10 Things You Didn’t Know About War Zone Forensics

In combat, injuries and fatalities occur fast and frequently. The nature of today’s warfare — with mainstream societies being challenged by terrorists, who hide among schools, marketplaces and homes, change civilian areas into battlefields. Atrocities such as mass rape, bombings of or within non-military targets, extra-judicial assassinations — essentially murders committed under the cover of battle — happen every day.

Incorrect or hastily gathered intelligence on targets may result in a strike on enemy combatants long gone; and instead kill and maim civilians left behind. Innocent children and teachers in schools, celebrants at weddings, shoppers in marketplaces, commuters on trains and buses, all become casualties of war. Innocent bystanders, wrong place at the wrong time — there are so many excuses. Yet these may be crimes, all the same.

Even friendly fire shootings — essentially actions against comrades that should have been avoided — need to be investigated thoroughly.

At the evil end of the scale — ethnic cleansing where a group who has taken charge of a country begins systematically killing members of another faith or ethnicity within their own country — leave behind horrific scenes that can change the world.

And, while there are rules of warfare that apply to conflicts, the mere fact that a crime/accident scene or a viable conflict action is located in a war zone complicates evidence gathering in so many ways.


1. Forensics in a combat zone must be performed with haste.

If a crime scene has been identified and marked for investigation within hours of the incident, battles may still be raging nearby. There is the danger of ordinance such as unexploded bombs left behind or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set as traps still in the locale. A scene has to be secured in order for a forensics team to enter and collect evidence. Troops may need to be closely situated in order to protect the investigators from snipers or gangs run by warlords defending their ‘turf’.

In a situation like this, any forensic investigation must be completed extremely rapidly and efficiently. If there is any doubt about a clue, it is important not to pause and contemplate what it means. Instead, it is photographed, bagged and removed to safer quarters, so it can be looked at again at the next available opportunity. Within a very small time frame, photographs must be taken, measurements made, locations plotted and diagrammed, and device fragments, blood stains, bodies and other evidence need to be searched out, collected, documented and photographed. A crime scene investigation that may be taped off and worked for days back home – on a battlefield may only be accessible for minutes.


2. An investigator may only get one chance.

Any evidence or data overlooked, uncollected or not captured in a photograph is lost — possibly forever. Therefore, an overabundance of photos and objects must be taken. If they are not useful, it is better to have extra images and discard them than to later require something you don’t have.

Under such time and safety pressures, the potential for human error is great; the resultant data can be incomplete or shaky. In fact, manual measurement procedures commonly used in combat zone post-blast investigations usually yield only 40 to 50 points of measurement. This is compared to hundreds in an investigation in a safe and static location, according to post-blast expert Jean-Yves Vermette in “Forensic Investigation of Explosions.”


3. Conditions are often primitive at best.

While most battles occur in remote areas where infrastructure may not be reliable or may even be destroyed, environmental effects such as extreme heat or cold, dust, cramped conditions, inconsistent electricity or utilities, unstable dwellings wracked by shells and bombs, random gunfire, and locals who may be combatants — any or all of these challenges offer dangers and considerations that complicate evidence collection.

Even mass grave sites can be dangerous if the criminals are still in power in the region, or if they’ve booby-trapped the areas.


4. War zones can also appear in your backyard.

Terror attacks targeting Western cities and symbols of Western culture may occur in our backyards. Crime scenes therefore may be easier to secure, but investigations can still take months to complete. These incidents are usually considered criminal offences rather than military actions, since terrorists are not recognised as a military force.

Crime scenes popped up all over Boston when two brothers left bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and then ran from police, eventually exchanging gunfire at a college which resulted in the death of one brother, and in a yard of a homeowner storing a boat used as a hiding place for the second suspect. Crime scenes also included apartments used by the suspects.

On January 9, 2015, twelve journalists and cartoonists for the satirical French journal Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered in the heart of Paris for grievances about limiting a free press. The gunmen got away and were hunted down by thousands of law enforcement personnel before being cornered in a printing shop with hostages, and ultimately a gun battle broke out. At the same time, police found other terrorists at a grocery in Paris and during another gun fight, one terrorist was killed along with four hostages, while one escaped. The publishing offices, the printing plant and the grocery all became crime scenes that took a long time to completely process.


5. Special clearances may be required.

To work for or under the supervision of the US Department of Defense, the UK Ministry of Defense or another military authority, a ‘secret’ level clearance is required. A ‘Top Secret’ (TS) clearance is generally necessary for a forensic investigator, which provides the ability to deal with data spillage — potentially compromised classified materials or captured materials of interest to the military. Different evidence discoveries can be classified at different levels. For example, a briefcase containing a laptop of an enemy combatant killed at the scene would very likely contain information of interest to military intelligence officers, and is not for the eyes of anyone without a TS clearance.


6. The dynamics of a crime scene can dramatically change within minutes during a battle.

Crime scenes may not be identified as such during armed conflict — nor can they be protected immediately after the fact if they are located in a hot zone. Military commanders will have different priorities than evidence collectors, and in a dynamic situation, collecting evidence can interfere with those objectives. Evidence can be destroyed before investigators are cleared to examine the scene.


7. War photographers can be a good resource for forensic photographs of incidents as they occur.

Journalists, war photographers and even local populations with cell phone cameras can be a great resource for viewing an event as it is occurred. The difficult part will be discovering who was taking any images or footage, tracking them down and convincing them to share the data. Remember that images used in court require a chain of custody, so the photographer may need to be available to validate the images, or provide an affidavit.


8. Crime scenes for the forensic anthropologist.

When authoritarian forces decide to eliminate people that they don’t like — like the situations in Bosnia, Nazi Germany, the killing fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia, and even more recently in African nations and far corners of the globe — the crime may not be preventable or discovered until a conflict is stabilised and another force takes power.

In these cases, mass burials can be difficult to find and when one is discovered, will require care and finesse to extradite bodies, find DNA and try to make identifications so that relatives can have peace, and so that criminal charges can be prosecuted against any soldiers who can be proven to have participated.


9. Politics. There’s always politics.

A country’s laws, religious customs, the rules of warfare according to governing bodies such as International Criminal Court, even military procedures compared to criminal law in a given country — all provide a maze to negotiate in almost every aspect of an investigation. Local police may claim jurisdiction over military police, but sometimes those officials who take over jurisdiction will be the force with the most soldiers or policemen pointing weapons. Negotiations to access a site may take a while.

Malaysian flight MH17, a civilian airliner flying between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was allegedly shot down by a missile fired by pro-Russian separatists over rebel-held Eastern Ukraine. Although rebels in control of the crash site promised cooperation, obstructive behaviour allowed the flight recorders to be removed and held for a while.

Possessions such as credit cards and other valuables belonging to the passengers were looted, evidence of the rocket strike and other important evidence was destroyed and the area around the crash was mined. Heavy gun replacements were established at the site with rebel soldiers watching the investigators.

Ultimately, the first team of officials and experts left early with concerns about their safety, returning three months later after access was negotiated to complete their work.


10. Cultural differences cause procedural compromises

According to Islamic law, non-Muslims (such as Western forensic pathologists who are trained to conduct autopsies) cannot touch a Muslim corpse. In addition, there are time restrictions whereby a Muslim body must be interned by the family. It is critical to respect these customs by bringing a Muslim doctor to do the body work, and to respect time limitations.

Your turn: Any questions regarding investigations performed in hot zones? Have you ever investigated a crime scene under gunfire? Let us know in the comments section below.



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