Iraq, Roadside Bombs, and U

© 2004 Door & Access Systems Publish Date: Spring 2004 Author: Tom Wadsworth Pages 38-41

Iraq, Roadside Bombs, and Us

by Tom Wadsworth, Editor

Every once in a while, I get wind of a story that’s too fascinating to ignore, yet rather delicate to report.

This is such a story. (Take a deep breath.)

In two quick paragraphs, here’s the heart of it:

Since December 2003, numerous news stories have been published throughout the country, even internationally, reporting that electronic devices such as garage door opener remote controls and cell phones are being used in Iraq to detonate roadside bombs. These “Improvised Explosive Devices” (IEDs) are being called “primary killers of U.S. troops in Iraq” and “the most dangerous weapon in Iraq.”

The U.S. military, seeking to thwart this menace, contacted our industry for its help. Chamberlain and Genie/Overhead, for example, quickly cooperated and provided the military with all their frequencies. The military is now using electronic countermeasures in convoys to block these attacks.

As reporters say, “This story has legs.”

You can see why the story is a delicate one for our industry. Nobody likes the idea that our products would be involved in these tragic terrorist attacks. Yet there’s no denying it, and these news reports have been circulated worldwide by the Associated Press and other major news organizations.

Uncle Sam Wants YOU

Mark Tone, executive vice president of administration at The Chamberlain Group, says his firm was contacted by a U.S. Army Captain in late October. Karl Adrian, president of Overhead Door’s Access Systems Division, says his company was also contacted sometime before Christmas.

“We immediately contacted the FBI to confirm that the call was legitimate,” says Adrian. “As soon as we learned that it was legitimate, we were all over it. We’ll do anything they ask.”

Mark Tone says Chamberlain’s reaction to the military call was much the same. “Naturally, we cooperated and provided the military with all needed information regarding our frequencies and simple jamming techniques,” he says.

Adrian says the military visited the Genie plant in Alliance, Ohio, and consulted with Genie’s engineers. “We turned over all our frequencies and told them how it works,” says Adrian.

It’s Not Just Us

GDO remote controls aren’t the only devices being used in these attacks. The news stories also cite other electronic items like cell phones, improvised cordless phones, pagers, and car door remote controls.

“The military told us that various forms of RF (radio frequency) devices are being used,” adds Adrian, “but they didn’t say that GDO transmitters were being used in a majority of these incidents.”

The common thread through all these devices is that they (1) wirelessly transmit signals from a distance and (2) are widely available, (3) reliable, and (4) inexpensive. From one perspective, those features are a compliment to our industry.

Whose Remote Controls?

The U.S. isn’t the only country where GDO remote controls are manufactured. Terrorists could get them from many countries, particularly in Europe or the Pacific Rim.

Iraq has never been a significant location where U.S. garage door openers are exported, and United Nations sanctions have prohibited many sales into Iraq. Yet, it appears that the terrorists are acquiring the units by having them carried or, perhaps, mailed into Iraq.

“We don’t export Genie products to Iraq or to the Mideast,” says Adrian. “But the military told us that (the bombers) had all kinds of transmitters, including ours. The transmitters could easily come from any country.”

Tone says the Army didn’t confirm whether Chamberlain transmitters were in use in Iraq.

“Primary Killers”

The most distressing part of this story is the widespread use–and effectiveness–of remote-detonated roadside bombs. A Jan. 30, 2004, Associated Press story calls them “primary killers of U.S. troops in Iraq.”

IED attacks are said to be the top cause of U.S. deaths in Iraq. Of the 672 U.S. deaths prior to Mar. 17, 2004, 107 of them were due to IEDs. The second leading cause of death is “hostile fire,” with 91 fatalities, a distant second.

Such statistics led a London reporter to call roadside bombs “the most dangerous weapon facing the US Army in Iraq” (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, Jan. 26, 2004). That story was also published in the Middle East in The Arab News and on Al-Jazeerah.

The Unexpected Weapon

The concept of remote-detonated explosives is not new. But the silver-screen image of blowing up the “Bridge on the River Kwai” with hundreds of feet of wire and a plunger has now been replaced by the innovative wireless alternative.

“The use of lethal roadside bombs caught the army by surprise,” says reporter Cockburn. The attention has suddenly shifted from WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) to IEDs.

According to a Feb. 5, 2004, report by the Washington Post, the rash of roadside bombs in Iraq is a new problem that American forces did not encounter in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Kosovo.

The Post story quotes Staff Sgt. Jeremy Anderson, leader of a squad of roadside bomb hunters. Anderson says, “We were never trained for this. We clear mines and booby traps. There’s no manual for IEDs.”

Forced Accomplices

The Army faces a difficult task tracking down those who trigger the bombs. As soon as a bomb is detonated, the culprit vanishes under the cover of post-explosion chaos.

In some cases, the person who pushed the button has been forced to do it. In the Dec. 16 AP story, Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling reports that some Iraqi citizens have been kidnapped by the perpetrators, who then pressure families of kidnap victims into killing Americans.

Hertling quotes an Iraqi who says, “They told me they’ll kill my son unless I kill some Americans.” The AP story says, “The man carried an electric garage door opener wired as a remote-control detonator.”

Cockburn’s London report cites the case of a 12-year-old boy who was found at the triggering end of another bomb. In that case, the boy’s father was arrested. But arrests are rare.

Jamming to Succeed

It’s possible that the cooperation of companies like Genie and Chamberlain is helping. In late January, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said that the Army is now using “jammers” to disrupt the signals used to detonate the roadside bombs.

In mid-February, the Associated Press prepared and published a graphic to describe how the jamming technology works in convoys. (See AP Graphic, left.)

Jamming technology has been available and in use for decades, but to be effective, it must be used at the right place at the right time. According to an AP report, “Depending on their sophistication, jammers can cost from hundreds to millions of dollars. Most can be powered by a car engine.”

In order for jammers to work, they reportedly must know the frequency being used to detonate the bomb. That’s apparently why the military approached companies like Chamberlain and Genie for their assistance.

Beating Them to the Button

On Feb. 20, Washington Times Pentagon correspondents Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough reported, “Some convoys of military vehicles are using hand-held remote controls similar to garage-door openers in an effort to prevent being killed or injured by the deadly roadside bombs.”

The Times report indicates that the Army is simply using its own GDO remote controls to detonate bombs before the convoy reaches the explosion point. Again, Genie’s and Chamberlain’s assistance may have led the military to this potential solution.

On the Lookout

But, until electronic solutions become more available, the Army is forced to be vigilant in looking for signs of roadside bombs.

“Our soldiers have become ... very adept at noticing, observing,” says Brig. Gen. Vincent Boles in the Jan. 30 AP story. “We’re discovering more than are exploding.” Reportedly, more than 2,500 roadside bombs have been found.

As bomb hunter Sgt. Jeremy Anderson says, “You want to catch that guy with his finger on the button. The problem is, you’re looking for him, but is he watching you?”

“We’ve Done Nothing Wrong”

The situation is clearly an awkward one for our industry. We’ve been making and selling garage door remote controls for a half century. Up until now, the millions of our controls have been used for the safety, security, and convenience of our customers.

“Unfortunately, not much more can be done to prevent these types of attacks,” says Mark Tone.

“We’ll do whatever we can to support the military,” affirms Karl Adrian. “We’d even change our product if we could prevent someone from using it as a bomb.”

“The situation is unfortunate, because it seems to reflect badly on our industry,” he adds. “And yet, we’ve done nothing wrong.”

That’s certainly true. I hope no one will jump to the hasty conclusion that our products are somehow to blame.

But on the positive side, I’m gratified to know that companies like Overhead/Genie and Chamberlain are doing everything they can to help ensure the safety of our men and women in uniform.

Editor’s Note: We thank Chamberlain and Overhead/Genie for their cooperation and help with this story.