An Iraqi policeman inspects a car with a bomb detector at a checkpoint after reopening a main street due to improvements in the security situation in Sadr city in northeastern Baghdad, April 28, 2012.
An Iraqi policeman inspects a car with a bomb detector at a checkpoint after reopening a main street due to improvements in the security situation in Sadr city in northeastern Baghdad, April 28, 2012.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

Adel Aljaf was a young, multitalented Iraqi man from Baghdad. He graduated from law school, released seven music videos, and was involved in a recent protest against corruption in Iraq. But his real passion was dancing. He wanted to perform in New York, and it seemed like he might get the chance. “In April, 2015, Battery Dance managed to get a grant from the Prince Claus Fund (Netherlands) to bring Adel from Baghdad to Amman,” Jonathan Hollander, the founder and the artistic director of Battery Dance, a New York-based dance company, posted on his Facebook page. “He trained…and performed in two festivals. He spread his radiant light and joy among us and everyone he met.”

But in July, as Adel was preparing to marry his fiancée, he was killed with 306 other Iraqis in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. Most of the fallen were, like Adel, young Iraqi professionals. It was the deadliest blast in Baghdad’s history. The neighborhood where the explosion took place is devastated; two shopping malls that were hit by the car bomb are now packed with memorials.

While announcing his resignation after the bombing, the Iraqi minister of interior said the car had come from Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, which means that it would have passed through dozens of checkpoints outfitted with devices that supposedly detect explosives. And there were plenty to detect. Leaked documents related to the official investigation of the bombing state that the terrorists’ car had carried 550 pounds of explosives.

The tragedy seems senseless enough. Yet if anyone dared tell the families of Adel and those lost in Baghdad that the game of golf might be blamed for the carnage, their pain might be all the worse. In fact, a golf ball finder, a product called the Gopher, has turned out to be one of the world’s deadliest hoaxes.

The Gopher was introduced to the market in the 1990s. It is still available to eBay shoppers for $20. It is similar in shape to a TV remote control, with an antenna that is supposed to move in the direction of a lost ball. The designer of the device, Wade L. Quattlebaum of South Carolina, perhaps never imagined the other uses for the tool, including facilitating the deaths of thousands of people around the world.

THE LETTER

Leaked Iraqi government documents show that, one day in February 2006, an Iraqi company called Wahet al-Badiya sent a letter to the Iraqi deputy minister of interior, Ahmed al-Khafaji. The Iraqi firm was advertising a device called the ADE 650 that was alleged to detect bombs, among other things. The Iraqi firm was acting as a middle party for a British company called ATSC.

A firemen reacts at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Kirkuk, about 150 miles  north of Baghdad October 19, 2006.
A firemen reacts at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad October 19, 2006.
Slahaldeen Rasheed / Reuters
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the country had suffered from an unimaginable number of bombings by Iraqi insurgents. So it is perhaps not surprising that, in May 2006, Khafaji responded to the offer by the Iraqi company. Khafaji, who was also a leader of the Shiite militia Badr organization, had formed a committee composed of four officers who examined the device and recommended buying it. He circulated a memo to the ministry’s senior officials in which he said that the ADE 650 is able to detect explosives and drugs within a 650-meter (2,132 feet) radius on land, from the air at a distance of 5,000 meters (3.1 miles), up to 98 feet under water, and 32 feet underground.

The Iraqi ministry of the interior then tasked Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the counter-explosives department, with giving his technical opinion of the device. Jabiri’s verdict, like Khafaji’s, was positive. And so, in September 2006, the ministry made moves to arrange a purchase. Jabiri ended up taking nine other officers to Lebanon, where they tested the device in November 2006 and confirmed that the interior ministry was making the right choice. Colonels Ahmed Mawla, Jasim Jiryan, and Muhammad Shindi were among those who accompanied him to Lebanon. 

In February 2007, Iraq signed a contract with Wahet al-Badiya for 14 ADEs for $55,000 per unit. Over the next few years, Iraq spent nearly $120 million on the ADE 650 and the “modified” ADE 651. In April 2007, the ministry started distributing the devices to checkpoints all over the country.

Iraqi civilians greeted the ADEs with skepticism. The devices’ hits seemed almost random, so cars were stopped at police checkpoints and the drivers were asked whether they were carrying a weapon, regardless of what the ADE indicated. Others were asked whether they were wearing perfume, since policemen were told that the ADE sometimes picked up on that instead of explosives.

Unrelated to the Iraqi armed services’ new toy, the number of explosive attacks in Iraq decreased from late 2006 to 2008. The U.S. troop surge, the Sunni Awakening movement against al Qaeda in Iraq, the ceasefire that radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued in August 2007, and the multiple operations that Iraqi government forces launched after January 2007 had all resulted in a dramatic drop in violence—nearly 90 percent—from late 2006’s high point.

Of course, the interior ministry attributed the decrease to the ADE.

THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

In August 2009, while working at The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau, I interviewed Aqeel al-Turaihi, who was inspector general of the interior ministry, for a story on corruption. During the interview, Turaihi told me that, among the corruption investigations that his office had opened was a study of the ADE 651 contract. At the time, he thought that the main issue was overpricing.

It quickly became clear, though, that the reality was much more complicated. Just days after our interview, a series of spectacular car bomb attacks hit government buildings in Baghdad, claiming hundreds of lives. My colleague and boss, Rod Nordland, who was the deputy bureau chief in Baghdad, asked the U.S. military in Iraq about the device that was supposed to prevent such bloodshed. To our surprise, Major General Richard J. Rowe Jr., who has overseen Iraqi police training for the American military and other U.S. experts, told him that the ADE is worthless and is actually the same thing as the golf ball Gopher, which is worth the $20 price because it is really only a toy that detects nothing, not even lost balls.

Soon, Rod and I went to meet Jabiri at the Iraqi interior ministry’s counter-explosives department. He refuted all questions about the ADE and he called himself the best explosives expert in the world. Before we left, Jabiri warned that “if the expected article is bad, I will sue you.” That article appeared in November 2009 and broke a worldwide scandal.

British businessman James McCormick arrives at the Old Bailey in central London May 2, 2013.
British businessman James McCormick arrives at the Old Bailey in central London May 2, 2013.
Toby Melville / Reuters

Weeks later, Jabiri had James McCormick, the owner of the British manufacturing firm ATSC, defend the ADE 651 at a press conference in Baghdad. His appearance came after multiple car bomb attacks that his gadget had failed to detect. Nevertheless, Jabiri and McCormick virulently defended it. A month later, McCormick was arrested in the United Kingdom for fraud. The New York Times story, an investigation by the BBC, and thousands of articles and news segments had convinced the British police that the ADE 651 was indeed a fraud worth a criminal investigation and action.

After the arrest, ADEs were banned from export to Iraq and Afghanistan. But the story wasn’t over. In fact, the ADE 651 was only the latest of a series of fraudulent devices that all used the Gopher as a model. Between 1993 and 1996, schools, airports, and police departments across the United States purchased thousands of something called the Quadro Tracker, manufactured by the same firm that made the Gopher, the Quadro Corporation, located in South Carolina. The tracker was sold to some departments for $8,000 per unit. The FBI discovered the hoax in 1996, and the Quadro was banned all over the United States.

In order to network and sell the tracker, Quadro Corp. had used the services of two assistant U.S. attorneys. One of them, Guy Womack, lost his job and paid a fine. (In 2004, Womack reappeared representing the principal participant in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.) Meanwhile, a jury found the principal figures at Quadro Corp. guilty of no crime. Some of them, and their device-distributing agents, moved to the United Kingdom, where they founded firms to sell the fake bomb detectors to governments and entities around the world that were concerned about security after the 9/11 attacks.

Several years later, the U.S. military bought eight devices almost identical to the Quadro Tracker, for $50,000 each. Again, the claim was that the device—now called Sniffex and produced by a firm called Homeland Safety International—could detect explosives. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued the manufacturing firm in 2008 for fraud.

And yet another version of the Gopher, the GT200, was made by a British firm called Global Technical Ltd. and was sold beginning in 2004 to countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The Thai government, for one, procured 1,358 for around $45 million. The Thai army and police planned to use the gadget in the effort to combat the Muslim insurgency in the country’s south. By 2008, though, the Thai press had apparently noticed how ineffective the device was. Many bomb attacks went undetected; many innocents were arrested and tortured based on false detection by the GT200.

Meanwhile, Mexican federal and state governments have purchased more than 1,200 GT200s at a cost of $22,000 each. It has been put to use detecting drugs and explosives by the army, the police, and in prisons. According to Judicial Channel, the fraudulent device has brought at least three innocent people to court for alleged drug-related crimes.

In 2005, the United Nations Environment Program even bought 15 GT200s to detect ivory at airports, border crossings, and checkpoints in Kenya, the Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. The cost was $5,000 per piece. China, India, Jordan, Lebanon, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates have also fallen for the scam.

After the revelations of the related ADE, the United Kingdom banned the GT200. The owner of Global Technical Ltd., Gary Bolton, was convicted in 2013 of fraud and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Nevertheless, the Thai and Mexican military resisted dropping the GT200 for years, despite the Thai prime minister’s declaration in 2010 that the GT200 was useless and despite the Mexican judiciary’s dismissal of drug cases that depended on the GT200 for evidence.

Even then, however, the story was not over. In February 2014, the Egyptian army announced that it had discovered a cure for AIDS and Hepatitis. The illness’ detection and cure rested on nothing other than yet one more version of the magic wand. This time, it was called C-FAST. Another version, “developed” by Charles L. Christensen, was called H3Tec and could allegedly detect gold. Yet another iteration, called DKLabs LifeGuard, was purchased by the Japanese police to locate missing people.

Thai soldiers use a bomb detector as they patrol the troubled Yala province in southern Thailand March 31, 2010.
Thai soldiers use a bomb detector as they patrol the troubled Yala province in southern Thailand March 31, 2010.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

None of these units have spread quite as far as the ADE 651 did. At its peak, it was in active use in Iraq, of course, but also Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belgium, Georgia, India, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Niger, Pakistan, Qatar, Romania, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.

BACK TO IRAQ

When a device is declared fraudulent by its country of origin, one would think that the country that bought it would stop using it. But that is not what happened.

Leaked Iraqi government documents show that in April 2010, the commission of public integrity, Iraq’s top corruption watchdog agency, issued an arrest warrant for Jabiri; Jawad al-Balaghi, who was in charge of the contracts department at the Iraqi ministry of interior; and Mawla, Jiryan, and Shindi of the counter-explosives department, for their involvement in the ADE contract.

The interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, declined to surrender the officers to the Iraqi judiciary. According to Bolani, the actions in question were taken while the officers were “performing their duty and there is no proof that they were delinquent.” In 2013, three years after leaving the ministry and many years after the swindle had been revealed, Bolani still insisted on air that the ADE 651 works with 100 percent accuracy.  

After Bolani left the ministry of interior, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took over as acting minister of interior in December 2010. Bolani became a member of parliament. Despite having avoided arrest in 2010, Jabiri was taken in in February 2011. By June 2012, he was sentenced to four years for corruption in the ADE 651 contract. Mawla and Jiryan were likewise sentenced to four years in prison.

Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general of the Iraqi interior ministry, was convinced that McCormick had bribed at least eight Iraqi officials to purchase the ADE. A whistle blower at ATCS told the BBC that 15 Iraqi officials were paid millions of dollars in Lebanon to approve the contract. Whatever the number, when McCormick was sentenced to ten years in prison by a British court in May 2013, among his purchases with the ADE money was the former residence of the actor Nicolas Cage.

Despite all of the evidence and convictions piling up, as prime minister, Maliki never agreed to stop using the ADE. “Some of the devices were original and they do detect (bombs). Some other devices which where the center of a lawsuit were fake,” he said at a press conference in May 2013. “The problem now is in these fake ones. The original devices’ problem is that they require experience in using them and they are not to be depended upon as the only method to detect explosives.”

According to leaked Iraqi government documents, Maliki also ordered a stop to all the legal procedures against Balagi in March 2014. Balagi is now the head of the fund for police martyrs, which helps families whose relatives have been killed in police service.  One irony among many is that most of the fallen policemen were killed by bombs thought to be detectable by the ADE.  

THE BUSINESS OF FRAUD

The United Kingdom has been quick to prosecute its citizens for fraud. Yet, the firm that originally sold the device in Iraq was Iraqi, and it was working with a political faction that had everything to gain. Indeed, behind the ADE 651 contract lies one of Iraq’s most notorious cases of political corruption.

Fadhil al-Dabbas is an Iraqi businessman who financed the ADE 651 contract via the firm Wahet al-Badiya. Dabbas himself acknowledges his role and denies any wrongdoing. He claims that he was a mere financier of the contract. “I am not Britain that manufactured the device, nor the ministry of interior that contracted to import the device, nor the party that defined the type of the device, received it, tested it and used it,” Dabbas said in a public statement. “I am a businessman and a banker... I financed several projects and contracts, including the contract of the explosive-detection devices.” Dabbas has made it clear to the public that the Iraqi judiciary cleared him of wrongdoing.   

Regardless, Dabbas made millions of dollars from the ADE affair. He owns the United Bank of Investment, whose original capital was no more than $500,000 in August 1994 when it was founded. By May 2009, the bank’s capital had increased to $85 million. In part, his earnings have funded a media empire. In July 2013, Dabbas started the Arabic-language satellite television channel called Hona Baghdad. The channel is yet another tool of influence in Dabbas’ hand.

In December 2013, Dabbas also established a political bloc called Iraq Alliance. Some Iraqi observers, including Iraqi activist and journalist Nabeel Jasim, have called it “the fake bomb detectors alliance.” In the April 2014 parliamentary election, Iraq Alliance won eight seats. A month later, it joined Maliki’s bloc, further securing its own legitimacy.

In August 2014, Maliki lost his seat as the Islamic State (ISIS) overran one-third of Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, opened a campaign to combat corruption and cut overspending. In one of his first acts, he had the government retry and sentence Jabiri, who had been in prison for four years already.

Yet as Baghdad sacrificed Jabiri to silence protests about corruption and lack of services, the government continued using thousands of ADE 651s all over the country, despite the fact that most policemen knew that the device doesn’t work.

Its intransigence on the ADE was perhaps not surprising: under Abadi, the Iraq Alliance has become one of the most influential groups in national politics. The alliance secured the ministry of environment in the Abadi government. One of the alliance’s prominent members was tasked in March 2016 with naming the new technocrat ministers for Abadi.  

And so the bloodshed continues around the world. The use of the fake explosive-detection devices has led to deaths in many countries, including in Thailand and Pakistan. But no country has paid as high a price as Iraq. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, it has witnessed more deadly car bomb strikes than any other country. They are ISIS’ preferred tactic against civilians and the military. In effect, continued reliance on the ADE 651 has helped ISIS establish an Iraq- and Syria-based caliphate with a worldwide presence.  

When 307 people’s lives were lost in one explosion in Baghdad last July, the Iraqi prime minister finally ordered the removal of the ADE 651 from Iraq’s checkpoints. It is a little too late for that. Between April 2007 and July 2016, 101,579 Iraqi civilians were killed, most of them by bombs, according to the Iraqi body count organization. In addition, 19,793 Iraqi soldiers and policemen were killed between January 2007 and July 2016, according to the United Nations mission to Iraq and other sources. Many, if not most, of the Iraqi victims falsely believed that the ADE 651 protected them. Over 1,500 U.S. and coalition troops were also killed in the same period, most of them by bombs.

Nibras Kazimi, a fellow at Hudson Institute who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, puts it succinctly: “The ADE 651 device used in Iraqi security checkpoints is the symbol of corruption in Iraq. It summarizes all aspects of government failure. It is where ignorance merges with corruption to enable terrorism.”

As the Iraqi government struggles now to employ a reliable method to detect explosives, like trained dogs, it is hard to imagine that the bloodshed caused by bombs will end anytime soon.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • RIYADH MOHAMMED is an investigative journalist who covered the Iraq war, corruption, ISIS, and the Middle East for The New York Times and The Fiscal Times. His articles also appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post among others.
  • More By Riyadh Mohammed