Pakistan's bogus bomb-detectors in business despite global scandal

By AFP
Published: August 8, 2016
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A Pakistani private security guard uses an explosives detector to search a vehicle at a mall entrance in Islamabad PHOTO: AFP

A Pakistani private security guard uses an explosives detector to search a vehicle at a mall entrance in Islamabad PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: With radio-like antennae meant to swivel and point at vehicles carrying bombs, “magic wand” explosive detectors proliferated throughout conflict zones in the 2000s until they were exposed as a global scam.

But in an astonishing security threat, more than 15,000 of a new variant of the handheld device have been made in Pakistan to guard high-value facilities such as airports and government installations, despite officials conceding they are effectively useless.

Many creators of the original devices are serving long prison sentences for fraud, including British businessman James McCormick. His ADE-651 became a mainstay of security forces in Iraq, where $85 million was spent on them, before they were officially banned last month.

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“It serves a deterrence value only — it’s good for police and security personnel to have something in their hands,” said a senior interior ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous.

PHOTO: AFP

Pressed on whether Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents — who have been waging an insurgency that has claimed more than 60,000 lives in Pakistan since 2004 — may by now be wise to the deception, he conceded: “Yes, they are savvy and they probably are aware by now.”

His comments were backed by two more senior members of government, though neither was prepared to go formally on the record.

Official silence over the matter may be linked to the enormous sums of money involved in the business, observers say, while many bureaucrats fear for their jobs if they speak out.

“Powerful people make money through these scams and you cannot offend powerful people, even if it means endangering lives,” said one former official at the interior ministry.

Pakistan initially imported foreign detector devices such as the ADE-651 and the German made Sniffex, according to a government source, but in 2009 Pakistan’s Airport Security Force (ASF) took over making and selling the wands.

More than 15,000 units have been sold within the country at a cost of 70,000 rupees ($700), according to an official, amounting to a total revenue of more than $10 million.

The ASF — which declined multiple requests for comment — is technically a civilian institution but is staffed by many serving senior officers deputed from the powerful military, which wields considerable influence over the country’s defence and foreign policy.

The wands, named “Khoji” (finder), are used by security personnel to protect airports and government installations, and have also been widely sold to the private sector and deployed at malls, hotels and fast-food chains.

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J Chacko, a London-based security analyst, said they were endangering lives. “A false sense of complacency based on devices that do not work does represent a public security threat,” he said.

The device claims an accuracy level of 90 per cent, according to a copy of its user manual obtained by AFP, but uses the principles of radiesthesia, or dowsing, which experts consider junk science.

“Khoji is the first device of its kind that can detect explosives from distances of up to 100 metres (330 feet), even when the explosive is hidden behind walls or metal barriers such as buildings or vehicles,” the manual boasts.

“It detects the interference by between the magnetic field of the earth, the explosive, the device itself and the human body, which allows the device to penetrate and locate even small amounts of explosive through concrete, soil, and metal barriers.”

But Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at the University College London, dismissed the claims as “laughable”. “There is no physical basis for the operation of those devices,” he told AFP. “It’s pure snake oil, sold to desperate people who use them because something, even if useless, is better than nothing.

“There is no ‘magnetic’ signal that you might be able to pick up. The idea that you could do so through metal, especially steel in a car, is laughable.”

His comments were backed by Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading Pakistani physicist who trained at the US’s MIT. “It’s a fraud. There’s no way that explosives can be detected by electromagnetic means,” he said.

Leading scientists are currently developing legitimate explosives-detectors based on sensors that “sniff” out explosive compounds such as triacetone triperoxide, but the work remains in its infancy.

A Western security consultant Afghanistan told AFP: “The only device that can currently detect such explosives is a dog.”

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Critical
    Aug 8, 2016 - 12:16PM

    The problem depicted is true. The point is actually Pakistan should sue the British authorities for releasing such a product in market. Like I still dont believe how such a product can be used in war zones without any prior testing..? Where is CE conformity? Like i do agree that there are no IEC standards for such equipment but still the sale cannot be justified.

    The question regarding Pakistani production is a different issue! First of all how can one company win a tender in security sector? I would still not make Pakistani goverment accountable for working of the product as it is a technology attained from foreign. One can still argue that Pakistan should also have tested the product but again why didnt the world?

    One point is to be mentioned that I think using of the below line was not required by the author. But once can notice how every thing in Pakistan ends bashing military for no reasons some time.!
    “deputed from the powerful military, which wields considerable influence over the country’s defence and foreign policy.”Recommend

  • Aaron Upright
    Aug 8, 2016 - 4:03PM

    Firstly, what exactly are the expertise of Dr Hoodbhoy or the UCL scientist profiled; do they have any experience in explosives detection.

    Secondly, even if they are ineffective, lets face it, if a bomber has reached the entrance or a gate, then the situation is already very very bad, and hand held devices are not going to help much,it will be up to the quick thinking of the guards. If this……device, helps give the guards confidence to stay at their posts than its already doing its job.Recommend

  • Jawad U Rahman
    Aug 8, 2016 - 5:58PM

    The continued use of these is criminal. Our airpots, malls, and public places are easy tagets due to this quackery. Please immediately get rid of these.Recommend

  • Ch. K. A. Nye
    Aug 8, 2016 - 7:04PM

    You can fool some of the people all of the time and all the people some of the time… But you can’t fool all the people all of the time…

    These fraudulent devices should be withdrawn immediately as they serve absolutely no purpose. Recommend

  • Jamil
    Aug 8, 2016 - 9:03PM

    Pakistani ASF has high ranking serving military officers speaks volume of where this 700 dollars per fake bomb detector is going. More than 15000 units have been sold of this fake device called khoji. Investigation and suo-moto action by chief justice of Pakistan required to expose these corrupt individuals. Recommend

  • bigsaf
    Aug 8, 2016 - 10:23PM

    This is ridiculous. Lives are at stake. All agencies must ditch this scam, and the issue needs to be sent to the top of the armed forces and the message must come from them on these useless gimmicks. Recommend

  • Engineer Shuaib Khan Bhat
    Aug 9, 2016 - 3:16AM

    As an engineer, I too can confirm that this is absolute psuedo science or junk science. I doo however think it may have a phsycological effect on some people. I hope it does, otherwise we have wasted $ millions.Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Aug 9, 2016 - 7:44AM

    Let’s hope our nuke assets aren’t bogus either !Recommend

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