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November 22, 2019: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) revealed that it used a portable DNA tester to quickly confirm the identity of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi after a raid on his Syrian hideout in September. Baghdadi blew himself up when he was cornered in a tunnel but most of his body was recovered and his head and face were intact. The digital picture of the face was taken and quickly identified as Baghdadi but confirmation came within two hours with the use of a portable (weighing about 45 kg/100 pounds) DNA lab that was on one of their helicopters.

SOCOM would not give details on their portable DNA tester other than to confirm that it existed and was easy enough to use for SOCOM personnel to be trained to operate it in a combat zone. SOCOM personnel regularly use a lot of complex equipment but for something to be used under combat conditions, it must be fairly rugged and easy to operate. SOCOM did reveal that they had earlier obtained a DNA sample for Baghdadi back when he was jailed in Iraq during 2004. The DNA was further confirmed by obtaining another from one of his daughters for familial comparison and confirmation.

SOCOM had long sought such portable and speedy DNA ID kits, especially after the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. A DNA sample was taken and flown to a lab Afghanistan for analysis, a process that took more than a day. The big problem with using DNA testing is having a DNA analysis of the suspect or one of his close kin. The U.S. does not have a large DNA database of Islamic terrorist leaders and getting the DNA of dead Islamic terrorists usually gets delayed by the need to find something to compare it to. DNA of one of bin Laden’s sisters was available and more collected from kin in his compound. The U.S. military already has a large biometric database of digital facial pictures, fingerprints and iris scans and is in the process of building a DNA database.

It was known back in 2015 that SOCOM was testing two portable DNA analysis devices overseas. These two devices each cost about $250,000. One weighs 55 kg (120 pounds) and the other 91 kg (200 pounds). Both required near constant power because some of the chemicals used must be kept refrigerated. Most importantly these devices could analyze a tissue sample of DNA in 90 minutes and produce an electronic record of the analysis that could be compared with a biometric database via a wireless link. Previously the analysis had to be sent back to the United States or some other nation with classified DNA analysis facilities and this took several days at least. This much speedier DNA analysis has made it possible to catch some bomb builders or others involved in terrorism because of the DNA samples taken from bomb fragments or someplace just raided could be analyzed and compared to suspected terrorists in the area (or not) and suspects could be captured (or killed) before they got away. The portable DNA analyzers were designed to be used by the usual SOCOM personnel found overseas. These guys were bright but few had training as lab technicians. Not much was heard about progress in developing these machines other than that they were still around and being used successfully.

SOCOM has revealed that its goal is to reduce the size and weight of these devices to as few as three kg (6-7 pounds) so they could be carried into combat. It was also known that a DNA database of key Islamic terrorist leaders, operatives and technicians but progress with that has been slow.

The United States already has a large and growing library of data on actual and suspected terrorists and supporters. A major innovation for building this database was the use of electronic biometrics (fingerprints, iris, facial recognition, DNA) identification. After 2003 the U.S. developed tools that enabled combat troops to collect and use biometrics on the battlefield. The main tool was called SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrolment Kit). This is a portable electronic toolkit that collects biometrics from people anywhere and at any time. This includes fingerprint scans, eye (iris) scans, and digital photos of suspects and eventually DNA samples. All this ends up in a master database, which eventually contained data on millions of terrorists, suspected terrorists, their supporters, and other "persons of interest." Troops in the field can carry part of that database with them in their SEEK kits, so that wanted people can quickly be identified and captured. This is what the American commandos did on the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid as well as the Baghdadi operation and hundreds of less well known raids where accurate ID of dead Islamic terrorist was important. While DNA tests are the best form of ID, if you have fingerprints, iris scans, and a photo you are nearly as certain. Even just fingerprints and the face scan/photo is pretty convincing. But often all you have is DNA and that’s where the portable DNA analyzers come in.

In Afghanistan, the government used SEEK kits to collect data on nearly two million Afghans so these people could be issued very secure (hard to fake) ID cards. For the government, this made it more difficult for criminals, Taliban, and Islamic radicals, in general, to infiltrate the government or just operate freely. The U.S. has long been collecting biometrics from those they arrest or otherwise encounter and want to positively identify. This data makes it easier to figure out who is naughty and who is not.

All this began during the war in Iraq. At the same time, the Department of Defense adopted many practices that major police departments had long employed to track down criminals. Troops in Iraq, especially reservists who were police, noted that the war in Iraq was mostly police work; seeking individual terrorists among a large population of innocent civilians. One of the more useful techniques for this is biometrics. That is, every time the troops encounter a "person of interest," they don't just take their name and address, they also use SEEK to collect the biometric data. The fingerprints are particularly useful because when they are stored electronically you can search and find out immediately if the print you have just lifted from somewhere else, like off the fragment of a car bomb, is in there or not. The digital photos, from several angles, are also useful because these pictures are run through software that creates a numeric "ID" that can be used by security cameras to look for someone specific, or for finding someone from a witness description. Other nations are digitizing their mug shots, and this enables these people to be quickly checked against those in the American database.

Often bomb makers were found because of fingerprints or DNA samples lifted from bomb fragments. Later raids frequently encounter suspicious characters but no evidence that justifies an arrest, until the fingerprints are checked against the bomb maker and SEEK database. The database of IED fragments were also checked for design techniques, which can indicate which individual or team built a particular bomb. This use of fingerprints led to the identification of over a thousand people involved in making bombs. At least a hundred were put on terrorist watch lists and many were eventually arrested or killed. This included several Iraqis who made it to the U.S. as refugees, along with over 70,000 other Iraqis. These men were arrested and prosecuted.

It only takes about two minutes per subject to use SEEK to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are quickly added to the master database. Now, after several years of this, raiding parties know to grab any guy who seems to panic at the sight of the biometrics equipment coming out. The terrorists know that biometrics is bad news for them and they fear it. Combat troops now get training on how to use the biometrics gear and everyone now accepts that this stuff is a powerful weapon in the war against terrorists. Adapting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap but it's not one that will result in many press releases.

 


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