Inside the FBI Lab That Studies Explosives to Catch TerroristsDel Quentin Wilber
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, powerful bombs are pieced together with parts from radios, mobile 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, or Tedac, described in the June 30 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.
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.
Analysts have lifted at least 6,000 fingerprints from explosives, helping U.S. authorities identify more than 1,700 people with terrorist ties, according to the FBI. The lab’s experts have published thousands of intelligence reports detailing the latest bomb-making trends, which commanders have used to keep up with enemy tactics.
“Exploiting the intelligence from explosive devices has proven critical to saving American lives in war zones,” says Robert Mueller III, director of the FBI when the lab was created in 2003. The goal was to provide the U.S. military with information troops could use to detect and disable them.
It’s also an experiment in fostering cooperation among government agencies that often battled over turf and kept information from one another.
“It was clear there needed to be a task force that worked side-by-side sharing information, collaborating,” says Greg Carl, Tedac’s director. Although the facility is run by the FBI, analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives also work there, and Tedac shares its findings with the National Security Agency, the CIA, and other agencies.
The lab’s accumulated expertise will now be put to a different use. Next year it will move from its current hodgepodge of facilities -- its processing center is in the basement of a parking garage near the FBI’s main laboratory in Quantico, Virginia -- to a new, $132 million facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
Tedac will expand its work to include analyzing explosives built by terrorists worldwide, including in the U.S., allowing the government to stay on top of bomb-making techniques.
With American combat operations winding down, the staff will shrink considerably, yet the FBI doesn’t anticipate a shortage of work. In the last year, according to the U.S. military, IEDs caused 42,627 casualties worldwide.
“It will be tremendously useful for years to come in identifying a particular bomb maker and a particular pattern of bomb-making that are spreading among extremist groups,” Mueller says.
Tedac has begun the transition to its new role. This year, it’s analyzed dozens of bombs recovered in Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, and other terror hot spots. Its forensic team aided the investigation into last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. More than 1,200 pieces of evidence from that attack are being studied behind a locked door labeled “Boston Bombing.”
The bombs arrive at the lab’s processing center in large boxes with dozens of smaller containers inside that hold parts of the IEDs. Each box is assigned a code that determines how quickly it must be analyzed, usually based on whether the device killed or injured U.S. troops.
Analysts sometimes find bits of bone or uniform amid the debris. Boxes tagged “red” must be examined expeditiously; “amber” components are to be scrutinized within a month; “green” ones should be finished within 120 days -- though Tedac, overwhelmed with new arrivals, continues to work through a backlog of green bombs sent from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lab’s reports are circulated to military and intelligence agencies so they can improve countermeasures such as radio jammers and body armor. Other reports focus on the identity of bombers and bomb makers. “Biometric data is especially useful in disrupting a network, in getting a good view of who they are and where they are,” says U.S. Army Major General Pat Higgins, deputy director of the Defense Department’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
“That information is passed along to the right user,” he said. “The user may be somebody who is going to drop a bomb on them, or it could be a law enforcement entity. We look for who has the capability to disrupt it.”
The lab has linked as many as 44 devices to a single bomber; Higgins says it recently developed nine biometric signatures from a large bomb planted last year in Afghanistan by the Haqqani Network, a terror group that has staged attacks against Western targets. The lab has also aided criminal prosecutions in U.S. and foreign courts. In February, an Afghan linked by Tedac to 39 IEDs -- including one that killed a U.S. Marine and wounded three others in 2011 -- was sentenced to 25 years in an Afghan prison, according to the FBI.
In 2005, U.S. soldiers dug up an unexploded IED near Baiji, Iraq, an oil refinery city about 140 miles north of Baghdad, and sent it to Tedac, where it sat unexamined for years because of a backlog.
Six years later, FBI agents in Kentucky investigating an Iraqi refugee living in Bowling Green asked Tedac to examine any bombs discovered near Baiji, where the refugee had lived and worked. After scouring hundreds of such devices, the analysts discovered a fingerprint on the 2005 bomb that they linked to the man. He was sentenced last year to four decades in federal prison. Another Iraqi charged in the investigation got a life term.
The lab’s future value may be realized in all the bombs and bomb components stored in those 1,161 big white boxes in the Virginia warehouse, which will soon be moved to Alabama.
“There may be clues in here, and you don’t know which device will be important,” says FBI Agent Michael Davitch, a Tedac supervisor. “This is a library of modern IED warfare.”