Hunting Down Terrorist Bombers
Retired FBI Agent Greg Snider has a spent the last year and half hunting for one of the most dangerous predators on earth—men who use bombs to kill others. Greg, embedded 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 that provided the parts for these deadly weapons.
In this second of three articles, Greg will tell us about his experiences searching for these killers.
MARK: What was your first assignment, Greg?
GREG: My first assignment was with the 101st Airborne north of Baghdad. This is where I worked with Captain PR. Thanks to PR’s exceptional work this unit holds the distinction of capturing over 175 targeted individuals in a 12 month period, the most of any unit ever in Iraq. I arrived at this unit about half way through their tour. Once I could get a few minutes each day with PR, he began to understand what I brought to the fight. Together we obtained the first nine U.S. Army generated Iraqi warrants. By the way, PR only slept about 4 hours every other night. He is one dedicated man.
Greg, left, with now-Major "Captain PR" Perez-Rivera
MARK: How closely did you work with the military? Where were you housed? Where did you work?
GREG: I worked directly with military command staff. The army is a 24/7 operation. At first I worked seven days a week about 14 hours a day. I was the only LEP (Law Enforcement Professional) assigned to my unit. I was assigned to the commander and served at his discretion. My job was to advise him relative to the rule of law and gain his confidence in the use of physical evidence and its importance in targeting.
All of my time in Iraq was spent in the vicinity of Baghdad. When I was assigned to a maneuver unit I worked south and north of Baghdad proper. I was housed with soldiers on a small base or a forward operating post.
My final assignment, after being outside the wire, was to the forensic laboratory where our evidence was processed. My job was to be the liaison between our LEPs in the field and the laboratory where the analysis was conducted. I worked for another extremely capable soldier, Maj. Kelby Brake. She is 'smart as a whip' and quickly learned about the labs forensic capabilities, analysis and procedures. She had no other knowledge of forensics prior to this assignment. This in-theatre evidence analysis laboratory was eventually named the Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facility (JEFF), or “CSI Baghdad” as we were fondly referred to by others. Our capabilities were fingerprint, ballistics and tool marks analysis, and DNA.
This concept of using evidence in war time is unprecedented and will continue from here on out. A lot of my job there was to triage the evidence, usually by phone before it arrived at our facility or when it came in the door. What can we do with a particular item that might give us the identity of the perpetrator? Ballistic analysis of a bullet was problematic in that if an Iraqi police officer or an Iraqi Army person was killed, Iraqi belief is that the body could not be defiled by extracting the bullet and the body was buried within 24 hours. I spent a lot of time convincing the U.S. Army soldiers, Iraqi police, and Iraqi army personnel to collect the bullet casings from the crime scene. Casings can be directly linked to one particular firearm, in many cases easier than analyzing the fragments of a bullet.
My assignment with JEFF was on Victory Base just across from Saddam’s Al Faw Palace where he spent much of his time while in power.
MARK: How were you alerted to each call? Were you on call? On patrol? Were you armed?
GREG: As mentioned above I was armed at all times. On base we had a horn or siren to alert us to incoming rockets or physical attack. On a daily basis we operated by targeting a particular individual and going out looking for that person. If there was a specific purpose I would go outside the wire with the soldiers to advise on the collection of evidence. A routine patrol with no known objective was a 'no go for me.' They would take me if I want, but I chose to limit my risk taking.
MARK: When you responded to a bombing, how did that work? Did you create a crime scene? Tag and bag evidence? How did this all work?
GREG: The military DOD units (bomb experts) would usually beat me to the blast site. They would make sure that all the explosives were made safe (they loved to blow them up). Another major concern was a secondary blast designed to takeout the first responders. My job was to make sure that all items that contained physical evidence be photographed, collected, tagged and bagged and sent to the lab for analysis. I helped train many U.S. soldiers to secure the crime scene and collect evidence. Later, while working at the lab, I conducted informative tours of the laboratory explaining and demonstrating examples of positive results when evidence was collected properly and protected from contamination.
MARK: What were you looking for?
GREG: Anything that might contain physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA. If it was a small arms attack or a sniper shooting we collected bullets and casings when possible. If we were capturing someone in a residence we would conduct a search of the entire house. We would collect documents, computers, propaganda, electronic media, cameras, film, pictures, just about anything that we would in the states. Anything that might give us a lead as to whom this individual associated with and that might lead us to the next bad guy. In many cases we found illegal weaponry or bomb-making components.
MARK: Did you encounter any resistance on these calls? What happened?
2 P.M. sandstorm causing red sky
GREG: My unit was lucky on the missions I went out on. We did not encounter any hostile acts other than small arms fire on two occasions. In both of these instances we were not able to determine who was firing at us. My guess is that they fired a few rounds at our vehicles and then ran. There is no way they could take head on the might of our soldiers.
MARK: How closely did you work with civilian personnel, Iraqi military and local law enforcement?
GREG: While at the JEFF, one of my duties was to conduct tours. One day a request came in to do a tour for an Iraqi judge. The major, another LEP, and I conducted that tour. The judge brought an interpreter. This went over so well that he came back with other judges. That led to Iraqi generals and Iraqi commanders. This led to Iraqi police. Once this got started there were six months where three out of five tours were for Iraqis. I did not work directly with Iraqi civilians other than the Iraqi interpreters hired by our army.
Once the Iraqi tours got started we wondered if the Iraqi interrupters understood what we were presenting and our best guess was that they weren’t getting most of the technical stuff. So, we got our own interpreter. His name is Sammy. He was born in Baghdad and he was educated in the states. He stayed in the states, married and lives in North Dakota with his family. He understood the forensics, what he did not understand we schooled him up. After that, he started conducting the tours on his own. He was a tremendous asset to our lab.
On a side note, we teased him unmercifully about being an Iraqi and living in, of all places, North Dakota.
MARK: In the U.S. judicial system—whether federal, state or local—law enforcement knew how to investigate and collect evidence to be presented before a civilian court of law. In Iraq, how were these cases to be structured and before whom were the cases to be presented?
GREG: For the most part I would have to say that their court system is as corrupt as it comes. However, through the tours described above, it became apparent that some of the judges cared about and understood the concept of evidence. They got it, even DNA. I asked one of them if they would use our physical evidence. He said that he had no trouble with our analysis and findings; he would accept it with only one reservation. He could not trust any Iraqi lawyer bringing evidence to him because he could not trust them to have not tampered with it.
Some facts: A normal trial lasts only 15 minutes. The bad guy is not represented by a lawyer. The Iraqis beat a confession from everyone they arrest. The judges will throw out all confessions. Sunni judges will convict almost all Shiites and vic versa. Any bad guy, even a murderer, can pay the judge about $60,000 to arrange a prisoner's escape. Under Iraqi law based upon the Koran, it only takes two witnesses to convict. Two neighbors can literally get their neighbor hung just by making a statement with their hand on the Koran. Tribal laws take precedence. The tribes can work out their differences. In light of the two Iraqi statements, we were able to get some commitment from a handful of judges to accept a soldier's statement or one piece of forensic evidence for one of the two required statements to convict.
MARK: What kind of challenges did this present?
As of January 1, 2009 according to our government’s SOFA agreement (Status of Force Agreement) with the Iraqi government, in order for the U.S. Army to go out and capture an Iraqi, they must have an Iraqi warrant. This greatly confused and complicated the Army's way of doing things. It was not until mid-December that many of the battle space commanders would listen to the LEPs, who tried to prepare the commanders for the inevitable. Military commanders did not want to believe that our government was going to hold them to this agreement. Even more frustration came when they learned that the next deadline was July 1, 2009, at which time our army would need approval by the Iraqis to move outside the wire.
Battle Space Commander Lt. Col. Hermeling, & interpreter,
meeting with civilian re: U.S. built school turned over to Iraq
meeting with civilian re: U.S. built school turned over to Iraq
The biggest challenge was getting the respective battle space commanders to accept a law enforcement function. Many chose to stick their heads in the sand and not move forward. Resistance was also encountered from some of the soldiers. Law enforcement was not what they signed up for. Even when we got an Iraqi warrant, much of our evidence was not acceptable for a conviction. The rumbles started and many of our soldiers would not even try to cooperate. One of the ways I countered this argument was to tell them that even though the individual was not convicted in Iraq, that information (evidence) would be fed into a database. Those individuals flagged in these data bases will never be allowed to enter our country or many of the other civilized countries in the world. In fact, several individuals have already been refused entry into our country based upon evidence collected in Iraq by our troops.
MARK: What was it like teaming up with our military over there? What were your impressions as to the attitude and spirit of our troops?
GREG: The soldiers presented a major hurdle I did not anticipate. Actually, there were two. They learned that I was a retired FBI agent and their first beliefs were that I worked with and for the Army Criminal Investigative Division (CID) and my job was to investigate them. I had to address this head on, and there were two occasions when I refused command requests to investigate their own. The first time command sent a request, I was in the field with a maneuver unit. The second time, they asked that I examine evidentiary items for fingerprints regarding an investigation of a U.S. soldier’s alleged crime. I was assigned to JEFF, our forensic laboratory at the time. My stand was that I did not investigate soldiers and explained to the colonel that JEFF was not to be used for the purpose of investigating soldiers. He was not happy.
Many of our soldiers firmly told me that they were not trained to be law enforcement and gather evidence. Quite frankly, our soldiers are trained to “kill and blow s--- up,” and they do it better than anyone anywhere. This is their mission and they wanted no part of gathering evidence. Luckily others saw that it was a way of staying busy once the SOFA kicked in.
In order to better understand the soldiers’ frustrations, one has to understand the timeline of the SOFA agreement between our two governments. I arrived in Iraq August 1, 2008. The first benchmark was January 1, 2009. In order to go out in “Iraqiland” and kill, capture or detain an Iraqi citizen, the U.S. Army had to have an Iraqi warrant, signed by an Iraqi Judge. When the soldiers were told of this necessity, they responded, “We’ll never do that!” My impression is that this was apparently mimicked from at least the mid-levels of the Army. I found this hard to discern. Why was I hired to advise my commander on establishing a rule of law in Iraq when my commander was not on the same page with Washington? I had my work cut to say the least.
The major hurtle came when soldiers became frustrated when bad Iraqis were being released by the hundreds even though we presented items of evidence to Iraqi courts. There was no accounting for corruption. My comeback to this frustration: Due to the gathering of evidence there exist several electronic forensic databases that are checked and rechecked whenever an individual tries to enter the United States. These individuals will be refused entry. These databases will be maintained from here on out.
It was during one of my visits to Victory Base, Baghdad that I was fortunate to be asked to help develop a process for the Army to meet this benchmark of acquiring warrants. A few other LEPs and I designed a method to get these warrants. This took a team of officers, which included: a LEP; an army JAG Officer; an army Declassification Officer (More on this individual later); an army analyst.
Photo Evidence of bomb cache for Iraqi Court of location
in city of Ghazaliyha, Iraq, northwest of Baghdad
in city of Ghazaliyha, Iraq, northwest of Baghdad
Once they gathered evidence, the JAG would present it to the Iraqi court through the Iraqi Investigative Judge. Knowing this procedure was now accepted by the army, I armed Captain PR with this information. After some coaxing, PR gained JAG cooperation. We were successful in getting the first nine warrants ever issued by Iraqi judges in Iraq.
Up to this point it had been very frustrating for me and other LEPs dealing with classified information. Once anything is classified, only the person who classified that information can ‘declassify’ it. This presents a big problem. A person who classified something might have ended his deployment, may be discharged from the Army, deployed to Afghanistan, or worse. This ‘declassification’ process could take months or longer and poses a major obstacle. The army’s information-gathering computer system in Iraq and Afghanistan is a secure computer system. A non-secure data storage system is almost nonexistent. The soldiers are told that anything— once entered into a secure system—is always classified. The secure computer system is the only system out in Iraqiland. You can see the level of frustration when trying to collect anything to present to Iraqi courts.
During my entire 27 year career with the FBI, I did not work one criminal case that was classified. Need to know? Yes. Classified? No. We insisted that a declassification officer’s position come with authority to be able to unilaterally declassify certain items as appropriate and necessary. Crime scene photos, photos of evidence and analysis reports need not be classified.
The next deadline spelled out in the SOFA was July 1, 2009. This agreement made it mandatory for our soldiers to obtain permission from the Iraqi government before going outside the wire for any purpose. And when we needed to go outside, we must be escorted by an Iraqi official. These restrictions applied whether we were resupplying our outlying bases or capturing bad guys. We were required to vacate bases in all the major Iraqi cities as well. This has been the bitterest of all pills to swallow. The morale has reached bottom and many are asking “Then why are we still here?”
Join us in two weeks when Greg tells us about how they put cases together against these bombers, in spite of growing restrictions and obstacles.
June 21: Debut novelist Richard L. Mabry, M.D. has launched his medical suspense, Code Blue, based upon his experiences as a physician and medical school professor. Richard is the author of one nonfiction book prior to his Code Blue novel. Follow Richard’s main character, Dr. Cathy Sewell, as she returns to her hometown to set up a new practice among an array of obstacles—old attractions, past rivalries, and even someone who might want her dead.
June 28: Greg Snider, recently retired FBI agent, just returned from war-torn Iraq where he was embedded with military units for the past year and half. His job—assist military commanders in their investigations into the manufacture and detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). We will continue with the last of a three-part interview as Greg shares his experiences about how he and others searched to identify and arrest terrorists responsible for these acts.