Defeating the Unknown Terrorist

By Captain James Howe, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

This leakage from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should keep American policymakers awake at night, forcing them to brainstorm ways to identify and defeat these unknown, ticking time bombs. Enhancing the means for identifying these unknown terrorists and neutralizing them before they act is the next vital step in the global war on terrorism.

It is an unfortunate reality that a highly trained and meticulously prepared enemy can live and travel unnoticed in friendly nations or blend into Western society. The 9/11 hijackers, as clumsy as they were, successfully mixed into the American milieu. While the more robust intelligence, border control, and information-sharing mechanisms created since the 2001 attacks would stop the 9/11 plot today, more adept terrorists who dive deeper undercover and merge more effectively into society remain especially dangerous.

Efforts to exploit weaknesses in the terrorist methodology must be relentless. One particular weak point that merits attention is the nexus between personal identification, travel, and biometrics—in particular, the fingerprint. This is a potent means for identifying many unknown terrorists and already has yielded enhancements both for securing America as well as in protecting its front-line fighting forces.

The Natural ID

Fingerprints form on the human hand months before birth, and their patterns remain constant throughout a person's life. They can even be retrieved from the grave, years after death. And the odds that two people share the same swirls and ridges on their fingers are roughly one in 50 billion. As such, fingerprints act as an identification card of sorts, similar to the retinal patterns found in the human eye, the characteristics that shape one's face, and the individual genetic code found in DNA.

Among commonly used biometrics, however, only the fingerprint provides a critical investigative tool: unlike retinal scans or facial profiles, fingerprints can be left at the scene of the crime. 1 The FBI, the world leader in fingerprint expertise, maintains a massive database called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) with more than 55 million sets of fingerprints on file. 2

These sets each contain prints from all ten fingers of people arrested and booked in the United States. Additional files contain latent prints—those found at crime scenes, but from unknown suspects. When a person is arrested, investigators compare their ten prints against the database of latents, seeking a match. This has led to the identification of thousands of perpetrators and solved a large number of crimes.

The time-tested methodology has also paid dividends in the war on terrorism. Starting in 2001, the FBI deployed teams first to Afghanistan and then later to Iraq and other terrorist hotbeds to establish fingerprint collection systems, obtain fingerprints from insurgents and other detainees, and locate and preserve latent prints found on unexploded IEDs, in terrorist safe houses, or even from bomb blast wreckage.

FBI experts have joined forces with some operational combat units to obtain forensic data, fingerprints, and other evidence that can be used to identify the enemy. More recently, the Department of Defense has made massive strides in embedding forensic collection capabilities among combat units in theater.

By comparing the prints of detainees with the latents on file, numerous bomb makers and their supporters have been unmasked, allowing the unraveling of terror cells. This has placed increased pressure on the jihadist networks, taken terrorists off the streets, and saved the lives of American, allied, and Iraqi military and security forces, as well as innocent civilians. It was through fingerprint matching that the FBI identified a foreign fighter captured in Afghanistan as Ramzi Binalshibh, the suspected 20th hijacker from the 9/11 plot. 3

From the latent prints collected in Iraq and elsewhere overseas, the FBI's database of prints from unknown terrorists has grown from a population in the dozens to the thousands. Meanwhile, cooperation from other friendly nations has allowed the United States to add latent prints collected in terrorism investigations overseas (although cooperation has been spotty, and there remains much to be done in this regard). For each latent print, we know that the person who left it engaged in terrorist-related behavior. What remains unknown is who these people are. 

From Battlefield to Home Front

A second development has used this collection of fingerprints to the benefit of the nation. The Department of Homeland Security oversees US-VISIT, the nation's entry-exit system for foreign travelers. A post-9/11 creation, US-VISIT is designed to use biometric identifiers to freeze the identities of all foreigners entering the nation and to confirm their departure at the end of their visits. 4 This system was designed in parallel to visa adjudication processes overseen by the Department of State. By locking a fingerprint to an individual's name and photograph, US-VISIT and State's visa-vetting processes nullify the known terrorist tactic of traveling repeatedly under multiple identities on false passports and other documentation.

The original protocol for US-VISIT and the State Department's efforts used only the fingerprints from the applicant's left and right index fingers to establish identity. These fingerprints were compared against the latent terrorist prints found in IAFIS, but with only 40 percent of all latent prints estimated to have come from index fingers, it represented only a half-step forward. In 2005, however, the Departments of State and Homeland Security agreed to collect ten prints from each foreign visitor and are today using this more expansive set of prints to compare against the FBI's latent print files.

The net result is a significant boost in security. All foreigners previously detained as enemy fighters or for whom latent terrorist prints exist on file will be identified as they attempt to enter the United States, when applying for a visa, or, for the 27 nations for whom visas are not required, when they enroll in US-VISIT at a port of entry. 5 The ramifications are enormous, since fingerprints do not change over the course of a person's life.

Whether today or a generation in the future, this methodology will remain effective and will help identify known and unknown terrorists as they attempt to travel to American destinations. And the results have been impressive. A good example is the more than 300 Iraqis seeking refugee status in the United States who were thwarted because fingerprint matches tied them to terrorist or insurgent activity. 6

These developments are vital, considering the importance and magnitude of international travel for the terrorist community. Recent analysis of thousands of foreign fighters detained overseas finds that roughly one percent have not only visited the United States, but while here were arrested and booked, with their fingerprints cataloged in IAFIS.

This indicates that a decidedly higher but unknown percentage of these enemies—those who visited America but were not arrested—have walked the streets of our nation unfettered before returning to the foreign battlefield. The finding becomes even more startling when considering the relative poverty and isolation in which many of these foreign fighters were discovered.

A one percent rate has been found consistent among guerillas captured in the jungles of the Philippines, among fighters detained in the jagged mountains of Afghanistan, and, most astounding, among the highly secretive Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a cult-like terrorist organization that lives in the remote deserts of Iraq and of whom 40 of 3,800 people fingerprinted were found to have their prints on file in IAFIS. 7

In the globalized 21st century, international travel is no longer a luxury for the well-to-do but is instead a common practice enjoyed by every segment of foreign society, including the relative few dedicated to destroying the Western way of life. The forensic work on the battlefield helps stifle the mobility of the unknown terrorist.

On the Border

Fingerprints are also used to screen the hundreds of thousands of aliens who attempt to enter our nation illegally by crossing the southwest or northern land border. Since 9/11, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent organization, Customs and Border Protection, have worked to integrate their fingerprint database, IDENT, with the FBI's IAFIS, and today capture ten-print data from all people detained while attempting to sneak into the United States. The Border Patrol has used this greatly expanded information to identify and arrest hundreds of wanted felons, professional smugglers, and even the occasional terrorism suspect.

The U.S. Coast Guard has undertaken a similar yet more challenging effort at sea by establishing a prototype program in late 2006 to capture biometrics from illegal aliens found headed for American shores. The program targeted migrants found traveling on board vessels in the Mona Passage, between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, an area known for high levels of smuggling activity.

By capturing fingerprints from each migrant and comparing them to the Border Patrol's IDENT database, Coast Guard personnel were quickly able to identify recidivists and professional smugglers in each group of migrants. With the cooperation of the U.S. Attorney in San Juan, a number of smugglers have been prosecuted, and the overall level of smuggling in the region has fallen markedly, with the total flow of migrants cut by half between 2006 and 2007, and cut in half again so far in 2008. 8

The Coast Guard is now expanding the program to the Straits of Florida, for use against smugglers shuttling Cuban citizens into the Florida Keys. As the program continues to mature, it will be essential to make it available to all Coast Guard patrol cutters so that suspicious people and terrorist suspects found at sea can be quickly identified through biometric comparisons.

This is especially important considering the large number of professional smuggling organizations in the Western Hemisphere that employ maritime routes, and since several of these organizations have ties to the Middle East. As our nation hardens its southern and northern land borders and continues to improve its ability to identify potential terrorists traveling through the ports of entry, human smuggling organizations will further infiltrate the maritime realm.

The Navy, meanwhile, is fielding similar capability for its vessels engaged in anti-piracy and counterterrorism operations off the coast of Somalia and Yemen, in the Straits of Malacca, and elsewhere around the globe, with dozens of fingerprint-collection systems deployed. However, this first-generation system is relatively basic, access to DOD and FBI databases can be difficult, and spotty training has hampered effectiveness. A new generation of hardened, seaworthy equipment, the Identity Dominance System, is currently under development and is expected to reach initial operational capability in 2011. Program managers are rightfully attempting to accelerate this schedule.

The gold standard for each Coast Guard and Navy operational unit should be the ability to obtain ten prints from suspects detained at sea, coupled with near-instant access to the IAFIS database for rapid print comparisons against the criminal and latent print files.

The Future Effort

While enormous progress has been made in collecting fingerprints, work remains to be done to integrate forensic and biometric collection capability among friendly combat forces. The collaboration of America's foreign partners in providing prints is in many cases weak or non-existent, primarily because of concerns related to sovereignty and the privacy of their citizens. It should be a priority of the U.S. counter-terrorism effort to build generic forensic exploitation capabilities into every military ground or naval unit employed and to markedly expand information-sharing partnerships with allied nations. 9

A recently released White House policy document fully embraces interagency cooperation in the collection and exploitation of biometrics from known and unknown terrorists and provides impetus for continued improvements in this arena, both at home and abroad. 10 As the FBI, DHS, DOD, and other agencies enhance their collaborative relationships and further integrate their information systems, they will help cement the merger of military and law enforcement methodologies in the war on terrorism.

Biometrics, however, are just one of many means by which the unknown terrorist can be identified and defeated. If anything, the use of fingerprints represents only a modest slice of activity, especially when compared to the broader counter-terrorism effort.

Prime among these activities are the information-gathering, investigative, and exploitation efforts of the nation's intelligence and law enforcement communities. Programs like surveillance of suspect communications play a vital role in launching investigations and identifying hidden cells or people who support terrorist organizations. New entities like the National Counter Terrorism Center, which oversees all intelligence related to the terrorist threat, and the Terrorist Screening Center, which provides assistance for law enforcement personnel encountering terrorist suspects, have provided the nation much more ability to counter potential terrorist plots.

In addition, developments in the behavioral sciences also hold great promise. Determining pre-attack indicators and activities can help law enforcement and military personnel interrupt terror cells engaged in rehearsing or pre-staging an attack. Behavioral observation can help security personnel identify suspicious mannerisms that might be linked to terrorist activity or an impending suicide blast. (It is noteworthy that the Transportation Security Administration has over time expanded its operations to incorporate behavior-based security activities.)

The world's experts in this field—the Israeli military and police forces—have found that behavior recognition allows them to identify most suicide bombers from a distance, before they are able to endanger large numbers of innocent people in crowded areas. American efforts to learn from the Israeli experience have been fruitful and should be expanded among both the law enforcement and military communities, furthering security at home and on the battlefield.

The overarching answer to defeating the unknown terrorist lies in a layered, mutually complementary system that attacks terrorist networks from multiple angles, employs the most powerful investigative and intelligence tools, deprives terrorists of their travel and safe havens, and seeks to identify these enemies through every possible legal means. This overlapping system must be designed to keep the terrorists off balance and unable to communicate, meet, or effectively plan. Otherwise, the unknown terrorist retains the upper hand, hidden through anonymity and invisible to the world until called to strike.


1. DNA from hair, blood, and other parts of the body can also be collected, but the amount on file is only a fraction of the number of fingerprints contained in FBI and other data systems.

2. See . The FBI is currently developing a more robust system, notionally dubbed "next-generation IAFIS."

3. See Paul J. Shannon, "Fingerprints and the War on Terror," Joint Forces Quarterly 43, pp. 76-82, 4th Quarter 2006.

4. The exit portion of US-VISIT is still under development.

5. The Visa Waiver Program, which is being expanded to include additional nations, includes most European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore, and Japan. It allows passport-holding citizens of these nations to travel to the United States for a limited duration without obtaining a visa.

6. See Ellen Nakashima, "Post-9/11 Dragnet Turns Up Surprises," The Washington Post , 6 July 2008, p. A1.

7. Ibid.

8. .

9. Shannon, "Fingerprints and the War on Terror," pp. 81-82.

10. National Security Policy Directive 59/Homeland Security Policy Directive 24, "Biometrics for Identification and Screening to Enhance National Security," 5 June 2008. A key snippet: "Through integrated processes and interoperable systems, agencies shall, to the fullest extent permitted by law, make available to other agencies all biometric and associated biographic and contextual information associated with persons for whom there is an articulable and reasonable basis for suspicion that they pose a threat to national security."

Captain Howe is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. He retired from the Coast Guard in July, following a 27-year career. Captain Howe spent 11 years at sea, most recently in command of the USCGC Tampa (WMEC-902). He serves on the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute.




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