Intelligence: Every Bomb Fragment Tells A Story

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June 16, 2011: Two Iraqi immigrants were recently arrested in the United States, after it was belatedly discovered that one of the men had left fingerprints on an IED that went off in Iraq years earlier. The suspect, Waad Ramadan Alwan, was already under investigation in the United States, on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks. But the investigation would have gone faster, and the arrests come sooner, if the FBI database had been linked to military databases of known, or suspected terrorists. This link had long been planned, but the Alwan case now adds a new urgency to that effort. It might actually happen now. Or maybe not.

All this began during the war against terrorists in Iraq. Early on in the war on terror, the Department of Defense adopted many practices that major police departments take for granted. One of the more useful techniques 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 portable electronic tools to take fingerprints, a retinal scan and photos. All this is stored in a database, which eventually contained millions of records for Iraqis, Afghans, and other "persons of interest".

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 some one 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.

For decades, the U.S. military has regularly collected huge amounts of information from accidents, or even combat encounters. So now, it's no surprise that forensics teams examine each bombing (car or roadside) and combat scene, to see if they can get fingerprints. Often bomb makers are found this way, because raids frequently encounter suspicious characters, but no evidence that can lock them up. It only takes about two minutes per subject to take the biometric data, so any suspicious characters are added to the 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.

For years now, combat troops 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. Shifting this expertise to creating very difficult-to-fake IDs is not a large leap.

American law enforcement need to pay more attention to those Iraqi databases, because many of the Iraqis coming to the United States are Sunni Arabs. Many of those migrants got into the United States because they worked with American troops in Iraq. This was because the Sunni Arabs (20 percent of Iraqis in 2003) were the most educated group over there and the most likely to speak English. Translators were major targets for Islamic terrorists, but it was often possible for Sunni Arabs, with Islamic radical beliefs, to claim they aided American troops and had to get out of the country. The Sunni Arabs are now only 15 percent of the Iraqi population, because so many of them both the guilty and the innocent, were driven out of Iraq by retribution (for terror attacks on Christian and Shia Moslem Iraqis) attacks. It was not always possible to do a thorough background check (for terrorist sympathies or connections) on all Iraqi migrants. But just using the military databases can catch a lot of Iraqis you don't want in the United States. That would have been the case with Waad Ramadan Alwan (who is subject to prosecution back in Iraq for that terrorism connection.) His fingerprints had been found fragments of an IED that was used in 2005. Alwan got into the U.S. four years later.

 


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