Taliban averts attacks with U.S. equipment available online
Some Taliban fighters have been able to ward off attacks by U.S. aircraft by wearing special infrared patches on their shirts that signal that they are friends rather than foes.
The patches, which can also help suicide bombers get close to U.S. targets, are supposed to be the property of the U.S. government alone, but can be easily purchased over the Internet for about $10 each. Also available online: night-vision goggles and militarygrade communications systems like the ones used by the terrorists who attacked the Indian city of Mumbai last year.
While stealing uniforms is as old as warfare itself, the Internet has made purchases of military equipment much easier and increased the risk to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the patches have been stolen during raids on U.S. resupply convoys in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they can also be purchased in the United States and sent overseas with little detection.
In a recent investigation, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) bought patches using fake names and a front company with only a valid credit card. The patches reveal an American flag when looked at with an infrared light and were designed to avoid friendly fire during nighttime battles.
Jonathan Meyer, assistant director of forensic audits and special investigations for the GAO, told The Washington Times, “Based on our conversations with the Department of Defense, terrorists have used U.S. uniforms and the infrared patches to get close to U.S. and allied forces on the battlefield and at bases. This is more of a potential suicidebomber risk.”
Mr. Meyer helped lead the GAO investigation, which con- cluded that few regulatory controls exist for dual-use and military technology sold domestically.
Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said the infrared patches are also made in China.
“It is rather simple technology,” he said. “We not only sell this to domestic people here, and they sell them to anybody, but you can get them from China, and the Chinese will sell them to others.
“They have been used by the enemy in the war. It’s of grave concern because you don’t know who is friendly or not,” Mr. Stupak added.
Newsweek magazine first reported in 2007 that 4,800 such patches had been sold inadvertently in 2006 to 23 U.S. and Canadian companies by an Arizonabased company, Government Liquidation. The patches were still sewn onto uniforms that were sent out.
The GAO was able to purchase the patches from a New York-based military-supply dealer, but did not identify the seller’s name.
“An enemy fighter wearing these [infrared] flags could potentially pass as a friendly service member during a night combat situation, putting U.S. troops at risk,” the June 4 report said. “Nevertheless, these items are completely legal to buy and sell within the United States.”
The report followed up on a 2008 GAO study that exposed the fact that military-surplus items, such as spare parts for fighter jets, could be purchased on eBay and Craigslist. That same year, an NBC team also was able to procure the infrared patches and have them sent to a mailing address in Amman, Jordan. Earlier, the Associated Press reported that F-14 spare parts had found their way to Iran from U.S. suppliers after the Pentagon sold the equipment to military wholesalers.
Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that deals with export controls, said that it may be time to treat the infrared patches as a munition that would need to be controlled through the Arms Export Control Act.
“If there is an item that has only a military use, like the patches, the fact that they are nonlethal doesn’t mean we should not treat them as munitions,” he said. “The term ‘munitions’ perhaps should apply to anything that does not have a legitimate civilian use.”
However, a retired four-star general, Jack Keane, said the risk had been overstated.
“Since the beginning of warfare, people have been dressing up as the enemy to infiltrate,” he said. “We certainly have done this in the past to our enemies, and our enemies have done this to us.”