A look inside America's bomb library

CNN
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 8:00pm

 In an undisclosed location outside Washington is a fingerprinting lab - thought to be the largest in the world where the remnants of improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs, are analyzed under sophisticated microscopes, in hopes of recovering latent prints from the insurgent bomb makers who crafted them.

The collection of bomb parts makes up the "nation's bomb library." Greg Carl, the director of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), runs the operation from Quantico, Virginia. He says it is the only interagency government organization to analyze and fully exploit bomb-related materials, creating a comprehensive database of known terrorists for all law enforcement, the U.S. intelligence community and the military to share.

Bombs from Boston to the attempted underwear bombing of an airliner to IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are analyzed here. The burnt underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, infamously known as the "Underwear bomber," who tried to bring down Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day in 2009, was brought to the center. Analysis showed the materials used were not easily detected by airport security, details that were sent swiftly to Homeland Security officials.

"We ostensibly have all of the bombs of interest to the United States government here, since 2003," Carl said.

Before TEDAC's inception 10 years ago, no coordinated effort existed, a criticism that has often been levied after failures of national security. IEDs such as those the lab analyzes each day have killed nearly 2,000 and wounded nearly 20,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Within hours of the attack on the Boston Marathon, components of the bombs arrived at the FBI lab. Leads detected from the explosive residue were quickly passed to investigators, who apprehended the alleged bombers within days of the attack.

CNN was given an exclusive look at the various stages of processing evidence, which comes from bombings in as many as 25 countries from as far as the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia, in addition to the United States.

Carl won't comment on individual countries, but he said if there are threats by Syria and Iran in retaliation for a U.S. strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the lab is ready to respond with analysis.

More than 100,000 boxes of evidence have been collected so far. They contain more than a million fragments fashioned from ordinary objects, which are barcoded and labeled before going through a wide array of forensic examinations, including toolmark identification, which allows matches of fragments to be made. Every scrap is searched for clues to a bomber's identity.

"Whether it's gripping, scraping, impression, cutting - we can identify a tool as having produced a toolmark such as cutting this particular saw blade," said Carlo Rosati, a veteran FBI senior toolmarks examiner.

"There are obviously people teaching other people to make devices and that is seen because there are different designs," Rosati said, pointing out that each insurgent bomb maker has a signature style. "They're using what they have available to them to make a particular switch or bomb. Although there may be many people out there, every time we stop one that's one less we have to worry about."

By many estimations, analyzing explosives, fingerprints and bomb making techniques has paid off. According to Mary Kathryn Book, a physical scientist with the lab, "Approximately 60% of the time, we are able to recover prints from these items through fingerprint processing. And then later these prints are searched in our database and we attempt to identify the individuals who left them."

The lab is going back through its inventory of IED material from Iraq that had been considered low priority. The purpose is to see if any Iraqi refugees relocated in the United States may be tied to IED attacks, as was the case with two Iraqi refugees based in Kentucky.

Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller was concerned about sequestration affecting operations like the lab, whose operating budget comes from multiple agencies, although the total budget is undisclosed.

Just as the threat of al Qaeda bombs appears to be rising, the lab's budget is being cut. Carl said he hopes he and his team will be there to investigate the boxes, which are certain to keep coming.
 

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