocellulose drum listed for sale on Telegram actually contained nitrocellulose, as advertised.
Drums labeled as the products of Synthesia and Nitro Chemical Industry Ltd. also appeared in the arms markets; FP reached out to both companies, but neither has responded.
Other chemicals for sale held the potential to increase the explosive power of homemade bombs. One seller advertised a drum of aluminum flakes, which can be used as an oxidizer to boost the power of explosive charges and make an enhanced blast explosive. The drum in the advertisement is labeled as the product of Belgium-based AVL Metal Powders, which sells metal powders for use in paints, plastics, and other decorative products, with Elso Kimya, the main distributor for AVL Metal Powders in Turkey, listed as the intended recipient.
Elso Kimya’s chief operating officer, Ralf Elhadef, confirmed that his company purchases all of its metal powders from AVL. But in emails to FP, both Elhadef and AVL commercial director Pierre Van Lerberghe wrote that they could not authenticate the advertised drum as an AVL product because the image of the drum’s label does not show AVL’s unique factory seal — created to help customers distinguish AVL’s products from counterfeits made by Chinese companies — and its batch number is scratched out.
“All of [Elso Kimya’s] inventory is accounted for and all of our merchandise sales are invoiced and taxed according to Turkish Trade Laws,” Elhadef wrote.