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Inside the FBI's Giant Bomb Warehouse

Inside the FBI lab that studies explosives to catch terrorists
The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Virginia
The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in VirginiaPhotograph by Ron Blunt

Bomb analyst Ruel Espinosa spends his days hunched over a long wooden table in an FBI lab outside Washington, examining the remains of IEDs—improvised explosive devices—that insurgents have used to injure and kill thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The crude but powerful bombs are pieced together with parts from radios, cell phones, car tires, sandals, circuit boards, burlap sacks, egg timers, wristwatches, and kitchen utensils. “They are industrious—they make bombs out of everything,” says Espinosa, one of about 700 employees and contractors who work at the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, or Tedac.

The team photographs every one of the thousands of bombs sent to the lab each year, examining them for fingerprints, fibers, and hairs. IEDs that exploded overseas are often just a collection of fragments; others arrive undetonated and intact, rendered inert before they’re shipped to the lab. Impressions of tool marks are taken with the aid of a computer that creates 3D images and checks them against a database for similarities to other bombs. Specialists scrutinize the devices’ electronic components to figure out how they work. The bombs and components are then cataloged and shelved in a vast warehouse, the world’s largest such repository, with more than 100,000 boxes of IEDs. For a decade, it has gone like this—a forensic conveyor belt of the weapons responsible for much of the carnage of two long wars.