Eman Abdul-Razzaq Ibrahim and Dastan Othman Hassan, 18-year-old high school students, have taken it upon themselves to invent a new bomb-detection system that could help safeguard people from the threat of terrorism. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — While the Peshmarga are on the front lines fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), two unsung heroes in the heart of Erbil are also doing their best to protect Iraqi Kurdistan. Eman Abdul-Razzaq Ibrahim and Dastan Othman Hassan, 18-year-old high school students, have taken it upon themselves to invent a new bomb-detection system that could help safeguard people from the threat of terrorism.
The students say a twin bombing at the Interior Ministry in September prompted them to invent a better system.
“We were in the middle of a final exam in school,” Eman recalls. “Everyone was so nervous. Phone lines were down. We couldn’t focus on studies.”
The two were also at school seven years ago when a car bomb detonated outside of the Interior Ministry, killing 19 people. They remember dropping their pens, terrified, as teachers called to check on relatives.
Preparing for a school science fair, Eman and Dastan set to develop a device that could prevent attacks from happening again.
Knowing that Kurdish security forces can’t check every vehicle on the road, the girls sought to screen many cars in a short period of time. Encouraged by their teacher, they approached Erbil Governor Nawzad Hadi for advice. Hadi informed them that the most common form of explosive in the region was C4, but the two wanted to invent something capable of detecting a range of threats, including chemical weapons.
Initial efforts to design a new bomb sensor were dashed when the students were told Iraqi Kurdistan didn’t have labs capable of developing such sophisticated technology. Instead of giving up, they shifted their focus.
“It takes a long time to check one car at a time, either with a single device or with a sniffing dog, and it can slow down traffic,” Dastan tells Rudaw. “We realized we could use existing technology to develop a new system that could test many cars at a time, without stopping traffic and without drivers even knowing.”
They set up a model whereby two bomb detector devices are hidden in trashcans on the side of a road, and one is affixed to a street sign above. Cars must slow down over a speed bump, where they are scanned by all three devices. Having studied the physics of light, the girls realized night vision CCTV cameras would pick up any ultraviolet light caused by the detector lasers, and immediately report the image of the car to security officials.
Although they didn’t have the budget to buy a bomb detector itself—a single remote scan device costs $240,000 from Israeli company LDS—the company confirmed that their system would work. Eman and Dastan estimate that one system alone could process up to 64,000 cars a day. It would take over a year to check the same number of cars using current techniques.
Eman and Dastan earned the top prize at the science fair, and were awarded medals at the International Environment Sustainability Project Olympiad, an international competition held in June at The Hague.
Eman couldn’t get a visa to Europe but Hassan’s explanation of what it is like to live in fear of terrorism moved the judges to tears and prompted them to expand the scope of the competition, which usually focuses on environmental issues.
The students say 21 companies and the Dutch police approached them about using their system. Competition organizers were shocked that the girls hadn’t already sold the system to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The two refused all offers from companies, promising that they would bring it to their own government first—free of charge.
“The main point is to save people’s lives,” Eman says.
They also turned down their prize, a trip to Brazil, because the trip might interfere in their studies, and covered all expenses for the project and travel to Europe. Both are as selfless as they are bright: although they are both ambitious young engineers, they defer to their parents about where they will attend university.
Meanwhile faulty bomb detectors are still used in Iraq. In April 2013, A British court sentenced James McCormick to 10 years in jail for fraud for selling a fake bomb detector, the ADE 651, to the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Interior Ministry for $85 million. The device was designed after a sham golf ball detector, and its sale to the government drew accusations of corruption by Aqil Al-Turehi, Inspector General of Iraq’s Interior Ministry, who found the device inoperative as early as 2008.
Thousands have died as a result of bogus detectors, which are inexplicably still at many checkpoints.