CAMP PENDLETON — A platoon of Marines sat in a hot classroom waiting for the lecture to begin, fidgeting and gabbing, with a few resting their heads on their desks.
When Los Angeles Police Det. Ralph Morten introduced himself that warm August day, the Iraq-bound Marines barely acknowledged him. But that changed in an instant when the burly cop told them that if they wanted to increase their chances of returning home alive, they had better listen up.
Morten, a member of the LAPD bomb squad, is among the nation's top experts on suicide bombings, a distinction he earned after being trained by Israeli police. He has been sharing his expertise with the U.S. military for the last two years and has spent six months as a military advisor in Iraq.
"You won't have to take notes," he told the Marines after they snapped to attention. "I'm going to give you the lesson after I'm done, so you can take it with you and study it. You'll need every advantage you can get."
A 27-year LAPD veteran and former SWAT member, Morten, 55, said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks jolted him out of his easygoing ways, and he changed from an anonymous bomb-squad detective into a front-line soldier in the war against terror.
He estimated that he has trained about 20,000 U.S. troops in how to survive suicide bombers and "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, in Iraq. He conducts about four training classes each month at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County and the Twentynine Palms Marine Base in San Bernardino County.
Lt. Col. Patrick Malay, director of the Special Operations Training Group for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, ordered all 900 members of his battalion to take Morten's class before deploying to Iraq last year. Morten, who went to Iraq separately, and Malay's unit ended up in Fallouja, where Malay required that 500 additional troops under his command take the class too.
"He understands the whole concept of suicide bombers and IEDs. He is truly a front-line fighter in the global war on terror," Malay said. "He's able to pick up enemy tactics, techniques and procedures as they change. At the same time he goes out there and sees what's working and what's not working for us."
Malay credited Morten's training for the low number of deaths from suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices suffered by his battalion in the fight for Fallouja. Of the 19 Marines killed, only two died from the devices, and both men died while working with another unit whose troops were not trained by Morten, he said.
In an interview at an Oceanside restaurant after one of his classes, Morten said he became an advisor to the Marines after a former commanding general of the 1st Marine Division attended a briefing he had given in 2004 at the LAPD's Parker Center headquarters.
Because most of the training he gives is classified, Morten can reveal only bits and pieces of what he teaches.
One of the bombers' tools in Iraq is a common washing machine switch, employed to detonate explosives, he teaches them. Marines are taught to be on the lookout for those and cellphones and hand-held radios modified as fusing systems.
Morten said there was no substitute for "good old shoe leather" and a police approach for finding bombers in Iraq.
"Everybody wants the magic technology to solve the problem. But you've got to go door to door to dig these guys out," Morten said. "The more you stay in your vehicle, the more you're going to pay — just like in police work. You're not going to find the dope dealers or bank robbers by sitting in the police station."
LAPD officials support Morten's involvement with the military, but he has not lost sight of his primary mission — to help protect Los Angeles from terrorist attacks.
That assignment took on added significance this month because of events in New York, where officials increased security on the subway system, citing what they said was a credible terrorist threat. Law enforcement officers there checked baby strollers, backpacks and bags for hidden explosives. Officials later determined that the intelligence about a possible attack was faulty.
So far, a combination of luck and good police work at the local, state and federal levels has prevented new attacks, he says. But he adds it is only a matter of time before suicide bombers strike in the United States.
"In reality, the whole process is difficult to interdict. But the hardest part is what to do with the suicide bombers before they explode. I can't tell you what the tactics are" for security reasons, he said. "But we have a plan to deal with these guys," Morten said.
Morten was working at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and a fourth went down in a Pennsylvania field. The attacks were followed by FBI warnings to local police agencies about potential suicide bombers.
Suddenly, Morten and other law enforcement officials in the U.S. found themselves facing a terrifying possibility that is a common occurrence in Israel, where police are regarded as experts on suicide attackers, but which most American cops knew nothing about.
He persuaded his commanders to send him to Israel in April 2002 to study with the experts. "All I wanted to do in the beginning was get some information for the bomb squad and SWAT. I didn't go to make this something where I travel the world and do this."
He trained with the Israeli National Police and the Yamam, the country's elite civilian counterterrorism unit. In the process, Morten also acquired a healthy respect for suicide bombers, especially those trained by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. "The Israelis consider Hamas to have the best-trained suicide bombers. They have a pretty high kill ratio."
Morten has made four trips to Israel since 2002, gathering information each time that helped him put together a first responders' guide for the LAPD and a training bulletin, and learning new tactics against suicide bombers.
Morten said the LAPD training manual calls for officers to look for suspicious characters and the unexpected. That can be a tough challenge even for the Israelis, who face an enemy that constantly changes tactics.
An example he often cites is a bombing at a Jerusalem pizza place in 2002, which Morten has studied extensively.
A Palestinian who looked like a European tourist with spiked hair and a guitar blew himself up at the entrance to the restaurant, killing 15. He was accompanied by a woman who had flowers in her hair and survived the attack. They looked like everyone else, so they didn't raise suspicions.
"They only have to be right once. We have to be right every time," he said.
Typically, a walk-in suicide bomber carries 25 to 30 pounds of explosives and 5 to 10 pounds of fragmentation, usually nails, bolts or nuts, concealed under bulky clothing, he said.
Locally, the most vulnerable targets are venues where large numbers of people gather, such as malls, subway systems, airports and sporting events, he said.
"It's no secret. They look where they can have great success against large numbers and at the same time cause maximum economic damage."
Considering the ease with which attacks were launched on London's public transit system in July, Morten said that extremists may be emboldened to launch similar strikes in the U.S.
"There's people here sympathetic enough to the cause of the extremists that they can be convinced to become martyrs," he said.
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Ralph Morten grew up on a farm in Nebraska, eventually moving to California. He enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, but quit in 1971 to enlist in the Marines. He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1978. While a patrolman, he returned to Cal State Long Beach and graduated in 1983 with a degree in criminal justice.
He jokes about his recent "promotion": From 1971 to 1973, he served as a clerk processing recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Thirty years later, he teaches combat Marines how to survive in Iraq.
Morten was spotted by the Marines in January 2004, when Gen. James N. Mattis, then commander of the 1st Marine Division, attended a briefing that Morten gave at Parker Center. Mattis told police officials, "I need that guy." Two months later, the LAPD bomb expert deployed to Iraq for his first tour with the Marines.