Bringing the Battlefield into the Courtroom

5 minutes read time

Bringing the Battlefield into the Courtroom

Sergeant First Class Randy Johnson, father of two boys, was on his third tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Sept. 27, 2007. He was 34 years old.

Almost eight years later, Anis Abid Sardar, who had been living in London working as a cab driver, was convicted of Johnson’s murder after a jury found him guilty of participating in the Iraqi insurgency as a member of a bomb-making cell. The British court sentenced Sardar to 38 years in prison in May 2015.

What happened in the time between the bomb going off and the killer going to prison was the subject of a Senior Leaders Seminar in Malta on battlefield evidence and prosecution hosted by the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ) in December 2019. Senior officials from 35 countries, as well as representatives from key multilateral institutions, gathered for frank discussions about the use of evidence gathered by military personnel following terrorist attacks in conflict zones in civilian criminal justice proceedings and other civilian counterterrorism missions.

“Sound counterterrorism strategy includes using all elements of national and international power to neutralize the threats posed to our people,” said Department of State Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism John Godfrey, who led the U.S. delegation to the seminar. “More and more terrorist suspects will be coming into our judicial systems. Improving how we equip those sectors of our governments with the proper tools to prepare for those encounters has been a major goal of this seminar.”

In the successful prosecution of Sardar, British prosecutors introduced components both from the bomb that killed Johnson and from closely related unexploded devices, which a U.S. military unit collected and sent to the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center for processing. Following Sardar’s return to the United Kingdom, British border agents took his fingerprints at Heathrow airport. They later matched fingerprints found on two of the bombs analyzed by the FBI.

Similar success stories were shared by presenters from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, North Macedonia, and other countries. They described how evidence ranging from ISIS membership forms, digital photographs to even an electronic letter collected at Usama bin Laden’s compound provided crucial assistance in securing guilty pleas and convictions. Participants also outlined many of the challenges they’ve faced in using battlefield evidence; difficulties in using military-collected evidence in Nigeria, for example, has resulted in the release of nearly 500 Boko Haram suspects. Robust discussions also touched on classification challenges and the need for training and capacity building in developing nations.

Beyond the use of battlefield evidence in civilian criminal proceedings, participants also explored ways in which such evidence – such as fingerprints and other biometrics – could be employed to strengthen border security and prevent terrorist travel.  

As an international leader in delivering training to criminal justice sector practitioners involved in counterterrorism cases, the IIJ is well positioned to play a key role in helping nations meet the challenges inherent in prosecuting terrorists for crimes they’ve committed in other countries. This Senior Leaders Seminar on battlefield evidence was a capstone event for the IIJ, rounding out a year of work focused on this issue, including a Global Workshop in January 2019 and a Judges Workshop in April 2019. These efforts will continue in 2020, with IIJ-led regional capacity-building workshops, including a West Africa Workshop in Abuja in February, co-hosted by the Government of Nigeria and in close coordination with the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. 

Notably, the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate chose the Senior Leaders Seminar as the forum in which to announce the release of its new guidelines on battlefield evidence. The guidelines are intended to help nations facilitate the use and admissibility as evidence in criminal courts of information collected by the military to prosecute terrorist offenses. The United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate guidelines complement the U.S. guiding principles, which outline best practices developed and endorsed by the U.S. government to help guide the international community’s efforts.

The seminar wrapped up with a guided discussion about next steps. Participants agreed that developing nations would benefit from establishing baseline structures, such as biometric databases, that would enable better information sharing within and amongst partner countries. They also emphasized the importance of a full spectrum approach to counterterrorism, to include community engagement and law enforcement training. Some of the representatives, however, called on more developed nations should, both individually and collectively, to think through the entire process chain when building out assistance. The point was made that understanding the realities on the ground, donors can avoid many of the pitfalls we have seen in the past, such as providing equipment that recipients lack the training to use, or don’t have the skills or resources to maintain.

As the friends and family of Sergeant First Class Johnson noted after Sardar was finally brought to justice, the conviction didn’t bring back a life, but it did help them recover. As nations continue to build capacity and share information leading to prosecutions, that sense of justice will help bring some measure of relief to victims of terror, and will serve notice to perpetrators that justice delayed is not justice denied. Deputy Coordinator John Godfrey closed the seminar by touching on that theme.

“If someone chooses to travel to join a terrorist group, and might harbor any hope, any inkling that he or she might be able to return to a normal life after coming home, improving our battlefield evidence capabilities will help to ensure that they will never be able to stop looking over their shoulder.”

About the Author: Vincent Picard is the senior public affairs officer for the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism.