Baghdad’s Dud Bomb Detectors


A fake bomb detector long exposed as useless as a means of discovering explosives continues to be used by the Iraqi army and police at hundreds of checkpoints in Baghdad as their chief method of finding out if vehicles contain bombs and weapons.

The continuing reliance of the Iraqi security forces on the instrument may explain how al-Qa’ida has succeeded in sending vehicles packed with explosives undetected into Baghdad where they have exploded, killing and wounding several thousand people over the last year.

The bomb detectors, known as ‘sonars’ to Iraqis, are small hand held black colored devices with a wand protruding that is supposed to twitch if there are explosives or weapons present. It is meant to work on the same principle as water divining and has no power source, but relies  on the static electricity generated by the movement of policeman or soldier holding it.

The British and American governments, numerous independent experts and repeated tests have shown that   ADE-651, manufactured by ATSC company in the UK, does not work. Jim McCormick, the managing director of ATSC, was arrested on suspicion of fraud in January and the British government banned the export of the ADE-651. At the same time the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an investigation into how the bomb detector had been purchased at a cost of $85 million by the Iraqi security forces in 2008 and 2009. ATSC was not answering the phone number given on its website yesterday.

Despite the well-attested useless of the bomb detector senior Iraqi security officials have attested their confidence in it and the Interior Ministry has never withdrawn it. A government spokesman said earlier in the year that only some of the ‘sonars’ were fake and ineffective and these had been removed from the streets. No spokesman was available yesterday to comment on the continued use of the devices.

The normal procedure in Baghdad is for a policeman or soldier at a check point to walk beside a vehicle holding the hand-grip of the wand. If it twitches he tells the occupants of the vehicle that he suspects them of carrying concealed explosives or weapons. When it turns out that these not present, as almost invariably happens, it is explained that the ‘sonar’, has been misled by the presence of perfume or even platinum fillings in teeth.

Many Iraqi policemen have themselves ceased to believe that the ADE-651 works. Police Captain Hussein Ali says: “Time and again we have found it is useless and we don’t believe in it any more.” He explains that when he and his men first received the instrument in early 2009 they were happy because they believed they finally had the means of finding concealed explosives and weapons. He said: “We were told it was very modern and would free people from the fear of terrorism. Now we  are embarrassed by it.”

Not all those who use the ADE-651 have become skeptics. Earlier this week I was prevented from entering one heavily guarded area with my car because the wand had twitched as it had been walked past the left side of the vehicle. I continued on foot but the police insisted that the car be parked a hundred yards away from them in case it really did contain a bomb. Yesterday the same car was stopped on Jadriyah bridge over the Tigris and held for 45 minutes for the same reason until a police lieutenant suggested we cross the river by another bridge where a similar inspection by a bomb detector produced no results.

The use of the fake bomb detectors inevitably makes it easier for al-Qa’ida to send its vehicle bombs through checkpoints. So many innocent vehicles are stopped that there is a permanent traffic jam in Baghdad during rush hour. Most people in the city have ceased to believe that the devices work. Mustafa Emir, a student, said “the sonars are not useful and do not protect people. They should be given to the children as toys.” He blamed them for making him and other students late at their university so they missed the first lecture of the day. “The sonar is always showing that out minibus has arms and explosives in it, though it is obvious we are just male and female students trying to study.”

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq






Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).