The recent raid of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s compound in Syria by members of the United States Special Operations Command was highlighted by the military, which stated that they had taken “information and material from the compound that will be exploited moving forward.”

With terrorist organizations operating out of cells and using coded communications, any information on target-sites obtained through Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) is of paramount importance for follow-on operations.

According to the Army Manual FM 3-90.15: “Site exploitation is systematically searching for and collecting information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution.”

SSE was highlighted also during the Osama bin Laden raid several years ago as Special Operations troops reported that the compound was a “treasure trove” of information. In the film made about the raid, “Zero Dark Thirty,” the troops are seen gathering as much of the information as they could in the short time window that was allocated to them.

Another screen depiction of U.S. personnel going through SSE is seen in the Amazon series “Jack Ryan” where CIA Special Activities Division operatives discuss their plan to gather intelligence from the compound of a terrorist leader.

In the case of these Special Operations raids, where the troops go after a high-value terrorist target, the operators on the target site will seize documents and devices and gather as much intelligence as possible. This is known as Document and Media Exploitation (DOMEX).

The operators also carry specially designed exploitation kits that can: 

  • Capture biometric data (retina scan, facial features, DNA, fingerprints)
  • Collect and analyze personal documents (DOCEX)
  • Exploit electronic media (MEDEX)
  • Collect and analyze communications and cell phone data (CELLEX)

These kits take into account the operator’s limited time on the objective. They have therefore been designed so that an average operator, who is proficient in mobile electronics, can use them after just a one eight-hour training session. They must also be rugged enough to withstand the rigors of a military raid and all that this entails when working within the Special Operations community.

The kits are also compatible with the operating systems that intelligence units are using for their databases (Windows 10/Linux).

The Special Operations Command runs several SSE courses for both operators and enablers (support personnel): the SOF Site Exploitation; Technical Exploitation Course; SOF Site Exploitation Operator Advanced Course; and finally the technical exploitation course at the Special Warfare School (SWC) at Ft. Bragg, NC that trains subject matter experts on the planning and preparation of sensitive site exploitation. 

In these courses the operators learn advanced battlefield forensics: on-site presumptive identification of trace and residue; detection, capture, and transfer of latent prints without dusting; imaging, storing, and exploiting large volumes of digital media; employment of ballistic imaging devices; employment of hidden chamber and false wall locating tools; and advanced cell phone exploitation.

During the most recent 2019 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), SOCOM’s SSE Program Manager Glen Cullen said in an interview that the command is trying to simplify the SSE process and remove excess equipment that the operators need to carry on a mission. In accomplishing this SOCOM is trying to have everything run off of a cellphone by creating a cellphone app. The goal is to make something that will be cheaper, even easier for the operator to use, and weigh less.

As counter-terrorism operations evolve, the U.S. and its allies are placing a much higher value on SSE. This will enable the operator and headquarters to better understand the threat and improve the targeting of subsequent targets.