Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

Years after the ADE was first deployed, explosions were still taking place with alarming frequency. The attackers’ weapon of choice was the car bomb, and sometimes several of these would go off in a dozen locations throughout the country within just a few hours. Clearly the terrorists were transporting significant amounts of explosives about with relative ease. Certainly the presence of army and police checkpoints every few hundred metres, and their heavy reliance on the ADE 651, did not appear to impede their movements. Many Iraqis and international observers began to question the device’s effectiveness.

Since ATSC was a UK company, and as its founder was based not far from London, the BBC took it upon itself to investigate the issue in 2010. In the presence of a BBC reporter, researchers from Cambridge University took one of the devices apart, the better to understand the technology and how it was supposed to work. The supplier would provide the purchaser with a number of cards, each of which was designed to detect a particular type of explosive. 

The cards fitted into a holder that was attached to the antenna. In front of the BBC’s cameras, university researchers took some of the cards apart and analysed their contents: they were empty. They contained no digital or electronic information whatsoever. There was no way that the ADE 651 could be used to detect anything. A number of other investigations were also carried out on the device, including by the US military. The conclusion was always the same. Some of the world’s leading scientists therefore confirmed what just about any Iraqi who has been through a checkpoint had known for years. 

Following the BBC’s investigation, UK law enforcement officials banned the ADE 651’s export to Iraq and Afghanistan. The affair led to criminal investigations and prosecutions in both Iraq and the UK. On 10 February 2011, al-Rasafa court of appeal in east Baghdad issued an arrest warrant against General Jihad al-Jabiri, who at the time was head of the counter- explosives department at the ministry of the interior and who had been responsible for purchasing the ADE 651 on the government’s behalf. On 4 June 2012, al-Jabiri was sentenced to four years in prison. The court’s spokesman said that the decision was motivated by the fact that the devices were overpriced and based on bogus technology. 

In July 2012, the UK Crown Prosecution Service charged six people, including James McCormick, with the ‘alleged manufacture, promotion and sale of a range of fraudulent substance detector devices’, including the ADE 651, to countries such as Iraq. During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that the ADE 651 had been modelled on failed golf- ball detectors that were on sale in the US. In May 2013, the court sentenced McCormick to ten years in prison and confiscated the property that he had accumulated, courtesy of his contracts with the Iraqi government, including several homes and a yacht. In his sentencing remarks, the judge addressed McCormick: ‘The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category . . . [H]otel security staff and many other users trusted their lives to the overpriced devices sold by you, which were no more than crude plastic components with a disconnected antenna and a capability of detecting explosives no better than random chance.’ 

News of these developments spread far and wide in Iraq, and many wondered how the government would react. Clearly, there were few available options – and none of them attractive. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had cultivated a public persona as someone who was strong on security. He had largely taken credit for the reduction in violence in 2007 and 2008 and, following the March 2010 parliamentary elections, he had assumed control of the security services, including the ministries of the interior and defence. Security was unquestionably his responsibility, and there were significant grounds for holding him personally accountable for the use of the device (among other failures). It is unheard of for senior officials in Iraq to hold up their hands and admit ‘mea culpa’, so nobody expected the government to apologize. Given the weight of evidence against the ADE 651, however, no one believed that it would keep them in use. It was most likely that the devices would be quietly withdrawn and the matter downplayed by senior officials. 

On 21 May 2013, two weeks after the UK court decision, several explosions ripped through the capital, killing dozens of people. The devices were still in use. The prime minister organized a press conference a few hours later with a large part of his cabinet. He solemnly condemned the violence. The first question from the packed hall of journalists was about the ADE 651: how could it be that it was still in use, given the recent court ruling in the UK? 

The prime minister’s reply left me and others dumbfounded. Despite international consensus on the issue, he stood before his audience and insisted that the devices did in fact work: 

We formed committees the day the claims [of corruption] and rumours took place. We formed three committees: a science and technology committee, a defence committee, and a mixed committee. The results were that the devices detect between 20 and 54 per cent under ideal conditions. ‘Ideal conditions’ means that the soldier has to have been trained in the use of the device, and that he knows how to use the cards, given that the card that is used to detect bombs does not detect arms, and the one that is used to detect arms does not detect bombs . . . Some Iraqi MPs are talking about corruption. The relevant people were taken to court and are now in prison. A court case was filed in Britain, and the person responsible for the forgery [is also in prison]. But what is the truth? The truth is that some of the devices were real and those devices do detect bombs, while the devices which the court case was about were fake. The problem lies with those that were fake. As for the devices that are real, their problem is that using them correctly requires experience

For al-Maliki, the problem was that some of the devices were fake and others were not. This was a distinction that no one else had made or recognized and was purely of his own creation. One wonders what the deputy prime minister, Hussein al-Shahristani thought of the comments: he has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto and throughout the press conference was standing with a poker face immediately to the left of the prime minister. 

Officials in Thi Qar, one of the country’s poorest areas, did not have the benefit of an advanced western education in science, but nevertheless they saw through the ruse and banned the ADE 651, committing themselves to purchase dozens of sniffer dogs instead. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, car bombs continued to rip apart the lives of the people that the government pretended to protect with a piece of plastic that was worse than useless. July 2013 witnessed more than a thousand security- related deaths. Still more people were maimed. Yet not a single senior official accepted any responsibility. I learned from a friend that an acquaintance of mine was among those killed. A few years back, he had lost his brother in another explosion and had taken in his brother’s children, who had nowhere else to go. Following this new wave of attacks, they were left fatherless for a second time. 

There were only two ways of interpreting the prime minister’s comments: either he believed what he was saying (which would mean that he was incapable of understanding what was painfully obvious to just about everyone else) or he was deliberately twisting the truth (which would mean that the security and wellbeing of Iraqis was for him secondary to protecting his own reputation). It was a perfect illustration of how Iraqis’ problems were caused not by religion and race, but by misgovernment. The question, for me and for many others, was how we had reached this point in our country’s history and what solutions existed.