Intelligence: The Information Edge in Iraq


August 30, 2007: The success of the current "surge" offensive in Iraq is not just due to the availability of another 20,000 troops. There were three other factors; more trained Iraqi troops, years of experience in Iraq for American troops, and four years of intelligence work.

It's the intel collected since 2003 that has made the extra 20,000 troops so effective. Before the end of 2003, U.S. troops realized that they were dealing with a police type situation. And it was mainly caused by the Sunni Arab minority (20 percent of the population), who were the main support of Saddam. Even Saddam came along, the Sunni Arabs had dominated the area, that is now Iraq, for centuries. Going into Iraq, the U.S. hoped that the Sunni Arabs would realize the hopelessness of their situation and cooperate with the Shia/Kurd majority. Didn't happen. Or, rather, it didn't happen enough. Many, if not most, Sunni Arabs were willing to give peace, and democracy, a chance. But Saddam and his followers went underground and, using cash they had stashed away, and fear of Shia and Kurdish revenge among Saddams now unemployed secret police, began a terror campaign to get back into power. These "Baathists" (the Baath Party had controlled Iraq since the 1960s) believed the Americans would eventually lose heart and leave, and that the Shia and Kurds would never get organized sufficiently to run the country. In early 2004, the Baathists joined forces with al Qaeda, which wanted to turn Iraq, and the world, into a theocracy, run by Sunni Moslem clergy. The Baath party was secular, but these differences were put aside in order to defeat the Shia, Kurds and Americans.

Soon, military intelligence specialists in Iraq began learning (often from reservists who were in law enforcement) how police in the United States investigate, and identify criminal gangs back home. That was because the enemy in Iraq typically belonged to a criminal, or terrorist group, that operated like a gang. There are cultural differences, and dealing with these quirks caused the most problems. On the positive side, there is a large industry in the United States that supplied special software to police departments, for handling investigations. This stuff is basically database software with formats and analysis abilities tweaked to assist police investigations. These programs have been revolutionizing detective work over the last two decades. It took a few months, after the invasion, for the intel people in Iraq to become aware of this software, and they were helped greatly by reservists who were police commanders or detectives in their civilian jobs

It was discovered that the "gangs of Iraq" operated in a similar fashion to ethnic gangs (including Arab ones) in the United States and Europe. Thus genealogical software came in handy, as did new cell phone tracking and bugging software and equipment. Regular (land-line) phones are unreliable in Iraq, and the new cell phones services are more popular. Even when they discovered how easy it was to track cell phones, many Iraqi gangsters and anti-government fighters refused to give them up. The genealogy software is useful in tracking the relations between family members in gangs. Many gangs are basically family based, with many distant cousins coming together because of family loyalty.

Terrorist attacks are treated like serial criminals. This type of criminal behavior is most widely known when it is murder. But there are many kinds of serial crime, and U.S. intel specialists found that attacks on Iraqi police and U.S. troops was, in most cases, just another serial crime. The perpetrators would often follow a pattern, one that the software could pick out. One thing leads to another, and arrests often result. DNA analysis and all the tools you see on CSI, are brought to bear. It's no accident that the 4th Infantry Division captured Saddam Hussein in December, 2003. The 4th Infantry is the most high tech outfit in the army, with more geeks per battalion than any other combat organization.

Financial auditing, and tracking assets in general, also proved useful. Much of the violence in Iraq is financed by billions of dollars Saddam and his cronies stole. Over a billion dollars of that money, in U.S. currency, was discovered right after Saddam fell. There is a parallel effort to create Arabic interfaces for a lot of this software, so the Iraqi police can use it as well.

The computerized intel records also make it easier to get replacement troops up to speed quickly. This process begins before the new intel units arrive, as copies of databases can be transmitted back to the United States, and video conferences or chat room sessions held to discuss the data, and the current situation in Iraq. Thus the intelligence effort continues relentlessly, even with the American troops being replaced every year.

Over the last two years, more technology was issued to the troops to help identify Iraqi suspects on the spot. Now, when terror suspects find they are photographed, finger printed and have DNA taken, they know that they are truly identified. In late 2006, U.S. troops began using a portable ID kit, with the database built in. This was called "The Snake Eater", and it was a hardened laptop (like the kind the army, and construction companies buy a lot of), with a digital camera and electronic fingerprinting device. Most importantly, the laptop also has database (also off the shelf, police departments use this stuff) software for storing the prints, pictures and other information. The other data includes what is known about the suspects family, and connections to other people.

Year by year, the databases grew, and the picture of who was doing what to who in Iraq, and why, became clearer. So when the surge offensive was in the planning stages, there was plenty of info on who was where, how vulnerable they were, and how important. Already, the troops had gone beyond blind sweeps, looking for anything that might show up. Most of the raids were looking for specific individuals, or their associates, or bomb factories, weapons caches or documents and cash.

Four years of terrorist violence had caused many Sunni Arabs to risk all to inform on the killers. The Americans and the Iraqi government offered an end to the violence, and tips about which terrorist were where would help make that happen. More Iraqis also became aware of how much the Americans knew. It was noted that the U.S. troops were always looking for particular individuals, and often had photos. It was also noted that, when the subject of a search pretended to be someone else, the Americans would pull out this laptop (a "Snake Eater") and grab a fingerprint. The suspect was identified and hauled away. Iraqis were already in awe of American technology, and seeing the "Snake Eater" do its magic convinced many that siding with the terrorists was not a good idea.

The intel advantage will never make for much of a news story. Databases aren't very exciting or sexy. But in the current campaign, the information advantage is the decisive one.




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