The Cheap, Deadly Weapon That’s Better At Killing Civilians Than Fighting Terrorists

CREDIT: AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC, File

Syrian citizens in Aleppo inspect an unexploded barrel bomb

A weapon frightening not for its complexity but its simplicity and ease of production is gaining notoriety in countries across Africa and the Middle East. Increasingly, governments fighting insurgencies like the one rapidly gaining ground in Iraq are dropping barrel bombs — a crude weapon made by packing metal cylinders with explosives and shrapnel — on civilian and rebel targets alike. In doing so, they’re doing more harm to their populations than the groups they’re fighting.

On Thursday, the U.S. accused Sudan of dropping hundreds of barrel bombs on towns and villages since April in attacks that deliberately targeted schools, hospitals, and civilian aid workers. The Sudanese government was the first to unleash barrel bombs, dropping scores of them against the rebel-controlled south in late 2011. Since then, barrel bombs have gained notoriety for their use against insurgents by the governments of Syria and Iraq.

Although barrel bombs are nowhere near as dangerous as conventional bombs, they are especially devastating to civilians because they lack an aiming mechanism, causing indiscriminate killing. Last month, evidence came to light that the Iraqi government had unleashed barrel bombs “targeting mosques, hospitals, and markets” according to witnesses in the city of Fallujah. The use of the crude bombs against the first city that terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied was a shift in the tactics of the Iraqi government, reflecting their frantic search for a way to dislodge ISIS’ fighters. Despite their ineffectiveness against these insurgents, who continued on to take more cities in Iraq this week, the crude weapons — also known as “flying IEDs” — are becoming increasingly popular with desperate governments like Iraq’s because they can be built for cheap and generate terrifying blasts.

In May, Iraqis in Anbar province reported that the army dropped up to ten barrel bombs on areas held by insurgents, prompting the U.S. to threaten cutting off military and economic aid. But residents of Fallujah put the bomb count much higher, claiming the attacks have targeted markets, mosques, and residential areas. While four government officials in Baghdad and Washington and a British munitions expert have confirmed that barrel bomb attacks took place, the Iraqi government has officially denied the charges. Last Thursday, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement reminding Baghdad to abide by humanitarian laws when fighting terrorism.

Across the increasingly porous border in Syria, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of the bombs against civilian areas in February, but reports as recent as last Wednesday indicate that barrel bomb attacks from forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continue. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the bombs have killed nearly 2,000 residents of the contested city of Aleppo in 2014 alone, of which 567 were under the age of 18. In an especially tragic instance of the way in which barrel bomb use has become normalized, Syrian researcher Lama Fakih told the Associated Press that children in a village undergoing barrel bombing instructed her to open her mouth when the bombs fell so the blast wave wouldn’t make her bleed from her ears.

Still, human rights organizations are urging the international community to condemn the homemade explosives or risk watching them spread to new conflict zones. With the use of barrel bombs spreading, some are calling for more aggressive measures to counter the makeshift bombs. The problem is that there are very few direct methods of stopping the production of the low-tech explosives. Mohammed Ghanem, senior political advisor and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, argues that the United States, which already supplies a coalition of Syrian opposition forces with lethal and non-lethal aid, should give the rebels MANPADs, or shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that are capable of shooting down military and civilian aircraft.

While the rebels have been begging the U.S. for the portable rocket launchers for the past two years, the Obama administration has been hesitant to approve the arms deal because of the possibility that the missiles could end up in hands of extremists. Extremist Islamist groups make up an increasingly large portion of the rebel coalition in Syria, with the Al-Quaeda linked sect Al-Nusra Front controlling the northern half of the city of Aleppo and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continually gaining ground. Given the extremists’ limited, conditional loyalty to the U.S., it’s not unlikely that distributing MANPADs to Syria would result in a similar situation to Afghanistan, where surface-to-air rocket launchers provided to insurgents in the 1980s were turned back against American helicopters during attacks in recent years. International anti-terrorism agreements prohibit the distribution of MANPADs to non-state actors.

The choice between the danger of distributing rocket launchers and the difficulty of restricting the use of easy-to-build, cheap weapons seems to paint a bleak picture for advocates of human rights who want to put an end to the use of barrel bombs. But Erin Evers, an Iraq Researcher with Human Rights Watch, offered suggestions for stemming the flow of “flying IEDs” across new borders in an interview with ThinkProgress.

“It was surprising for us to see a relatively rich and well equipped army like Iraq’s using barrel bombs,” she noted, adding, “they likely look next door and see Syria using barrel bombs without negative consequences, and figure they can get away with it too.”

“If there’s not a greater international outcry against the use of indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs, it will make sense, in a perverse way, for abusive governments to continue to use them,” stated Evers. “The condemnation has to be so strong and so universal that it amounts to humiliation. It’s far-fetched, but if Russia, one of Syria’s strongest backers, were to turn around and condemn its use of barrel bombs, it could be deeply humiliating for Syria.” An important first step, Evers reminds, is making sure our own government is clear on its position towards barrel bombs: “In Iraq, the U.S. hasn’t even publicly condemned the government’s use of barrel bombs, even though U.S. officials have privately acknowledged they were aware of it and we have satellite imagery confirming that the government used them.” As the Iraqi government fights against ISIS’ advances, the U.S. would do well to include these words of warning along with offering support.

Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.