The July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London were cataloged in the Dfuze system, a database of detailed forensic information about bombings. (Martyn Hayhow / AFP)
In London in 1605, four centuries before things like cellphone detonators and pressure-plate switches, Guy Fawkes, a militant Catholic opposed to the reign of King James, waited in the cellar of the House of Lords with more than 30 barrels of gunpowder. The now-infamous bomber was arrested before he could light the fuse to explode and kill the king and the assembled aristocracy.
In 2002, workers at the British Library made an unexpected discovery: a note in the papers of a 17th-century diarist that listed some purported gunpowder samples from the old Fawkes plot. So, over at Scotland Yard’s Bomb Data Center, technicians diligently updated their files in their massive bomb data system, Dfuze. Their database is nothing if not thorough.
Every component of every explosive device involving England — the detonators, the residue, the electronics and the shrapnel — is cataloged and archived in the Dfuze system. It spans much of U.K. history: the Fawkes plot, the decades of IRA bombings, the deadly 7/7 explosions in 2005, and modern-day IED attacks against British soldiers in Helmand province in Afghanistan.
Dfuze is well worth looking at because in the U.S., there is a growing controversy around intelligence software used in analysis of improvised explosive devices. The software-contract battles have become an unusual political mine field in Washington in recent months. The debate hit the front pages of major newspapers, largely because of infighting over the heavily promoted system called Palantir. (“Military has to fight to purchase lauded IED buster,” reported the Washington Times in July.)
One reason Dfuze is intriguing is its extraordinary growth in world markets, and the way it’s managed to integrate IED investigations internationally. The system, which was launched in 1999 in the U.K., now does bomb data analysis and archiving in 22 countries around the world. It has become not just a database but a de facto mechanism for international alliances in the field of bomb investigations.
In November, the rights to Dfuze were acquired by Intelligent Software Solutions, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based contractor that specializes in Defense Department intelligence systems. The move may signal a vast market expansion for the British-born software.
Neil Fretwell is the lead investigator at Scotland Yard’s bomb data center. After the 2005 London attacks that killed 52 civilians in four coordinated suicide bombings, Fretwell was deployed to the Aldgate tube station to gather intelligence. As police identified bomb components in the grisly underground carnage, there was a glitch.
“There was a problem at the 7/7 scenes,” he later said. “We were having difficulty getting the photos back to Scotland Yard.”
Police forensics workers would shoot the photographs, and then a motorcycle courier would roar through London with the photos on a CD, rushing them to the lab. Fretwell says that’s when Dfuze started a new feature, enabling officers to drag and drop data using mobile device software.
“With the technology,” he said, “they were able to send up fast-time images.”
Laine Napier, the vice president of Intelligent Software Solutions, said the database has evolved over the years, so that it can now store and catalog complex data sets in multiple languages, on top of the usual workaday list of detonators, wires, batteries and shrapnel markings. “We gather information about individuals; we also gather information about addresses. … One address can have a number of suspects in it: vehicles; accounts.”
In the U.S., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives uses Dfuze as the platform for its International Bombing Incident Program.
“The purpose of Dfuze,” ATF records say, “is to capture information about international incidents involving explosives and terrorist organizations.”
More so than in other fields of security and law enforcement, it is in the explosive ordnance investigation that sharing information matters. The master bombmaker, one could say, is seen as a threat in every country, and bomb squad police around the world sometimes manage to work together even when political systems and diplomacy may be at odds.
Dfuze, according to Napier, is now deployed in almost two dozen countries as a primary bomb database. Among them are Canada, Norway, Singapore and Pakistan.
Fretwell said after the 2008 mass slaughter in India’s largest city, “some of our guys were deployed to Mumbai and then were sending over imagery, and we were able, through the system, to identify the device.”
Another incident, the liquid bomb airline plot, was intercepted in the U.K., but had repercussions in the U.S. as well. Fretwell says that in that case, the system managed to pinpoint the type of battery used, which, he said “was only available in Pakistan, and it helped convince us that some of our players may have been in Pakistan in the planning stages.”
It is this international reach that ISS hopes to leverage. ISS President Jay Jesse said he’ll push for more growth in the U.S., but also said one of the reasons his firm bought Dfuze is because of the “international community” the company has forged.
“If a company wanted to build a tool from the ground up,” Jesse said, “it would be difficulty to build an entire community, and Dfuze has that.”