Blue Line

Canadian Forces take forensics to the battlefield

January 13, 2015  By Tu Thanh Ha

When U.S. troops entered the village of Armul in eastern Afghanistan in June, 2007, there wasn’t much left of three insurgents who had been blown up by their own bomb – torn clothes, body parts, a damaged AK-47, bits of metal and blue plastic.

But among the remains was a severed hand.

The soldiers took it back to their base and, using the sensor of a special biometric camera called the HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment), scanned the fingertips and retrieved two prints.

Even in death, the insurgent wouldn’t escape the gigantic biometric net that the U.S. military had cast over the country.


Canada has ended its combat mission and left Kandahar. Other nations are scaling down their presence. A decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is closing in uncertain, ambiguous fashion. But the two major conflicts of the new century have altered military tactics, making them the first forensic wars.

The introduction of scientific methods has reshaped counterinsurgency tactics, mixing police and military work, creating a seamless bridge between evidence collected on the battlefield and courtroom prosecutions years from now. For example, the FBI arrested an Iraqi refugee in Kentucky, saying his fingerprints matched those on an improvised explosive device a U.S. patrol found in Iraq in 2005.

The bloodshed it suffered in Afghanistan has made Canada, along with the United States, Britain and Australia, a leader in countering IEDs, the French military magazine Doctrine says.

Canada opened its own forensic lab in Kandahar in 2009, one of the few nations with that in-theatre capability.

That facility is now history. But in the spring of 2011, the Canadian Forces took delivery of a new deployable lab that can be loaded aboard a C-17 transport plane, with its own power generator, plumbing, optical-fibre wiring and supplies of gloves, swabs and evidence bags.

The new lab is fitted for the kind of conflicts Canadian soldiers will face again and again: wars with no front line, battlefields with no clear targets, enemies with no uniforms.

“We take away the enemy’s ability to be invisible in a crowd,” the lab’s commander, Navy Lieutenant Kevin McNamara, said in an interview.

Members of the European Defence Agency have gone a similar path, with their own deployable lab, built in Spain and shipped to Afghanistan under French command.

The Canadian Forces also want to improve its ability to conduct “site exploitation,” the recovery of any items that could yield intelligence – weapons, computers, phones, documents.

National Defence is training soldiers in site exploitation, showing them how to record fingerprints, scan eyes and extract data from captured cell phones.

Bomb-disposal technicians, the cool-nerved operators chronicled in the film haven’t simply defused IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They also photograph blast scenes, measure craters and test soil samples. They retrieve wires, circuit boards and triggers to reverse-engineer and identify a bomb maker’s technique, the way homicide detectives would reconstruct a killer’s modus operandi.

Canadian bomb-disposal teams, which went to Afghanistan with no formal forensic training, have been collecting fingerprints and DNA since at least 2006, according to an oral history that Major Mark Gasparotto compiled about his squadron of combat engineers in Afghanistan.

American troops across Iraq and Afghanistan have for a decade photographed faces, scanned eyes, collected fingerprints and swabbed for saliva or blood during patrols, at checkpoints and border crossings, on local conscripts or job seekers, on the bodies of dead enemies, even on populations of entire towns.

The U.S. military collected more than 2.2 million people, mostly Iraqis and Afghans, according to Myra Gray, head of the Pentagon’s Biometrics Task Force.

Soldiers on patrols are outfitted with biometric cameras and spray cans of chemicals to test prisoners for explosives residue. The display window on their HIIDE cameras turns from blue to red if the person they screen matches someone on a watch list.

The list has five types of suspects, from Level 1, a “high-value target” who has to be detained immediately, to Level 5, someone with a criminal background who is just to be barred from entering military bases.

Such data helped U.S. soldiers capture 775 “high-value” suspects in 2010, General George Casey, who was U.S. Army chief of staff, told Congress.

For example, a July 9, 2009, “Capture/Kill” night raid by the U.S. 4th Airborne Brigade netted a suspect who was scrutinized on the HIIDE, according to a military log released by WikiLeaks. The machine gave a 97-per-cent probability that the man was “Objective Russian Jack,” an insurgent leader named Rashid Bawari.

Canada’s special forces appear in a March 2, 2008, cable. It describes a helicopter-borne operation code-named Dropkick in which members of “CANSOF” (the Canadian Special Operations Forces) and Afghan troops would assault a compound and look for “Objective Yoda,” a bomb maker named Haji Sahib.

The biometric data also screens Afghans who enter coalition facilities. A June, 2009, cable mentions a case at Forward Operating Base Joyce, in Kunar province. “We have a local national worker on FOB Joyce that has a 100% fingerprint match that was taken off an IED a year ago,” the log noted at 8:33 a.m.

By noon, the worker was under arrest and waiting to be flown to the Bagram detention centre to be questioned.

{Gathering the evidence}

Battlefield forensics often start in the chaos and bloodshed after an IED strike, even as locals scavenge metal fragments or ammunition cooks off in burning wreckage.

Civilian police can take days to canvass a crime scene, but in the battlefield “you may only have 30 minutes on the ground,” said Lt. McNamara, a Navy diver who did bomb-disposal duty in Afghanistan.

He recalls working in body armour in 50-degree heat, crawling in blood- and oil-splattered wrecks, the fingertips of his latex gloves puffed up from pooled sweat.

While the Canadian army is tight-lipped about how it processes the biometric information it collects, details about military forensics have appeared in specialized magazines and promotional videos of U.S. forces.

Take that severed hand that American soldiers recovered in Armul in 2007.

Fingerprints are wired to a Pentagon facility in Clarksburg, W.Va., to be added to a database of fingerprints, iris scans and facial photos of millions of Iraqis and Afghans.

The other remains – such as the blue-plastic fragments – were of interest because, three days before, an Arizona National Guardsman was killed by an IED made with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil packed in blue-plastic jugs.

The artifacts were sent to the American lab at Bagram Air Field near Kabul, to be triaged, X-rayed, photographed, measured and inspected for DNA or latent prints. In cases where the evidence is significant, it is shipped to the FBI labs in Quantico, Va., where the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center keeps more than 71,000 IED artifacts.

Sifting through these artifacts is tedious and exhausting work. Military labs have to process the evidence to police-level standards, meaning that a chain of custody has to be recorded for each copper wire, every strip of tape, every cigarette butt, like cataloguing a giant junkyard.

One Canadian military police officer who worked in 2008 at the Bagram lab handled 14,300 artifacts in nine months. Another was commended for processing 500 pieces of evidence a week.

{The shortcomings}

Forensic work is not a panacea. Sometimes troops aren’t versed in the new procedures, and evidence is compromised.

During a road-clearance operation on Jan. 23, 2008, an IED blew up under a LAV III vehicle, killing a Canadian combat engineer, Corporal Étienne Gonthier. A bomb investigator later complained that the patrol touched the evidence with bare hands, contaminating it.

“It is clear that the patrol touched the objects that were collected without gloves. Team leaders and [commanders] must conduct more appropriate and valuable site exploitation,” an investigator wrote in a report found in the WikiLeaks logs.

Three months later, a convoy of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) regiment was travelling on a mud track when a Leopard tank rolled over a powerful IED that ripped off its tracks and wheels. The driver, Corporal Mark Fuchko, lost both legs.

A CEXC investigator arrived but got only 15 minutes at the scene before the soldiers prepared to leave.

“The On Scene Commander (OSC) did not believe the investigation to be of importance,” the technician complained in his report. “Not providing sufficient time to exploit a scene starves the CIED process of its source of intelligence.”

At the same time, the millions of biometric records and IED fragments already collected created a data bottleneck.

Last May, two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were arrested on terrorism charges. The FBI linked one of them to fingerprints on an improvised explosive device (IED) found six years previously in Iraq.

One suspect, Waad Alwan, had obtained refugee status two years before he boasted to an informant that he had planted bombs in the Iraqi city of Bayji. The FBI checked an IED part recovered in the area in 2005 and made a fingerprint match.

An FBI spokesman later explained that the IED hadn’t been examined before because it didn’t explode and wasn’t a priority case.

In other cases, forensic evidence hasn’t held up to scrutiny.

The U.S. government had to apologize and pay a $2-million settlement to an Oregon lawyer and Muslim convert after the FBI mistakenly linked him to prints found at the 2004 Madrid bomb attacks.

U.S. authorities also tried to connect two Syrian detainees at Guantanamo Bay to IED evidence. Military court documents alleged that they were extremists whose DNA matched hair found on IEDs near Mosul in northern Iraq.

However, the two were released without charges, a sign that the DNA link wasn’t strong.

Ultimately, technology can only be a part of the solution. The U.S. created a special command to deal with the problem, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which received $17-billion in funding. JIEDDO director Michael Oates noted in a media briefing that the IED threat would only disappear through civil reconciliation.

“If you don’t work to mitigate the recruitment and the enticement for emplacement of IEDs, you will spend an enormous amount of blood and treasure dealing with each individual IED that is put against you,” Gen. Oates said. “It is not a winnable project just to kill emplacers or to just uncover the device.”

But Western armies have to embrace police investigative tools because increasingly they will wage war in failed states, battling snipers, suicide attacks or roadside bombs, said Queen’s University international security expert Anthony Seaboyer.

“There’s going to be more police work,” he said, “because you’re going to have to do much more research to identify who you’re dealing with.”

<>< Photo Cut Line ><><>
BLEED LEAD >>> Sergeant Lee Peters is a Scene of Crime Officer with the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch and one of only 5 practitioners qualified in forensic evidence recovery. (Cpl Laura Bibby)

SECONDARY SHOT >>> An Afghan civilian has his photo taken by a U.S. Soldier (left) on a joint operation with a Canadian soldier (right). The U.S. soldier is using the system” which captures the biometrics of individuals for use in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.
(Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)


Tu Thanh Ha is a freelance writer working for The Globe and Mail, which published this story Aug. 6 2011.

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