WASHINGTON - The threat from homemade bombs - the top killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq - will persist for decades and likely become a more prevalent menace domestically, according to the former top Pentagon officer charged with fighting improvised explosive devices.
Michael Barbero, an Army lieutenant general who retired Friday, talked about IEDs and the threat they pose to U.S. citizens and their toll in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in a recent interview.
"This is here to stay," said Barbero, who led the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). "It's too cheap, too readily available, a whole generation of bombmakers. Boston is not an anomaly."
The homemade bombs detonated at the Boston Marathon killed three people and wounded more than 260 others, many of whom had limbs severed by the shrapnel of bombs cobbled together with pressure cookers and nails.
The United States ranks in the top five among countries reporting IED attacks, Barbero said. Most of the domestic attacks involve pipe bombs on timers, he said. The attempted attack on New York's Times Square in 2010 involved a vehicleNissan Pathfinder filled with propane, gasoline and fertilizer. Passers-by alerted police, and the bomb failed to explode. Faisal Shahzad is serving a life sentence for the attempted attack.
"We were lucky," Barbero said. "A couple hundred pounds in the middle of Times Square? Very bad, very bad. But he screwed up the fusing, and we had good police work."
The best way to fight the IED threat is to trace bombmaking networks to IEDs through forensic evidence such as fingerprints and DNA, Barbero said. He worries that lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan will be lost if JIEDDO is allowed to wither.
"I'm concerned that's not sufficiently funded. Basic forensics, labs - that's a game-changer at the tactical level," he said.
JIEDDO analysts helped examine the Boston bombs, Barbero said. The organization also probes social networks - the command-and-control vehicle for bombmaking networks.
Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, said Barbero's concern about the long-term threat of IEDs is on target. "Unfortunately, the past data and likely future trends show that IEDs are here to stay, both on battlefields abroad and in terror cases at home," he said.
Capabilities that JIEDDO has will continue to be in demand. Officials will have to decide if JIEDDO remains in place or its expertise is parceled out to other parts of government, Singer said.
Elsewhere, IEDs continue to kill and maim:
• Afghanistan. A homemade bomb killed five U.S. soldiers May 4 in a Stryker combat vehicle. The bomb was big, "a couple hundred pounds," and well placed, Barbero said. "Smart enemy," he said. "They know capabilities we have."
• Syria. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has shared IED tactics with fighters in Syria, Barbero said. Other terrorist groups are spreading bomb-making materials and techniques with militants in North Africa. "As I look at every global hot spot, it is the weapon of choice," Barbero said. "In Syria we should not be surprised."
• Pakistan. Efforts to stem the flow of fertilizer - the main ingredient in homemade explosives used in Afghanistan - have started to pay off, Barbero said. Last April, 86% of IEDs in Afghanistan used homemade explosives, almost all of which could be traced to plants in Pakistan. That has dropped to 80% this year, according to JIEDDO. He credited better relations with the Pakistani military.
Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY