Michael's Dispatches

Left of Bang

14 July 2011

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A few years ago, a British officer said to me they want to get as far left of bang as possible.  The farther left of bang, the better.  Right of bang is a crater and a memorial service.

A main goal in staying left of bang is to disrupt enemy bomb-making cells.  In the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, if a bomb blew up our people, we would be apt to arrest every male in the village old enough to sport pubic hair.  We paid for that with more blood and may or may not have gotten the right guys.  It was as if we were dealing with a thousand mysterious unibombers.  In America, if a bomb hit the local National Guard headquarters and the Guard responded by flooding out and arresting the entire neighborhood, the Guard could be assured that any positive or neutral feelings would be toxified to the point where previously friendly eyes would become enemy spies.  The formula is simple and works every time.

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Somewhere along the line, some very smart person must have gotten the idea that we needed forensics and law enforcement experts to join battle.  I don’t recall when it first started to happen, but at some point our people started collecting the evidence, and that’s when I sat in on a then-classified briefing after which the British officer began educating me on the concept and techniques involved in staying “left of bang.”

This fingerprint technician above said that her brother is a Marine in Anbar, and she came because she wanted to protect him.  A lucky Marine has a great sister.  She’s the second sister of Marines I met who does such things not in word, but deed.

161426-2-web1000pxForce Multipliers: forensics experts in Afghanistan

Today, “customers” such as military units will send evidence to experts such as these on Kandahar Airfield.  (There are labs on other bases.)  When you meet the forensics team, they have that positive air that people get when they know they are doing good and valuable work.  Importantly, they must be able to “sell” themselves so that units understand their capabilities, and to keep the evidence coming.

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I’ve written numerous times about fingerprinting database creation in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as in Penguins of Afghanistan.  In Iraq, men would line up to apply for police jobs and they were entering fingerprints into computer.  One day, there was a “hit.”  I have no idea how his prints got into the system but when he put his prints in that day, the system—even while offline—immediately made a “hit.”  Were his prints found on a bomb?  Whatever the case, the man was quietly taken.  That must have happened many times but only once was I present.

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The powerful computers and software allow nearly instant searching even in the field.  The small, portable systems that digitally scan prints, make a photo, and perform an iris scan also contain an internal database.  I’ve been to Afghan villages in which the men literally line up to get entered into the systems because they want an ID card.  They’ve never had ID cards and they want them.  The villagers are not forced to enter the system but they just line up.  If one of those prints is already in the handheld unit, there will be an alert and more data can be accessed right there on the spot without even having radio contact.  There might be a note that if this guy is encountered, he’s dangerous and take him on the spot.  If one of those prints was found on a bomb or weapon, or maybe he was a prisoner, well, needless to say that’s good to know.  When the unit is taken back to base, the memory is uploaded, ID cards are made and later the troops bring back the ID cards.

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A bomb-maker from Afghanistan who wants to come to America or Europe might already be in the database.

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Booby traps.

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