Mr. Abu Khattala, 41, wearing a red fez and sandals, added his own spin. Contradicting the accounts of many witnesses and the most recent account of the Obama administration, he contended that the attack had grown out of a peaceful protest against a video made in the United States that mocked the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
All of the attention given this year to Libyan munitions that were either new to the battlefield or grounds for larger security concerns should not divert attention from a durable fact of modern war. That fact is this: ordinary killing tools, often weapons of relatively simple, dated or even crude construction, retain a dominant place in ground war.
Many of you are familiar with the coverage of MAT-120 cluster munitions and their origins, MANPADS and their quantities, or the appearance in Misurata of Type 84 rocket-delivered anti-vehicular landmines. Covering new weapons, seemingly sinister weapons, banned weapons and weapons that could cause outsized harm is essential. But always remember: Whether it is a roadside bomb, a hand-me-down assault rifle or a rusted mortar tube mounted on a bent baseplate — these are the weapons that turn up again and again, and fill the hospitals and cemeteries with greater regularity than anything else. Examining these weapons in their myriad forms can be a consuming pursuit. That said, those who find themselves in a war’s path would be well-served to know the common arms and munitions that imperil their lives.
Take a look at the photograph above. There’s a story behind it worth sharing.
In early July, a team of Reuters journalists was making its way toward Qawalish, Libya as a battle for that town erupted between the loyalists who held it and the anti-Qaddafi rebels who were pressing forward from two sides. The Reuters group consisted of Abdel-Aziz Boumzar (a video cameraman from Algeria), Peter Graff (a correspondent posted to London), Anis Milli (a photographer), Fathi (a driver from Tunisia) and Tony Tompkins (an unarmed security adviser from the U.K.). The five men pulled up short of the town to get their bearings and to work. Then something happened that they had not experienced while working in previous Libyan fights. Peter Graff:
We were covering a group of rebels from Zintan who used the hill north of the road and east of the culvert as a firing position to lob mortars at Gaddafi forces at the boy scout building on the western outskirts of Qawalish. We were pinned down on the hill from about 10 to 11 am or so. Several other groups of rebels were firing from nearby hillsides and the [pro-Qadaffi] army was shelling inaccurately the whole area. Periodically we heard Grads whiz over our head. Then we heard this strange fizzing sound and saw what appeared to be explosions in the air of munitions before they hit the ground. So we hurried down the hill and hid in the culvert. There were rebel ambulances parked near the culvert in the valley on the south side of the road, and the medics came into the culvert to shelter with us. So, eventually, did a bunch of fighters. At about 1 we heard that Qawalish had fallen. We came out and hitched a ride in a pickup truck into the town.
So what had happened? As the rounds exploded in the air, the five men wondered if they were under a cluster-munitions attack. This was a good question. We crossed paths with them that day and heard their account. The next day, when the situation was calmer and the news demands less pressing, we returned to the same ground to scour the olive groves and the fields and see if we might find signs of what type of munitions had been fired.
The area was large — several hundred square meters of rolling ground. But I was interested in a question that had been in mind since before we worked through the evidence in Misurata of the MAT-120 attacks: Were the Qaddafi forces using air-burst mortar or artillery rounds? By Peter’s telling the volume of fire that the Reuters team saw and heard should have been sufficient for the evidence to be available, if we worked methodically and invested the time.
I saw only a handful of what appeared to be those blasts above the ground, before we quickly high-tailed it into the culvert. Maybe 5, maybe 10, couldn’t say. Once under the road, we could hear but we could not see, but presumably it continued.
So we fanned out — Bryan Denton, Andre Liohn and I — and began to collect bits of shrapnel and other debris. The ground was dry and dusty. It hid much of what we sought. The pickings were slim. We examined the trees for spent stabilizing ribbons, a tell-tale sign of the cluster attacks earlier in the year in Misurata. We found none. Nothing in the remnants of ordnance we did find seemed necessarily to indicate a cluster attack. After about a half-hour, Andre made the key find — the ruptured metal scrap shown in the image at the top of this post, and below.
The find appeared to be exactly what we sought, and to answer the question in mind. This was a mortar fuze, and not of the so-called “point-detonating” sort, which causes a round to explode upon striking solid ground. It looked to be the shattered remains of a fuze that causes rounds to explode in the air. Seeking another opinion, I sent copies of the frames to a friend in the former Explosives Ordnance Disposal community, and asked for his read. Part of his reply is below.Looks like a “Mech Time” (Mechanically Timed) fuze. The firing crew uses a wrench to manually turn the top part of the fuze to a certain time interval. It looks like there are vertical lines (covered in mud) at the point where the upper and lower parts of the fuze meet. There are probably numbers under that mud which would show you what it was set to.
This is old technology, but it still works. MT has largely been replaced by the electronic “Proximity” fuzes, aka “Variable Time” or “PROX/VT.”
Later I sent a set of follow-up questions looking for a more specific identification, including the likely size of the mortar rounds. But a precise match wasn’t possible with just this scrap. What the discovery of this fuze remnant meant, though, was that what we had suspected was the case. The Qaddafi military was capable of firing high-explosive rounds that could be timed to explode in the air, above a target. This could make a crew much more dangerous to people or light-skinned vehicles in the open.
How do they work? To fire these rounds effectively, a mortar crew would have to estimate the time of flight from the tube to the target, and then use a wrench to set the fuze so it would explode just before landing. In this task they would be aided by firing tables that they might refer to get the first rounds right, or nearly so. This is tricky work, requiring a degree of skill. But an experienced crew with the right training and the right equipment could do it without a great deal of difficulty, assuming it had an observer in place would could see the rounds and their effects, and relay any changes to the timing back to the crew. And in any event, if the fuzes were set with too long a delay, a secondary detonation system would have them explode the more familiar way — upon impact with the ground. Back to the source who helped with the I.D.:
MechTime fuzes usually have a simple Point Detonating “back-up” feature so that they will still detonate on target if for some reason the internally moving gears and springs fail to operate properly for timed detonation.
On this day, the rebels from Zintan and the Reuters crew had been lucky. The mortar crew trying to kill them seemed to have the timing just about right, but not the range. The journalists and those who helped them, and several dozen rebels, managed to back out of range or to get into a culvert and underneath the road before the rounds were adjusted onto target. No one, as far as Peter could tell, was wounded in this particular series of air-burst shots.
This little piece of scrap serves to remind us that while the new, banned and high-tech munitions attract much of the talk, wars are still waged with much older weapons and much older munitions. An awareness of these munitions in their many shapes and sizes is both necessary to document a war comprehensively and helpful for surviving it.
NOTE: The airplane, a Boeing 777 owned by United, that was to carry me toward Afghanistan failed at the job twice. Friday night we took off and made it perhaps two or three hours toward Dubai when the senior pilot announced that there were mechanical problems related to a smoke-detection system. She turned the aircraft around, dumped fuel and brought us back to Dulles. Several hours later, after a supposed repair, the plane tried again. This time the plane and its sleepy cargo of passengers in steerage made it midway over the Atlantic when alarms started to sound. The plane ended up diverting to Heathrow, and leaving us all here. Re-bookings were not immediately available. So this unexpected delay has allowed a chance to write this post, and perhaps others, before trying again soon.
I still owe a promised piece for At War on Libyan small arms (Think, Libyan Gun Locker, to match something like this), and if time allows I should try to get more up about Joao Silva and former Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer, of whom I wrote something here. A video from Libya is also in works by an NYT production team (hello, Ben) and hopefully will be live next week. Last, for now, I have in mind correcting the public record by walking the cat backwards on how SA-24 heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles have been repeatedly reported in Libya, without evidence. A single rushed identification led to that error. So far, none of those responsible have publicly corrected the mistake, and set the record right.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS
Top and center: Close-ups of the remains of Mechanically Timed mortar fuze. In the western mountainous area of Libya. Summer 2011. Bottom: Joao Silva (foreground, in dark shirt) and the President and Mr. Meyer, at the opening prayer for the ceremony at which Mr. Obama awarded Mr. Meyer the Medal of Honor. The White House. September 15, 2011. By the author.
What is most fascinating is the narrative of shifting alliances, duplicity, and complicity. That relationship picked up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Qaddafi came clean to the West about his own covert program to acquire W.M.D.s—which he then abandoned. It then appears to have evolved into a pattern of closely coordinated operations against suspected terrorists, some of them targets of the CIA’s controversial “rendition” program. One C.I.A. document offered the Libyan authorities a list questions to pose a rendered Libyan suspect it had turned over to Libyans for questioning.
Dear Mr. President Obama,
I have the pleasure to send a congratulation note for the first time to an American president, and on behalf of all Africa, and of Cen-Sad, the base of the African pyramid, and on behalf of the Arab Maghreb Union, and in the name of all Arab leaders as I am their dean.
I salute the American people who have chosen you in these historical elections for such a high position, so that you may lead the change that you have promised them and for which they have rallied around you.
We hope that you lead the United States of America on the path of good and respect peoples’ sovereignty and observe the policy of neutrality.
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