The Case of the Phony Bomb Detectors (or: Why Haider al-Abadi May Be Out of a Job Soon)

Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban has submitted his resignation to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the wake of Sunday’s dual car bombings that killed upwards of 200 people (the AP is reporting 175, but earlier reports went higher than that) in Baghdad. In doing so, he blamed his ministry, and presumably himself, for failing to coordinate security responsibilities for the Iraqi capital among the various police and military forces that are supposed to share that task. Abadi has not yet accepted his resignation as far as I have seen, but it would be somewhat surprising if he didn’t. Abadi will probably be hoping that Ghabban’s departure will pacify, for now, the Iraqi public, at least a portion of which is so incensed at Abadi’s failure to provide security (or much else, really) that a crowd of them chased him and his security detail away from the larger of Sunday’s two bomb sites, in Baghdad’s Karrada district, when he tried to visit.

Mohammed al-Ghabban (Wikimedia | Gabban232)

Again, that many Iraqis, and (particularly troubling for his political future) many Iraqi Shiʿa are angry with Abadi is not breaking news. To some extent he’s being unfairly blamed for corruption problems that really took root before he became PM, but he’s also been on the job long enough, and accomplished little enough, that he deserves to feel some heat himself. For the most part, recent Iraqi anger at Iraqi politics has been focused on the parliament that seems to block any attempt at governmental reform, but Abadi’s reception in Karrada makes it clear that people are definitely growing fed up with him as well. And so Abadi has taken action: he’s ordered Iraqi police to stop using the fake bomb detectors they’ve been using for the past nine years.

Yeah, you read that right:

For the past nine years, Iraq’s security forces have tried to stop car bombs with a British-made bomb detector wand that was long ago proven to be fake. A day after a car bomb killed at least 157 people in central Baghdad, the country’s prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has demanded their withdrawal.

After the single deadliest attack in Iraq this year, Abadi also ordered a renewed corruption investigation into the sale of the devices from 2007-10, which cost Iraq more than £53m and netted the Somerset businessman James McCormick enormous profits, as well as a 10-year jail sentence for fraud.

The cost to the Iraqi public will remain incalculable: the vast majority of the bombs that have killed and maimed at least 4,000 people since 2007 have been driven straight past police or soldiers using the devices at checkpoints.

I have to confess, I remember reading something about this story years ago, but I never imagined that the Iraqi government was still using these things even after the guy who sold them went to prison because the sale was fraudulent. Apparently there were still people in the Interior Ministry claiming that these things worked, despite the fact that 1) they never did and 2) again, the guy who sold them went to fucking prison. But whatever the Interior Ministry’s position on these things, it doesn’t excuse Abadi’s total political (hell, moral) malpractice in keeping these things in use. So this really may be Abadi’s downfall, and honestly it wouldn’t be unjustified.

This is a bit of a digression, but you’ll note in that Guardian piece up there that tests done at the Karrada site indicate the use of napalm in the bomb. That would be a first for ISIS and also may explain why the casualty count was so high for that attack. Obviously this could be an extraordinarily troubling indicator of things to come, if ISIS has stockpiled more of the stuff.


2 thoughts on “The Case of the Phony Bomb Detectors (or: Why Haider al-Abadi May Be Out of a Job Soon)

  1. Not to mitigate his fraud, but the whole affair feels a little less egregious if you look at the devices as ‘probable cause’ machines. That is, if their readings were so ambiguous and random that they served only to amplify a security guards suspicions (or lack thereof). I remember reading that El-Al (the Israeli airline) places more emphasis on security agents readings of people/behaviour, than of technical security measures, so maybe its the same principle here. If a security guard “has a gut feeling” that a driver is acting strangely, they can look to the device to “confirm” their suspicions and justify a search. Basically the El-Al method, but with a technological cover.

    Not that that excuses the obscene markup on the devices, but I imagine the fraudster would say it was necessary to keep up the illusion.

    1. But El-Al does extensive screening including personal interviews, something you just can’t do when you’re waving a wand over somebody entering a venue. I could almost buy the argument that these things are a bluff, i.e., they’re supposed to make the would-be terrorist think that you’re screening for explosives even though you really aren’t. But clearly they don’t work like that, or else Baghdad would be a lot more peaceful than it currently is. And anyway, once it becomes public knowledge that they’re not actually explosives detectors, and I think it’s safe to say it was public knowledge in this case, they’re not even useful as a bluff. Yet they were still in service for some reason.

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