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Learning Bomb-Making Secrets

THE FIVE-YEAR-OLD WAR in Iraq has added a new and unwelcome term to the English lexicon: the improvised explosive device (IED), which has caused a staggering 70 percent of U.S. casualties in the war, and 40 percent of combat deaths.

The homemade bomb is not new; it has been the terrorists’ weapon of choice for decades. But in Iraq, insurgents have shown a capacity for unprecedented innovations as they struggle to stay one step ahead of U.S. countermeasures.

Most troubling, this newfound expertise is easily disseminated far beyond its Iraqi origins thanks to the Internet. While terrorists have yet to use this new knowledge to carry out large improvised bombings in the United States, Charlie Payne, a former Navy ordinance disposal technician and now head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Bombing Prevention (OBP), thinks it’s only a matter of time.

“Every time our BlackBerry rings late at night, we wonder if it’s the beginning of a storm that has gathered, that’s gaining strength, and is on the way,” Payne said at a recent panel discussion on the IED phenomenon, hosted by Washington, D.C.’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The government is constantly working to prepare U.S. bomb disposal units for the day when they will have to deal locally with an IED in a car on a busy city street, as occurred in London last summer. One tool they hope to provide disposal units is the latest information about IED construction. To that end, the OBP operates the Technical Resource for Incident Prevention (TRIPwire) Web portal.

TRIPwire stores all the data on bombmaking methods that OBP has collected from available sources, including the military and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Researchers cull data from manuals and Web materials created by insurgents. Only cleared users can access the site, chief among whom are the country’s roughly 2,900 bomb technicians on 472 accredited squads.

The site is available for day-to-day research. In theory, it might also help a technician in the field who encounters an unfamiliar device.

Lt. Shawn Stallworth, commander of the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad and a member of the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board, says that TRIPwire provides an important service by making it easier for bomb technicians to get timely information about new bomb-making methods. “Without it, we would all be at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stallworth says.

TRIPwire has more than 4,000 users and has logged more than 7.5 million hits, says DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa. Those numbers are expected to grow this year, as OBP beta tests site access for private sector stakeholders.

Kudwa says that OBP foresees tiered access for private-sector stakeholders. Specialists or staff holding adequate clearances might enjoy broad site access, while lower-level or point-of-service workers may get more limited access. Those questions, and those of vetting procedures, will be resolved through the beta testing, Kudwa says.