By Jim Kouri
Nigerian officials yesterday announced the arrests of three terrorism suspects involved in the deadly bombings of Christian churches and worshippers on Christmas Day. The suspects are alleged members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, a known al-Qaeda ally.
U.S. government officials and terrorism analysts said these bombings are proof of the ability of a radical Islamic terrorist group to carry out synchronized strikes against multiple targets, making prevention more difficult.
As a result, failing prevention, police agencies must conduct investigations that will identify the bombers and lead to their capture and prosecution either in civilian courts — as advocated by the Obama Justice Department — or military commissions.
In 2011, there were a number of a arrests of members or associates of Islamic terrorist groups who were in the process of plotting or carrying out bombings in the United States, according to counterterrorism officials.
Preliminary investigation of bomb incidents
Upon arriving at the scene of an explosion, investigators will immediately consult with the emergency personnel and familiarize themselves with the facts, according to leading bomb technicians. The area should be thoroughly canvassed for witnesses. Witnesses may be found anywhere within the vicinity of the bomb blast.
Possible witnesses to interview will include: the first police officer at the scene; maintenance workers and other employees and residents within the premises; residents and employees of adjoining or adjacent buildings; delivery men, cab drivers, transients, and anyone who frequents or walks through the area.
Detectives and officers should also canvass the area for all license plates or motor vehicles parked within the area of the explosion. They will also check with all utility companies for any emergency crews that may have been working in the area of the bomb blast. In short, anyone who may have even the smallest piece of information will be interviewed by detectives and assisting uniformed officers. And investigating officers should double check to make sure that he or she has all the necessary information before concluding the neighborhood canvass.
At first it may appear extremely difficult to investigate a terrorist bombing –- or any bombing for that matter — especially when faced with the horror and chaos of a crime scene like that at New York City’s 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the blast at Oklahoma City’s federal building in 1995. However, as time goes on and investigators acquire experience with this type of investigation, it will certainly become routine and systematic. In fact, it was the method described in this article that was used in conducting investigations into the WTC and Oklahoma City bombings.
If investigators take all of the required steps and follow the aforementioned format, they will find that they are able to answer questions from their commanding officers, and in the event that arrests are made, their case folders will be helpful in the preparation of the eventual prosecution and adjudication of the bomb incident suspects.
The dangers of investigating terrorist bombing incidents
Police officers and detectives on the scene of an explosion must first gather evidence in order to better understand what they are dealing with, as well as for future prosecutions.
As occurred during the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, the actual search of the scene of an explosion is possibly the most important aspect of the investigation. Investigators should start with a quick visual search in order to familiarize themselves with the area.
They should keep in mind that there could be multiple bombs planted in the immediate area of the blast and these additional bombs are planted for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill or maim the emergency personnel who respond to the initial blast. If a suspicious object is sighted during this phase of the crime scene search, detectives and other emergency personnel will evacuate the scene until bomb technicians can determine the nature of the threat or disarm the additional devices.
Once the visual search is completed, with the utmost care and continuous caution, detectives and police officers will start removing large pieces of debris from the area of the explosion. They should keep in mind that there could be live electrical wires or ruptured gas lines in the immediate work area. The scene of an explosion should be viewed as hazardous at all times.
When any of the large pieces of debris are removed, they are stored within a protected location, catalogued as to the description and place of recovery, name of the officer involved, and held at the location for a subsequent detailed search.
After the large pieces are moved and secured, detectives and officers must get on their hands and knees and start searching the debris looking for anything that appears foreign to the scene such as: leg wire (color-coded wire used in blasting caps); parts of a blasting cap; remains of a safety fuse; battery fragments; metal pipe fragments; other metal fragments (clock, propane tank, etc.); and bomb container fragments (metal, leather, canvas, cloth, paper, etc.).
Whenever anything considered significant is found, it will be bagged and marked for identification purposes. The location, time, date, name of officer or detective, shield (badge) number and command should always be marked on evidence bags.
If there are other data, these should be written on a separate report form or piece of paper and enclosed in the evidence bag. Investigators will never mark or deface the recovered evidence.
Detectives and officers at a blast scene must be persistent and they may have to go over the same area numerous times before uncovering anything of value.
Ultimately, they will have to conduct a sifting operation because some objects such as watch springs and other internal mechanisms are so small that they could easily be overlooked by investigators. The type of search to be conducted at the scene of an explosion will be determined by Bomb-Section personnel and investigators will be guided by their decisions. A properly conducted search may yield fingerprints, serial numbers, manufacturers’ names, price tags and many other investigative aids which would eventually help in solving the crime.
Any information regarding the nature of the explosion, type of device, damage, amount of explosives used, etc., is the function of the Bomb Section because they are the ones who possess the expertise to make those determinations. Investigators should not volunteer any information to the news media. Instead, advise them to consult with the explosion squad supervisor or the police department’s public information officer.
Parts of this news story are based on a lecture series by Jim Kouri for police and security officers in the Caribbean prior to the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001.