The explosives, considered dangerous by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were certified by UN weapons inspectors to be inside facilities whose doors were fastened with chains and the United Nation’s seal, at the Al Qa'qaa industrial complex in Iraq in 2003. By October 2004, the facility was empty.
The Bush Administration asserted before the 2004 U.S. election that the explosives were either removed by Iraq before invaders captured the facility, or properly accounted for by US forces, even while White House and Pentagon officials acknowledged that they had vanished after the invasion.
MSNBC News wrote:
Time Magazine reported the sequence of events: "In late April IAEA's chief weapons inspector for Iraq warned the U.S. of the vulnerability of the site, and in May 2003, an internal IAEA memo warned that terrorists could be looting "the greatest explosives bonanza in history." Seventeen months later, on Oct. 10, in response to a long-standing request from the IAEA to account for sensitive materials, the interim Iraqi government notified the agency that al-Qaqaa had been stripped clean. The White House learned about the notification a few days later.
Evidence indicated that the explosives were most likely removed after invading US forces captured the facility. The looting was witnessed by U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsman from separate units as well as officials of the new Iraqi government. Frank Rich editorialized in the New York Times (May 15, 2005):
For a timeline of events resulting in the storage and subsequent loss of the high explosives, please see Al Qa'qaa high explosives timeline.
Former U.S. Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith (who supported Bush's war in Iraq) reported two additional incidents of significant looting in post-invasion Iraq. He witnessed U.S. troops standing outside Baghdad's Disease Center as looters attacked the complex on 16 April 2003, "taking live HIV and black fever virus among other potentially lethal materials." At the same time, looters attacked Iraq's nuclear facilities at Tuwaitha, taking "barrels of yellowcake (raw uranium), apparently dumping the uranium and using the barrels to hold water. US troops were at Tuwaitha but did not interfere." Galbraith noted that the facilities were all under IAEA seal and that "they remained untouched until the US troops arrived.
Former counterterrorism directors for the National Security Council Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon noted the danger of these nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists as a result of the U.S. invasion: "Another potential consequence of the invasion is the spread of weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda or other terrorists... [T]he International Atomic Energy Agency certified that there were highly radioactive materials at the al-Tuwaitha facilities, including partially enriched -- though not weapons-grade -- uranium. These materials could be used to fabricate one or more radiological dispersion devices -- or 'dirty bombs,' as they have come to be known. Some of these materials appear to be missing -- how much remains unclear -- and it seems a fair conjecture that someone ... may have 'privatized' these weapons with the intent of selling them to the highest biddeer. Ultimately, this material could find its way into the hands of al-Qaeda. It is difficult to imagine a more horrifyingly ironic outcome to the war.
The insurgency's ability to construct IEDs depends on the availability of bombmaking materials, particularly explosives. The widespread availability of explosives in Iraq means the insurgency will have the material resources to build IEDs for many years to come. Currently, approximately 80 tons of powerful conventional explosives (mainly HMX and RDX) are missing from the former Iraqi military base at Al Qaqaa. These explosives could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings and are probably already in the hands of the insurgency. The director of the Iraqi police unit that defuses and investigates IEDs notes: "One of the coalition's fatal mistakes was to allow the terrorists into army storerooms.... The terrorists took all the explosives they would ever need.
These explosives were stored in solid crystalline form and could be used to make powerful plastic explosives, are safe to transport and do not detonate on impact. The total quantity, 341.744 tonnes (753,417 pounds), would require approximately 40 large trucks to convey.
The Qa'qaa Store was located at the southern end of the facility in underground bunkers. The bunker doors were sealed by IAEA officials upon being closed. Although the doors were sealed, the bunker itself was not hermetically sealed. Air ventilation shafts leading into the bunkers were not sealed. The high explosives subject to the controversy were the only materials under UN seal at Al Qa'qaa.
The RDX was stored at the Al Mahaweel Stores, a site physically separate from, but administered by, Al Qa'qaa.
On April 10, 2003, troops from the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division arrived at Al Qa'qaa en route to Baghdad. They stopped overnight and moved on the following day. According to the brigade's commander, Colonel Joseph Anderson, at this point the complex showed few signs of looting or damage. Al Qa'qaa was reportedly unoccupied and unguarded until the arrival of the 75th Exploration Task Force (better known as Task Force 75) on May 27. By this time, according to Wathiq al-Dulaimi, a local security chief, and other local Iraqis, the complex had been thoroughly looted with enterprising locals even renting their trucks to looters. Task Force 75 found that the complex had largely been stripped of anything of value. Although they searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings, they found no signs of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The team did not find any of the explosives sealed by the IAEA inspectors two months earlier.
On April 13th, a team from the 3rd Infantry Division led by Maj. Austin Pearson arrived at Al-Qaqaa. Pearson said at a Pentagon news conference that his mission was to secure and destroy ammunition and explosives. He estimated that his team, "Task Force Bullet," removed 250 tons of material including TNT, plastic explosives, detonation cords and munitions.
Pearson's story provoked skepticism as it came the morning after new videotape surfaced indicating that the explosives were still at the base after Saddam's fall; the videotape (from April 18th 2003) shows what appeared to be high explosives still in barrels bearing IAEA seals. "The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al-Qaqaa," David A. Kay, who directed the hunt in Iraq for WMD and visited the site, told The New York Times. "The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn't use seals on anything. So I'm absolutely sure that's an IAEA seal.
The situation did not become publicly known for over a year afterwards, but IAEA officials reportedly warned as early as May 2003 that looting at Al Qa'qaa could be "the greatest explosives bonanza in history." Although IAEA inspectors were unable to inspect the site themselves due to the US ban on their presence, they were able to obtain commercial satellite imagery in late 2003 that showed severe damage to the facility. Two of roughly ten bunkers in which high explosives had been stored appeared to have been leveled by blasts. Other bunkers were damaged and some were untouched.
On October 10, 2004, Dr. Mohammed J. Abbas of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology wrote to the IAEA to say that the Qa'qaa stockpile had been lost after April 9, 2003, because of the "theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security." Nearly 340 tonnes of HDX and RDX explosives, an amount equivalent to 40 ten-ton truckloads, was said to be missing.
The news led to an immediate controversy in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Presidential challenger John Kerry has accused President George W. Bush of presiding over an inexcusable failure to prevent the loss of the explosives, while President Bush has criticized Senator Kerry for "jump[ing] to conclusions without knowing the facts."
On October 28, 2004, the DoD released imagery dated March 17, 2003, showing two trucks parked outside one of the 56 bunkers at Al Qa Qaa. However, the bunker nearest where the trucks were parked are not any of the nine bunkers identified by the IAEA as containing the missing explosive stockpiles.
On the same day, the London Financial Times reported that the French and Russians may have been involved in the removal of the explosives from Al Qa'qaa before the war began, quoting Deputy Undersecretary for Defense John A. Shaw, who said "various Russian units on the eve of hostilities [helped] to orchestrate the collection of munitions and assure their transport out of Iraq via Syria". He also told the Washington Times "the organized effort was done in advance of the conflict". The Washington Times also reported that defense officials believed the Russians could also explain what happened to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. The Russian Government has denounced this theory as "nonsense", saying that there were no Russian military in the country at the time. Shaw's theory has attracted little public support from elsewhere in the Administration.
On October 29, 2004, the New York Times reported the existence of a videotape made by a KSTP-TV St. Paul, Minnesota television crew embedded with U.S. 101st Airborne Division troops on April 18, 2003, nine days after Hussein's fall. The television crew accompanying US troops recorded the sealed explosives containers at the site, displaying the ammunition cache of explosives and other weapons supplies. Commentators have pointed out that the complex would have been under intensive surveillance during the war as a suspected centre of WMD production. They point out that an operation involving removing 40 truckloads of materials should have been extremely visible and would probably have been attacked, had it been spotted. Some said that the materials being moved might just as easily have been WMDs being moved to the battlefront. However, there is no indication that any such transport operation was spotted by US forces. The tape displaying the sealed explosives containers, as they were being found by the 101st Airborne Division troops, was re-broadcast by ABC on October 27, and by MSNBC on October 28, 2004. The explosives, classified as "dual use" materials, had been sealed by the IAEA, and reported 18 months earlier.
The Administration subsequently stated that it was a "mystery" when the explosives disappeared and that the President did not want to comment on the matter until the facts were known. The Bush administration asserted that an investigation had begun into how, where, and when the explosives went missing; no such investigation has been reported on since the 2004 election.
In May 2005, Iraqi official Sami al-Araji reported on the Iraqi government's investigation into the theft, indicating that the looters "came in with the cranes and the lorries, and they depleted the whole sites. They knew what they were doing; they knew what they want. This was sophisticated looting." (New York Times, March 13, 2005).