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World Politics

How do US special forces know they have their man?

For any elite special forces squad trained to hunt and liquidate its enemies the ability to kill with cold precision is only one of a number of skill sets that such a team must learn. Once your target is down, for instance, how do you ensure that you have your man?

During briefings over the past 48 hours the White House’s counter terrorism adviser John Brennan has stressed that Osama Bin Laden’s identity has been proven by a DNA analysis showing a 99.9% probability that Navy SEAL Team Six had killed the Al Qa’ida founder. Experts say an analysis proving such a high probability, which can be completed in a matter of hours, would likely have used samples from close relatives such as a parent or child.

But he also hinted at a string of secondary identification methods involving “facial recognition and [his] height.” What Mr Brennan was alluding to is an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of biometric technology which is now used by the US military to identify their targets either on arrest or post mortem.

Journalists who have encountered elite squads in Afghanistan and Iraq have noticed that many now carry boxy goggles to collect and process biometric data from people’s faces.

The devices are known as Secure Electronic Enrolment Kits (SEEK), a handheld biometric recorder weighing just under 2kg which takes iris scans, fingerprints and facial scans and ports them back to an FBI database in West Virginia in seconds.

The US military have been helped by vastly improved biometric technology which has made the use of such tools on the battlefield increasingly common in the past three years. When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003 they brought with them the first generation of biometric recorders. But compared to today’s handheld devices they were bulky giants weighing a highly impractical 22kgs and using separate iris scanners and finger print recorders wired up to a heavy duty laptop.

According to Wired, which spoke to a defence source familiar with the devices, the new SEEK recorders use the kind of wireless and 3G technology found in smart phones to relay measurements back to an FBI database which delivers the results “wham bam”. It is unlikely the FBI would have had iris scans of Bin Laden but they would almost certainly have built up a complicated measurement portrait of his facial features through photographs.

In Afghanistan the US military and FBI have begun using databases to compile hundreds of thousands biometric profiles in a bid to prove who insurgents are if they are captured a second time.

“A strong Afghan biometric program reduces the enemy’s anonymity and his capability to operate anonymously in the battle space,” Air Force Lt. Col. Cristiano Marchiori, an advisor to the program, told the FBI’s own website in a recent article on biometrics. “If we have one unique identifier—a set of prints, an iris scan—it’s hard for the enemy to hide among the population when he’s trying to register a vehicle or vote or move around the country freely.”