Why Is Iraq Still Using Fake Bomb Detectors?

Iraqi policemen check out a vehicle at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Officer at right is using a bomb detector.

Iraqi policemen check out a vehicle at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Officer at right is using a bomb detector. Karim Kadim/AP

An inert hunk of plastic has become an emblem of the government’s failure to protect civilians.

Following Sunday’s bombing in Baghdad—which the Iraqi government now says killed 250 people, making it ISIS’ deadliest-ever bombing against civilians—The Washington Post reported the website of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior had been hacked.

“A picture of a bloodied baby was posted along with a bomb detector bearing the Islamic State’s markings,” wrote Mustafa Salim and Loveday Morris. “‘I don’t know how you sleep at night,’ the hacked site read. ‘Your conscience is dead.’”  

It was an anguished protest, as Salim and Morris detailed, against a security service that failed to protect Iraqis against the ISIS attack on Sunday and countless others like it. Emblematic of that failure is the fact that bomb detectors still in widespread use in Iraq are fake—and were shown to be fake by a BBC investigation six years ago.

After that investigation, the U.K. banned the devices’ export to Iraq and Afghanistan. James McCormick, the British businessman who sold millions of dollars worth of the bomb detectors to the Iraqi government, has been in jail for fraud since 2013, when a judge declared the detectors “useless, the profit outrageous” and McCormick himself “the driving force and sole director behind” the fraud. The product provided, in the judge’s words, a “false sense of security” that likely cost lives.

But as of Monday morning, New York Times reporters saw police using them “at checkpoints across Baghdad”—even though, in the wake of the bombing, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said the police should stop doing so.

An officer using one told The Washington Post simply: “We haven’t received an order yet. ... We know it doesn’t work, everybody knows it doesn’t work, and the man who made it is in prison now. But I don’t have any other choice.”

The “bomb detectors,” as many people have reported over the years, are actually repurposed (also fake) golf ball detectors. As my friend and Atlantic contributor Jeffrey Stern detailed in Vanity Fair last year, a typical model

consists of a cheap plastic handle with a free-swinging antenna, and the way it works is simple: When you tilt the device to the right, the antenna swings right. When you tilt it to the left, the antenna swings left. If you’ve been primed by the right sales pitch, you believe that the antenna has moved as a result of something called nuclear quadrupole resonance, or electrostatic attraction, or low-frequency radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere—each force supposedly drawing the antenna toward the substance you’re scanning for, such as, in the beginning, “the elements used in all golf balls.”

Later versions, marketed as the A.D.E. 651, among other names, came with cards that a user could supposedly insert to detect different kinds of substances, from drugs to explosives to ivory. (Versions of the device have been sold in Mexico, Thailand, Niger and numerous other countries.)

In 2010, the BBC took some of those cards to a laboratory at Cambridge University to be analyzed by the computer scientist Markus Kuhn, who found, in the BBC’s words, that a card purporting to be able to detect TNT “contained nothing but a type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high-street stores.”

Kuhn remarked that “these are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card.” That same year, an investigation by the inspector general of Iraq’s Interior Ministry also concluded that “many lives had been lost due to the wands’ utter ineffectiveness.” As Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post reported at the time:

When faced with the inspector general’s findings, Interior Ministry officials did not pull the devices from hundreds of checkpoints that snarl traffic around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Instead, they shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts, worth at least $85 million.

One possible reason for the government’s decision: That Interior Ministry report concluded that 75 percent of the contract’s value was paid in kickbacks to Iraqi officials.

An inert hunk of plastic, marketed falsely as a safeguard for up to $40,000 a unit, wielded by disillusioned security forces who know full well it’s useless but have no other choice—the device is, as The Post pointed out, an apt symbol of the Iraqi government’s corruption and failure to protect its citizens.

It’s also a hugely discouraging, if not unusual, sign of just how difficult a task Iraqi security forces face as one of the frontline forces in the fight against ISIS, despite recent successes. The Baghdad attack came mere weeks after Abadi declared that the Iraqi military had liberated the western city of Fallujah, which was the first to fall to ISIS two years ago; other battlefield losses for ISIS have similarly been followed with an uptick in attacks in Baghdad. The Islamic State may exist in part to hold territory, but fighters deprived of territory can find ways to keep fighting.

Meanwhile, having disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003, the United States has spent billions of dollars trying to rebuild it; but here, too, expense and effectiveness are two different things. The Financial Times has pointed to “thousands of nonexistent soldiers on [the army’s] payroll [and] struggles with basic logistics and graft.”

There have been numerous reports of Iraqi soldiers running out of food, water, or ammunition. By contrast, Mitchell Prothero wrote for Politico last year, “Islamic State fighters always have ammunition, they have backpacks of food and water, they maneuver to contact, seemingly aware of the maxim that the best way to stop someone from shooting at you is to shoot at them.”

Last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter proclaimed that Iraqi soldiers who had abandoned the city of Ramadi to Islamic State fighters had shown “no will to fight.” (Iraqi forces took the city back early this year.) Following Carter’s remarks, an anonymous Iraqi serviceman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty he had wanted to take the town back immediately.

“But desire without wherewithal,” he said, “is not enough.” The same could just as well apply to the broader fight against ISIS—and, more fundamentally, to the horrifyingly inadequate efforts to protect the innocents in its path.