Lewai Murad will not likely go down in the annals of history as the man who helped to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad by developing a rocket-fired missile capable of penetrating the heavy armor of the Russian T80 tanks used by the ruthless dictator's army.
First of all, Lewai Murad is a pseudonym. He asked to remain anonymous because, while he has lived in Orange County for the past year and a half (initially on a student visa, now as a refugee), his extended family—mother, father, several siblings—remains in Syria. Were the Syrian government to discover he was helping the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, his entire family could be arrested, tortured and/or killed.
Secondly, about those missiles: They aren't real, and therefore they haven't blown up a single Syrian army tank, much less turned the tide of the civil war against al-Assad and in favor of the ragtag fighters Murad hopes to help. The only place these missiles exist is on paper, in the 12-page study he wrote in Arabic after months of running elaborate computer simulations on a laptop computer. Because of an international arms embargo, the FSA is struggling to fight al-Assad and his tanks with little more than AK-47s and hand grenades. Those are no match for tanks, in particular the 2,800 or so estimated T80 tanks of the Syrian army that are protected with so-called explosive reactive armor and are invincible to the lightly armed FSA.
What Murad created—in theory, at least—was nothing short of miraculous: an improvised, armor-piercing warhead that rebels could easily manufacture en masse in Syria (thus not violating the embargo), and then fire from conventional rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers until every last Syrian army tank was nothing more than a smoking hull. However noble, Murad's dream fell victim to a series of errors—lots and lots of them—with a touch of bad timing thrown in for good measure.
Murad came to the United States to study at Cal State Fullerton at the precise moment when the Syrian civil war kicked into high gear in his hometown and he lost touch with his family, thus losing his ability to fund his tuition and remain in the country on a student visa. Then there's the fact that, perhaps more than classwork, Murad's real motive in moving to Orange County was to secretly hook up with his best friend's girlfriend, with whom he'd secretly been Skyping and chatting online for two years. Compounding that questionable move is the fact that Murad then proceeded to marry the woman without bothering to tell her that he was bisexual.
Another bad idea: surreptitiously living with his new wife in her bedroom inside her parents' house for several months, without either party informing the parents they were, in fact, married, which led to the parents calling the cops on him. All these rather striking lapses in judgment, when compounded, not only prevented Murad from realizing his dream of freeing Syria from tyranny, but also unraveled his marriage, left him homeless and ultimately caused the FBI to question him about his project.
Earlier this year, shortly after his former mother-in-law called the police to evict him from her house and alerted the FBI to his interest in explosives, a desperate and confused Murad sent a frantic email to the Weekly. "I am under strict surveillance," he wrote. "Two FBI agents met with me and questioned me at a local restaurant. . . . The FBI is monitoring me, and I do not know what is going on in their minds!!!"
The email expressed a confused jumble of emotions: despair, lovesickness, what seemed like a legitimate fear of being arrested or deported, and paranoia. It was also clear Murad desperately wanted to share his story, so his grand efforts to help end the Syrian civil war would not disappear into the same oblivion that had devoured the rest of his life in America.
The email's subject line seemed to sum it up perfectly: "Lost Syrian in Anaheim."
* * *
By his own telling, Murad (again, not his real name) grew up in a cosmopolitan city in Syria that he prefers to not mention by name. He has two good reasons to worry. First, the aforementioned government retaliation against his family. Second, as a bisexual atheist, Murad doesn't want to bring shame to his large Sunni Muslim family. The city is populated by a roughly even mixture of Sunnis, the branch of Islam that constitutes the majority of the Syrian population, as well as most Muslims throughout the world, and Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam.
Traditionally, Sunnis viewed the Alawites (who don't observe the five pillars of Islam and whose women don't wear hijabs) as heretics, and they were therefore ostracized. In Murad's hometown, the Sunnis lived in the city's center, while the Alawites dwelled mostly in villages in the hills outside, where they had lived for centuries. "These guys had been oppressed throughout history," Murad explains. "It was an official segregation. They were not allowed to walk in the city after 6 p.m. They were considered infidels."
After centuries of Ottoman rule, Syria was administered as a French colony after World War I. In the decades that followed, the Alawites gradually insinuated themselves into the colonial administration and armed forces. In 1970, when Hafez al-Assad (father of Syria's current dictator) seized the reins of government, Alawites began moving from the hills and into Murad's hometown. "After they seized power, they laid off all the Sunni officials and monopolized everything," Murad says. "They did a lot of massacres in the 1980s."
As a teenager in the 1990s, however, Murad didn't care about the religious conflict that would soon engulf his country. In fact, he considered himself an atheist; moreover, Murad actually found himself attracted to some of his Alawite neighbors. Starting when he was about 16 and until he left Syria four years later, he engaged in a series of secret homosexual relationships with various Alawite men his own age. "Being an atheist and a bisexual in Syria isn't easy," he says. "It is completely forbidden. You cannot brag or even talk about it."
In 2005, when he was 20 years old, Murad left Syria for Egypt to study marine engineering. There, free from the constraints of parental guidance, he smoked marijuana for the first time and had to be rushed to the emergency room. "I felt my heart racing, and thought I was having a heart attack," he recalls. Instead, he discovered he had a pre-existing heart condition exacerbated by acute anxiety; the doctor prescribed Xanax. Murad quickly became addicted to the pills. "I became very detached from my friends," he says. "I hated myself."
After several months of study, Murad returned to Syria, but because Xanax was available from any street-corner pharmacy without a prescription, and because he was determined to quit popping pills, he took a flight to London. There, completely isolated from family and friends, he endured weeks of withdrawal in a cheap East End motel room. "The symptoms were very intense," says Murad. "Sometimes I couldn't even order my food on the telephone."
It was during this period that Murad began speaking by telephone, Skype and instant messenger with Andrea (not her real name), a young Orange County woman who was dating a Syrian friend of his who was attending college in Southern California. "Their relationship was disintegrating," Murad says. "We were talking six hours a night. I started to feel something toward her at that time that meant love to me."
Upon kicking his Xanax habit, Murad returned to Egypt and completed his undergraduate work, specializing in numerical methods and fluid dynamics, principles used for the engineering of everything from turbine engines to airplanes and boats. He planned to continue his studies at an American institute that had a campus in Dubai. But three days after he enrolled, Murad learned that he could not obtain the degree without applying for a student visa because he was Syrian. Instead, while he waited for the visa to arrive, Murad took classes at an American university in Sharjah, a city in neighboring Dubai, and waited.
In the spring of 2011, after a semester of study, the Syrian revolution began. "At the time, it was just peaceful demonstrations," Murad recalls. "Nobody was talking about carrying weapons, and nobody envisioned the idea that Syria would descend into a civil war. But I knew it would be ugly. The Alawites are down for anything. They will not give power back to the Sunnis because they know the Sunnis will retaliate."
To prepare for what he was certain would be an armed conflict against an implacable foe, Murad and some of his friends established an ad hoc group called the Armed Syrian Front, which distributed manuals on weapons and warfare via the Free Net Project, an Internet platform created in 2000 by Irish hacker Ian Clark. The project allows users to communicate anonymously and free of censorship across the world, but it can also be abused to transmit everything from terrorist handbooks to child pornography.
Although he was determined to help topple al-Assad, Murad says, he only translated a few documents into Arabic before beginning to feel uncomfortable about sharing information online with complete strangers. His fear was that those asking for help might have designs on carrying out attacks that didn't just involve al-Assad, but rather a nuclear-armed state such as Israel, a pursuit Murad had no desire to aid. "I stopped talking to these guys," he says. "I felt I didn't know them. They started to ask me about stuff like nuclear weapons, which the Syrian regime doesn't even have. I didn't trust them anymore."
That caution didn't apply to Murad's virtual romance with Andrea, however. As soon as he received his American student visa, he flew to Orange County to marry her. Upon arriving, he moved in with her now-ex-boyfriend, without telling his friend of his real intentions. Murad's friend had already begun dating someone else, and he served as best man when his friend married the girl. Just two months after Murad touched ground in the U.S., he and Andrea went to the Old Courthouse in Santa Ana and wed in a civil ceremony, with one of her friends as their only witness.
* * *
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."
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."
To accomplish this, he realized, he needed more than just Andrea's laptop. He needed a PC workstation. Murad reached out to a local Syrian-American businessman who was active in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and whom Murad knew was sympathetic to the FSA. Murad says the businessman (who did not respond to an interview request) put him in touch with a subordinate, who listened to Murad's proposal and quickly responded that no further study was necessary. "Give me the study, and I will forward it to the FSA," Murad says the man told him. "You will either be talking to them on the Internet or phone, or you will be going there."
Eager to accept that offer, Murad responded he just needed to make a few final tweaks to his study and run a few last simulations. "I was in the process of doing that," he says. "And then I got the police called on me."
* * *
Early this spring, just a few minutes past noon on a chilly Tuesday, Murad waits patiently outside the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney, his stocky frame wrapped tight in a black cardigan sweater. His large bald head droops shyly forward over his shoulders. Both of his hands are stuffed into his pockets. He carries himself with the gait of someone who is ashamed or embarrassed of something, but as soon as he opens his mouth, the words pour forth, as if unburdening themselves of persistent silence.
Inside the restaurant, over a lunch of barbecue chicken wings, a U.S. men's soccer international friendly blaring from a large-screen television, Murad shares his story. At times, while talking about how his marriage to Andrea fell apart, he begins to cry. "I'm so unstable," he says. "I am guilty of a series of mistakes, but I loved her and still love her."
The morning the police showed up at Andrea's house, he had woken up in her arms. It was a Sunday morning in mid-December 2012. They'd been arguing the night before; a few days earlier, Murad had gotten into a shouting match with his mother-in-law. It all started, he explains, when she confronted him about how much time he was spending at the house.
"She caught me numerous times leaving her daughter's room in the morning," Murad recalls. "I told her we were married, and she exploded." When Andrea's mother threatened to have him deported from the U.S. for committing marriage fraud, Murad bristled. "I don't care about your fucking country," he said. "You are going to regret that," she responded. "You are going to pay for what you said."
After that confrontation, unbeknownst to Murad, his mother-in-law had presented Andrea with an ultimatum: get a divorce, or move out of the house with your husband. Andrea chose the first option, and when the police arrived to escort him out of the house as an intruder, she stayed inside and filled out paperwork for a restraining order, which a judge later extended and will remain in place for several more months. (Andrea refused to comment for this story.)
Murad spent that first night on a park bench; then he went to the businessman who had promised to help him to send his armor-piercing missile study to the Syrian rebels. The man secured Murad a job working in a Santa Ana warehouse where food, blankets and medicine for Syrian civil-war refugees were being prepped for shipping overseas. Murad spent the next month volunteering there, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week; he even slept there on a small cot.
Everything was going great, Murad says, until the man who ran the warehouse told him the FBI was looking for him. He gave Murad a telephone number to call. The following morning, Murad met two agents at a Jack In the Box on Ball Road in Anaheim, near the city's Little Arabia district. They didn't say how the feds had learned of his plans and didn't disclose why they wanted to talk to him. Instead, they began asking him questions about his mother-in-law. The questions quickly revealed they'd seen his computer simulations. "They asked me if I was trying to access explosives," Murad says. "They were concerned about my activities with the FSA and who I was trying to contact online."
The meeting lasted roughly two hours, and Murad told them everything—how he got the idea to design a rocket-propelled missile that could destroy the T80 tank, how he had never tried to obtain any actual explosives or break any laws or arms embargo, but how he fervently hoped to get his plans in the hands of the FSA. The one thing he didn't mention was the name of the businessman who had offered to help him. The next day, however, Murad began to panic, thinking that by withholding that information, he'd misled the agents. He sent them a letter apologizing for the oversight and met with the agents a second time at the same Jack In the Box. They told him not to worry and admonished him to stay off the computer. He has not heard from them since. (An FBI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)
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Murad stopped working at the warehouse and now has a job helping a Palestinian merchant with online sales. The businessman who rescued him from homelessness never followed up on his promise to help Murad gain access to a PC workstation so he could put the final touches on his study and deliver it to the FSA. While respectful of the efforts of the businessman and other exiles in Southern Californa to send humanitarian relief to Syria, he's frustrated nobody will help him to help the rebels win the war against al-Assad.
"They are just sending underarmed soldiers to get killed," he fumes. "This is what drives me crazy. You talk to people here, and they say, 'The one who dies goes to heaven'—the martyrdom concept, jihad, all that. But you can't face tanks with conventional RPGs or guns, and when someone dies in Syria, he's not going to heaven. He's not going anywhere. And now his children are orphans."
Murad adds that he's no longer certain the FSA are the heroes he once thought them to be. Their lack of will in opposing al-Qaeda-aligned militias troubles him. Ironically, he realizes, he tried to help those who, if in power, would likely oppress him. "At this point, I don't support any side," he says.
"I am an atheist and bisexual, and I am unstable, but I tried to help the rebels."