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WASHINGTON -- Devilish improvised explosive devices that have claimed the lives and limbs of thousands of American troops across Iraq and Afghanistan pose a growing threat across Texas and the United States, inciting calls for urgent cooperation between U.S. military experts who are familiar with the devices and civilian law enforcement officers who are not.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of the Pentagon's so-called Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, alerted Congress in classified testimony this month to the mounting IED threat at home and the challenges his team faces trying to train stateside law enforcement agencies to detect, disarm and defeat IEDs.
"The domestic IED threat from both homegrown terrorists and global threat networks is real and presents a significant security challenge for the United States and our international partners," Barbero warned a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Of 880 designated terrorist attacks in North and South America last year -- most in Mexico and Colombia -- 109 were carried out by IEDs that killed or wounded 245 people and 18 were carried out by vehicle-born IEDs that killed or wounded 180 people, according to worldwide statistics maintained by the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The United States suffered 24 terrorist attacks last year, killing 13 and wounding 33, according to the report by NATO's Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism.
But legal restrictions on the activities of U.S. armed forces are slowing crucial collaboration, insiders complain. Federal laws dating back to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limit the use of U.S. armed forces in domestic law enforcement and training -- impediments some members of Congress want to change.
The Pentagon's specialized $1.9 billion-a-year IED organization has "saved many servicemen's lives by teaching lessons learned in blood on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan," observe Republican Congressmen Peter King of New York, Daniel Lungren of California, and Michael McCaul of Texas, leaders of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "Their hard-won knowledge should now be shared with American lawmen facing these same deadly threats at home."
"To me, it's crazy that the guy who is the expert on IEDs overseas can't coordinate with the Texas Rangers," adds McCaul, a former counterterrorism official with the Justice Department. "The military is unable to coordinate with state and local law enforcement, leaving a gaping hole in our security."
Evidence of the threat has surfaced repeatedly. A car bomb was disarmed in New York City's Times Square and explosives were detected in ink cartridges aboard two U.S.-bound commercial cargo planes in 2010. Improvised explosives in an airline passenger's underwear nearly brought down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.
Terrorists remain committed to deploying IEDs "in traditional as well as new and creative ways" because the devices remain "a cheap and easily accessible means to achieve high visibility effect," Barbero says.
The accused shooter in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre, James Holmes, allegedly deployed IEDs in his apartment, prompting federal law enforcement agencies to look into possible links to domestic or foreign-based terrorism.
Threat along border
With Mexican drug cartels using car bombs in cities bordering Texas, officials along the southwest border are increasingly concerned about ready-to-go devices being smuggled into the United States.
A powerful car bomb in July killed two policemen and injured four officers and three civilians outside the home of the top police official in the northern Mexico border state of Tamaulipas. A year earlier, a car bomb targeted federal police officers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, killing three and wounding nine.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, citing the widening threat, has pressured the Pentagon to help train officers to detect IEDs and also is seeking FBI approval for the Texas Rangers to establish a statewide unit to deal with explosives.
But his efforts have run into bureaucratic resistance, according to knowledgeable officials.
"It is essential that all state troopers be skilled in the detection and interdiction of (devices), precursor chemicals and component parts," McCraw told the Chronicle. Texas Rangers and DPS criminal investigation agents have training "to detect IEDs and their components in the course of their investigations, whether the targets are Mexican cartels or serial murderers," he added.
DPS tactical response teams also have attended programs at Fort Hood, where the U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit teaches techniques, once explosives are discovered.
"Deeper cooperation is absolutely essential," insists McCaul, a former deputy state attorney general. "I think military and government lawyers are being too cautious. We want to fix that."