But as of Monday morning, New York Times reporters saw police using them “at checkpoints across Baghdad”—even though, in the wake of the bombing, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had said that the police should stop doing so. 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.”
The “bomb detectors,” as many people have reported over the years, are actually repurposed (also fake) golf ball detectors. As my friend and Atlantic contributor Jeffrey Stern detailed in Vanity Fair last year, a typical model
consists of a cheap plastic handle with a free-swinging antenna, and the way it works is simple: When you tilt the device to the right, the antenna swings right. When you tilt it to the left, the antenna swings left. If you’ve been primed by the right sales pitch, you believe that the antenna has moved as a result of something called nuclear quadrupole resonance, or electrostatic attraction, or low-frequency radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere—each force supposedly drawing the antenna toward the substance you’re scanning for, such as, in the beginning, “the elements used in all golf balls.”
Later versions, marketed as the A.D.E. 651, among other names, came with cards that a user could supposedly insert to detect different kinds of substances, from drugs to explosives to ivory. (Versions of the device have been sold in Mexico, Thailand, Niger, and numerous other countries.) In 2010, the BBC took some of those cards to a laboratory at Cambridge University to be analyzed by the computer scientist Markus Kuhn, who found, in the BBC’s words, that a card purporting to be able to detect TNT “contained nothing but a type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.” Kuhn remarked that “These are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card.” That same year, an investigation by the inspector general of Iraq’s Interior Ministry also concluded that “many lives had been lost due to the wands’ utter ineffectiveness.” As Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post reported at the time:
When faced with the inspector general’s findings, Interior Ministry officials did not pull the devices from hundreds of checkpoints that snarl traffic around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Instead, they shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts, worth at least $85 million.
One possible reason for the government’s decision: That Interior Ministry report concluded that 75 percent of the contract’s value was paid in kickbacks to Iraqi officials.
An inert hunk of plastic, marketed falsely as a safeguard for up to $40,000 a unit, wielded by disillusioned security forces who know full well it’s useless but have no other choice—the device is, as the Post pointed out, an apt symbol of the Iraqi government’s corruption and failure to protect its citizens. It’s also a hugely discouraging, if not unusual, sign of just how difficult a task Iraqi security forces face as one of the frontline forces in the fight against ISIS, despite recent successes. The Baghdad attack came mere weeks after Abadi declared that the Iraqi military had liberated the western city of Fallujah, which was the first to fall to ISIS two years ago; other battlefield losses for ISIS have similarly been followed with an uptick in attacks in Baghdad. The Islamic State may exist in part to hold territory, but fighters deprived of territory can find ways to keep fighting.