The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rose by 70 percent between 2011 and 2013; 66 countries suffered attacks, some on a near-daily basis. Photo by Brian Klutch.
insurgent began with a cordless phone—one of the knockoffs of a
Chinese-built Senao so popular in northern Iraq. Hunched over a
worktable somewhere near the refinery town of Baiji, about 150 miles
north of Baghdad, he methodically worked through a series of steps by
now both familiar and frighteningly simple.
the screws on the base station. Remove the plastic casing, rip out the
power cord, and replace it with a battery. Rewire the phone’s page
function to an external relay switch, then connect the relay to a
battery and any mix of violent chemistry—plastic jugs full of diesel and
fertilizer, a pressure cooker packed with homemade explosives, one of
the many artillery shells available in post-invasion Iraq. When
complete, pressing the page button on the phone’s handset—even from
miles away—will flip the relay and trigger the bomb.
the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices
(IEDs) became the single deadliest weapons on the battlefield. In Iraq
alone they accounted for between half and two-thirds of all U.S. wartime
casualties and killed tens of thousands of civilians. They have now
become a staple of insurgencies worldwide. But back in 2005—when the
bombmaker sat poring over his Senao—the U.S. military was only beginning
to understand the threat they posed.
"Fighting insurgencies is more like fighting organized crime. It's a conspiracy."
In the waning days of August that year, insurgents concealed the
modified Senao in a gravel heap south of Baiji. They then wired it to
three artillery shells buried in a road several feet away. The bomb was
presumably meant for one of the patrols that frequented the route, but
on Sept. 1, 2005, U.S. forces discovered it before it detonated. A
bomb-disposal team neutralized the explosives and then packed the Senao
into a crate destined for a little-known FBI forensics lab operating out
of a parking garage in northern Virginia. No one knew at the time that
the IED was anything more than just another in a flood of roadside
bombs. Instead it would end up unmasking a terrorist and helping FBI
analysts pioneer techniques that have foiled criminal plots around the
It is 2015, and in
the heavily wooded grounds of Marine Corps Base Quantico in eastern
Virginia, special agent Greg Carl leads the way into an imposing
building and down a windowless hallway. Swinging open a
pass-code-secured metal door, he steps into the warehouse that contains
the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). A row of
white boxes, each 4 feet by 4 feet, runs down the center of the room.
Others line the 115-foot-long walls, each one bar-coded, inventoried,
and packed with IEDs.
is TEDAC’s director, and this space—tucked in the bowels of a garage
adjacent to the FBI’s main forensics lab—is intake. More than 100,000
IEDs had passed through here since the lab opened in 2003. Some arrive
inert but intact, others in post-detonation fragments. Lab technicians
analyze each one and catalog it in TEDAC’s database, creating what has
become the world’s largest bomb library.
the field, an IED is an anonymous threat. But at TEDAC, it gains
context. By comparing physical evidence along with the IED’s location,
design, and materials, investigators can draw connections between bombs
and bombmakers. They might trace multiple IEDs to a single factory—or
even a single individual. They might identify new trends or techniques.
And they can continue to analyze evidence for years, tracing bombmakers
and their apprentices through time.
Analysts photograph each IED in ultrahigh resolution and store that image in a digital reference library. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
until TEDAC, the Department of Defense didn’t understand the benefit of
having forensics on the battlefield,” Carl says. “But fighting
insurgencies is more like fighting organized crime. It’s a conspiracy.”
12 years, analysts using TEDAC data have tied more than 2,700 suspects
to possible terrorist activities, and nominated more than 350 to the
terrorist watchlist. The lab has collected and shared 80,000
fingerprints with law-enforcement agencies around the globe. It has been
so successful and grown so rapidly that in the summer of 2015, the FBI began
moving 250 TEDAC staffers out of the improvised headquarters into a $132
million facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
But in 2003, the center looked much more like a startup. The focus
was mostly on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the staff was composed of just a
few dozen analysts—many borrowed from other FBI labs. Then the Iraqi
insurgency took off. What started as a few IED deliveries a month turned
into hundreds, then as many as 2,400. That’s how TEDAC ended up working
out of a parking garage, Carl says. The lab had to grab whatever space
the time the Baiji bomb arrived in late 2005, TEDAC’s analysts were
mired in a massive backlog of evidence. Tens of thousands of devices
awaited examination. The Baiji bomb was still among them when, in 2010,
an unusual request landed on the desk of forensic scientist Katie
Suchma. The query had originated not in Kabul or Kirkuk but in Kentucky.
FBI agents there had become increasingly nervous that an Iraqi refugee
recently resettled in the college town of Bowling Green was actually an
operative for Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). They made a simple but urgent
request: Tell us everything you can find out about Waad Ramadan Alwan.
early 2007, the U.S. State Department launched an ambitious program to
resettle tens of thousands of Iraqis—many of whom served as interpreters
or fixers for U.S. forces and faced reprisals from militant groups—to
new homes in the U.S. Waad Ramadan Alwan was among those who applied.
After passing a State Department vetting process, he received a visa and
assistance in moving to Kentucky in April 2009.
Bowling Green, Alwan lived with his wife in a simple apartment and
worked at a chicken-processing plant. By all appearances, he led a
normal life. So when the FBI received a tip in September 2009 indicating
that Alwan might be an AQI member, it wasn’t immediately clear that the
intelligence—the details of which the FBI won’t discuss—was accurate.
at the FBI’s Louisville field office mounted some standard surveillance
but soon moved on to a full-blown investigation. They arranged an
introduction between Alwan and an FBI informant posing as a fellow
refugee sympathetic to the AQI cause. Alwan was a little cagey at first,
but by early 2010, something changed. He began to talk about his past.
starts saying things that make the hair stand up on the back of your
neck,” says FBI supervisory special agent Tim Beam, of the Louisville
field office. “He starts talking about participating in attacks on U.S.
troops in Iraq. He’s talking about building bombs.”
Alwan’s bragging seemed to validate the FBI’s intelligence, agents
couldn’t be sure: Was he a hardened AQI militant responsible for attacks
on U.S. soldiers abroad or simply a boastful Iraqi looking to impress a
new friend? If he was AQI, was he working alone or as part of a network
of militants secretly plotting attacks on U.S. soil?
order to find out, FBI agents set up a sting operation. The informant
told Alwan he had friends in the U.S. willing to send cash and weapons
to insurgents in Iraq, but he needed someone with contacts to
facilitate. Alwan agreed to play middleman. In the first half of 2010,
Alwan made regular trips to a storage unit in Bowling Green in which
hidden cameras captured him preparing to ship a litany of
weapons—Russian PK-model light machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades,
sniper rifles, C-4 explosives, and even shoulder-fired Stinger
anti-aircraft missiles. (All of the weapons were rendered inert by the
FBI before being furnished, and the bureau maintains no money or weapons
ever left the country.)
that evidence, agents had grounds to charge Alwan with material support
of a terrorist group. But by late spring of 2010, investigators were
increasingly convinced that Alwan had indeed acted against U.S. troops
in Iraq. In taped conversations, he boasted of building dozens of IEDs.
He said he’d fired on U.S. troops with a sniper rifle. FBI agents claim
he said that he’d had American soldiers “for lunch and dinner.”
Greg Carl, the director of TEDAC, is transitioning the lab from its focus on Iraq and Afghanistan to a "rest-of-the-world" mission. Photo by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images.
FBI wanted justice for those soldiers. Moreover, if agents could prove
Alwan was responsible for attacks on U.S. forces, they could bring far
more serious charges against him—charges that could make him a valuable
intelligence source during plea negotiations. But finding hard evidence
against Alwan years after the fact—and in a war zone on the other side
of the world—was a monumental challenge. Agents reached out to TEDAC for
an IED arrives at TEDAC, it undergoes something of an entrance exam.
First, a lab technician unpacks the device and creates an examination
plan based on its type and the type of evidence that might be
salvageable. Then techs photograph each IED, inside and out, at
resolutions so high that individual characters stamped on microchip
components are visible. Those images go into TEDAC’s database, where
investigators or bomb technicians at partner agencies around the world
can access them.
visual record is vital, Carl says. The way a bombmaker has soldered a
joint or twisted a wire can reveal if he or she is left- or
right-handed. Certain techniques or constructions can serve as a
signature for an individual or a group of bombmakers. “Maybe we can’t
definitively say, ‘This person built this IED,’” Carl says, “but we can
tie it back to a certain bomb factory.”
devices then move on to other stages of analysis. Some go to the FBI’s
tool-marks lab, where forensics experts look for unique, microscopic
markings left by specific tools or machines. If the bomb remains wholly
or partially intact, engineering specialists break down its
construction, logging those distinct aspects that could serve as a
bombmaker’s signature. Biometrics specialists scour devices for
fingerprints or trace DNA that could tie an IED to bombmakers.
Katie Suchma received the request to hunt for intelligence about Alwan
in 2010, the majority of TEDAC’s inventory had not been through these
more advanced stages of analysis. “They wanted us to run this one guy’s
fingerprints against everything we had,” Suchma says. “It was a needle
in a haystack.”
she and her team of more than 35 analysts began to winnow down the
search options. Through the informant, the FBI had a rough idea of where
Alwan was between 2004 and 2006, so that limited the number of target
IEDs by geography. The team pulled 170 relevant boxes of evidence that
represented 1,300 IED events and got to work. The FBI also had copies of
Alwan’s fingerprints, so the TEDAC team focused on recovering physical
evidence when they could.
November, agents caught a break when Alwan offered to show the FBI’s
informant how to build an IED. Alwan drew a few sketches detailed enough
to give TEDAC’s analysts insight into the type of device they were
looking for. In December, the search narrowed further when FBI
intelligence analysts digging into Alwan’s past told TEDAC to focus on
bombs from in and around Baiji.
this point, Suchma and her team were already closing in, and in
January, she sent a message to FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. They
could stop wondering about Alwan. Two fingerprints lifted from an IED
recovered near Baiji in 2005 were a match.
FBI did not arrest Alwan immediately. Through the spring of 2011,
agents continued to monitor him. They hoped to learn more about his AQI
connections and any other IED incidents they could connect to him. By
May, though, it appeared that they had learned all they could, so they
decided to end the operation. A SWAT team moved in on Alwan and an
accomplice during another phony arms transfer, arresting both.
story of the AQI bombmaker arrested in suburban Kentucky made headlines
for a few days but then was eclipsed by an even bigger news event: the
death of Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Alwan’s
story quickly faded from view.
though it was, Alwan’s arrest was a significant victory. The FBI was
able to bring a 23-count indictment against him, including charges of
conspiring to kill U.S. nationals abroad, conspiring to use a weapon of
mass destruction (explosives) against U.S. nationals abroad, and
distributing information on the manufacture of IEDs. Confronted with the
evidence gathered by TEDAC, Alwan pleaded guilty. He confessed his AQI
affiliation and cooperated with FBI agents in exchange for a reduced
sentence. The agency won’t disclose the precise information that he
divulged as part of his cooperation, but he ended up with a 40-year
prison sentence. The accomplice arrested alongside him is in for life.
of greater consequence, Alwan’s case changed how TEDAC conducts
forensics. Techniques pioneered by Suchma’s team to quickly analyze the
evidence in Alwan’s case helped TEDAC analysts rip through a backlog of
tens of thousands of unexamined devices. A process many thought would
take a decade or more took just five years. Now, no device sits
unanalyzed for more than 150 days. “Alwan was the watershed moment,
that’s when we knew we had to get through this as quickly as possible,”
Carl says. “That’s what motivated us to find creative ways to work
through it.” The quicker TEDAC analysts can process IEDs, the more
likely law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad will find
bombmakers before they strike again.
the vestiges of Iraq and Afghanistan from its inventory was symbolic
for TEDAC. Today the center is pivoting from warfighter support in Iraq
and Afghanistan to what Carl describes as a “rest-of-the-world” mission.
Now, an IED recovered in the Philippines or Turkey will get the same
treatment as a bomb discovered in Baiji. Also, acting in partnership
with local law-enforcement agencies, TEDAC has become a global dragnet
for bombmakers. For example, in September 2014, Scotland Yard arrested a
suspected AQI bombmaker living in northwest London. The intelligence
came from TEDAC and an IED recovered in Iraq in 2007.
out of the parking garage at Quantico will no doubt give TEDAC a boost.
In Huntsville, the lab will have more talent to draw from; both NASA
and the Pentagon maintain major research facilities there. More
important, it will have the room it needs to grow. The more bombs TEDAC
analysts collect, the richer the data becomes and the more effectively
they will be able to identify terrorists and criminals.
global conflicts increasingly involve stateless actors drifting across
borders from one battlefield to the next, TEDAC provides a form of
institutional memory—a way of tying past acts to individuals in the
present, no matter where they go. A decade from now, conflicts in places
like Libya, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, and the Philippines will
hopefully be distant memories. The world might move on, but TEDAC will
continue connecting the dots, remembering what everyone else forgot.