Michael's Dispatches

Left of Bang


14 July 2011


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Booby traps.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    peter · 10 years ago
    Michael, who says science is dull! Great investigative reporting. I think we can all have a hand in support!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John Schofield · 10 years ago
    Michael writes articles of compelling interest about magnificent people utilizing immensely sophisticated techniques and displaying courage and tenacity, a sense of duty, patriotism and true grit. I've been to Afghanistan, so I can vouch for the truth of my comments, if only by remembering the challenging terrain and the innumerable hiding places afforded by high vantage points and the thick, burrow-like walls of townships. I have to admit I have grave doubts about the loyalty of the locals in the light of the age-old warlord and tribal system. Too, i hold strong suspicions where Pakistan and Iran are concerned.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gus Bailey · 10 years ago
    Thank you Mr. Yon, for (again) keeping the hard work done by our service personnel and support at the front of the story. Please continue bringing the truth to the power.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla Najma · 10 years ago
    Very informative and interesting! Thank you for sharing and for showing us what our good people are doing!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AngelDee · 10 years ago
    Michael, Everyone needs to read Iraq; Inside The Inferno. Your Reporting is fantastic and all the pictures you provide. Looking forward to my signed copy of the latest one. Thank You for keeping us informed and Bless you and the work you do.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack Lavelle · 10 years ago
    Thanks for giving me a better understanding of the technical parts of this war.

    In an odd way, it lends credibility to shows like "Combat Hospital," which is set at the Kandahar airfield. They do some pretty hitech stuff in the show that I figured was fiction, like a lot of the CSI shows on TV. Now I can believe we are using our technical prowess to find and kill bad guys and protect our own.

    I'm in awe of the young men and women we send over there to do a hot, dangerous, dirty job. I wish I were their age again. I'd volunteer in a minute.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marjorie Harris · 10 years ago
    Michael: I received your beautiful book today and am VERY pleased with it. I ordered another one yesterday for my grandson, who is a military and history buff. I have followed your posts for several years and am so grateful for the wonderful work you do to keep us informed of the truth. Thank you. Stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Von Dee Pittman · 10 years ago
    I have been deployed 4 times to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen firsthand what arresting an entire town can do. I have also seen what arresting the right guy can do.
    I am about to retire and leave the Army to my son and his friends but I am glad to know the Army is spending money where it counts and not on super sized televisions for some ones TOC. This has been a long time coming and I hope we don’t let it fall by the way as we have with allot of good programs
  • This commment is unpublished.
    CPT H · 10 years ago
    I had the oppurtunity to work on this project in Iraq in 2008-2009. We had a lot of sucess in the ITO and I'm glad to see the A-stan lab featured. These are some great folks; doing some great work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gary · 10 years ago
    Michael, great job with the reporting on this. I worked at a CEXC facility in Baghdad back in 2007 and then with the Biometrics Management Office in Afghanistan in 2008. This is important stuff not only for the war fighter but for national security of the homeland too. The beauty is that the work done now and in the past keeps on giving for years to come.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    john · 10 years ago
    Great to see some incredibly talented female latent print analyts takin care of biz over there!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    are still safe,by all means,with all the finger prints taken at the airports arrivals...Btw, they were always nice to me with a heartfelt "welcome back" ! ! I just don't like the pat downs ,even if the lady compliments me on my cozy flashy socks done to feel comfy in my sneakers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave · 10 years ago
    Hey Mr. Yon, great article but i just wanted to leave some edifying remarks. Personally I would've named the article "Right of Boom". "Boom" is more common terminology amongst EOD personnel, but I know this article isn't catered to us (myself having over 26 years in the EOD field). I recently completed a CD distributed to all military EOD units called "Post-blast Assessment Training for Military EOD Technicians on the Battlefield." Even though the idea is to catch the bomb-maker before he creates his device, it isn't until after the explosion happens that we collect the majority of the evidence, unless a weapons cache or safe house is found.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gerry · 10 years ago
    It's nice to have a data base but the Iraqis arrested in KY trying to buy munitions had their fingerprints on IED's and still were given passes to come to the US. The reality checks the PowerPoint every time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marvin L. · 10 years ago
    Glad to see the strengthening integration of military-civilian organizations in Afghanistan- it takes both. I personnaly saw the effectiveness of the iris scanner on more than one occasion. Thanks for the post.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Terry · 10 years ago
    It's great to see Forensics used this way. After I left the Marines and finally settled down, my wife to be was a forensic serologist (bodily fluids, DNA). As I learned more and more about forensics I was continually impressed with what they are able to do. The forensics folks are also very straight forward about what they can't do. They try to let the science speak for itself.

    Very cool
  • This commment is unpublished.
    EOD Dad · 8 years ago
    The part you are missing from this treatise is how that evidence is collected. Very brave young men and women risk it all to disarm and collect that evidence. They could just blow it in place and move on but we consider the evidence too important. Once a case is built an arrest can be made. The problem is that those arrests are for naught. The bomber is temporarily out of business until he can be bribed out of jail. So we have a multi million dollar CSI effort thwarted by Afghani judicial corruption. You have not shared the price in blood it took to collect that evidence only to have it wasted.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig · 8 years ago
    Great article. I knew several of the people pictured. I had the privildge of being the LEP (Law Enforcement Professional) assigned to the JEFF lab at Bagram-now called ACME-B )Afghanistan Captured Material Exploitation-Bagram. As the LEP liaison I was respondsible for training LEPs going to the field and training soldiers on collecting the evidence. Alond with Robby Mandall and Bill Carney we fine tuned a combination of evidence collection procedures into a 40 hour class that was only four hours power point and thirthy six hours hands on. It was a great success and improved the quality of evidence received at the lab and naturally provided better results. I worked at the lab fm November 2010 until March 2012. Initially LEPs were providing 80% of the evidence to the lab and by March 2012 that figure had been reduced to 40% with soldiers submissions increasing dramatically. Had a great LEP program and base at BAF with Jim Taman at the helm.
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