Exclusive: How Syria's rebel fighters were sold exploding rifles – by a mystery Briton named ‘Emile’

Opponents of Bashar al-Assad suspect they have been duped by a double agent posing as an arms dealer

To the Syrian rebels, the offer was enticing: Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles and ammunition at below-market price, with supplies plentiful. The dealers were convincing: two of them had European passports, one a British passport, and they claimed to have been involved in supplying arms during the Bosnia war.

Three meetings took place in Istanbul between representatives of the rebels and the dealers, including the Briton, calling himself Emile, to organise shipments. An initial payment of around $40,000 was made.

The delivery was on time, as had been a previous shipment. But it soon became apparent that something was wrong.

Rifles exploded during a firefight. There was a second such “accident”, and a third, leading to injuries. An examination of the remaining consignments revealed that propellants inside some of the cartridges had been replaced with ground explosives with three or four times design-pressure, with the aim of bursting them in the breach.

With Syria’s civil war getting increasingly vicious and dirty, the opposition has come across “abandoned” government arms that were proved to have been doctored.

But the presence of the arms traffickers, including the Briton, has led to claims that the Syrian regime is using foreign agents to undermine the opposition.

Abdurrahman Abu-Nasr, a rebel representative who attended one of the meetings with the dealers in Istanbul three weeks ago, recalled “Emile” as a man in his late 40s who was of Arab – part-Syrian – origin. “He spoke fluent English, he told us that he had lived in England. Another man had a Belgian passport, but I think his family were from somewhere like Morocco. They were giving good prices, only around $ 2.50 per round [The average price had gone up to $5 at times].

“The man with the British passport told us he had supplied the Mujahedin in Bosnia, he knew a lot about defence equipment. My friend and I asked whether they were acting on behalf of their governments. They did not admit they were, but did not deny it totally either. It was clever, it left us wondering.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the man calling himself “Emile” has any connection with the British intelligence agencies.

The UK government is supplying “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian opposition, including satellite communications equipment, and thus, say security sources, it would not have been possible for regime agents to have infiltrated such a chain.

Speaking about arms supplies, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said recently: “I don’t rule out any option in the future because we don’t know how the situation will develop.” He denied that supplies are being “outsourced” through Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

The rebels who met “Emile” and his colleagues are investigating the role of a conduit who had acted as a referee.

Sabotaging ammunition is not new to counter-insurgency warfare. The British engineered the supply of doctored bullets in the Second Matabele War in the 1890s and the Waziristan campaign in the 1930s. The Americans used the tactic in Vietnam, and both they and the Russians have carried out such operations in Afghanistan.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor