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All the Ways We Kill and Die

A Portrait of Modern War

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The search for a friend’s killer is a riveting lesson in the way war has changed.

The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt's widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer?

In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.

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On January 5, 2012, a good friend of mine named Matt Schwartz was killed in Afghanistan. Like me, he was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, a member of the military’s bomb squad, and he died in a massive detonation that bent his armored truck and threw it like trash against a mud wall.

When Matt died, my old training kicked in. I felt compelled to do an investigation, to discover everything about the circumstance of his death, but especially this: Who set the bomb on that road? And more importantly, who built it, who designed it, who taught the Taliban to use it? By 2012, nearly every roadside bomb was tailored for a specific purpose; to know whether Matt’s death was random or the result of a deliberate scheme, I needed to learn more about this builder, designer, teacher. The master tailor.

Who is the man who killed my friend? In war, it was a question I had never really asked with any specificity, and it consumed me.

In shorthand, we always called this man the Bomber, and this is the first part we got wrong. The term was widespread in the media, and so even though we knew it was incorrect, we repeated it anyway. How did the IED get to the donkey path? The Bomber put it there. Why are there six artillery rounds hidden in the courtyard of this mud-walled qalat? This is where the Bomber lives. Who did we just shoot digging on the side of the road? Must be the Bomber.

We in the EOD community understood the imprecision, but the lazy figure of speech persisted, especially in our conversations with the uninitiated infantry and armor commanders who ran our sectors. So words guided thought, and thought guided action, and we spent many years chasing and killing men called the Bomber who were, in fact, no such thing.

The truth is harder and more specific. If the Bomber is the person responsible for an explosive device’s existence, the ultimate guilty party, then mostly we know who the Bomber is not.

The Bomber is not the average foot soldier, the unemployable Afghan with a battered Kalashnikov and a literacy that does not extend beyond the Koran, nor, eventually in 2016, the disaffected middle-class British youth traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The gunman is a tool and a trend, not a leader.

The Bomber also is not the man who hides the weapons cache and then places the explosives in the ground. This job is too dangerous, exposed, and menial to be done by someone with the expertise to build the thing. Better to pay a desperate, out-of-work father to do it instead.

The Bomber is not the cell leader organizing the attack. Many of these men are extremely clever, but their cleverness is in camouflage and hiding the device and choosing advantageous terrain, not in the design of the bomb’s firing circuit.

So too the Bomber is not the spotter waiting for an American convoy to approach, or the triggerman with his thumb ready to key the radio to set off the device. Once made, bombs are often placed by gun-toters in the service of an ambush. Despite the stereotype and the historic Western examples to the contrary, in Iraq and Afghanistan the designer of the bomb was almost always not the employer of the bomb. The Unabomber may have fought a one-man war against the American system, but jihadists fight collectively in groups.

The Bomber is not the one wearing the suicide vest. So much education squandered, so many future devices left unbuilt, it makes no sense to blow one’s load on a single binge, no matter how high-profile the target.

The Bomber is not the courier, though such conflation proves tempting. When Hassan Ghul, an Al Qaeda agent, was captured entering Iraq in 2004, he was toting schematic diagrams for IED triggers. This caused quite a stir, but why would the circuit’s designer carry such incriminating physical evidence and risk capture when the plans were also in his head? Ghul was a trusted confidant, but no scientist.

The Bomber may not even be the one mixing the homemade explosives by hand or, occasionally, constructing the devices in a rote assembly line in the basement of a concrete apartment building. Even these men and boys, in the end, are only skilled technicians. They can do, but know not why.

No, the Bomber was none of these people. Behind this manufacture and implementation system and web of insurgency lay a director, the real threat, the learned mind that actually understands how the bomb works and teaches others to build it. The Bomber’s false title glosses over the nuance of the network, but it inadvertently expressed this truth: there was an original ultimate source of these electronic and explosive devices, even if our overgeneralization revealed that we didn’t really know who it was.

Since the Bomber as a name is meaningless, colloquially referring to everyone and no one, I will stop using it here and now.

To establish a new and more precise name, I’ll instead use the tradition of the Arabic-speaking people he comes from, and refer to him by his nom de guerre honorific. Invoking a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammed, Al Qaeda prescribed that its operatives should always use an alias of a kunya and hometown. A kunya is a nickname, normally Abu, meaning “Father of,” followed by the name of the oldest son. Among his followers, Osama bin Laden was known as the Sheik, but also as Abu Abdullah. The second half of the alias, the hometown portion, is often mistaken by Westerners for a last name. Al-Asiri, on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, is simply the Syrian. Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, a former commander of al-Shabab in Somalia and a similar FBI listee, is the Father of Mansoor the American.

But among the mujahideen themselves, the noms de guerre are more than an alias meant to trip up intelligence agencies, and the larger tradition predates Al Qaeda. When an honorific is used, it can supplant an original name and come to completely define a person. Two famous leaders in Chechnya in the 1990s were al-Walid and al-Khattab, the Young Man and the Narrator. Saddam Hussein’s chief chemical weapons specialist, “Chemical Ali,” earned the surname al-Kimyai, or the Chemist. Even Hussein himself, no Al Qaeda operative in search on anonymity, was al-Tikriti, our man from Tikrit. Was there really any question where he would hide and ultimately be found?

Among jihadists and militants, such brevity is the reward for notoriety. We misunderstand that the names are great describers, distant cousins to Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. The names have meaning in a way John or Nancy or Edward or Dorothy no longer do.

So what will we call the bomb builder? This anonymous intellect, the electronic architect and resourceful originator of each new bomb design, the man who killed Matt Schwartz, is al-Muhandis, the Engineer.

Who is this man?

At the start of the war, we had almost no idea. Even now, he is still a shade to those who pursue him. He is a necessary box on an organizational chart, the inevitable solution of an intel analyst’s continuously computed probability equation. His proof of life photo is a burning, bombed-out Humvee. He doesn’t grant interviews. He doesn’t issue fatwas. He doesn’t make promotional videos. He is the true quiet professional, and for good reason. When similar men are caught in the United States — Eric Rudolph, Ramzi Yousef, Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — we send them straight to Supermax. In 1996, a Palestinian bomb designer named Yahya Ayyash took the honorific al-Muhandis and briefly became the most wanted man in Israel, until he was killed by security forces. Occasionally, one or two terrorist bomb makers garner worldwide media headlines, not to mention the NSA’s attention, for crafting shoe bombs and underwear bombs for U.S.-bound airplanes. They fail, and meanwhile al-Muhandis simply gathers kills in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, thousands over the last fifteen years.

Before I began my investigation, I reviewed the little I already knew, every intelligence report, news article, translated Arab novel and short story, memoir of Islamic militants, academic paper, conventional history of the Middle East, and bit of jihadist promotional literature I had ever read, every documentary and YouTube and LiveLeak and Ogrish and Brown Moses video I had ever seen, every conversation I had ever had with intel spooks and wonks, and every bomb of his I had ever dismantled, circuit design I had studied, and employment tactic I had taught. This is what I concluded.

At first, the only thing I knew for sure about the Engineer was how he killed, all of the ways we died at his hand. The war was a chess match, and al-Muhandis always went first. First, he built the bomb. Then we would try to take it apart.

And so I would come to know him by his designs.

Brian Castner is the author of the acclaimed memoir The Long Walk. An EOD officer in the Air Force who commanded bomb disposal units in Iraq and subsequently trained soldiers prior to their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is now a writer and journalist. His stories have appeared in VICE News, the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Wired, Outside, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Review of Books and on NPR. He has twice received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014, and to paddle the 1200 mile Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean in 2016. His newest book, Disappointment River, will be published by Doubleday in spring 2018 (month TK). He lives with his family in Buffalo, New York.

"In this book Brian Castner takes us through a kind of moral detective work, uncovering not only private griefs, but also the broader military and social context of our country's response to such deaths. A brilliant, moving, and troubling portrait of modern American warfare."—Phil Klay, author of the National Book Award-winning Redeployment

“Like the best of storytellers, Castner transports us into the world of the men and women who fight and die and grieve: a struggling widow, two amputees, the exhausted pilot, the contractor for hire, a talented female biometrics engineer, even the jihadist bomb-makers. An extraordinary work of nonfiction that reads like a suspense novel."—Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of the New York Times bestseller Ashley's War

"Brian Castner has written an intimate, heartfelt, and rending portrait of the American family at war and at home; and he's done so in a totally surprising and captivating way, by making the journey as a detective, a soldier, a father, a husband, a citizen. How did my friend die, where did he go, where have I gone in the meantime, who did this to us? These are questions that Castner meditates on as he searches—across thousands of miles and back through the years—for the moment when a total stranger decided to kill a man closest to him and his family. Deftly reported and elegiac in its language, this is a story every neighbor, every parent, every soldier, and every school civics class ought to consider required reading. All the Ways We Kill and Die has much to tell us about how to live."—Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author of Horse Soldiers

"A powerful and gripping take on modern war. All the Ways We Kill and Die is a stirring inside look at the deadly dance between EOD and bomb makers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Written in crisp, unflinching prose, the book is one of the definitive accounts of our decades of war."—Kevin Maurer, author of Hunter Killer and No Easy Day

"Provocative, riveting, and uncommonly insightful in addressing both sides of the story, Castner writes in the tradition of Orwell and Kapuscinski . It is impossible to read his book and not be moved by the predicament of the shadow wars we're mired in. Infused with the knowledge of an insider, this is a bravura performance."—Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, author of The Watch

"The search for the story behind an IED death leads to the history of the post-9/11 wars and the lives of the men and women who fight them. . . . Castner does a beautiful job of putting together his puzzle, weaving all the seemingly disparate elements into one cohesive whole. . . . [His] writing is evocative and engaging, completely absorbing from beginning to end. A must-read for military buffs and a should-read for anyone who has given even a cursory thought to the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Castner solemnizes a small but recently critical section of America's armed forces, and powerfully acquaints readers with the risks run and the sacrifices made by EOD personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan." —Booklist

"[A] deeply-reported tale of the costs of war. . . . Castner works like a translator."—Consequence Magazine

"Of this book's many strengths, perhaps most notable is its willingness to confront horror unrelentingly—furiously, even . . . All The Ways We Kill and Die occupies a space somewhere between rage and redemption, a purgatory of loss reported as unflinching testimony. . . . To call it intense is to cheapen its power. Castner's writing is as horrifying as it is illuminating. Castner's writing shines because of his willingness to hold his readers' faces toward the abyss when they would rather turn away. We would all do well—as veterans, as citizens—to be so brave."—Task & Purpose

"All The Ways We Kill and Die reads like a good work of fiction with a rich cast of characters and well developed whodunit plot line, all set in a postmodern military genre of special operations forces, robots, and drones. However, it is Brian Castner's literary style that makes this a welcome addition to any bookshelf. Similar to his first work, The Long Walk, the language is raw, it is real, and it is that of a warrior. The meta-narrative, the structure of the book itself, the pace and tempo of the prose, everything about this book is reflective of an EOD response to an IED strike: tend to the wounded, collect the evidence, and target the bomber. More so, it provides a unique perspective of warfare in the 21st century and for that reason alone, All The Ways We Kill and Die should be cataloged in the annals of modern American military history."–Commander Jeremy Wheat, USN, Center for International Maritime Security

"All the Ways We Kill and Die display[s] Castner's considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms. . . . There's as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner's exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction."—Matthew Komatsu, The Millions

"A tautly written, first-person look . . . in the style of a thriller. This is a fast-paced, personal tale that examines some little-known aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they have influenced the current fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS."—Publishers Weekly

"Castner solemnizes a small but recently critical section of America’s armed forces, and powerfully acquaints readers with the risks run and the sacrifices made by EOD personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan."—Booklist

"In this book Brian Castner takes us through a kind of moral detective work, uncovering not only private griefs, but also the broader military and social context of our country's response to such deaths. A brilliant, moving, and troubling portrait of modern American warfare."—Phil Klay, author of the National Book Award-winning Redeployment

“Like the best of storytellers, Castner transports us into the world of the men and women who fight and die and grieve: a struggling widow, two amputees, the exhausted pilot, the contractor for hire, a talented female biometrics engineer, even the jihadist bomb-makers. An extraordinary work of nonfiction that reads like a suspense novel."—Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of the New York Times bestseller Ashley's War

"Brian Castner has written an intimate, heartfelt, and rending portrait of the American family at war and at home; and he's done so in a totally surprising and captivating way, by making the journey as a detective, a soldier, a father, a husband, a citizen. How did my friend die, where did he go, where have I gone in the meantime, who did this to us? These are questions that Castner meditates on as he searches—across thousands of miles and back through the years—for the moment when a total stranger decided to kill a man closest to him and his family. Deftly reported and elegiac in its language, this is a story every neighbor, every parent, every soldier, and every school civics class ought to consider required reading. All the Ways We Kill and Die has much to tell us about how to live."—Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author of Horse Soldiers

"A powerful and gripping take on modern war. All the Ways We Kill and Die is a stirring inside look at the deadly dance between EOD and bomb makers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Written in crisp, unflinching prose, the book is one of the definitive accounts of our decades of war."—Kevin Maurer, author of Hunter Killer and No Easy Day

"Provocative, riveting, and uncommonly insightful in addressing both sides of the story, Castner writes in the tradition of Orwell and Kapuscinski . It is impossible to read his book and not be moved by the predicament of the shadow wars we're mired in. Infused with the knowledge of an insider, this is a bravura performance."—Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, author of The Watch

"The search for the story behind an IED death leads to the history of the post-9/11 wars and the lives of the men and women who fight them. . . . Castner does a beautiful job of putting together his puzzle, weaving all the seemingly disparate elements into one cohesive whole. . . . [His] writing is evocative and engaging, completely absorbing from beginning to end. A must-read for military buffs and a should-read for anyone who has given even a cursory thought to the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Castner solemnizes a small but recently critical section of America's armed forces, and powerfully acquaints readers with the risks run and the sacrifices made by EOD personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan." —Booklist

"[A] deeply-reported tale of the costs of war. . . . Castner works like a translator."—Consequence Magazine

"Of this book's many strengths, perhaps most notable is its willingness to confront horror unrelentingly—furiously, even . . . All The Ways We Kill and Die occupies a space somewhere between rage and redemption, a purgatory of loss reported as unflinching testimony. . . . To call it intense is to cheapen its power. Castner's writing is as horrifying as it is illuminating. Castner's writing shines because of his willingness to hold his readers' faces toward the abyss when they would rather turn away. We would all do well—as veterans, as citizens—to be so brave."—Task & Purpose

"All The Ways We Kill and Die reads like a good work of fiction with a rich cast of characters and well developed whodunit plot line, all set in a postmodern military genre of special operations forces, robots, and drones. However, it is Brian Castner's literary style that makes this a welcome addition to any bookshelf. Similar to his first work, The Long Walk, the language is raw, it is real, and it is that of a warrior. The meta-narrative, the structure of the book itself, the pace and tempo of the prose, everything about this book is reflective of an EOD response to an IED strike: tend to the wounded, collect the evidence, and target the bomber. More so, it provides a unique perspective of warfare in the 21st century and for that reason alone, All The Ways We Kill and Die should be cataloged in the annals of modern American military history."–Commander Jeremy Wheat, USN, Center for International Maritime Security

"All the Ways We Kill and Die display[s] Castner's considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms. . . . There's as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner's exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction."—Matthew Komatsu, The Millions

"A tautly written, first-person look . . . in the style of a thriller. This is a fast-paced, personal tale that examines some little-known aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they have influenced the current fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS."—Publishers Weekly

"Castner solemnizes a small but recently critical section of America’s armed forces, and powerfully acquaints readers with the risks run and the sacrifices made by EOD personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan."—Booklist