Using Biometrics to Achieve Identity Dominance in the Global War on Terrorism

By Woodward, John D., Jr. | Military Review, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Using Biometrics to Achieve Identity Dominance in the Global War on Terrorism


Woodward, John D., Jr., Military Review


A FINGERPRINT match identified the 20th hijacker. In December 2001, U.S. military forces detained Mohamed Al Kahtani as an enemy combatant on the field of battle in Southwest Asia. (1) During repeated interrogations Kahtani denied being a combatant and offered an innocent explanation for his presence in the region. While Kahtani was in military custody, an FBI team fingerprinted him in much the same way law-enforcement officials routinely fingerprint criminal suspects in the United States. They took Kahtani's 10 "rolled" fingerprints; that is, one fingerprint of each digit recorded from nail to nail. This collection of biometric data eventually led U.S. investigators to believe Kahtani was the missing 20th hijacker in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The 9/11 Commission concluded that Kahtani was "[t]he operative likely intended to round out the team" for Flight 93, which crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. (2)

Kahtani was identified because U.S. authorities matched the fingerprints taken from him in December 2001 to his fingerprints of 4 August 2001, when he arrived at Orlando International Airport on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London. During the immigration inspection at the airport, Kahtani, despite holding a valid U.S. visa, raised the suspicions of an alert immigration official. According to the 9/11 Commission, "Kahtani was denied entry by immigration officials because he had a one-way ticket and little money, could not speak English, and could not adequately explain what he intended to do in the United States." (3) He received a "voluntary departure," which, in practical terms, meant officials placed him on a flight and returned him to Dubai. As part of the voluntary departure process, officials took prints from his two index fingers.

Once U.S. authorities biometrically linked Kahtani, the detainee in December 2001, to Kahtani, the foreigner who tried to enter the United States in August 2001, they had a valuable lead to pursue for counterterrorism and homeland security purposes. The Kahtani match raised an intriguing possibility: Investigators knew Mohamed Atta had been in Florida in August 2001. Could Atta be linked to Kahtani? Based on their review of surveillance camera footage taken at the airport on 4 August 2001, investigators matched a license plate to a car rented by Atta. Other corroboration established that Atta was at the airport terminal at the time Kahtani's flight arrived. Of course, Kahtani never volunteered this information during his many military interrogations. He stuck to his cover story. The fingerprint match provided the necessary actionable intelligence. (4) As a result, a person the military encountered on a foreign field of battle was linked to a terrorist activity--the 9/11 attacks. This case study illustrates the importance of "identity dominance," which the U.S. military must embrace.

What is Identity Dominance?

Just as the U.S. military has established its superiority in other arts of war, now, working with other U.S. Government organizations, it must strive for identity dominance over terrorist and national-security threats who pose harm to American lives and interests. In the context of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), identity dominance means U.S. authorities could link an enemy combatant or similar national-security threat to his previously used identities and past activities, particularly as they relate to terrorism and other crimes.

The U.S. military needs to know whether a person encountered by a warfighter is a friend or foe. To do so, we need to answer the following questions: Has the person previously--

* Been arrested in the United States or other countries?

* Used aliases or fraudulent "official" documents?

* Been detained by U.S. or coalition forces?

* Been refused entry into the United States?

* Been linked to a terrorist activity?

* Had his fingerprints found on the remnants of an improvised explosive device (IED)?

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Using Biometrics to Achieve Identity Dominance in the Global War on Terrorism
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