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Investigation: MARSOC insider attack may have been motivated by Pashtunwali

Jun. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Enos and Copes
Enos and Copes ()
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A Defense Department investigation into a 2012 insider attack that killed a MARSOC Marine and corpsman in Farah province, Afghanistan, found the perpetrator was a newly minted Afghan policeman who may have felt slighted by American troops and estranged by his village.

Staff Sgt. Greg Copes and Navy HM1 Darrel Enos, of Marine Special Operations Team 8313, out of Camp Lejeune’s 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion, were killed Aug. 17, 2012, by a single gunman near the region of Ganjabad just days before they were due to return home.

According to the investigation, released to Marine Corps Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, the shooter, Mohammad Ismail, was an Afghan Local Police candidate who had enjoyed a good rapport with Marines in the unit prior to the attack. The probe found no conclusive Taliban connection, but showed evidence that suggested Ismail may have acted to avenge a perceived insult in accordance with the tribal ethical code of Pashtunwali. Officials also found that religious devotion may have played a role in the murders, which occurred at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

According to the 26-page investigation, Ismail, a 59-year-old Ganjabad village elder, was known among Marines as an outspoken supporter of the Afghan Local Police and made a point of shaking their hands and bowing to them every day, when the Marines would not.

The morning of the attack, a full third of the Ganjabad police were absent from training. Copes asked where they were, Ismail replied that they were at a funeral.

“This is the second or third day that they are at a funeral,” Copes said, according to the documents, adding that Ismail was responsible for the men and needed to get them to training.

Ismail then turned away, beginning a conversation with someone else. Shortly after, he locked and loaded his AK-47 using armor-piercing rounds, careful to conceal what he was doing. As he was bearing down with the gun, Copes saw him coming, and drew his knife. Ismail shot him several times and continued firing, hitting Enos. He was finally stopped by a local Afghan interpreter, who grabbed the AK-47 by the barrel and began to punch the attacker with his fist. The whole shooting episode lasted about five seconds.

Another unidentified Marine gunnery sergeant charged forward through the chaos, shooting and killing Ismail at close range. Another Afghan National Police officer who appeared to be reaching to load his own weapon was also shot and killed.

Copes and Enos were pronounced killed in action on the scene within minutes of each other.

In the wake of the shooting, officials discovered that, days before the murders, Ismail had been seen weeping after Ganjabad elders mocked him for taking a position with the ALP. He had also experienced recent family tragedy: His son-in-law had disappeared, and his daughter had chosen to burn herself to death. Because Ismail used steel-core rounds, which are not issued by the U.S. military, investigators found he may have been planning an attack for days, possibly intending to coordinate with the holiest day of Ramadan, when Muslims believe the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed.

The perceived insult of being publicly reprimanded may have triggered his violence.

“According to Pashtunwali, he had the inherent right to regain his honor, even if killing is involved,” the investigators wrote.

The tragedy took place despite the team’s state of heightened alert following several deadly insider attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan that had taken place just days before.

Andrea Enos, wife of Darrel Enos, said her husband had sensed the rising danger.

“Less than 24 hours before the attack, I had spoken with Darrel. He had told me, ‘the attacks are getting worse and I don’t trust any of them anymore. I’m just wondering which of these f*****s are going to take a shot at one of us next,’ ” she told Marine Corps Times.

Enos said her husband was a great man who will always be missed and loved.

Tia Copes, Staff Sgt Copes’ widow, said she and her four children had been looking forward to seeing him just 17 days from when the attack took place.

“It was shocking, as [the Afghan Local Police] were training, to just turn on them like that,” she said. “[Copes] put everyone before himself. He was just always looking out for everybody.”

August 2012 marked a tragic peak for green-on-blue attacks within Marine units. In two separate incidents Aug. 10, six other Marines were killed in insider attacks: Capt. Matthew Manoukian, Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Jeschke and Staff Sgt. Sky Mote of 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion in Sangin district, Helmand province; and Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, Cpl. Richard Rivera and Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley, of Headquarters Co., 3rd Marines, in Garmsir district in Helmand.

Following these attacks and others like them, Marine officials said they increased Afghan cultural training for commanders to help them better understand cultural sensitivities and other issues that might trigger violent behavior. Col. Chris Dowling, commander of the team currently advising the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, told Marine Corps Times in an interview last month that he sometimes canceled training and other joint events when “atmospherics” didn’t feel right.

“Your head’s on a swivel,” he said.

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