WASHINGTON – The FBI is facing one of the most dangerous, difficult challenges in its history as agents and analysts try to solve a string of deadly bombings in Iraq.
In a telling sign of the peril, FBI agents must be accompanied by American troops whenever they leave their secure compound at the Baghdad airport. Further complicating their job is the lack of a cooperating foreign government to help them and the paucity of high-quality intelligence from either informants or technological surveillance.
"We don't have the intelligence as of yet to keep events from occurring and, postblast, the intelligence to prove who's behind them," FBI counterterrorism chief John Pistole told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "We are making progress, both forensically and in developing sources. It's just a much greater challenge than any place we've been."
The FBI is involved in about a dozen bombing investigations in Iraq, focusing on those that involve civilian or government targets rather than attacks directly on U.S. or coalition military forces.
About three dozen FBI personnel are stationed in Baghdad, working primarily to identify and trace explosives used in the bombings. The agents are working with American soldiers, the CIA and Iraqi police in trying to track down the perpetrators, Pistole said.
The FBI team also is involved in analyzing and translating documents from deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government, interviewing detainees and tracking known fugitives. Agents are fingerprinting 3,400 members of the Mujahedeen Khalq (search), Iranian fighters who want to overthrow Iran's theocracy. The Mujahedeen Khalq, considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, were backed by Saddam, but its members capitulated to and were disarmed by invading U.S. forces and allowed to stay in Iraq on the promise not to make trouble.
The fingerprints and interviews, Pistole said, "will provide a database for future reference" that could help the FBI solve — or prevent — terrorist attacks. The types of weapons used in Iraq, from rocket-propelled grenades to plastic explosives, are being catalogued and traced by the FBI and other U.S. agencies to identify the sources of terrorist arms.
The FBI would not allow interviews of personnel currently or recently stationed in Iraq.
The team in Iraq is among about 300 FBI agents and analysts who have been deployed around the world to investigate terror attacks since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at port in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in that strike, which was blamed on the Al Qaeda network.
In some cases, the agents are helping foreign governments in building criminal cases against terrorism suspects. In other places, getting a criminal conviction is secondary to monitoring the suspects for intelligence purposes, such as uncovering their contacts and weapons suppliers.
Ten agents and analysts worked with the Indonesian government in helping solve the 2002 Bali attack that killed more than 200 people. Indonesian courts have convicted 29 people so far in that case, with two of those sentenced to death.
Five FBI personnel have been helping the Moroccans in the May suicide bombings that killed 45 people, including 12 bombers. Several militants have also been convicted in the case, with a total of 900 arrested in a government crackdown.
Gone are the days when the FBI got involved overseas mainly to haul suspects into U.S. courts for a trial, FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a recent speech about bombing investigations in Saudi Arabia.
"At the end of the day, as we look at this changed world, it does not matter whether we prosecute a case in U.S. courts or help the Saudis prosecute their own case in their own country," Mueller said. "What matters is that justice is served, and we are one step closer to defeating terrorism."
Mueller and Pistole last week met with senior government officials to discuss the war on terrorism in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and in Baghdad with L. Paul Bremer (search), the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq. The pair also discussed anti-terrorism efforts for the 2004 Olympics during a stop in Athens.
At any given time, about 100 FBI personnel are working on counterterrorism cases on foreign soil, officials say.
The FBI deployments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are much lower-keyed than in the past. After the 2000 attack on the USS Cole (search) in Aden, a port in Yemen, 150 FBI personnel sent to that Arabian peninsula country drew heavy criticism as being heavy-handed and overbearing.
"They are trying not to overstaff this thing in Iraq," said Tom Baker, a former FBI legal attache in Paris. "There is a degree of not dominating things, a degree of caution."
About 80 agents and analysts worked with the Saudis on the May 12 bombing of compounds that housed Westerners. About 20 still were in Riyadh when suspected Al Qaeda attackers carried out another suicide bomb attack last weekend. The FBI is helping in that case as well but taking a less direct role because no Americans were killed, a spokesman said.