Saif Abdallah says his inventions have helped kill or maim scores, possibly hundreds, of Americans. For more than four years, he has been developing remote-control devices that Sunni insurgents use to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs that are the No. 1 killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The only time he ever felt a pang of regret was in the spring of 2006, when he heard that the Pentagon, in a bid to fight the growing IED menace, had roped in a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Abdallah, an electronics engineer by training, once dreamed of studying for a Ph.D. there. "I thought to myself, If my life had gone differently, who knows? I might have been on that team," he says, his eyes widening as he imagines that now impossible scenario. Then he shrugs. "God decided I should be on the other side."
Thin-voiced and thickly bespectacled, Abdallah, 28, fits every geek stereotype, right down to the acne and the flash drive on his key chain. His laboratory is a workbench in the bedroom of his Baghdad home. He says his tools are primitive soldering irons, old printed circuit boards, discarded TV remotes and other bits of electronic detritus. But he has a talent for fashioning instruments of death from such dreck, turning an old toy walkie-talkie into a trigger for an explosion 100 yards away or programming a washing-machine timer to set off an IED two hours later. Such capacity for destruction makes him invaluable to the disparate groups that make up the Sunni insurgency, including al-Qaeda. "In our circle, everyone has heard of him," says the commander of one rebel group, al-Nasr Salahdin.
Sectarian outrages like the June 13 attack on the holy Shi'ite shrine in Samarra the same site that insurgents blew up in February 2006 have plunged Iraq into civil war. But it is brainy operatives like Abdallah who pose the most consistently lethal threat to U.S. forces. When we met for our second encounter in 15 months, he didn't seem especially worried that a massive U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown had been under way in Baghdad for the past four months and that one of its aims was to break the back of the IED industry and roll up people like him. (Abdallah was introduced to TIME through Sunni insurgent contacts, but he did not provide his real name or reveal where he lives.) Iraqi and American officials say they have shut down dozens of bomb factories, arrested nearly 18,000 insurgents and killed more than 3,000 others. But the only metric that matters to Abdallah is the number of Americans killed. By that measure, he figures his side is winning. U.S. casualties have risen every month since February, just after the start of President Bush's surge strategy to quell the bloody Shi'ite-Sunni war. At least 230 service personnel were killed in April and May, making it the deadliest two-month period for U.S. troops since the war began.
It is indicative of the U.S.'s inability to crush the insurgency that commanders are trying to find ways to split it. The military is urging Sunni nationalist groups to take up arms against their former al-Qaeda allies and has begun supplying some of them with weapons. In the immediate future, however, such efforts are unlikely to protect U.S. troops from an increasingly sophisticated and tenacious enemy and may even put Americans at greater risk. A TIME investigation reveals that militant groups have responded to the U.S. surge with a big push of their own, unleashing a flurry of new or rarely used tactics and innovations designed to maximize the death toll. Their most potent weapons are the roadside bombs being fashioned by men like Abdallah, which now account for roughly 80% of U.S. deaths, up from 50% at the start of the year. "People are calling me all the time, asking for new ways to ..." Abdallah says, pressing down his right thumb on an imaginary remote control, and adds, "... Boom!"