Bomb-makers being targeted by coalition forces in an increasingly prolific IED war
(Second of two parts. See Part One here.)
WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — In hindsight, the crumbling wall was a clue.
Bomb specialist Thomas Rabjohn was busy disarming a homemade bomb in the Maydan Shahr Valley when Lt. John Gillette sat down on a low wall nearby and it crumbled under him, revealing a rocket, soldiers later recalled.
The men realized that the two devices were related in some way and that they were looking at something more complex than they’d come across before. Gillette jumped up and backed away.
Staff Sgt. Rabjohn looked over at the rocket but then went back to working on the main bomb. He thought he had it disarmed.
Then it exploded.
Rabjohn became the ninth U.S. bomb technician to be killed in Afghanistan in 2009. A total of six had been killed in all the prior years of the war, demonstrating the escalation this bomb-plagued conflict has seen in the past year.
The Afghan insurgency, at one point dormant if not defeated, is now the strongest it has been since the start of the war, and the Taliban and other insurgents have honed a proficiency in improvised explosive devices that is keeping coalition and Afghan forces off balance — with deadly results.
At Task Force Paladin, investigators are fighting back, using forensics, intelligence and data experts to target the network of bomb-makers. They trace the bombs back to their supply routes, financiers, builders and placers, and then try to ensure that the bomb-makers don’t return to their deadly occupation.
It’s a monumental challenge that will only yield long-term results if troops fighting a counterinsurgency war can win over a reluctant population. The hurdles and frustrations often dwarf the incremental progress being made, particularly when one of their own is killed.
“It’s a traumatic experience on many levels,” said Sgt. 1st Class William Motyka, 41, a counter-IED team leader who witnessed Rabjohn’s death from several hundred yards away. “Knowing him puts a different angle on it. It’s not easy to get used to the fact that someone you were just talking to 10 minutes ago is no longer there, that somebody could be disintegrated.”
That was only the beginning. Motyka’s men gathered evidence from the blast and chased down 22 suspects in the attack after following footprints to Kharuti, a rock quarrying village in northern Wardak.
The evidence could have been the foundation for a strong case against many of them, Paladin officers said. But in the catch-and-release world of an undeveloped Afghan judicial system, all but three of those suspects were back on the streets within two weeks and Paladin officers had to struggle to get even those three in front of a prosecutor.
“It’s baby steps,” Motyka said. “Yeah, they are taken off the battlefield for [only] two weeks. But now we know who they are, where they are from. All these pieces of the puzzle are being placed. For as little as we know about the valley, it’s something.”
“It’s slow progress,” he added. “Only time will tell if we make good progress or not. That’s the battle we are fighting here.”
Target the network
For years, the focus of explosive ordnance disposal units was to defeat bombs, using technical expertise and downright courage to tackle the devices.
That focus has shifted.
“Now it’s evolved to attack the network,” said Paladin East deputy commander Maj. Mike Slevin. “You want to use what [the bomber] leaves on the scene through the crime to get him before he does it again.”
In Wardak province, one of the hottest spots for IEDs, Paladin analysts say they have made some remarkable discoveries.
Wires, charges and other explosive components used in a series of bombs indicate that much of the material appears to be coming from two factories in Pakistan, said Paladin East commander Lt. Col Brennan Phillips. One is Biafo Industries Ltd., a private company that manufactures the detonators that Paladin members believe they found in some insurgent IEDs.
The other is explosives and detonator manufacturer Wah Nobel. The company is a joint venture between Saab Sweden, Almisehal Saudi Arabia and Pakistan Ordnance Factories, which are the Pakistani government’s munitions factories. Those factories are located in a high-security compound that Globalsecurity.org says is also likely associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
Paladin members believe they can trace commercial explosives, detonating cords and detonators to Wah Nobel.
For Phillips, who has seen the evidence, the supply route from manufacture to IED detonation runs in a straight line on the open roads from Pakistan.
“I think a significant amount of IED materials just roll across every day in trucks,” Phillips said. “I think the way we combat all this is we have to convince the Pakistanis to tighten down. It is in their best interest. These are being used against them, too.”
Asked about this evidence, an unidentified marketing manager at Wah Nobel rejected the Paladin findings and said the company follows extensive regulations imposed by the government of Pakistan.
“We fail to understand as to how the so-called investigators have positively matched your stated items to Wah Nobel products,” an e-mail from the company states. “Utmost care is exercised to safeguard against landing of our products in wrong hands. The company is subject to very stringent safety and security regulations and precautions.”
A spokeswoman for Saab referred questions back to Wah Nobel.
“The information regarding finds of Wah Nobel’s products in Afghanistan is new for us,” said Ulrika Fager in an e-mail response. “We at Saab are not in the position of answering questions about the security arrangements at Wah Nobel, instead these questions should be directed to them. We are confident in that the company strictly follows all rules and regulations issued by Pakistan authorities.”
Biafo Managing Director and CEO Khawaja Amanullah Askari said no U.S., NATO or Pakistani officials have told his company of any misuse of its explosives products.
“We have advised our clients in writing that if any case of misuse of our products is brought to our notice, we shall immediately cease dealing with that client and duly report it to the authorities,” Askari wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
Paladin officers say that tightening the borders and teaching the Afghan Border Police to use metal detectors and X-ray scanners would go a long way toward blocking the supply of bomb-making materials. But that’s a major challenge for a law enforcement arm that is barely functional, underpaid and mostly illiterate.
“The ABP is not very well resourced,” Phillips noted. “But that’s a big piece of the (counter)-IED effort. You’ve got to slow the flow of explosives.”
At Forward Operating Base Airborne, where Rabjohn was posted when he was killed, EOD technician Staff Sgt. Layne Mayerstein said that coalition forces often have an unreliable or unwilling partner in Afghan police officers.
He cited a recent operation by 10th Mountain Division soldiers to take over a house and set up a checkpoint on a route in the Tangi Valley that is particularly prone to IED attacks.
“The entire reason to go into that house is to … stop IED planters,” Mayerstein said. “It took until the last day to get notification that they had ANP (Afghan National Police) support. They had to drag the ANP out to that house. These people just don’t care. If they don’t care about their country, why should we?”
Zeroing in on suspects
Plucking bomb-makers from hostile rural regions in an ancient land is also no easy task.
Paladin’s approach is to target midlevel bomb engineers, since they have the expertise. Get the engineer out of the picture, and the link breaks, the reasoning goes.
Much of the work of Paladin East focuses on the criminal network of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“There’s the guys from Haqqani, the financiers,” said Slevin. “There’s the guys who [plant the bombs] to put food on the table. We like to target the engineers because they are the hardest to replace.”
The Paladin team collects and analyzes the forensic evidence; its members do not usually go after the bomb-makers themselves. At Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province, a new, specially trained infantry unit was created this year to take the evidence gathered by Paladin and act as a precision strike force to zero in on suspects.
Modeled after similar units in Iraq, the 68-member Focused Targeting Force swoops in to detain a target in a pinpoint operation with as little disruption to the general population as possible.
“We are kind of like a finishing force,” said Capt. John Thomason, 32, the team leader out of Colorado Springs, Colo., who is attached to the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Regiment. “We find indisputable evidence that these guys are placing IEDs. We do a lot of investigating before we go after them, so by the time he’s arrested, it’s a rock-solid case.”
But the judicial challenges are hair-pulling. Often, suspects can bribe or threaten their way out of custody, or use tribal, familial or historical relations to get released. Pressured by cultural loyalties that go back centuries, under-paid and under-protected law enforcers and prosecutors fear for the safety of their families.
Paladin operatives feel that they are toiling to catch suspects only to send them through a revolving-door judicial system that leads right back to the streets.
“If Iraq was like a 4-year-old child, when it comes to rules and the judicial system, Afghanistan is like a 6-month-old,” said Paladin East lab director, Maj. Brian Pelley.
Still, Pelley and others at Paladin recognize that the lessons learned from Iraq dictate against treating bombing suspects as prisoners of war.
“If we create huge detention centers in Afghanistan, it will only be counterproductive in the long run,” Pelley said. “We are really in the longer fight.”
Paladin’s fight requires patience, methodical attention to detail and a determination that is sometimes difficult to sustain. But Motyka and others say that it is in the faces of Afghan children where they see the possibility of change down the line.
After Rabjohn was killed, an Afghan schoolteacher was among the villagers who approached the counter-IED team to ask what he could do.
“We said, ‘Help educate. Share that we are here to do good, to help people,’ ” Motyka recalled. “I feel like if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”