On January 5, 2012, a good friend of mine named Matt Schwartz was killed in Afghanistan. Like me, he was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, a member of the military’s bomb squad, and he died in a massive detonation that bent his armored truck and threw it like trash against a mud wall.
When Matt died, my old training kicked in. I felt compelled to do an investigation, to discover everything about the circumstance of his death, but especially this: Who set the bomb on that road? And more importantly, who built it, who designed it, who taught the Taliban to use it? By 2012, nearly every roadside bomb was tailored for a specific purpose; to know whether Matt’s death was random or the result of a deliberate scheme, I needed to learn more about this builder, designer, teacher. The master tailor.
Who is the man who killed my friend? In war, it was a question I had never really asked with any specificity, and it consumed me.
In shorthand, we always called this man the Bomber, and this is the first part we got wrong. The term was widespread in the media, and so even though we knew it was incorrect, we repeated it anyway. How did the IED get to the donkey path? The Bomber put it there. Why are there six artillery rounds hidden in the courtyard of this mud-walled qalat? This is where the Bomber lives. Who did we just shoot digging on the side of the road? Must be the Bomber.
We in the EOD community understood the imprecision, but the lazy figure of speech persisted, especially in our conversations with the uninitiated infantry and armor commanders who ran our sectors. So words guided thought, and thought guided action, and we spent many years chasing and killing men called the Bomber who were, in fact, no such thing.
The truth is harder and more specific. If the Bomber is the person responsible for an explosive device’s existence, the ultimate guilty party, then mostly we know who the Bomber is not.
The Bomber is not the average foot soldier, the unemployable Afghan with a battered Kalashnikov and a literacy that does not extend beyond the Koran, nor, eventually in 2016, the disaffected middle-class British youth traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The gunman is a tool and a trend, not a leader.
The Bomber also is not the man who hides the weapons cache and then places the explosives in the ground. This job is too dangerous, exposed, and menial to be done by someone with the expertise to build the thing. Better to pay a desperate, out-of-work father to do it instead.
The Bomber is not the cell leader organizing the attack. Many of these men are extremely clever, but their cleverness is in camouflage and hiding the device and choosing advantageous terrain, not in the design of the bomb’s firing circuit.
So too the Bomber is not the spotter waiting for an American convoy to approach, or the triggerman with his thumb ready to key the radio to set off the device. Once made, bombs are often placed by gun-toters in the service of an ambush. Despite the stereotype and the historic Western examples to the contrary, in Iraq and Afghanistan the designer of the bomb was almost always not the employer of the bomb. The Unabomber may have fought a one-man war against the American system, but jihadists fight collectively in groups.
The Bomber is not the one wearing the suicide vest. So much education squandered, so many future devices left unbuilt, it makes no sense to blow one’s load on a single binge, no matter how high-profile the target.
The Bomber is not the courier, though such conflation proves tempting. When Hassan Ghul, an Al Qaeda agent, was captured entering Iraq in 2004, he was toting schematic diagrams for IED triggers. This caused quite a stir, but why would the circuit’s designer carry such incriminating physical evidence and risk capture when the plans were also in his head? Ghul was a trusted confidant, but no scientist.
The Bomber may not even be the one mixing the homemade explosives by hand or, occasionally, constructing the devices in a rote assembly line in the basement of a concrete apartment building. Even these men and boys, in the end, are only skilled technicians. They can do, but know not why.
No, the Bomber was none of these people. Behind this manufacture and implementation system and web of insurgency lay a director, the real threat, the learned mind that actually understands how the bomb works and teaches others to build it. The Bomber’s false title glosses over the nuance of the network, but it inadvertently expressed this truth: there was an original ultimate source of these electronic and explosive devices, even if our overgeneralization revealed that we didn’t really know who it was.
Since the Bomber as a name is meaningless, colloquially referring to everyone and no one, I will stop using it here and now.
To establish a new and more precise name, I’ll instead use the tradition of the Arabic-speaking people he comes from, and refer to him by his nom de guerre honorific. Invoking a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammed, Al Qaeda prescribed that its operatives should always use an alias of a kunya and hometown. A kunya is a nickname, normally Abu, meaning “Father of,” followed by the name of the oldest son. Among his followers, Osama bin Laden was known as the Sheik, but also as Abu Abdullah. The second half of the alias, the hometown portion, is often mistaken by Westerners for a last name. Al-Asiri, on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, is simply the Syrian. Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, a former commander of al-Shabab in Somalia and a similar FBI listee, is the Father of Mansoor the American.
But among the mujahideen themselves, the noms de guerre are more than an alias meant to trip up intelligence agencies, and the larger tradition predates Al Qaeda. When an honorific is used, it can supplant an original name and come to completely define a person. Two famous leaders in Chechnya in the 1990s were al-Walid and al-Khattab, the Young Man and the Narrator. Saddam Hussein’s chief chemical weapons specialist, “Chemical Ali,” earned the surname al-Kimyai, or the Chemist. Even Hussein himself, no Al Qaeda operative in search on anonymity, was al-Tikriti, our man from Tikrit. Was there really any question where he would hide and ultimately be found?
Among jihadists and militants, such brevity is the reward for notoriety. We misunderstand that the names are great describers, distant cousins to Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. The names have meaning in a way John or Nancy or Edward or Dorothy no longer do.
So what will we call the bomb builder? This anonymous intellect, the electronic architect and resourceful originator of each new bomb design, the man who killed Matt Schwartz, is al-Muhandis, the Engineer.
Who is this man?
At the start of the war, we had almost no idea. Even now, he is still a shade to those who pursue him. He is a necessary box on an organizational chart, the inevitable solution of an intel analyst’s continuously computed probability equation. His proof of life photo is a burning, bombed-out Humvee. He doesn’t grant interviews. He doesn’t issue fatwas. He doesn’t make promotional videos. He is the true quiet professional, and for good reason. When similar men are caught in the United States — Eric Rudolph, Ramzi Yousef, Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — we send them straight to Supermax. In 1996, a Palestinian bomb designer named Yahya Ayyash took the honorific al-Muhandis and briefly became the most wanted man in Israel, until he was killed by security forces. Occasionally, one or two terrorist bomb makers garner worldwide media headlines, not to mention the NSA’s attention, for crafting shoe bombs and underwear bombs for U.S.-bound airplanes. They fail, and meanwhile al-Muhandis simply gathers kills in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, thousands over the last fifteen years.
Before I began my investigation, I reviewed the little I already knew, every intelligence report, news article, translated Arab novel and short story, memoir of Islamic militants, academic paper, conventional history of the Middle East, and bit of jihadist promotional literature I had ever read, every documentary and YouTube and LiveLeak and Ogrish and Brown Moses video I had ever seen, every conversation I had ever had with intel spooks and wonks, and every bomb of his I had ever dismantled, circuit design I had studied, and employment tactic I had taught. This is what I concluded.
At first, the only thing I knew for sure about the Engineer was how he killed, all of the ways we died at his hand. The war was a chess match, and al-Muhandis always went first. First, he built the bomb. Then we would try to take it apart.
And so I would come to know him by his designs.