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. 


  1. First, Thank you for your service.
    Second, I hope I never have to experience this sort of unrest.
    Thirdly, I am thankful for the info because the current state of the country could lead us down that road.

    1. You're most welcome. I hope the situation here never becomes as bad as many other places in the world that I have seen, but if it does, hopefully the information here and on our Facebook page and YouTube channels will come in handy. Stay safe and keep training.

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