The Iraq car bombing that claimed almost 300 lives on July 3 was blamed by some on the ineffectiveness of a fake bomb detector. Originally developed as lost golf-ball finders, the so-called ADE-651 devices were fraudulently marketed to Iraq and other nations over the last decade as handheld bomb detectors by a British businessman now sitting in jail. But police in Baghdad are still deploying the widely condemned devices at security checkpoints across the city.
So, why are they still being used? An officer using one told the Washington Post simply: “We haven’t received an order yet… We know it doesn’t work, everybody knows it doesn’t work, and the man who made it is in prison now. But I don’t have any other choice.” Experts say the toxic mix of corruption and wishful thinking that fueled this debacle shows just how dysfunctional key militaries in the Middle East and even in the West can be.
Though it’s hard to point the finger at any one specific failure of security as the authorities are still investigating the attack, many Iraqis have vented their anger at the ADE-651 (short for “Advanced Detection Equipment”). There is little doubt the fraud behind it has been deadly in recent years.
“It’s impossible to know how many lives these fake wands have cost to Iraq, but it’s not zero and it’s likely to be quite significant,” says Kyle W. Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in the U.K.
Amidst intense public outcry, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi finally abolished the use of the controversial device after the attack. Yet the story of how Iraqi soldiers and police continued to wave around at checkpoints what might best be compared to dowsing rods, almost a decade after their government recognized them as a fraud, is so bizarre it beggars belief.
The scam spun off of a 1990s lost golf ball detector toy—the FBI reportedly declared an early drugs-and-explosives focused prototype a fraud all the way back in 1996. The devices claimed to work with nuclear quadrupole resonance but reportedly contained no functional electronics; users were sometimes advised to drag their feet on the ground to generate static electricity that would “prime” them.
Yet the gadgets kept popping up around the world for decades. Using aggressive marketing techniques, a group of fraudsters sold them in different versions to gullible governments and security firms as diverse as of those in Mexico, Thailand, China, Lebanon, Kenya, and several Eastern European countries. Violence-ridden Iraq, desperate for any help against bombs, became the largest client after the mid-2000s, reportedly purchasing over $80 million worth of the devices—which typically sold for around $8,000 each and often had little more than sturdy packaging to them than did the $20 Gopher.
Britain, where the Iraqi devices were manufactured, recognized the deceit but struggled to stop it as export-control laws only applied to working weapons systems. (In 2013 a British court did jail James McCormick, the former British policeman who sold the devices to Iraq, for 10 years for fraud in those sales.) But though by 2008 the Iraqi government, too, had caught up to the fact that the gadgets were useless, they continued to be used until days ago.
The reason? “The people need some sort of reassurance,” an unnamed senior interior Iraqi ministry official told The Guardian recently.
Orton says the deeper reasons may have more to do with the fact that McCormick’s business parter in Iraq has also been a valuable ally of several governments in their halfhearted attempts to bridge the bitter sectarian divides that have fueled the rise of Islamic State in the country. In any case, as a net result most Iraqis are well acquainted with the device, and colorful stories continue to circulate about the police dragging their feet pathetically on the ground in hope of catching a bomber or ordinary people being routinely forced to remove perfume from cars at checkpoints in order to supposedly avoid confusing the magic wand.
“I saw the devices many times,” says Gaith Shalan, an Iraqi refugee currently living in Poland. “It’s like a gun but at the end there is something like [an antenna]. I was checked so many times with them. Sometimes, if you have an iPod or iPhone they will tilt to you and check your stuff but… it doesn’t work really. My cousin, who works as a policeman, showed me how he points it at his loaded gun, but it doesn’t even react.”
The Middle East in general has been a fertile ground for conspiracy, even when it comes to states and armies equipped and trained with billions of U.S. tax dollars.
In a rarely comical episode in a region haunted by tragedy, Egypt’s army, one of the largest and best equipped in this part of the world, ceremoniously unveiled in 2014 its own domestically produced electronic Ouija board—a device that supposedly could detect and even cure AIDS and hepatitis C from a distance. Then it more quietly proceeded to shelve the project.
Orton blames corruption and political dysfunction.
“In Egypt and several times in Russia we’ve seen that the ease with which police and military officials can be bribed has led to national security disasters. As in Iraq, the barriers to reform are political: powerful actors have no interest in cleaning house, and even those at the very top have some hand in a lot of the corruption and a cleanup in one area might unravel the whole spoils system,” he added.
Yet the temptation to wishful thinking can have deeper roots and infect even the most developed countries and militaries, military historians say, shattering any illusions of the military as an entirely rational and efficient enterprise.
“The first dimension is the contractor who sells a military system to a government with the guarantee that it will achieve some real-world objective,” said in an email Alex Roland, a professor emeritus of military history and history of technology at Duke University. “The countless barbarians or primitives who bought rabbit’s feet or prayer wheels in this frame of mind are exemplars.”
“The more dangerous phenomenon historically has been the brilliant zealot who thinks he can invent the ultimate anti-war machine,” he added.
“Edward Teller comes to mind. Driven by an irrational hatred for the Soviet Union, he convinced Ronald Reagan to launch a strategic defense initiative, which has never come to pass. Probably the U.S. quest for strategic supremacy drove the U.S. and USSR further apart.”