Free Syrian Army: How to Not Help

An OC refugee thought he had found a way to end his country's civil war. Then the FBI found his laptop computer

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On Aug. 20, 2011, Murad landed in the United States. Around that time, the Syrian army invaded his hometown. Although he had enrolled in graduate studies at Cal State Fullerton, he couldn't reach his family on the telephone, much less receive tuition money from them. In any event, Murad never attended a class—instead, after moving out of his friend's house, he toured various cheap motels in Anaheim until money began to run out. Finally, against his better judgment but with no other obvious option, he moved in with Andrea at her parents' house.

This presented an obvious problem. Andrea had told her parents about Murad and had even told them they were engaged. But they had no idea their daughter had already married Murad. Rather than come clean, the couple played a long-term game of hide-the-housemate, with Andrea's family assuming Murad was spending a lot of time at the house, but sleeping elsewhere. "They were amazing to me," he says. "They treated me like I was one of them."

Armor-piercing warhead technology?
Armor-piercing warhead technology?

Not long after he moved in with Andrea, Murad says, he began chatting on Facebook with members of a FSA faction whose name in Arabic translates as "The Lion Hunters." (The militia's moniker was a play on the dictator's surname, as al-Assad is Arabic for lion.) "They told me at that time they were suffering from the Russian tanks that are protected by explosive reactive armor," he says.

Instead of using the tanks to go into cities or towns, where rebels could ambush them and disable the vehicles, the Syrian army would position them outside of populated areas and use them to shell the FSA and any civilians who were caught in the crossfire. "They just shell for 24 hours from afar, from the hills," Murad explains. There was nothing the rebels could do because their rocket-propelled grenades were not capable of penetrating the tanks' armor. "You know what?" Murad says he told his FSA contact. "Don't worry. There is something I can do."

Using Google Patents, Murad began downloading instructions on how to manufacture shaped charges, which concentrate the force of the explosion as narrowly as possible for maximum effectiveness. He printed out the patents and read them, either in his wife's bedroom, sitting in her car or on park benches, or at a table in the café at a nearby Barnes & Noble. An idea began to form.

"I had to come up with something very simple and easy to manufacture using the available resources the FSA have," he says. "They don't have advanced electronic systems, so I had to make something completely mechanical, with no electronics involved except the piezoelectric fuse that creates the signal that sets off the detonator, which is very simple."

With that in mind, Murad began to design a missile with two warheads. One small, secondary warhead at the front of the missile would have the purpose of exploding the explosive-reactive box on the tank's hull, thus disabling the vehicle's armor. Another warhead, set on a slight delay, which had to be timed perfectly, would offset that explosion, allowing for a more powerful, shaped charge to blast forward, penetrating the tank's hull before detonating. After days of developing the design, Murad realized his missile would work, but only in theory. "The idea worked very well," he explains, "but the product was very heavy and thick, and the platform to launch this missile was not realistic."

As weeks went by, Murad continued to fine-tune his theory on a series of shaped charges within a missile, allowing it to strike a tank's explosive-reactive armor, cause it to explode, and then continue to push forward for the kill. Using Andrea's computer, he used a highly specialized, finite-element, analysis-based "hydrocode" software to run simulations of multiple shaped-charge explosions. Hydrocodes are used to conduct explicit dynamic analyses—impact, penetration, explosions and fragmentation. "They are used to develop warheads and armors, but if a field study is not possible, a hydrocode study is sufficient to build a new design if conducted using a PC cluster," Murad says. "The higher the computational power, the more accurate are the results."

Since Murad didn't have access to a workstation with several interconnected PCs, he had to run what seemed like endless calculations on Andrea's laptop to obtain the data necessary to predict how the explosions caused by his theoretical warhead would interact. "In my first simulation, the first shaped charge interfered with the second one and the third one, and the product failed," he remembers. "So I investigated further."

Finally, after months of simulations involving various angles of detonation and different types of materials that would react in certain predictable ways, Murad came up with what appeared a successful design: a cone-shaped projectile with three small, hollow linings filled with materials that would direct the explosions in precisely the correct way. According to his calculations, the third shaped charge in his theoretical warhead could penetrate more than a yard of rolled homogenous armor.

"I was ecstatic," Murad says. "I did so many computations to reach the final result, but it's computational power vs. accuracy, so that's why these studies weren't final. The concept was 100 percent guaranteed, but now if I'm going to manufacture it, I need specific dimensions."

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