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    CSI Afghanistan: Forensic experts help turn bomb maker into convict

    CSI Afghanistan

    Photo By Ed Drohan | The lead latent print examiner for Afghan Captured Materials Exploitation Laboratory...... read more read more



    Story by Ed Drohan 

    Combined Joint Task Force Paladin

    BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – Between November 2011 and March 2012, four improvised explosive devices were found in southern Afghanistan, including one that wounded five U.S. Marines – one seriously – and disabled an armored vehicle.

    A little more than 21 months later, one man was convicted of manufacturing all four devices in an Afghan court and sentenced to 15 years in prison, an extremely long sentence by Afghan standards. How he was linked to the four bombs is a story that could have come from American TV shows like "Law and Order" or "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

    11-11-11 attack

    The story begins Nov. 11, 2011, Veterans Day, in Helmand province, an area that has historically been a hotbed of activity for the enemies of Afghanistan. An U.S. Marine convoy was conducting a mission when one of their vehicles rolled over a pressure plate trigger device in the roadway, setting off an IED. Fortunately there were no injuries caused by the explosion.

    Despite the fact that the device exploded, explosive ordnance disposal technicians from Combined Joint Task Force Paladin were still able to conduct a post-blast analysis of the incident and collect evidence from the scene, some as small as bits of the container used to hold the homemade explosives favored by insurgent bomb makers. That evidence was “tagged and bagged” to ensure the chain of evidence used in court proceedings was maintained and then transported to the Afghan Captured Materials Exploitation (ACME) Laboratory at Camp Leatherneck, part of CJTF Paladin’s Theater Explosives Exploitation cell for processing.

    The Leatherneck lab was one of three operated by CJTF Paladin in Afghanistan at the time. It has since closed and all evidence is now processed through the ACME Lab at Bagram Air Field.

    Looking for prints

    Once the collected evidence was delivered to the lab, a team of forensic experts took over. After going through a triage process to ensure none of the evidence was still hazardous, the evidence was turned over to the lab’s latent fingerprint experts.

    The lead latent print examiner for the BAF ACME lab like many of the forensic scientists working at the ACME lab is deployed from the Department of Defense Forensic Science Center in Atlanta.

    Using tools as simple as super glue and as complicated as a $50,000 laser, the team of latent print examiners and technicians attempt to pull usable fingerprints from evidence collected on the battlefield.

    “We start by photographing all the evidence to show how we received the items,” the lead latent print examiner said. “From there it depends on what type of evidence it is as to how we process it.”

    Different procedures are used to detect fingerprints depending on whether the item being processed is porous – such as paper, cardboard or wood – or nonporous. One of the techniques used has been depicted on TV shows and movies and involves heating cyanoacrylate – more commonly known as super glue – in a special chamber until it vaporizes. The vapor then attaches to the water in the fingerprints and hardens. Examiners treat the resulting fingerprint with a dye that glows under laser light to make them more visible so they can be photographed and documented.

    While it’s easier to pull fingerprints from IEDs that are captured intact, the ACME experts can get them from components after an explosion as well.

    “It’s difficult but we still find fingerprints post blast,” the latent print lead said.

    At that point the latent print examiners analyze the resulting prints, write up a report on their findings and enter the results in a database managed by the Biometrics Identification Management Activity where they can be used to help identify a suspect if one is entered into the system.

    “If there’s any doubt in our mind, we will not make an ID,” the latent print lead said. “We have to be 100 percent positive or nothing.”

    Tiny evidence

    During the fingerprint processing, some parts of the evidence are also swabbed for processing in the DNA lab while other portions are sent there after the print examiners are finished with them. DNA, like fingerprints, is unique to each individual (with the exception of DNA from identical twins) making it an important piece of evidence used by the judicial system.

    DNA is a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms, and it can be used to identify a matching DNA of an individual, such as a perpetrator. It can be found in minute samples of blood, saliva, skin or hair – sometimes as few as 20 to 100 cells – samples far too small to be seen with the human eye.

    The BAF ACME DNA Lab is set up in a series of deployable modules about the size of shipping containers, but they have the same capability as any major crime lab in the U.S., said the DNA lead examiner, a CJTF Paladin DNA forensic scientist also deployed from Atlanta’s Defense Forensics Science Center. Because of the small size of the DNA samples they deal with, the DNA examiners work in lab coats, face masks and gloves and constantly clean work surfaces with bleach to prevent any cross contamination.

    “It’s a big deal because once a sample is contaminated, it’s done,” the DNA lead explained.

    In most cases of evidence retrieved from IEDs, the specialists are looking for what’s termed “touch DNA,” or skin cells left behind after somebody touches an item. DNA examiners start the process the same way as the fingerprint examiners – by photographing each piece of evidence before anything else is done to document how it was received. She then uses a sterile cotton swab to rub down the piece of evidence they believe could hold DNA.

    The samples go through several different processes, with the end result showing a graph that marks the DNA sequence at 16 locations along the molecule.

    The entire process can be done in as little as 32 hours, but sometimes takes longer depending on how many samples are being processed at any given time. Before the results can be used, the person who processed the sample must evaluate the raw data to make sure all the internal controls worked, write a detailed report stating how the samples were processed and what the results were, and the results and report must go through a peer review process where at least two other forensic scientists agree with the results.

    The results can then be compared to a known sample – for example somebody already in custody who’s suspected of being involved with the incident – and uploaded into the biometrics database much like the fingerprint evidence.

    Evidence is also sent to the chemistry lab, where the ingredients used to manufacture the explosives can be identified. If the IED contains electronic components, like those seen in remote or radio controlled IEDs, those components will be examined by the ACME electronics engineers.


    Biometric information on individuals – fingerprints, DNA samples and photos for use with facial recognition software –is also collected by U.S., coalition and Afghan National Security Forces as they interact with the local population on routine patrols. That information is also processed by the ACME Labs and entered into BIMA.

    If the information matches with information collected from an IED, TEX’s biometrics section prepares CARs and BOLOs – Criminal Activity Reports and Be On The Lookout notices – that are published in English, as well as in Dari and Pashto, the primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. These notices contain information on the person identified through the biometrics match, to include their photo, and are distributed to U.S., coalition and Afghan forces in hopes that the person can be found and taken into custody.


    On Jan. 25, 2012, a coalition forces patrol was conducting an IED clearance sweep of a local route in Helmand province and had set up a checkpoint on the road when an Afghan man on a motorcycle approached them and was stopped. The man, Mohammad Abdul Samad, claimed to be a poppy and wheat farmer, but something didn’t seem right to the patrol members. The man seemed much more well kept than most farmers they’d seen in the area. As part of their procedures, they used a simple field test for explosives residue. He was detained when the test came out positive, indicating he’d been in contact with explosives in the recent past.

    Once detained, officials took Samad’s photo, fingerprints and a DNA swab as part of his processing. Once the samples were processed and entered into a database, a DNA match was generated tying him to the Veterans Day IED. Unfortunately that wasn’t the last incident that was tied to Samad.

    More bombs

    On Feb. 6, 2012, a U.S. Marine convoy was struck by a pressure plate IED. Five Marines were wounded, including one seriously. Marines also spotted and recovered two more IEDs, one on Feb. 26, 2012 and another on March 8, 2012, before they could detonate. Evidence gathered from all three was processed through the ACME Lab and Samad’s fingerprints and DNA were found on all three.

    Prosecution support

    While Samad was detained, the Joint Legal Center at the Afghanistan National Detention Center in Parwan Province requested a prosecution support package from CJTF Paladin’s Rule of Law section that would be used in Samad’s trial in an Afghan court. Rule of Law personnel are all former law enforcement specialists who are experts in preparing evidence for trial and in providing courtroom testimony on that evidence, said the TEX law enforcement lead. The packages include information on the forensic evidence processed through the ACME Lab, along with information gathered at the scene, to include photos and explanations of the damage done by the bombs so the court can see how the bombs affected not only the people who might have been injured or killed, but also how it affected the infrastructure that Afghans rely on for their living. They are also available at the Justice Center to testify about that evidence in Afghan trials.

    In addition to preparing the prosecution support packages and providing testimony, the Rule of Law personnel also train Afghan court personnel – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys – on how forensic evidence is gathered, processed, and used to identify the criminal perpetrators. To date they’ve trained between 400 and 500 judicial and investigation students.

    Since June 2010, Rule of Law personnel have supported 437 primary trials in the Afghan courts, resulting in 428 convictions, a conviction rate of 98 percent, the law enforcement lead said.

    Trial and punishment

    Because of the undeniable biometric and forensic evidence gathered from the battlefield and processed at the ACME Lab, Samad was tried and on Aug. 29, 2013 sentenced to 15 years in prison, an extremely long sentence by Afghan standards. Under Afghan law, Samad has the right to appeal his conviction but convictions using biometric and forensic evidence are rarely overturned, TEX officials said.

    While this is one case, the evidence collection and examination process is an ongoing one. Between Jan. 1, 2012 and Oct. 31, 2013, ACME has processed almost 18,000 cases and processed more than 1 million exhibits, said Leroy Keith, chief of CJTF Paladin’s expeditionary forensic laboratories. Almost 55,000 latent fingerprints and 42,000 DNA samples have been developed from those exhibits and more than 1,000 identifications made.

    The bottom line for all this work is that the bad guys, the enemies of Afghanistan like Mohammad Abdul Samad who make and implant IEDs, are being taken off the street, making the country that much safer.



    Date Taken: 12.10.2013
    Date Posted: 12.10.2013 06:44
    Story ID: 117967
    Location: BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AF 
    Hometown: ATLANTA, GA, US

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