Monday, May 31, 2010

Embedded Law Enforcement Professionals in Iraq

Part I
Hunting Down Terrorist Bombers
Retired FBI Agent Greg Snider has spent the last year and half hunting for the most dangerous predators on earth—men using bombs to kill and terrorize. Greg, imbedded with our military units in Iraq, sifted through the debris of the latest bombing sites searching for elusive clues. He and his teammates searched for evidence that might lead military and law enforcement to identify these bomb makers and track the manufactures providing hardware and explosives to these killers.

Cold nights, scorching days, and blinding dust storms are some of the conditions Greg and his team endured in this manhunt. As they searched, they were always watching their back, wondering when they might become the hunted by those who kill indiscriminately.

Back in the states, Greg has agreed to tell us his story about the fight that is still being waged in that country and other parts of the world by our troops. No country is immune, as New Yorkers discovered again in May when a Pakistani-born man rigged an SUV with a homemade designed to explode in Times Square. Fortunately, this bomb failed.

In this three-part interview, Greg will tell us about his experiences in this search for these killers.

Danger hs never been something Greg ran away from during his career. As an FBI, he worked undercover so effectively the bureau needed to relocate him after the case finally surfaced in court. He served for many years on that agency’s SWAT, responding to call outs that he chooses not to discuss. He learned to fly, became a pilot for the bureau, and limped away from one crash only to continue flying again. He was awarded the FBI’s highest award for bravery after saving the life of another federal agent on the high seas during yet another undercover operation. I know these things about Greg, because he is my friend and partner in a number of cases. He is an unassuming gentleman who has always stayed away from the lime light. He gave this interview because we are friends.

In my book, this man is an American hero.

MARK: Thanks, Greg, for allowing us to learn a little more about what is going on overseas. It is not often we get to pull back the shades for a personal view as to what is happening in Iraq. First, tell us about how you learned about this job? I don't imagine you learned about it in the want ads. Did you know what you were going to get into?

GREG:  I first heard about this opportunity approximately nine months or so before actually learning what the real mission was all about.  It is “Saving Soldiers Lives.”  The number one killer of our Soldiers and loss limbs are due to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), bombs!

When I first heard of this program I said “No way, are you nuts.”  Going to a war zone to work with the U. S. Army, you’ve got to be kidding.

After talking to another retired FBI agent with whom I am very well acquainted, he told me that we would be advising the battle space commanders about “investigations.”  Something they knew nothing about.  We were going to be the “experts” on how to investigate those organized criminal groups, just like the drug organizations in Mexico and the U.S., responsible for supplying the bomb materials, training the bomb makers, the manufacturing of the bombs, those placing the bombs and those triggering them.  The mission was then clear, something I’ve been doing for many years as an FBI agent.

I saw a chance to make a difference.  It was now clear that the right people might be able to have an impact in this fight.  I could be an added value to the Army.  Although my heart was now in it, I also thought this is idiotic, to say the least, to go to a war zone at my age.  How would I keep up with the 20-something year old soldiers?  It would be a challenge to say the least.

I decided to follow up and contacted Military Professional Resource, Inc. (MPRI), which was acquired by L-3 Communications about 30 years ago, regarding my qualifications and their requirements.  I further learned that their idea was to take well seasoned law enforcement individuals and embed them into a military unit as an advisor.  I would in essence become one of the Commander’s resources to use at his discretion.   There was a lot of discussion about my physical condition and whether I was medically “fit for duty.”  They mailed me the forms for the medical checkups and further descriptions of what the mission was about and requirements.  A side note, I learned that about one person per class discovered some major medical issue that they did not know they had, i.e. cancer or a heart ailment.

The reasons for the medical checkups and questions about my physical conditioning were because for all intent and purpose I was going to be a soldier.  I was going to be required to carry a gun, wear a U.S. Army uniform, and carry all the same equipment to include body armor weighing about 55 pounds before you add all the ammo and other army stuff to it.  Oh, and the heat, wearing all that equipment in the heat!  Also required were a series of inoculations for everything you can imagine and some that you would rather not.

The realization that this was going to be a huge undertaking on my part at my age (59) was now ranking at the top of the list of all the major decisions I have ever made in my life.  Not to mention the fact that I was going to be taking the same risk of death as those soldiers I would be working hand-in-hand with.  I would be in the battle space face to face with an enemy who wanted to kill you.

Once I had wrapped my mind around taking on such a daunting task, probably the most perplexing issue was signing up for a one year tour of duty and leaving the family for such a long period.  Luckily my wife is as capable as she is understanding.  Of course I would miss her and my family tremendously.  After much discussion we agreed that this would be “Greg’s last big adventure.”

MARK:  What did you need to do to prepare for this tour of duty?

GREG: Besides making sure I met all the requirements presented above, I was already working out on a weekly basis, so I increased the intensity of my workouts and completed most of the medical requirements.  At first, MPRI was not calling me back.  After several inquiries I later learned that they were very concerned that I may be a problem because I have two prosthetic shoulders.  Would that one medical factor cause me not to be able to complete the one year required deployment, they asked?  I persisted with explanations of what my conditioning and weight bearing capabilities were and finally they acquiesced and accepted my application.  A good word from other LEPs (embedded Law Enforcement Professionals) who know me was probably the deciding factor.

MARK:  Although you’ve served your country with the FBI in a number of ways, you never served in the military. Did that take a little getting used to?

GREG:  Yes, I was not in our armed forces.  However, I was a firearms instructor, a SWAT agent, and a sniper for over 14 years with the FBI.  So, I was very familiar with the equipment and weaponry.  Of course there was going to be a requirement to pass an army firearms qualification course.  I was already familiar with the army’s 5 paragraph “Operations Order,” as we had a similar requirement in the FBI.  My knowledge of tactics and patrolling was already sound. 

However, my father served in WWII, landed on Omaha Beach and fought inland with Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army.  The one thing I remember him telling me when describing the army was that it was (and still is) a “Hurry up and wait” operation.  That process became very apparent to me once I reached Fort Benning, GA for the one week in processing procedures.  We were now on army time!  Our time was theirs. 

MARK:  How were you transported over there? Where did you land?

GREG:  The leaving and arriving procedure is kept quiet.  You have no idea of the time schedule.  You are sequestered for hours before you board the plane and you have no idea when you will arrive.  We eventually ended up in Kuwait after a few stops.  From there we flew to the U.S. military side of the Baghdad International Airport where we were bused to our tent at Victory Base for another week of in-country training before our deployment to our units.

MARK: Can you remember your first impressions of Iraq? The weather? The people? The environment?

GREG:  Hot, damn hot!  I had it better than most as I live in Tucson, Arizona which has similar “dry heat.”  We arrived August 1st and there was no air conditioning in the tent we were assigned.  We had very little sleep over the preceding 36 hours.  Although we did get some sleep on the plane over the pond; however, we landed Kuwait in the early evening and did not leave for the one hour flight to Baghdad until sometime mid-day next.

We stayed with our gear on the tarmac.  We were tired, hot and we were hauling at least four duffle bags each plus our rifles.  As it turned out the only good thing was that during the week of training that followed we did not have to wear our body armor.  But, we had to carry our rifles everywhere we went, to the toilet, to shower, to chow, to class, everywhere.  The first thing we were told was that one of our LEPs was being removed from Iraq because he left his rifle in church during the previous weekend.  I was used to carrying a pistol when I was an agent, but a rifle was a different story.  You’d lay it down and just not remember to pick it up.  This was a very serious offense in Iraq.

The tent had no air conditioning.  My traveling buddy, another retired FBI agent (Leon), and I saw no future in staying in a tent with no A/C when there were others that we suspected had working A/C.   It should be noted that we had at least two LEPs who said they were leaving on the first available flight out of Iraq; they’d “had it!”

As tired as we were, putting us in a tent with no air conditioning was the last straw.  You might say the “grumpy old men” syndrome set in.  So, Leon and I set out on our first reconnaissance.  We found a tent with plenty of beds that had air conditioning.  We reported back of our findings and after some discussions we reached a decision that we were not staying in the assigned tent.

Some of the guys were reluctant to lug their four duffle bags, about 70 pounds each, the distance to the new tent but they mustered up the energy and eventually made it.  We had weapons and we could defend our new abode.  I might add that poor air conditioning was better than no air in the plus 125 degree heat.  The environment was harsh to say the least.  The two who threatened to leave changed their minds after a night of sleep.

My dealing with the Iraqi people during the first half of my deployment was adversarial to say the least.  I worked with the targeting officer, a captain who I grew to know well, one of the most remarkable guys I have ever known.  Captain “PR”, as he was called, had an unusual background leading up to the Army.  He attended seminary school, an odd switch in my mind to being an army officer.  He was one of the smartest minds I have had the privilege of encountering.  It was his job to sift through hundreds of pieces of information each day in order to advise our Commander on what to expect from the “bad guys” and who to target, kill, capture or detain that day.  A remarkable man, he will no doubt be a general one day.

My job was to teach my unit how to collect evidence to include advising the interpreter’s what to ask once when we made a capture while we were in what I called “Iraqiland.”  After several captures and interviews it became very apparent to me that the IED activities were hand-in-glove what I experienced working drug cases on the Mexican and U.S. border.  I call it “dope and a mope.”  Many small groups of thugs and gangsters earning money however they can.

The other thing I learned about the Iraqi people is that they are very under educated.  In my review of the detainee population I was shocked to learn that the highest level of education was sixth grade…their sixth grade, not our sixth grade.  From the sixth grade on their higher education consisted of studying the Koran.  It was easy to see why they are so easily misdirected by others who have fostered ill will toward the West.  Their society is based largely on tribal laws and traditions.  If someone in the tribe is killed, the killer can make amends by paying the tribe a sum of money.  The going rate for a murdered tribesman was $30,000.  If you paid, all was forgiven.

MARK:  How did you adjust to the climate? What things did you learn to deal with the weather?

GREG:  Three words, water, water, and water.  You had to stay hydrated and covered up which is not a problem for the soldier, staying covered in all the army gear.  When you looked around our bases you will see pallets of plastic water bottles stacked everywhere.  Even in the outlying bases, like the one I was in when I first arrived.

MARK:  What is an Improvised Explosive Device (IED)? Explain it in layman’s terms.

GREG:  The basic is simply a “pipe bomb.”  A simple bomb consists of a piece of plumber’s pipe, two threaded end caps, an explosive powder (gun powder) and a fuse or electronic triggering device.  Self triggering devices are easily fashioned by putting exposed wires in a tube (garden hose) of between two boards held apart with something soft and when stepped on or driven over make the wires touch each other completing the circuit and setting off the bomb.  Just about any kind of battery can be used as the electronic current necessary to ignite a bomb. 

IEDs can become more elaborate by adding electronic components which can be triggered by an electronic pulse from a distance.  Cell phones are the most preferred means of detonating bombs after pressure devices.  Suicide bombers have the ability to detonate the bomb they are carrying by themselves, usually by just pushing a button or letting go of a pressure switch they might be holding.

Almost all suicide bombers have a handler who watches them. If the suicide bomber gets cold feet, the handler will detonate the bomb from his own cell phone.  Most bomb makers are easily identified by missing digits. The new bomb maker uses small amounts of explosives when training. As usual, when learning a new task, mistakes are made.  I personally preferred to be called to a scene where a bomber was placing a bomb on a vehicle and he accidentally detonated it killing himself.

Of all the bombs, the Energy Formed Penetrator or EFP is the most lethal of all.  It is almost always detonated by a trigger man or by a pressure plate as describe above.  This device looks like and is put together just like a rifle cartridge. However, its projectile is made out of copper.  It comes in various sizes ranging from six inches to 18 inches in diameter and about two inches thick.  These inverted disks are pressed to form their shape and when assembled they look just like a bullet or cartridge with the nose pointing to the inside of its core just the opposite of a bullet.  When ignited the explosive burns relatively slowly—compared to that of a bullet fired from a gun—causing the copper to become molten hot.  It will burn its way through the thickest of the armaments on any of our military vehicles.  When the EFP enters the vehicle’s interior, it splashes everywhere, killing and maiming its way through the vehicle.  It is so hot that it will burn its way out the other side of the armored vehicle.  There is no defense besides luck and spotting this device before it is headed in your direction.

Greg Snider will re-join us on June 14th and June 28th in this three-part interview. Please mark your calendar as Greg continues to give us a close-up look at the war against these terrorists.

MEMORIAL DAY: We will not forget!


June 7: Crime genre novelist J. Mark Bertrand joins us to talk about his new novel, Back On Murder, scheduled for release in July. Mark’s main character has one foot out the door as homicide detective Roland March knows his career is in the toilet unless he can pull off the impossible. Set in Houston, Texas, this murder mystery leaves readers wondering whether March’s life and career will make it to that last page.

June 21:  Debut novelist Richard L. Mabry, M.D. breaks out with a Code Blue thriller that is written from a lifetime of medical experience. Code Blue’s main protagonist, Dr. Cathy Sewell, returns to her small town roots in rural Texas where she finds complications to her love life, other rival doctors, and an enemy who just might want her dead. Dr. Mabry writes from his experience as a physician and medical school professor.

1 comment:

  1. Riveting interview, Mark. I'm looking forward to the next instalment. - Mike