For months now, the main danger to U.S. forces in Iraq has not come from insurgent combat troops but from what Americans call IEDs — the homemade bombs made from artillery shells and other explosives that can be buried beside roads and hidden in booby traps and set off in a variety of ways.
CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart reports that FBI technicians using breakthrough forensic techniques have made major strides in identifying where these devices are coming from and who is making them.
CBS News has learned that U.S. explosives experts have succeeded in identifying — by name in some instances — the terrorists responsible for building many of the improvised bombs used in everyday attacks in Iraq.
Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, are responsible for nearly half of all the U.S. combat deaths recorded in Iraq since March 2003. Reducing the frequency and lethality of those attacks is considered crucial to the U.S. war effort.
The identifications were made possible by piecing together fragments of over 1,500 exploded IEDs as well as disassembling numerous bombs that didn't go off, and gathering signature elements from each of the bombs.
In some instances experts have reconstructed entire explosive devices including their unique timing mechanism and linked them to individual bombers.
At the request of the FBI, CBS News has agreed not to report specific findings about the reconstructed devices. The FBI expressed concerns to CBS that revealing such details might compromise ongoing operations and jeopardize the safety of U.S. personnel in Iraq.
The forensic signatures led analysts to suspect that many of the IEDs were constructed by a relatively small number of master bomb makers, such as those whose "how to" videotapes were posted on a terrorist Web site. Some bomb makers were linked to dozens of explosive devices. Some have been captured as a result of the identification and other terrorist technicians, CBS News was told, have been identified by name and are being sought.
Work on the devices was conducted at the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, a joint FBI, ATF and Department of Defense project, located at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
Neither the FBI, the ATF nor the Pentagon would comment on the center or its work. However in a little-noticed House subcommittee hearing last March, FBI Director Robert Mueller talked about the center.
"Identifying and reconstructing timing devices, explosives and producing an analytical product that is distributed throughout the military or throughout law enforcement in the United States may well enable us to prevent the use of those devices in the future," Mueller said.
And clearly they've already had some success. Several bomb makers have been taken out as a result of this work. But the terrorists just keep coming back. The military now reports that insurgents have developed an IED that literally leaps into the air and detonates when helicopters are passing overhead.
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Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com