New tri-Service intelligence unit formed to support Afghanistan operations

The brains behind some of the British Army’s most com­plex counter-intel­li­gence work have tak­en up a new role that will see them inform the final stages of Oper­a­tion HERRICK. Report by Sarah Goldthor­pe.

Record­ing evi­dence in the field [Pic­ture: Steve Dock, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge
The Haz­Mat ID kit [Pic­ture: Steve Dock, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

2 Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence Bat­tal­ion is now func­tion­ing as the British Armed Forces’ exploita­tion unit — a respon­si­bil­i­ty that puts the for­ma­tion in charge of ensur­ing key ene­my infor­ma­tion is used to the military’s best advantage. 

The tri-Ser­vice col­lec­tive will focus on materiel and per­son­nel exploita­tion in Afghanistan, get­ting troops onto the ground to assist the fight against IEDs while pro­vid­ing legal­ly-sound evi­dence to the country’s jus­tice system. 

Speak­ing ahead of a flag-rais­ing cer­e­mo­ny at the battalion’s new home in Tren­chard Lines, Upavon, Cap­tain Col­in Joyce of the Intel­li­gence Corps explained the challenge: 

“This unit has tak­en a num­ber of our battalion’s foren­sic tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties such as bio­met­rics, fin­ger­print­ing and exam­i­na­tion of media devices and weapons and put them under one roof. 

“This will help to pro­vide a com­plete evi­den­tial pic­ture of cap­tured or sus­pect­ed insurgents.” 

The new role appears to resem­ble some­thing from the ‘Crime Scene Inves­ti­ga­tion’ (CSI) TV fran­chise and a short word with per­son­nel indi­cates this anal­o­gy is not a mil­lion miles from the truth. 

Lance Cor­po­ral Gary Atkin­son, also of the Intel­li­gence Corps, works with­in lev­el one of the exploita­tion process. 

Once deployed, it is his job to work along­side bomb dis­pos­al teams to col­lect pres­sure plates, bat­tery packs, mobile phones, rifles or any oth­er object recov­ered dur­ing patrols or incidents: 

“All devices come through us at some point,” Lance Cor­po­ral Atkin­son explained, “so every­thing done at this lev­el has to be foren­si­cal­ly-sound; that means we wear gloves and face masks. 

“We will nev­er touch any­thing IED-wise unless it has been cleared by the bomb dis­pos­al guys first, but it’s one of the few roles in the Intel­li­gence Corps where you are out on the ground in the thick of the action and that’s exciting. 

“We go any­where and every­where in Hel­mand and nev­er get bored.” 

Of the wide-rang­ing devices inspect­ed by this team to gar­ner war-win­ning infor­ma­tion, some­thing as incon­spic­u­ous as a bat­tered Coke bot­tle can demand the CSI treatment. 

Show­ing off one such drink recep­ta­cle com­plete with a dead­ly pull-switch, he said: 

“You will always find these types of devices out there because they are so easy to make. 

“Insur­gents come up with dif­fer­ent ways of using them — from ones with high met­al con­tent to those that can defeat detec­tor capabilities.” 

As well as aid­ing the country’s legal sys­tem, con­sol­i­dat­ing the Army’s foren­sic facil­i­ties will ensure that life­sav­ing detail on ene­my weapons can be fed to both front line troops and those back home devel­op­ing pro­tec­tive kit: 

“We write reports on what we have found and run threat brief­in­gs to let bat­tle groups and infantry com­man­ders know the main dan­gers,” Lance Cor­po­ral Atkin­son said. 

“We can also put out flash warn­ings if some­thing new is discovered. 

“We like to look at it all like the mil­i­tary CSI but I am not sure it is quite as glam here as it is on the tele­vi­sion screen.” 

Among the var­i­ous foren­sics equip­ment used by sol­diers in this role, the Haz­Mat ID kit impress­es its users every time. 

Worth around £45,000, this unex­cit­ing-look­ing box can iden­ti­fy every sin­gle chem­i­cal com­po­nent of a sub­stance placed on its surface: 

“Even with cof­fee, this thing will tell you if it is caf­feinat­ed or decaf­feinat­ed,” Lance Cor­po­ral Atkin­son boast­ed. “We know, we have tried!” 

In con­flict, such sub­stances could be the explo­sives or drugs that fuel the enemy: 

“This job is not just about weapons, it’s also the human ele­ment,” said Lance Cor­po­ral Peter Mars­den, Roy­al Logis­tic Corps. 

“My role is get­ting out and col­lect­ing, but if guys at lev­el two can bring DNA off what­ev­er we find, we would want to know about that.” 

Per­son­nel at the sec­ond and third lev­els of the exploita­tion process pull apart, down­load and dig into recov­ered arti­cles to derive any infor­ma­tion they can — be it DNA, geo­graph­i­cal or tech­no­log­i­cal intelligence. 

Whether under­tak­en at the UK’s Defence Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry or fur­ther afield, their endeav­ours allow exten­sive data to be absorbed into the Army’s knowl­edge base. 

Out­lin­ing the cru­cial counter-intel­li­gence func­tion of the new unit and its clever com­put­ers, War­rant Offi­cer Class 2 Jonathan Web­ster of the Intel­li­gence Corps said: 

“We can con­duct exploita­tion of com­put­ers, net­works and oth­er aspects of the inter­net to get infor­ma­tion, such as using social net­works for example.” 

Open­ing up a com­pact case con­tain­ing every mobile phone charg­er imag­in­able, he explained the unit’s abil­i­ty to take call logs and texts off any mod­el — even the fakes: 

“We process that infor­ma­tion, for exam­ple who has called and when, and make links to key events to con­struct a pic­ture of who is talk­ing to who,” he added. 

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this group’s efforts are not sole­ly focused on the HERRICK mission. 

While mobiles are pulled apart in the desert, oth­er team mem­bers are busy keep­ing on top of tech­no­log­i­cal advances that could aid future intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing — fridges that con­nect to the inter­net, Kin­dles and the lat­est GPS equip­ment all hold possibilities. 

But until 2014, the exploita­tion unit’s focus will remain firm­ly on Hel­mand province. 

Com­mand­ing Offi­cer Lieu­tenant Colonel Mark Proc­tor said: 

“We are con­cen­trat­ing on Afghanistan cur­rent­ly but look­ing to form train­ing teams to teach oth­er coun­tries about exploita­tion as well. 

“We lend such a small num­ber of peo­ple but are pro­vid­ing them 365-days-a-year. 

“Once we stop Op HERRICK, that allows us to move onto con­tin­gency, but for now it’s about mak­ing sure what­ev­er we do is for the Afghans. 

“We need to keep lessons from Hel­mand province so that, wher­ev­er we go next, our unit is there from the beginning.” 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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