To Catch A Bomb-Maker
This is the story of a little-known FBI forensics lab and how it changed the war on terror
The 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.
Loosen 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.
During 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 globe.
On 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.
Carl 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 have 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.
In 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.
“Up 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.”
In 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 this summer the FBI began moving 250 TEDAC staffers out of the improvised headquarters into a $132 million facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
That’s today. 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 it could.
By 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.
In 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.
In 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.
Agents 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.
“He 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.”
“He starts saying things that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
While 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?
In 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.)
With 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.”
The 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 help.
When 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.
That 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.”
All 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.
“They wanted to run this guy’s fingerprints against everything we had. It was a needle in a haystack.”
When 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.”
Slowly 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.
In 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.
By 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Quiet 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.
Perhaps 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 more bombs TEDAC analysts collect, the richer the data becomes and the more effectively they will be able to identify terrorists and criminals.
Clearing 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.
Moving 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.
As 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.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Popular Science.