Battlefield Forensics: Rebirth of an Ancient Science

On July 17, authorities in Afghanistan captured a Pakistani woman named Aafia Siddiqui.  She had first come to the attention of U.S. officials in late 2003 or early 2004, and they were deeply concerned by her links to al Qaeda, particularly in view of her extensive education in biology and the neurosciences. She had been educated at M.I.T. and Brandeis, and it was feared that she had the ability to actually produce weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological).  As part of the ongoing investigation of Siddiqui, U.S. investigators reportedly have taken hair and saliva samples from her, as well as fingernail scrapings, to ascertain whether or not she has been in recent proximity to various substances that could be used in WMD production.

Welcome to the new world of battlefield forensics.

Battlefield forensics was traditionally the purview of archaeologists and historians.  They typically visited old battlefields – and analyzed old battles – focusing on such arcane (to the layman) matters as terrain analysis, the placement of fortifications, and an examination of cartridges, bones, and other debris to determine “what really happened” and to test theories, for example, about why one side was victorious over the other.

Recently, battlefield forensics has undergone a major revolution, and the focus today is no longer exclusively on the past but on contemporary fields of conflict as well.  Utilizing the forensic tools developed by law-enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, a new breed of specialists is using modern forensic techniques in the war on terrorism in combat theaters such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  According to U.S. Navy researcher Anh N. Duong, the purpose is to “rapidly process battlefield evidence in-situ to support judicial, tactical, and strategic operations.”

Members of the U.S. military are today being taught to collect, analyze, and preserve an array of information acquired on battlefields ranging from the tarmacs of airports to the mountains of Afghanistan and the roadways of Iraq.  This information includes latent fingerprints recovered from explosive devices and safe houses, hair and blood samples, firearms (for clues as to their origin and use), and papers, identity cards, software, and computer data captured in engagements with terrorists or seized from their bases and safe houses.  According to a report published in USA Today, Sgt. 1st Carlos Tyson, a member of a weapons intelligence team, investigated a roadside bombing in Iraq.  Tyson found various “pieces” of the suicide bomber, including a hand.  “We got a hand,” Tyson told the reporter, “so we could fingerprint it.”

Members of the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion, which became known as “CSI Baghdad,” are credited with pioneering the process of “fingerprinting, bagging, and tagging evidence and sending it back to the rear.”  Now the techniques and procedures developed by the 203rd and other bomb and weapons intel teams are being disseminated throughout the U.S. military, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has deployed portable forensic analysis units to a number of locations.

Valuable Information – and Potential Evidence

All of the information gathered has major intelligence applications, of course, but it also is important in making criminal cases against terrorist suspects captured by the military.  This kind of evidence can definitively place a suspect at the scene of a terrorist attack or a terrorist training facility.  It can trace an explosive device to a particular bomb maker or designer.  Biometric evidence obtained on the battlefield also can be used to place terrorist fugitives on various watch lists.

Bombs are examined to learn about their design, construction, and, ultimately, for insights on how to defeat them.  In view of the fact that seventy percent of U.S. military deaths in Iraq are caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), explosives forensics has become one of DOD’s most important priorities. In large part for that reason, the department has established its own Terrorist Explosives Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has assisted in the training of forensic bomb technicians in Iraq, as have British police units.

In the future, DNA material will be collected from dead enemy combatants as well as those captured by U.S. military forces. This material can be stored in databases that military commanders, investigators, and intelligence officers can access in connection with ongoing investigations and/or to verify identity.  DNA has been collected, for example, from members of the bin Laden family for comparison to fluids, residues, or body parts that might be recovered after a firefight or bombing raid to ascertain whether or not they belong to Osama bin Laden.  It will be critically important that a positive I.D. be made before any public statement is released or the hunt for the al Qaeda leader is called off.

This use of DNA evidence would be strictly a bonus factor, though. It is clear that the new emphasis on battlefield forensics has been driven primarily by warfighter needs, and will be a key element in the global effort to defeat terrorism.


Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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