Redstone Arsenal a growing center for explosives
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- There's a small town on Redstone Arsenal where would-be terrorists regularly plant explosives in the post office, church and airline terminal; where a disgruntled ex-husband mad at the government is always busy building a bomb in his room on "Twin Towers Ave." It would be the most dangerous, bad-luck burg in all the world if anyone lived here.
This is a group of 14 tiny training villages set up by the FBI Hazardous Devices School. It opened in 1971 in partnership with the Army, and every certified civilian bomb disposal technician in the United States has graduated from here.
Classroom lessons about bomb suits, robots and methods of dealing with an explosive device are applied to real-life scenarios on these streets, where an "Anarchist Bookstore" sits next to the U.S. Army Recruiting Office, and the movie theater marquee features "The Hurt Locker."
But today the arsenal also is home to a growing enterprise devoted to shielding citizens and soldiers around the world from the indiscriminate carnage of Improvised Explosive Devices and other blasts.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives moved its National Center for Explosives Training and Research here into a new headquarters that opened in October 2010. And soon, ground will be broken on new laboratories and offices for the FBI's Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, now located at Quantico, Va. "The FBI looks forward to expanding our presence at Redstone Arsenal and joining our partners in helping to eradicate the IED threat both domestically and abroad," said FBI Special Agent Ann Todd.
Known as TEDAC, the Virginia center was created to help the Department of Defense counter the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the FBI. It uses state-of-the-art forensic and intelligence techniques to examine IEDs from those countries and from allies overseas - more than 71,000 since the first was received in October 2003.
The TEDAC team also includes representatives from the DoD, ATF, the intelligence community and international partners. They use the evidence and intelligence gathered from the IEDs to prevent future attacks, disarm or disrupt the devices, identify and prosecute those involved, and more.
The work is secretive, of course. But TEDAC's role in an FBI investigation that led to the arrest last year of two Iraqi nationals living in Bowling Green, Ky., made the news. Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi were indicted for allegedly trying to send weapons overseas to assist al-Qaida .
According to published reports, Alwan allegedly told an informant how he had built and placed IEDs in Iraq. TEDAC experts later matched his fingerprints to those on an unexploded IED recovered by U.S. troops there in 2005.
"(TEDAC's) work is going to be very consistent with the type of training that goes on at the Hazardous Devices School and the type of training that goes on here," said Carl Vasilko, director of the ATF's National Center for Explosives Training and Research. "The three I think will mesh very well ... and form a comprehensive network of training, research and exploitation" of evidence and intelligence.
Room for growth: Behind the red-brick walls of the ATF's new explosives center in Huntsville are 83,500 square feet of classrooms, a mock courtroom, laboratories, a full suite of audio-video facilities and offices. There is a full-time staff of 20 ATF agents and instructors, along with some part-time help. "We do all of our internal explosives training for ATF personnel," Vasilko said. Those include certified explosives specialists, industry operations investigators, explosives enforcement officers, and others.
In addition, training programs are offered to local, state and international law enforcement professionals. Areas covered include post-blast investigation techniques and processing of an explosives crime scene. Another is "Homemade Explosives Investigation Techniques," which includes the improvised explosives that have become prevalent in the United States as well as overseas, he said. They also offer advanced training on how to dispose of explosives.
"On many occasions, explosives are recovered by ATF personnel, by state and local bomb technicians, that are hazardous materials," Vasilko said. "They are explosive materials, but they are not IEDs. So those materials have to safely be destroyed. It could be anything from free-flowing black powder, smokeless powder, deteriorated commercial explosives ... Even off-the-shelf commercial explosives can deteriorate."
Last year, the ATF center's first full year, saw just over 1,000 students in the regular one- and two-week classes, and another 250 or so that were in special one-day special classes. Vasilko expects those numbers to grow by 40 to 50 percent this year.
He emphasized the value of being located on the arsenal with the FBI's Hazardous Devices School and other federal resources. The Army's Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School, which among other things trains soldiers in explosive ordnance disposal, moved last year from the arsenal to Fort Lee, Va. But the Army and Department of Defense are still "very much a partner with us here," Vasilko said.
"The prime example of that partnership is the homemade explosives course. It's attended by military EOD as well as state and local bomb technicians, other federal agents and ATF personnel. The class is mixed intentionally," Vasilko said.
As more explosives resources are located on the arsenal, Vasilko expects even more benefits from the interaction.
"Everybody is looking to collaborate and cooperate. What we're trying to achieve is an all-of-government approach to the counter-IED and explosives problem," Vasilko said. "That's everybody's goal. I think we're well along and going to be further along when TEDAC relocates here to Redstone Arsenal."