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The Role Of Tactical Human Intelligence Collection In Counterterrorism


The Role Of Tactical Human Intelligence Collection In Counterterrorism
Jaysh al Mahdi special groups member captured by the author’s unit, and interrogated by author

As we celebrate the recent killing of 35 Al Shabaab terrorists in the East African country of Somalia via US airstrikes, normal Americans live, laugh, work and play, as they rightly should.  But let us not forget the highly trained and operationally experienced American warriors who are spread around the globe risking their lives to confront terrorism wherever it exists.  

The success of our counterterrorism efforts depends, first and foremost, on the character of the men and women who fight it, and the quality of the training they receive. Whether military, intelligence agency, or contractor personnel, the force multiplier on which they all rely for their success remains accurate Intelligence Collection.

If our door kickers don’t know the who, what, why, where or when relating to their target, there is no target.   

There are many intelligence disciplines that the United States has at its disposal — HUMINT, GEOINT, MASINT, OSINT, SIGINTTECHINT, CYBINT, and FININT, among others, which have contributed to counterterrorism success around the world.  Indeed, the recent successful operation in Somalia no doubt relied on a combination of these intelligence disciplines coming together to produce a viable, actionable target package.

However, at the tactical level in local battlespaces, the collection of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) in the Global War on Terror often has a special place of importance in contributing to the success of Allied forces wherever they are deployed.  Many of the other intelligence disciplines mentioned above require platforms, capabilities and personnel that are not usually available to combat arms units at the tactical level, and which are used for more strategic, big picture applications.    

This article will be focused on HUMINT Collection, with examples provided from my experience as a Tactical HUMINT team member attached to a combat arms battalion in Iraq.      

Human Intelligence collectors are highly trained in Counterintelligence and Force Protection Source Operations. (spotting, assessing, and handling informants), Interrogation, local partner liaison, and the elicitation and forensic debriefing of civilians, among other skills.  

The reason the Tactical HUMINT that I served on in Iraq was relatively successful in a very difficult operating environment (see previous article) was because the intelligence we collected allowed our assigned combat arms battalion and other partners to surgically target individuals, activities and locations with accuracy and small footprint operations, and involve the surrounding civilian populations as little as possible.   

An example of the value added to the combat arms element by our attached Tactical HUMINT Team was the ability to accurately conduct numerous raids on the homes of known terrorists who had been involved in attacks on US and partner forces.  Our team collected intelligence that was incorporated into  “target packets” that included the targets schedules, patterns of life, personalities, ten digit grid locations for their houses, architectural layouts, possible weapons within, and when they would be home.  

The first raid my supported combat arms battalion conducted was HUMINT driven.

This story has been highly sanitized in the interest of operational security. 

Our small base in Iraq had been attacked numerous times via mortars and Katyusha rockets.  Our HUMINT team had, within the first few months, carefully developed a source network that we used to identify the individuals who were at a leadership level in the local Iranian supplied and trained Jaysh al Mahdi terrorist cell that was behind the attacks.

While we had tried repeatedly over time to elicit this information from the local population, the terrorist group had so much informal power in the area that even the local Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were extremely hesitant to do anything to confront the group. Needless to say, the local population was equally reticent to provide any information.

Local Jaysh al Mahdi cells had enforcers who had the capability and will to be extremely brutal to the local civilian population.  They assassinated local security officials, extorted, kidnapped, raped, and ran black market operations to raise funds.  In effect, the terrorist group had so much influence in the area that they ran a parallel government.  Many in the local civilian population were terrified of this terrorist group.  

Over a period of time, using information from our sources to conduct intelligence reconnaissance missions, we were able to identify the homes of two of the major players in the local terrorist cell, and put together a viable target packet.       

This allowed the supported combat arms unit to plan a surgical raid on two target locations simultaneously and capture two high value target terrorists.  The homes were several blocks from away from each other.  I participated in the raid on one target location, and one of my Tactical HUMINT teammates was at the other location.  

Anyone who has been on a raid on a known terrorist location remembers the feeling of adrenaline, intense focus, and eagerness to fight that is experienced as you close on the target.  

As we rolled up on our specific target, and dismounted from our vehicles, our breaching squad gained entry to the home and quickly cleared the building, and determined that one of our targets was attempting to escape by jumping over a wall into a neighboring property.  We was quickly subdued along with another military aged male who was present. 

Once the location was deemed secure, it was my job to enter the courtyard of the residence and conduct a battlefield interrogation of the captured terrorist.  I already had a list of questions ready to ask, but had expected the terrorist to be in a state of shock and likely unable to answer questions coherently.  Nevertheless, I was able to gain some information of intelligence value, and determined that further questioning back at our base was the best course of action.

Once I led the terrorist to the detainee transport located by our command and control cordon, I saw that the targeted terrorist from the other location had been captured as well. We placed both detainees into the transport after making sure they were unable to communicate with or see each other. 

I then went back to the terrorist’s home and conducted Sensitive Site Exploitation.  I had a large garbage bag that I used as we pulled apart the interior of the house, saving any pictures, identification cards, phone SIM cards, computer drives, and anything else of possible intelligence value.  Our team would later exploit this back at our base in a process called DOCEX, for document exploitation.

The success of this raid, and the operation that ensued as a result of the intelligence leads gained, put Jaysh al Mahdi on notice.  Our fight would continue over the next year, with many successes, along with tragic losses. 

Interrogation is simultaneously a science and an art.  It requires both technical and psychological skill.  Skilled interrogation and questioning methods can be of great value in both combat, law enforcement, and corporate contexts.  

In future articles I will explain the tactics, techniques and procedures of interrogation and forensic interviewing.  While much of the operational experience and the training I’ve had are (justifiably) classified, notably in the area of source operations, the US Government has declassified the Human Intelligence Collector Operations field manual, which covers Interrogation operations, in the interest of transparency and human rights.  

Article originally appears at Deangelis and Associates

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