Soon after international investigators began arriving in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, to determine whether a terrorist bomb destroyed a Russian flight out of the airport, stories about lax and corrupt security began to appear.
The possibility of a terrorist “inside man” planting a bomb on the plane grew more plausible with each revelation. The latest, from CNN, is that private security personnel at Sharm el-Sheikh might be using fake handheld bomb detectors.
CNN reporters say they saw these security guards using detectors that looked very similar to a phony “magic wand” device, sold across the Middle East by British con man James McCormick, who ended up with a 10-year prison sentence for the scam. He raked in millions of dollars selling a device that “contained no working components,” and was in fact a “novelty golf ball finder with the label removed.”
“The publicity and packaging cost more than the devices themselves,” the BBC noted after McCormick and his associates were sentenced last year. “The fake ‘detectors’ – sold with spurious but scientific-sounding claims – were little more than empty cases with an aerial which swings according to the user’s unconscious hand movements, ‘the ideomotor effect’.”
The BBC reports that the device began life as the “Gopher” golf-ball detector in the United States, where it was first repurposed as a bomb and drug detector by an ambitious used-car salesman. When it was marketed to the British government, the scientist who evaluated it warned it would be “potentially dangerous to use.” (Alas, the U.K. did not prove universally resistant to the marketing of such sham devices, which were promoted with rigged sales demonstrations.)
The bribe-happy procurement agents of Middle Eastern nations proved to be far less discriminating customers. While these machines sold for $20 a pop as golf-ball detectors, Middle Eastern governments were paying over $8000 apiece for them.
BBC reporters were astonished to find officials in Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt still trying to defend these entirely useless machines, with one Iraqi minister suggesting that user error or weather conditions could explain why they were failing to detect bombs. In early 2014, the Egyptian military claimed the devices were capable of detecting hepatitis and HIV.
CNN showed its photos of these devices to security consultant Paul Biddiss, who confirmed they looked like the phony magic-wand machines. He noted that no legitimate bomb-detection device resembling this design, or using a variation on its purported technology, has ever been created.
Unfortunately, it seems the widespread purchase of these devices by government forces lent them a certain cachet, and they look reassuring to travelers, so private companies are now deploying them.
“Hotel staff are obviously using them, obviously more for show than anything,” said Biddiss. “You’d have a better chance of finding a bomb with a water pistol.”
CNN does, however, note that many hotels in Egypt employed additional, and more reliable, screening equipment, including metal detectors, X-ray machines, and bomb-sniffing dogs.