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Opportune 'bear hug' foils alleged green on blue attack in Afghanistan

May. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A Afghan National Army (ANA) cadet stand
A Afghan National Army (ANA) cadet stands at attention during a 2011 graduation ceremony at the Ghazi Military Training Centre in Kabul. Marines at Forward Operating Base Nolay say a would-be green-on-blue attacker may have been thwarted recently when a fellow member of the Afghan National Army wrapped him in a bear hug.. (Roberto Schmidt / Getty Images)
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE NOLAY, AFGHANISTAN — A would-be green-on-blue attacker may have been thwarted when a fellow member of the Afghan National Army wrapped him in a bear hug, allowing other Afghan troops to disarm him, Marines with Security Force Adviser Assistance Team here say.

The incident came in April, as the SFAAT assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the ANA 215th Corps neared the end of what has been a quiet deployment.

At the time, a gunnery sergeant with the unit was teaching a class on low-level explosive ordnance disposal techniques to members of the 2nd Brigade’s elite route-clearing company, an exercise designed to make them more independent in their handling of threats from roadside bombs.

They worked on a range at the base of Heron Hill, within the Afghan portion of the forward operating base, separated from a unit armory by two berms. As the unit practiced setting up and detonating C4 charges, an ANA soldier who was not working with the Marines approached from beyond a berm and began talking with one of the students in the company.

The Marine team’s interpreter, Wahhab, explained to Marine Corps Times that the two men spoke the minority language of Pashto, and were bonding over what they had in common. The next day, when the unknown man returned, things quickly became sinister, said Cpl. Drake Nelsen, a security forces member with the team’s ground support unit, who served in the training as a guardian angel.

On the day of the incident, Nelsen said he saw the man approaching, his rifle held behind his back.

“I’m kind of observing everything as I’m supposed to,” Nelsen said. “And out of the blue, another classmate just wraps this guy up for no apparent reason.”

Confused, the Marines turned to Wahhab.

“Wahhab goes, ‘the dude with the gun was going to shoot you.’ And we almost didn’t believe it.”, Nelson explained that the soldier who had been bonding with the man over Pashtu spoke up then, “he said, ‘no, that’s what happened, he was going to shoot you.’”

As the Marines left the area, Nelsen said the members of the route-clearing company apprehended the would-be attacker and confiscated his M-16 rifle, finding a round in the chamber.

The Afghan troops took the man into custody, conducting a series of interviews as part of a criminal investigation before shipping him to Camp Shorabak, the Afghan base on the back of Camp Leatherneck, to be tried, said Col. Christopher Douglas, team leader for the SFAAT. Douglas said the man claimed he had just been coming to warn the soldiers to be careful while detonating explosives near the ammunition supply point. Douglas also confirmed Nelsen’s account, and said ANA officials concluded following their own investigation that the man should be prosecuted.

“The reality of it is, is who knows what the motivation of this guy was,” Douglas said. “The brigade staff was really shocked and just reaffirmed, ‘Hey, we are committed to you guys and your safety and security.’”

For Nelsen, the insider scare was something of a wake-up call.

“It scared us because we were, like, ‘Green-on-blue, we really didn’t know this stuff could happen to us,’” he said. “I mean, we knew it could happen, but we were, like, ‘Holy cow, it happened to us.’”

Even though Afghan soldiers outnumber Marines at least 10-to-1 in the region surrounding FOB Nolay, the SFAAT continues to send Marines out with a guardian angel, or bodyguard, to prevent against prospective insider attacks. This practice was begun in 2012 in the wake of a series of “green-on-blue” attacks in which Marines were killed by aggressors who gained access to secure locations as members of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Though the alleged threat came from a member of the ANA, Nelsen said the incident actually increased his faith in his Afghan counterparts.

“The guy literally put himself in harm’s way because we had such good rapport with those guys,” he said. “... It just shows that they’re more than capable and they like us enough to put their own necks out for us.”

Douglas said the Marines received a safety reminder following the incident, which he described as an anomaly because there had been no baseline changes in the behavior of the Afghan soldiers prior to the threatened attack. The commander of the 2nd Brigade, Brig. Gen. Faize Zemarai, also talked to his troops, Douglas said, stressing partnership and brotherhood with the Marines.

The alleged perpetrator, he said, remains at Camp Shorabak awaiting trial.

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