BAGHDAD — After more than 200 people were killed in a devastating Islamic State bomb attack in the Iraqi capital, Iraqis turned their anger toward a symbol of government corruption and the state’s failure to protect them: fake bomb detectors.
The wand-like devices, little more than an aerial attached to a plastic handle, are still widely in use at security checkpoints around the country even years after the British con man who sold them was arrested for fraud and the United Kingdom banned their export.
They are used at the entrances to embassies, compounds and government ministries. They are used by security forces at checkpoints such as those on the shopping street at Karrada that was hit in the suicide bombing in the early hours of Sunday morning, and has been targeted numerous times in the past.
As infernos set off by the blast engulfed shopping centers, suffocating and burning to death those inside, Iraqis took to social media to vent about the fake detectors.
An Arabic hashtag began trending for “soup detectors,” mocking the absurdity that these handheld devices can detect explosives. The Ministry of Interior’s website was hacked and a picture of a bloodied baby was posted along with a bomb detector bearing the Islamic State’s markings — making the point that the fake wands aid only those intent on killing civilians. “I don’t know how you sleep at night,” the hacked site read. “Your conscience is dead.”
As anger grew, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Sunday night that all the country’s security forces should remove the handheld devices from checkpoints and that the Interior Ministry should reopen its investigation into the corrupt deals for the devices.
But they were still in use in Baghdad the following morning, and it's unclear when the move will be implemented.
“We haven’t received an order yet,” said Muqdad al-Timimi, a police officer at a checkpoint in northern Baghdad who was still using one of the devices. “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 device, known as the ADE-651, was sold to Iraq by James McCormick, a British man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a U.K. court in 2014 for fraud. He had been arrested in 2010 when export of the device was banned by the British government.
McCormick is thought to have made more than $80 million selling the devices in countries including Iraq. McCormick’s company had claimed that the devices could detect contraband such as drugs and explosives from as far as a kilometer away. The manual for the device had said that with the right “substance detection cards,” the devices could even detect elephants or $100 bills.
A BBC investigation in 2010 concluded that it was impossible that the device could detect anything at all. It described it as a “glorified dousing rod.”
Sidney Alford, an explosives expert who advises the British military, described the sale of the ADE-651 as "absolutely immoral."
In the mid-1990s, the FBI had raised concerns over a similar device. They are all simply rebranded versions of “Gopher: The Amazing Golf Ball Finder!,” which wasn't even capable of that. The aerial simply swings in response to any small movement by the hand of the operator. The Gopher sold for $69, but McCormick sold the devices to Iraq for thousands of dollars each, according to news reports.
But despite being proved to be fake, the devices are still heavily relied upon in the Middle East, with many Iraqis raising questions over how they can still be used even though they are known to be fake.
In his book “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future,” Zaid al-Ali recounts how two weeks after the U.K. court decision against McCormick, several explosions killed dozens in the Iraqi capital. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called a news conference, where he was asked why the devices were still in use.
Ali said the response left him “dumbfounded.” The prime minister said he formed several committees to investigate claims that the devices were fake. He said the results found that the devices worked between 20 and 54 percent of the time if the soldiers knew how to use them correctly. Although some devices were fake, others were real, he said.
There were only two ways of interpreting the prime minister’s comments, Ali wrote. “Either he believed what he was saying (which would mean that he was incapable of understanding what was painfully obvious to just about everyone else) or he was deliberately twisting the truth (which would mean that the security and well-being of Iraqis was for him secondary to protecting his own reputation)."
He described it as “a perfect illustration of how Iraqis’ problems were caused not by religion and race, but by misgovernment.”
Since Abadi took office in 2014, the use of the detectors has continued.
On Tuesday, Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban resigned, saying there needs to be true government reform, not just the removal of fake detectors.
In an interview on state television in May, Ghabban said he had inherited the problem and that a “committee” should be formed to see whether the devices work. He described the problem of the bomb detectors as “bigger than the Ministry of Interior.”
But Ibrahim al-Abadi, a spokesman for the ministry, said an investigation was already carried out in 2011,when Interior Ministry officials traveled to Britain and concluded the devices were fake.
"We were thinking of withdrawing it from checkpoints, but the problem is, there is no alternative," he said. He said it can help panic anyone carrying explosives or contraband, which checkpoint officials can pick up on.
A director at the ministry's counterexplosives unit was sentenced to seven years in jail over the purchases in 2012, he said. In 2015, his sentence was extended for a further two years after another ruling.
“People are waiting at checkpoints in the heat every day to pass by a fake detector, which is just a toy,” said Aws Yassin, 35, who was protesting near the scene of the bombing on Sunday night.
The protesters moved on to Abadi’s family home, which is in the area, calling him a thief and accusing him of killing the people of Karrada.
“If he had any dignity he’d resign now,” said Abbas Yassin, 45.
Politically weak, Abadi has struggled to implement his limited political reforms. It is unclear what the government plans to replace the fake detectors with, but Abadi has ordered the rollout of U.S.-made Rapiscan scanners on roads into Baghdad.
It remains to be seen whether he can finally end the use of the fake detectors in Iraq. Abadi, the interior ministry spokesman, said he expected them to be gradually withdrawn after the prime minister's order.
At the checkpoint, Timimi, the police officer, said he hoped that real devices would be brought in to protect the people.
“Many people have died because of this piece of plastic,” he said.
Morris reported from Beirut.
This post has been updated.