Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Clearing Checkpoints

Rally Point LLC
Clearing Checkpoints
Written March 15, 2005
Last Revision:  June 12, 2013

I wrote this in 2005 and Tony Scotti was kind enough to post it on his Security Driver website.  Rally Nation sent an email a few days ago asking about the article, so I thought I would dust it off and post it here.

On March 4, 2005, Italian Intelligence Officer Nicola Calipari was mistakenly killed by the US military as his vehicle approached their checkpoint.  Two days later, at least three checkpoints were hit with small arms fire, and at another, a group of up to 20 insurgents riding in five cars attacked with a combination of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire before speeding away. 

Checkpoints in Iraq are dangerous places. For civilian PSD teams the dangers are twofold. First, the constant threat of attack by insurgents is amplified by being in close proximity to an inviting military target. Second, a PSD motorcade, especially one that utilizes a low-profile configuration, runs the risk of being mistaken for insurgents and receiving fire from the military manning the checkpoint. 

As PSD teams and the military continue to work in close proximity to one another in Iraq, there will always be the risk of a blue on blue shooting. The odds of such an encounter increase dramatically at checkpoints. As a PSD team leader in Iraq, I drove through hundreds of military and Iraqi Police checkpoints. My team favored the low-profile motorcade (LPM). On our first advance from our safe house in Baghdad to the site prior to bringing in the clients from Jordan, our motorcade was brought to an abrupt halt on MSR Tampa after several warning shots were fired into the road in front of us by a Bradley fighting vehicle sitting on an overpass. Fortunately no one was hurt, and after establishing who we were and what we were doing on the highway, we continued on our way. The Specialist that we talked to, who seemed nearly as upset about the incident as we were, explained why they had shot the road in front of us. 
“We’re used to seeing you security boys in them big SUVs.” 

While we still encountered the occasional problem, we quickly developed a set of techniques that we used to lessen the risk involved when passing through a checkpoint. These techniques worked well for us in the environment in which we operated. I hope that some of you may find them useful for you as well. 

I use the terms high-profile motorcade (HPM) and LPM as very general terms to differentiate between two distinct and separate modes of transportation. The HPM is easy to spot. Depending on who the principal is, the motorcade might have military or police escorts. Police officers on motorcades may move ahead of the main body, blocking intersections. Depending on available resources, helicopter escorts may be utilized.
The HPM relies heavily on a show of force, heavy weapons, and armor to defeat potential threats. In contrast, the LPM relies more on stealth and its ability to blend into the environment. 

The LPM does not use obvious military, police, or security vehicles. On the surface, the motorcade’s vehicles look like every other car on the road. They are a blend of different makes and models. One of the primary advantages of using the LPM in a high-risk environment like Iraq, where many attacks are against targets of opportunity, is that by the time your adversary realizes what you are, you are already moving out of the kill zone. 

The LPM has its disadvantages, one of the biggest being when it travels on a military-controlled highway like MSR Tampa, or approaching a checkpoint. In these instances, the disguise is now working against the security agents, as they don’t really want to look like the other Iraqi (and potentially threatening) vehicles. When operating in a LPM, the real trick is to understand when to blend in, when to stand out, and how to achieve both goals. 

The majority of US military checkpoints that a motorcade encounters are at known locations. The soldiers manning the checkpoints often are assigned to that checkpoint for extended periods of times, and the longer they are there, the more comfortable they become in their jobs. They are generally less likely to open fire on a vehicle without justifiable cause. If they have the time, their attempts to stop a vehicle will escalate from hand and arm signals to warning shots fired in front of the car. If that fails to bring the vehicle to a stop, shots are fired into the engine compartment to disable the car. Only as a last resort, when they feel their lives to be in IMMINENT DANGER will the majority of US troops escalate to deadly force and fire shots into the passenger compartment. 

Having said that, the motorcade commander should approach each checkpoint EXTREMELY CAREFULLY, no matter how many times they have driven through that particular checkpoint. Remember, complacency kills. The checkpoint may have come under fire earlier in the day, causing the soldiers to be more anxious and therefore more likely to fire, or they may have intelligence indicating they are the target of a possible attack, causing them to operate at a heightened alert level. 

The soldiers you have encountered there every day for the past month may have been rotated off the checkpoint earlier that morning. Their replacements may be new to the environment, new to combat, not as well trained or disciplined, and may be more apt to open fire. 

Operating south of Baghdad, a good portion of one of our primary routes took us down Iraqi Highway One, which at the time was under US Military control, and had been designated as MSR Tampa. The first checkpoint we had to clear was located on the overpass at our onramp. The base of the onramp was a good 400 meters from the bunkers of the checkpoint. The onramp was clearly marked in both English and Arabic, warning people that the highway was available for coalition use only. The signs also stated that deadly force was authorized to prevent unauthorized or unknown persons from entering the highway. 

Rather than risk driving up the onramp in our low-profile vehicles unannounced and possibly drawing fire, as happened on one occasion, we would stop at the overpass, make verbal contact with the soldiers, identify ourselves, and once we had received permission to proceed, make our way to the onramp. 

Often the soldiers would tell us that they would radio ahead to the next checkpoint and inform them that we were on our way. This offer was extended to us as a professional courtesy, and could be helpful at the next checkpoint, but we never assumed (well once, but it didn’t go very well, and we never did it again), that they were able to do it. The radio may not have been working, or the Private who was listening to the radio may have forgotten to get word to the Specialist who will be soon pointing a large machine gun at you. Never take anything for granted. Always assume that the people with the large weapons have no idea who you are or that you have a right to be there. 

Approach every checkpoint slowly and under control. I carried a small pair of binoculars in the lead car to aid in seeing what was happening at the checkpoint as we approached. What is the posture of the men at the checkpoint? Do they appear relaxed? Are you establishing eye contact with them? Do they see the approaching motorcade? Are they pointing guns at you and waving at you to stop your vehicles? Look closely at each checkpoint well before you get there, as much information can be gained by both sides if you approach them carefully. 

Our LPM carried laminated American flags in each car. When we were traveling on un-secure roads, the flags remained tucked away in the sun visor. When we were traveling on “secure” roads (military controlled roads with access limited to coalition forces), the flags would be displayed in the front windshields of each car. We also carried large VS17 panels (bright orange colored cloth used by the military for marking drop zones) that we displayed on the dashboards. As we approached checkpoints, the flags would be moved to prominent positions, such as outside the window, where they could be plainly seen. 

Most permanent checkpoints have a well displayed sign indicating where you are to stop. This point is generally a good distance from the main bunkers of the checkpoint. Once you have stopped, final directions are given by the soldiers via hand and arm signals. Be patient, as you may have one soldier waving you forward and another soldier telling you to stop. Always error on the side of caution, and stay put until you are satisfied that moving your vehicles forward will not make the man with the 50 caliber machine gun in front of you nervous. Occasionally, they may indicate that one member of the detail is to step out of the vehicle and approach on foot. If this is the case, make sure that you leave your rifle in the vehicle. Open your door slowly, step well away from the car with your hands out away from your body. I would normally do a slow 360 degree turn to let them get a good look at me. Often, the moment you step out of the car, you can clearly be identified as a Westerner, and the soldiers will indicate for you to return to your car and move towards them. 

Communications between the lead vehicle and other cars of the motorcade are vital. Everyone needs to know when to stop and when to move forward. If you are getting out of the vehicle to approach the checkpoint on foot, let the team know. Communications within the vehicles are important as well. A checkpoint is not a place to let down your guard and get too comfortable. Even after you have identified yourselves to the military’s satisfaction, there may be a delay clearing the checkpoint as you wait for the vehicles in front to move through. One checkpoint on MSR Tampa has been established where insurgents destroyed the bridge last spring. The military has placed a temporary bridge over the canal, but one bridge services both north and south bound traffic, so delays of up to a half hour or more are common, as the massive re-supply convoys move in and out of Baghdad. 

Sitting still at a checkpoint makes you a good target, so maintain a comfortable orange on your alert level scale. Make sure that you have a plan on what you will do if the checkpoint comes under attack while you are in it. 

Reports in the newspaper indicate that Calipari’s vehicle was approaching the checkpoint at night. If at all possible, clear the checkpoints during daylight hours, so that the soldiers can clearly see you and you can clearly see their directions. If you must pass through a checkpoint during hours of darkness or limited visibility, ensure that you slow down even more than usual. Turning on the hazard lights of the lead vehicle, dimming your headlights, turning on the interior dome light of the lead vehicle, and using a flashlight to illuminate your marking panels and flags makes it easier for the guys at the checkpoints to see who and what you are. 

When you pass through the checkpoints, remember to be a professional. Even if you have had a bad day, which just got worse because a soldier is pointing his weapon at you, remember that they are having a rough day too. Verbally abusing the soldiers who are just doing their jobs does no good and not only reflects badly on you as an individual, but the close protection industry as a whole. Our soldiers are doing a tough job in a tough environment, and they are trying to keep themselves and their buddies alive while they do it. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Survival Lessons of the Rattlesnake

Survival Lessons of the Rattlesnake
Charlie Sellens
Last Reviewed April 9, 2013

The following story is, unfortunately, true.

Growing up on a Kansas wheat farm was, looking back on it, not a bad way to get a start in life.  It really didn’t matter that my town friends got to spend the summer playing baseball, swimming in the municipal pool, and getting tasty ice cream treats at the Dairy Queen while my brother Jason and I worked the farm.  Without even knowing it, I was learning valuable survival, tactical, and life skills that continue to serve me well to this very day.

We learned to appreciate the rewards of a day of mind-numbing boredom called work.  We also learned to be self reliant.  The isolation of the vast, wind-swept prairie, which is an old Native American word that means middle of nowhere, teaches one to use their imagination, like imagining running away to California.  The farm and surrounding flatlands also offered nearly limitless opportunities for exploration and adventure.  Mostly we explored ways to escape the farm so we could have adventures.

Our time on the farm was marked by long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme excitement and terror, which we called rattlesnake killing.  I don’t recall ever outfitting ourselves with supplies and setting out on an organized rattlesnake safari, but I do remember trying to organize an expedition once. One of my earliest efforts to organize, equip, and lead a patrol didn’t get very far when Jason refused to carry around month’s worth of food, water, and comic books in the 110 degree heat.  This was not the last time that one of my grand schemes came to an abrupt end because of his refusal to carry out my orders.  

For those readers who were spared the agony of growing up on a farm in Kansas, and may be ignorant in the ways of rattlesnake killing, I thought a few brief descriptions of the roles, responsibilities, and equipment would be helpful.  Of course, one of the most important ingredients of any good rattlesnake killing is to find a rattlesnake.

RATTLESNAKE:  (Crotalus viridis)  The Prairie rattlesnake generally has a chunky body, wide head, and rattles made of keratin at the end of its tail that is usually, but not always, sounded as a warning.  They range in length from 18 inches to seven feet.  They have two hollow fangs that fold back against the roof of their mouth when not in use.  Venom is stored in glands attached to the fangs, and injected into its prey or possibly some idiot kid trying to smash it with a stick or something.  I have heard newbies describe rattlesnakes as being as big around as a firehose, with heads as wide as a dinner plate, and fangs the size of railroad spikes that can inject venom into concrete.  This type of gibberish is to be dismissed as the ramblings of a tenderfoot who has not faced the rattlesnake with the cool, calm, steady nerve that Jason and I displayed.   

WEAPON:  Since rattlesnake killing was not an organized type of deal, but rather a spontaneous fight to the death, there was no specific weapon of choice.  Improvisation was a necessary trait for any rattlesnake killer worth his salt.  Large sticks were my personal preference, but in a pinch, almost anything could be used.  I remember on one occasion, in what seems now to be a poor display of sportsmanship, defending myself with a 1979 Ford Thunderbird.  Certainly an adequate weapon, even though it had a tendency to pull to the left a bit.  

But I digress.  If given a choice, I always liked a stick long enough to avoid overextending my reach and falling onto the snake.  Fifteen feet or so would be about right, but most of the time I had to make do with a much shorter stick, as Kansas has a shortage of long tree branches just lying around.  The stick should also be sturdy enough to withstand repeated impacts with the ground or Jason’s head, as I tended to get a little wild during my rattlesnake killing, and self-control really wasn’t my thing.  Usually when I was fighting a rattlesnake there was a lot of hissing, venom flying, and rattling going on.  The snake would generally do those things too.
DOG:  A good snake dog was a real asset in a close quarter battle with a rattlesnake.  A good snake dog circles the snake, barking and racing in with teeth barred to distract the snake, allowing the snake fighter to flail away furiously.  Not to brag, but I sometimes scored as many as two direct hits on the snake for every 134 flails.  

But I digress.  Anyway, that’s what a good snake dog is handy for.  Our dog, however, had once been bitten in the face by a rattlesnake, and her head swelled to the size of a basketball.  She came out of it alright, but she was never really keen on fighting rattlesnakes after that.  Her main contribution was to maintain a healthy distance from the snake, about the length of a football field or so, and bark like she was getting ready to mount a charge.  To this day, Jason believes that it was not actually a snakebite that caused her head to swell.  He thinks that I whacked her in the head during a flail.  In any case, her barking helped to fuel the fury we unleashed on the snake.  After being cooped up on the farm for months at a time, we had a lot of fury to unleash.

DAD:  Our dad pretty much served in the same capacity as the dog.  When present, he circled the combatants at a healthy distance, probably not so much because of the snake, but because he feared that having killed the snake, we might still be looking for another outlet for our fury.  By keeping a healthy distance away, he always had a good head start in case he had to make a run for it.  As a side benefit, he was also in a good position to take one of us to the hospital if the snake killing didn’t go according to plan.  This was actually a really good idea, as all my flailing would have made killing a garden hose a dangerous proposition.

But I digress.  As it turned out, neither the dog nor dad, however useful they may have been, were essential to killing a rattlesnake.  Neither were present during what would turn out to be our most memorable snake killing.  Jason and I were out picking up bales of mowed grass one fine August day, when we encountered the largest rattlesnake I ever saw in person.  
If you have never had the pleasure, and by pleasure I mean back-breaking, hot, sweaty work, of picking up bales, allow me to give you an idea of how it works.  These weren’t the large, round bales that are pretty much the standard now.  Those are so large that you need hydraulic lifts on a tractor or pickup truck to pick them up and move them.  Our bales were smaller, but almost as heavy, and you picked them up by hand, stacked them on the back of a trailer, and then moved them to the barn or wherever you were storing them.

Rattlesnakes generally don’t like to move around in the heat of the day, preferring to hunt at night when it’s cooler, so they like to find a nice, dark spot to spend the day, snoozing and waiting for their chance to grab a bite to eat a little later.  One of the spots they like to rest is underneath a bale, which means that there is a technique to picking a bale up.  If you simply reach down and pick the bale straight up, you risk exposing your legs to the snake’s fangs, which in case you have forgotten are connected to large sacks of venom.  Not good.  

The trick is to lean over and grab the twine on the far side of the bale, then pull the bale towards you, keeping it between your legs and the possibility of getting bitten by a rattlesnake.  That’s an important little trick to remember.  Of the thousands of bales I checked and moved, there was never a rattlesnake underneath.  Except once.  On this one occasion, when I pulled the bale towards, me, leaned over and checked underneath, not really expecting to see anything, I came face to face with a very large, very upset Prairie rattlesnake.  

He squinted at me with cold, black eyes.  His forked tongue flicked out to test the wind for the smell of my fear.  His rattles made a dry, scrapping sound, like a six-shooter clearing leather on a dusty street in Dodge City.  I’m pretty sure he sneered at me with barely disguised contempt.  With a calm that showed the ice water in my veins I dropped the bale and spoke softly to Jason.  “Brother,” I said, slow and easy, in my best gunfighter voice, “There’s a rattlesnake under this bale.”

What Jason would later claim he heard was a high-pitched sort of squeal that sounded something like “RRRRATTTTLLLLLEEEESSSSNAKKKKKEEEE!”  In my defense, the two or three miles that now separated us would have made it difficult for him to understand exactly what I said and how I said it.  Jason has always been quick on the uptake, able to grasp subtle clues in a given situation, so from our tactically sound position in the next county we came up with our battle plan.

We were in the middle of a large grass field.  There were no flailing sticks to be found but there was a large toolbox in the back of the pickup, full of impact throwing weapons like wrenches, pliers, and hammers.  We started our assault on the snake, throwing every tool we had with great determination and zeal.  Unfortunately, we did not throw them with great aim.  We had thrown everything we had, and had not inflicted any real damage to the snake.

The situation was now grim.  The snake was in possession of every weapon on the battlefield.  It had enough tools around it to build a tank.  We briefly considered the idea of abandoning the field of battle and leaving the snake the tools, spoils of war.  “Where are all my tools?” My dad would ask.  “Tools, what tools?” I would say, looking mystified.  

We eyed the snake warily.  It glared at us evilly. Rattlesnakes really have only one look, the evil glare.  Any good tactical commander understands the importance of remaining flexible and the ability to improvise, so we adapted to the current tactical situation and started looking for other possible weapons.

A reconnaissance of the area turned up an old discarded role of barbed wire, left behind who knows how many years before when someone had taken down a fence, leaving the wire propped against a stone post.  Holding the wire in front of me like a shield, I advanced cautiously on the snake, and then, screaming my battle cry, I charged.

My snake battles were like being in a pirate fight, without as many rules.  Having come alongside a crippled ship and pulled her close with their grappling hooks, the pirates would swarm aboard.  In the sprawling, bloody chaos that followed, no quarter was expected and none given.  Hack, slash, and slay.  The bloodlust upon them, it was easy to confuse friend with foe.  I continued to shout and flail with my barbed weapon, beating the ground and occasionally the snake.  Jason circled, waiting for an opportunity to administer the death blow, or a tourniquet should I happen to impale myself with barbed wire. 

The snake continued to coil and strike.  Coil and strike.  And then, as if by some act of magic, the snake simply disappeared.  It took a moment to realize that the snake was not a mutant teleporter, but that the barbs of the wire and caught the snake and as I had  jerked the wire back to flail again, the snake had been launched into the air.  Which meant that at that moment, there was a rattlesnake as big around as a firehose, with a head as wide as a dinner plate, and fangs the size of railroad spikes that could inject venom into concrete whizzing around somewhere over our heads.

A concept that has gained much popularity in recent years in tactical circles is Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop.  The OODA loop is not a breakfast cereal, as one might imagine.  It is a decision making process, based on Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action, that, if applied properly, allows you to outthink your opponent and gain a tactical advantage.

In the case of a just wounded enough to be incredibly upset rattlesnake twirling through the air somewhere overhead, the OODA loop process would look something like this.  Observation:  I observe that the snake is no longer on the ground in front of me.  Orientation:  The snake has now gained the tactical advantage of the high ground overhead.  Decision:  I need to create space and distance between myself and the threat.  Action:  Communicate with teammates and run like hell.

“Brother,” I remember yelling, “Run.”  Jason would later claim what he heard was, “WHHHHAAAAAGUURRGGLEE”  Years after this incident, I spent quite a bit of time in Iraq, working as a team leader for a Protective Services Detail (PSD).  On occasion, our compound was the target of insurgent mortar fire.  I don’t know how that feels for other folks, but for me, there was always this weird clinching and fluttering of the stomach muscles, and a hunching, tightening of the shoulders as my head tucked down between them, waiting to see where the next round would impact.

Whenever that would happen, it always reminded me of that day in a Kansas pasture.  On that day, I added another technique to my bag of snake fighting tricks.  I called it the run and madly wave your arms over your head while shrugging your head down between your shoulders so far that you are looking out a buttonhole in your shirt technique.  A highly specialized technique for sure, and one that you might only need once in a lifetime, but still good to know.  I still practice it from time to time.

As with any tactical situation, luck generally plays a role, and luck was with us that day.  The snake didn’t land on our heads, and when it did return to earth, it was far enough away from the pile of tools that we were able to retrieve them and continue our aerial bombardment.  Jason finally dispatched the snake with a well placed crescent wrench.

After the din and chaos of battle has faded away, the silence that replaces it can be almost deafening.  We gazed at the carnage, each of us lost in our own private thoughts.  Quietly we began to gather the tools.  My mouth was dry, and I remember being tired.  Very tired.  I also remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, a 1979 Ford Thunderbird wasn’t so unsporting after all.



Friday, February 1, 2013

Edinburgh Risk and Security Management Route Irish Ambush Case Study

Edinburgh Risk and Security Management
Route Irish Ambush Case Study
Charles Sellens
Last Reviewed:  February 7, 2013

Charlie at the Baghdad International Airport in a Low-Profile BMW
April, 2004
This blog and our three Assemble on Us videos, available on YouTube at:

are my attempt to reconstruct, diagram, explain, and learn from the linear ambush initiated against a Private Security Detail (PSD) working for Edinburgh Risk and Security Management (ERSM) and operating on Route Irish in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 20, 2005 in what is known as a low-profile motorcade.  

I have never worked for ERSM, and I was not in a car in that kill zone.  Three of the eight men who were, died in the ambush, and of the remaining five, only one (the driver of the lead vehicle) wrote an After Action Report (AAR) that is widely available through open sources.  Also available for study is the official ERSM AAR.  I have used these two sources, along with video footage of the ambush taken from a camera mounted on the dashboard of the third and final vehicle in the motorcade as the basis of my case study.  These AARs and video footage, along with several other documents related to the incident may be found at:

You can find the recently released extended version of the ambush video, with much of the audio transcribed, at:

I have also used my personal knowledge and expertise in using low-profile PSD motorcades in and around Baghdad.  From March of 2004 to February of 2005, I was a member of and team leader for a PSD team that utilized low-profile tactics and vehicles during  travel.  My team and I wrote our low-profile motorcade Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and I led hundreds of low-profile motorcades throughout southern Iraq and along Route Irish.

There have been many criticisms and accusations as a result of the attack.  There has been finger-pointing, attempts to shift blame, talk of cowards, and lawsuits.  Everyone has their own opinion about what took place in that kill zone, but at the end of the day what really matters to me is that three guys died there, and if we don’t do everything we can to learn from what happened, we are doing them, our teammates, and ourselves a huge disservice.

April 19, 2005
Team Briefing I
The Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq

On the evening of April 19, 2005, eight members of Operation Apollo (an operation designed to support the Independent Election Commission of Iraq) were assigned the task of driving from the Green Zone to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) the following day to pick up several colleagues returning from leave.  The journey would take them along a major  highway approximately 12 kilometers long designated by the military as Route Irish.  This highway served as the only direct road from the Green Zone to the BIAP, and at that time there was no more dangerous stretch of road in the entire world.  Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and small arms attacks were almost daily occurrences along the road.   

The eight men conducted a team briefing on the night of April 19th.  During the briefing, the team discussed ways to mitigate the threat of  VBIEDs and IEDs along Route Irish.  The company’s official AAR mentions the team was in the process of applying new SOPs and operational methods to mitigate the threat, but my research has not turned up any copies of these SOPs for study.

The team was also concerned with the possibility of blue on blue incidents.  Blue on blue is a term used to describe friendly forces mistakenly shooting at one other.  Given that the team was operating in low-profile vehicles, whose purpose was to blend in with the surrounding local traffic, worries about possible blue on blue shootings were valid concerns.  The team “...stressed the need to be prepared to identify themselves as required so as to avoid blue on blue.” (ERSM AAR)  

No further mention is made of how the team would go about identifying themselves to coalition forces.  There is also no mention of the team discussing possible reactions in the event of a small arms ambush.  The team reviewed video footage of Route Irish taken during previous motorcade operations, to identify choke points (an area the motorcade is forced to travel through) danger areas, (areas along the route that pose a particular risk), and likely ambush sites.

Using video cameras to record the routes was a good idea.  In addition to the reasons listed above, the footage can also be used as a navigation training tool.  My team used a lot of dirt roads in the middle of the desert, often driving along the sides of canals and through farmers‘ fields in order to avoid detection and lessen the chances of encountering an IED or ambush.  None of these “roads” were marked, and learning the routes was a matter of trial and error.  Once a new route had been established, the video footage was used to refresh our memories before a trip and to train new personnel.  If we got hit in the middle of nowhere on the new guy’s first mission, at least he would have some idea of where he was and how to get to a safe haven.

This was one of the "roads" my team used to move around an area south of Baghdad affectionately known as
The Triangle of Death.

 April 20, 2005
Team Briefing II
The Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq

According to both AARs, the entire team met again on the morning of April 20, from 1100-1130 to conduct one final briefing before departing for the airport.  The format of the brief was basically the same as the night before.  In addition to studying video footage of Route Irish, the drivers were verbally briefed on the route, actions on approaching danger areas and coalition forces, and call signs.

In his AAR, the driver of vehicle one makes the comment that, “We had our typical set of orders covering the aspects of the trip.  We have heard them so many times we can all most likely recite them while asleep.”  What he probably meant by this was that they considered themselves well-prepared and aware of the dangers.  They had driven this route before, knew what to expect, and had been properly briefed.

However, based on his choice of words, it is also possible that they had made the trip so many times without incident that they were beginning to treat it as routine.  This is a common problem that all established protective details must guard against.  The detail performs its job day after day, and no life or death situation happens.  It is human nature to relax after time, and the attitude may become, since nothing has gone wrong in the past six months, nothing is likely to go wrong today.  Training, rehearsals, and planning are the keys to preventing this sort of attitude.  A long-standing detail that neglects its training may in fact be slower to react then a brand-new team.  
  April 20, 2005
1130-1210 (Approximately)
Final Inspection, Departure, and Drive
The Green Zone/Route Irish, Baghdad, Iraq

At approximately 1130, the team left the Green Zone for the BIAP.  The motorcade consisted of three low-profile vehicles.  Vehicle one was a soft-skin (no armor) BMW sedan with manual transmission carrying three contractors.  The front seat passenger is listed as being the vehicle commander, and the rear gunner is listed as being the team medic.  Vehicle two was, according to the ERSM AAR, a B6 armored Mercedes sedan and contained two men, one of whom (the passenger) is listed as the mission’s second in command.  Vehicle three was a soft skin BMW sedan, carrying three men.  The front seat passenger of vehicle three is listed as the mission commander.

According to the driver of vehicle one, most of the detail carried Bushmaster M-4 or AR-15 rifles and Glock 19 handguns.  The rear gunner of vehicle one is also listed as carrying an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), as his primary weapon.  Drivers of vehicles two and three are listed as also carrying MP-5s, as is the mission commander.  The rear gunner of vehicle three was noted as having an RPK (larger version of the AK-47), and an M-249 SAW.  

These weapons are fairly typical of what a detail would be carrying in a low-profile motorcade.  The types of weapons used would largely depend on the security company's resources.  Our team used locally procured AK-47s, RPKs, and PKM belt-fed machine guns.   No mention is made of the amount of ammunition the team was carrying, but a typical personal ammunition load for one of my team's motorcades would have been a minimum of eight rifle magazines and three pistol magazines carried on the body, and extra magazines positioned inside the vehicle for quick access.  The idea being that if you were engaged in car to car contact with insurgents, or were using the vehicles to break contact, you first used the magazines inside the vehicle.  If you were forced to bail out, you still had numerous full magazines attached to you to continue the fight.  Theoretically.

AK-47 Magazines Laying on Dashboard of Low-Profile BMW

Charlie at the Range, Al Mussayib, Iraq
December, 2004
Driver one's AAR also states they were wearing a variety of local clothing and scarves over their tactical equipment in a further effort to blend into their environment.  Different teams had different SOPs regarding dressing in local clothing.  We experimented with it, and decided it wasn’t for us.    

 The motorcade left the protected Green Zone through checkpoint 12 and proceeded onto Route Irish.  The video camera in car three is on, and from this point on we can see, from one angle, with bits of dashboard decorations blocking part of the view, the events that take place next.  The camera also captures the audio from the interior of car three.  It's garbled in places and difficult to understand, but most of it comes through clear enough to give us some insight into what the occupants of three, specifically the motorcade commander, were thinking and doing inside the vehicle.   

As the motorcade works its way out of the Green Zone and onto the road, the mission commander, seated in the right front seat of the third car, can be heard issuing commands and danger area warnings to the motorcade.  This should also be a standard part of any high-risk motorcade, identifying potential threats and areas of concern and relaying the information to the rest of the motorcade.  In particular he is warning the motorcade about approaching overpasses and pedestrian bridges.  Insurgents armed with explosives and weapons liked to use these structures for quick attacks on motorcades passing underneath.  

There is a major disadvantage in the way that the ERSM motorcade was set up to issue these warnings however.  Several times during the drive, the motorcade commander can be heard announcing an approaching bridge after the lead vehicle has already passed underneath it.  In my opinion, a better method is to have the right front seat passenger of the lead vehicle announce approaching danger areas.  They are in a much better position to see what is happening in front of them than someone who is hundreds of meters further back.  Different teams have different SOPs, but as the motorcade commander and lead navigator, I always rode right front seat of the lead vehicle so that I had the clearest view of what was going on in front of us.    

The full length video shows the military responding to the IED incident that eventually causes the road to be closed. Humvees are seen moving onto the highway in front of the fast-moving motorcade, nearly causing a major collision between the first two motorcade cars and the military’s vehicles.  The drivers of one and two do a nice job of threshold breaking to a stop to avoid a collision.  Shortly after this, the motorcade commander fires a few warning shots from his rifle to “back off” (taken from the audio) a vehicle that was getting too close to the motorcade for his liking.  

It is at that moment that the low-profile motorcades’ biggest tactical advantage, camouflage, has been negated.  In order for a low-profile motorcade to offer maximum concealment, it must allow itself, as much as possible, to blend into and become part of the surrounding traffic.  There are of course times when the camouflage fails and someone notices the presence of the motorcade, but the motorcade should not intentionally do anything to draw attention to itself.  In my opinion, any motorcade should also avoid unnecessarily agitating the local population.

Imagine for a moment that the situation was reversed, and armed groups of Iraqi contractors were driving down our highways, firing warning shots or disabling our vehicles by shooting into the engine compartment.  My guess is that you probably wouldn’t think too much of the notion.  You might even be tempted to shoot back, or call some friends with guns and have them come and shoot back.  

Several times during the drive, the lead vehicle also makes several semi-aggressive moves to clear traffic lanes or block vehicles momentarily from entering onto the highway, allowing the other motorcade vehicles to maintain their intervals and spacing, without any civilian traffic become mixed into the motorcade.  While these moves are tactically sound for a high-profile motorcade, I don’t believe they should be overtly used while operating in a low-profile configuration.  

As the motorcade is attempting to blend into traffic, there are times when non-motorcade vehicles may merge between motorcade vehicles.  As long as lines of sight and radio communications are maintained, this is not anything to get too concerned with.  If the motorcade feels the need to tighten back up, reassembling is a simple as passing a few cars or gently screening the unwanted cars out.

By the time the motorcade reaches the last overpass before arriving at the main entrance and checkpoint to the BIAP, the military has established its roadblock and closed the highway to deal with the aftermath of the IED explosion.  Located adjacent to BIAPs' entrance checkpoint was Camp Victory, a large military installation.  The team estimated that the road block was 300-400 meters to their front, which would have put it very close to the checkpoint.  In his AAR, the driver of vehicle one notes that, “There was also 2-3 Humvees with at least one of them pointing a .50 caliber heavy machine gun, which I knew would go through an armored car, in our direction to make sure no vehicles got close.  Since we had made a conscious decision to drive cars that looked like the locals and dress like the locals I hesitated to get closer than 200-300 yards.”

This picture was taken on MSR Tampa, but it is basically what the motorcade would have seen on the highway in front of them.

This was a justifiable concern on the part of the motorcade.  Since the whole concept is to look like civilian traffic, one of the constant dangers of traveling low-profile is having the military or another PSD team mistake you for a group of insurgents and shoot at you.  Again, the official ERSM AAR mentions the team discussing preparations to identify themselves in order to avoid a blue on blue shooting, but no mention is made of how they were prepared to do that, so I can only speak to the preparations that my team made.

Each vehicle carried a small laminated American flag tucked away under the right front passenger seat sun visor.  In my lead vehicle, I also had a large American flag and orange VS-17 marking panel for identification at distance if needed.  When we were traveling among the civilian population, these markers stayed hidden, but when we were approaching checkpoints or traveling on strictly controlled military highways, like MSR (Main Supply Route) Tampa, the small laminated flags would be propped up in the windshield of each car.  These markers, plus a slow and cautious approach to any checkpoint or roadblock, kept us from having any blue on blue incidents. 

Laminated Flag under Sun Visor

Laminated flag displayed in low-profile motorcade moving through the Green Zone.

The video shows that for approximately the next half an hour, and 40 minutes or so after firing the first warning shots and alerting the surrounding traffic to their presence, the motorcade, with the exception of a few minor adjustments as they pull further up the road to increase distance between themselves and the rest of the stopped traffic, remains virtually static.  The rear vehicle continues to periodically fire warning shots.  Concerned with maintaining separation from the rest of traffic, yet hesitant to approach the military roadblock, the motorcade lingers in no-mans land.
At this point, they have several options.  They could put out any identification markers they had and slowly approach the roadblock.  Hands could have been put outside the windows to show friendly intent, and if needed, the passenger of the lead vehicle could have dismounted with arms raised to let the military see a friendly Western contractor wanting to get through and not some sneaky insurgent trying to blow them up.

They could have turned around and headed back to try again at a later time.  Their teammates at the airport would have been stuck there for awhile, but as travel in Iraq was chaotic at the best of times, this would not have been an uncommon occurrence.  The incoming personnel were perfectly safe at the airport until they were picked up, or they may have been able to hitch a ride into the Green Zone with another PSD team.

Their last option, and the one they chose, was to remain in place.  In fact, they remained static for so long that the driver of vehicle one, his “calf beginning to ache”, put the manual transmission vehicle in neutral and set the emergency break.  Anyone who has set in a traffic jam for an extended period depressing the clutch of a manual transmission can probably relate to the discomfort, and understand the idea of putting the car into neutral and moving the foot.  The trick is remembering that you have done so when it’s time to go.  The driver of vehicle one didn’t remember, and according to his AAR, he “...would end up regretting that decision.”   

As an experiment, the last time I drove across town, I put the car into park each time I came to a stop at a red light.  Out of the seven or eight lights that I had to wait at, I forgot that I had put the gear selector into park twice, remembering that I had done so only after pushing on the accelerator and hearing the engine rev.  

Even if the driver does remember that the transmission is not in gear, it still takes more time to depress the clutch, release the emergency break, shift into gear, and accelerate.  When your car is being destroyed around you by incoming automatic weapon fire, you don’t want to take any more time in your response than you absolutely have to.  The security driver has one overriding responsibility, the operation of the vehicle.  If the driver’s leg was cramping, shifting into neutral momentarily, lifting the foot off the clutch, shaking out the cramp, reapplying the clutch and immediately shifting the car back into drive, never letting the right hand off of the gear shift would be a better way to solve the problem.

At some point just before the ambush is initiated, the driver’s AAR states that the two men with him in vehicle one “..saw a large white SUV with black tinted windows rolling slowly down the frontage road [this frontage road was approximately 75-100 meters to their right] heading the same direction we were pointing.  They apparently drove a short distance and whipped into an intersection, did a u-turn, and stopped momentarily pointing their vehicle in our direction.” 

His AAR goes on to state that the rear gunner of his vehicle did not consider the SUV to be a threat, and apparently no one else in the motorcade did either because no mention of it is made over the radio.  This is fairly surprising to me, as an SUV traveling on its own on a side road just off the most dangerous strip of highway in the world should have set off alarm bells.

At that time, no one was driving SUVs in Iraq except PSD teams and certain military motorcades.  SUVs were extremely rare in the country before the invasion, so only a handful of Iraqis in the entire country owned them, and no Iraqi in their right mind would venture out too far from home in one for fear of being mistaken for a PSD vehicle and ambushed.  During the time I spent in Iraq, reports of SUVs stolen by insurgents and used in subsequent attacks were common.  In the summer of 2004, an entire shipment of SUVs being brought into the country was hijacked and disappeared.

No sane PSD would be driving around in a lone SUV either.  There is safety in numbers, and at a minimum there should have been at least three SUVs traveling together.  It is my belief that this SUV had been hidden somewhere close by.  Alerted to the presence of the motorcade, the insurgents quickly moved into position, triggered their ambush, and scurried back to their hiding spot before being mistaken for a PSD team and ambushed themselves.  

  April 20, 2005
Approximately 1210
Route Irish, Baghdad, Iraq

The driver of vehicle one states that when he heard the initial burst of gunfire, he believed it is was another of vehicle three’s warning bursts.  It was only when he felt rounds begin to impact his vehicle and heard them passing through the interior of the car did he realize they were under attack.

At that moment he tried to use the other big tactical advantage of low-profile motorcades, available speed.  He hit the accelerator, and the engine raced, but the car didn’t, because it was in neutral with the emergency break set.  Under the enormous stress of the attack,  he forgot that he himself had put the car in that condition, and believing that it had been disabled by gunfire, opened his door and bailed out.

 Using a whiteboard, dry-erase markers, and magnetic cars I do my best to explain the actions that took place next on our Assemble on Us YouTube program, so I will not give a detailed account here.  If you haven’t seen it yet, or would like to refresh your memory, you can check it out at:

From this point on there are numerous inconsistencies between the two existing AARs and the video footage.  So many in fact, that this case study would be twice as long if I tried to explain them all.   Instead I will focus on only a few of the more obvious inconsistencies and important lessons to be learned from the attack.  

The official AAR states that the insurgents were located in the SUV and that as many as two PKM belt-fed machine guns were used to strafe the motorcade.  It also states that at the moment of attack the motorcade was spread out over 300 meters and concluded that only a “very proficient enemy operator” could have achieved such accurate and devastating fire.  I spent over two years as a member of an Army Ranger machine gun team, first as an assistant gunner and then as a gunner.  I received the Army Achievement and Commendation Medals for my ability to perforate things at great distances with hundreds of rounds of 7.62, and there is no doubt in my mind that the gunner or gunners in this ambush were proficient.  In their initial volley, they hit all three vehicles, killed one driver almost instantly, and wounded three other men, two critically.    

PKM Belt-fed Machine Gun (Left)
There is also little doubt in my mind that a less proficient gunner would also have stood a fair chance of success, as the vehicles are bunched much more closely together than the official AAR indicates.  My best guess, based on the video footage, is that the three cars are no more than 20 or 30 meters apart from each other, giving them a much bigger target profile and making them easier to hit.

The key to firing a machine gun with that type of accuracy from the initial burst is the set-up of the weapon.  Firing a belt-fed machine gun is not the same as firing a rifle.  The machine gun is much heavier, longer, and more awkward to maneuver, especially within the confines of an SUV.  The gunner would want to be in the most stable firing platform possible, ideally laying prone behind the weapon with the bipod legs extended.  From this configuration, either a side door or the rear hatch of the SUV would need to be open so the gunner could fire the weapon.  At a minimum, the gunner would stick the weapon out a window and rest it on the door frame, using this as the pivot point to swivel the weapon side to side.  

However the insurgents deployed them, setting this up would have required some movement and activity on their part, which raises the question of why no one in the motorcade noticed this.  In his AAR, driver one discusses briefly the sectors of responsibility that each man in the motorcade is responsible for.  He finds fault with one contractor, the mission commander seated in the right front seat of vehicle three, for failing to watch his assigned sector and notice the threat.  

When traveling in a security motorcade, every member of the team has an assigned sector of responsibility.  The picture below shows a rough sketch of what the motorcade looked like when the ambush was initiated, and the sectors of responsibility that each man would have had at that time.  An important concept of sectors of responsibility is that they overlap, so that there are no gaps in coverage, or blind spots.  You can see that based on the positions of the vehicles, Right Front 1, Rear Gunner 1, Right Front 2, and Right Front 3 all had the SUV either directly in or right next to their sectors .  The diagram is not to scale, and I had to estimate the location of the SUV, but it is my professional opinion that the presence of an SUV deploying belt-fed machine guns no more than 100 meters to their direct right, across an open field, in daylight, should have been noticed.

Sectors of Responsibility while Static.

 The official AAR also states that when the firing started, the team attempted to drive out of the kill zone, but due to a combination of driver error (vehicle one) and mechanical failure (vehicles two and three), they were unable to do so.  While driver error was certainly the cause of vehicle one’s failure to move, mechanical failure doesn’t seem to be a factor in the cases of two and three.  

The viewer can clearly see vehicle two move on two separate occasions during the ambush.  It was badly damaged, and it was leaking fluids heavily, but it was still operable.  In his AAR, driver one reports that vehicles one and three were able to complete the drive to Camp Victory, while vehicle two, now completely drained of fluids, was unable to complete the trip and was abandoned on the side of the road. 

With his driver slumped lifeless behind the steering wheel, and rounds still impacting the vehicle, the mission commander dismounted vehicle three and took a position of cover behind it.  Another option available to him at that point would have been to take control of the vehicle from the passenger seat and attempt to drive it out of the kill zone.

It is important to note here that the driver of vehicle three, who was killed almost instantly, was still behind the wheel when the ambush was over and the team was consolidating its forces. Driver one states that when they moved the body, the driver’s foot was lifted from the break pedal and the vehicle began to move, nearly hitting the wounded contractor laying next to it.  The vehicle was in drive and capable of moving, only the pressure from the dead driver's foot kept it from doing so. 

Driving from the right front seat is a technique that must be trained on when operating in a motorcade.  If there is no center console between the passenger and driver, it is relatively simple to do.  The passenger simply slides towards the driver, knocks the driver’s hands and feet away from the controls, and uses his left foot to work the pedals.

If there is a center console, the passenger may still be able to straddle it like a saddle.  If not, the passenger may be able to reach over and work the pedals with the left hand while steering with the right.  I once had the honor of teaching an evasive driving course to a platoon of Force Recon Marines, and they showed me a neat trick they had developed to get around the huge center consoles of most military vehicles.  In their system, a passenger in the back seat of the vehicle used a prepositioned pole to work the pedals, while the front seat passenger steered.  There is always a way to perform this maneuver, but like anything else, it needs to be thought out ahead of time, practiced, and trained on so that under stress it can be performed smoothly and with little wasted effort.

There have been many criticisms and even charges of cowardice leveled against the driver of vehicle one for pulling back from his vehicle, crossing the road and taking up a position in the ditch.  Certainly he made a tactical error by putting the car in neutral, and then he compounded it by forgetting he had done so and bailing out of the car, but once the occupants were out, pulling back to a more defensible position makes sense tactically.

Stopped motorcade vehicles are commonly known as “bullet sponges” or “bullet magnets”.  The number one priority after exiting a vehicle under fire is normally to move away from that vehicle as quickly as the tactical situation allows, especially if it is a soft-skinned vehicle.  They don’t provide much in the way of cover, and the threat is fixated on the vehicle, so moving away from it makes good sense.

Vehicle Bail-out and Extraction Training
Al Mussayib, Iraq
September, 2004

The problem here though, was that driver of vehicle one is the only one who pulled back while the rest of the team remains behind the vehicles.  His AAR states that, “I felt Mark [rear gunner of vehicle one] coming out of the rear door so I began the next phase of our SOP which is getting away from the car...because people tend to shoot at cars and rifles easily penetrate them".  Again, here is where prior training, planning, and preparation pays off.  I don’t know how much time this team had together in training, but from my own experience I know that it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to become proficient at any immediate action drill.  Each man in the team must know the plan and be well rehearsed in it, so that they require minimal guidance and communication from the motorcade commander to execute it.

According to the reports, the motorcade commander was unable to provide this much needed guidance and instruction during the ambush as he was busy during much of the attack rendering aid to the two gravely wounded occupants of his vehicle.  Concern for the welfare of your friends and teammates is admirable, but the cold hard reality is that at this point in the fight, treatment of casualties should not be the priority of anyone on the team except the casualty himself, and especially not the team leader.

The Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) Basic Management Plan for Care Under Fire recommends the following steps for rendering medical aid while still actively engaged in the fight.
  1. Return fire and take cover.
  2. Direct or expect the casualty to remain engaged as a combatant if appropriate.
  3. Direct casualty to move to cover and apply self-aid if able.
  4. Try to keep the casualty from sustaining additional wounds.
  5. Airway management is generally best deferred until the Tactical Field Care phase.
  6. Stop any life-threatening external hemorrhage if tactically feasible (italics are mine).
Finally, in the lessons learned section of the ERSM AAR, the company notes, among other things, that if “...enemy forces initiate fire it is imperative that the team under fire first establish fire superiority prior to breaking contact.  You can not maneuver until you have established an aggressive base of fire.”  I want to point out that these statements are only true some of the time, based on the tactical situation.  At other times, like when you are behind the wheel of a high-powered German automobile with a virtually empty three lane highway directly in front of and behind your motorcade, establishing fire superiority by laying down an aggressive base of fire is not priority one.  A rapid and continuous application of gas and steering inputs should be priority one for the drivers, while the rest of the team attempts to cover the evacuation with return fire.
  After contact is broken and the insurgents have moved out of the area, the team begins its consolidation phase.  The AARs contain much more detail about their actions at this point, but basically they establish contact with the military and another PSD team that was driving by, and get their wounded, dead, and equipment into vehicles and move out to Camp Victory.  During his efforts to render aid to his wounded rear gunner, the motorcade commander knocks over the video camera, so all the viewer hears from that point on is audio.

Although it has slowed down over the years, there has been much debate and heated accusations about the actions taken by the team in the kill zone.  While certainly there were mistakes made, the survivors of the initial burst of insurgent fire were able to dismount their vehicles and return fire.  They suffered no more serious injuries after the initial burst, so credit should be given to them for that.  Once the ambush had been initiated, the situation would have been loud, chaotic, terrifying, and rapidly changing.  There is a tremendous amount of information to process in an extremely short period of time.  Proper training, rehearsals, and mindset are the keys to performing an immediate action drill under fire smoothly and deliberately.

Even if a team is well-prepared, rehearsed, and trains everyday, things can and will still go terribly wrong.  As the Prussian military strategist and German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke noted, “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”  Over the years, this quote has been condensed down to “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.  In other words, Murphy and his law will also be a large part of the fight.  SOPs and immediate action drills must be kept simple and easy to execute.  They must also provide for a high degree of flexibility and improvisation.

Finally, the best way by far to survive an ambush is to avoid it altogether.  If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, leave immediately.  If your sixth sense is tingling, listen to it.  If you choose to ride in a low-profile configuration, commit totally to the concept of camouflage and stick to it as long as you can.  If your camouflage fails and you are engaged, break contact immediately.  Keep the cars moving for as long as you can.  If you are forced to bail out, consolidate and move away from the cars as quickly as you can.  

We welcome any feedback or additional information you may have regarding not only this ambush, but any attacks, ambushes, or other tactics you may wish to discuss.  I can be reached at:

Good luck and stay safe.  Peace.


This case study is dedicated to the three men who died in the ambush. 

Steph Surette--Vehicle One Commander
Chris Ahmelmen--Vehicle Three Driver 
Jay Hunt--Vehicle Three Rear Gunner