Dr. Despina Moissidou 
(Former Crime Scene Investigator, Greater Manchester Police- UK)

Copyright: www.rieas.gr

After the event of 9/11, world entered a new era of socio-political changes based on a relatively “modern” phenomenon: Terrorism. Since then, a lot of people have given various definitions of what is terrorism: a terrorist as a freedom fighter (Mylonaki 2002), or a weaker opponent using unconventional tactics against a stronger, more conventional foe (Teo Li-Wei 2002).

Whatever the definition is, the basic component of terrorist actions is to intimidate or coerce a civilian population by producing fear. In addition, a number of questions are raised around that phenomenon: is it the scale of the damage caused by a terrorist act, the victims or the political motives behind it?

Immediately after a terrorist act, the focus is on the victims, if there are any, and the damage. The fire at the terrorist scene is put out, first aid is given to wounded people, transport to the hospitals is organised, etc. These things always happen first. However, questions such as: “who is responsible” and “how can we identify the terrorists?” show the same pattern. This is the stage at which the role of crime scene investigator and forensic science becomes involved.

Experience with terrorism varies around the world. For instance, countries such as USA enforcement organisations and forensic laboratories have developed specific expertise with this type of work, while others can learn whether or not have been involved occasionally in similar cases.

Forensic science has many different kinds of expertise most of which can be applied to the investigation of terrorist offences. For that reason, specialist skills in CSI may be required to examine the scenes of terrorist offences. It is important to consider what special expertise a forensic institute needs in order to be effective in supporting police forces or specialised units in combating Terrorism. There is a constant development in crime scene investigation for working with the police or specialised anti-terrorist units which allow the collection and analysis of materials by the full range of forensic techniques. In addition institutes may have a role in the  identification of victims or even suspects from bodies or body parts by DNA techniques.

Like a traditional scene of crime, it is important that the forensic investigations start at the terrorist scene as soon as possible before traces and other physical evidence have been contaminated, destroyed or lost. That approach is widely accepted for non-terrorist crime scenes but may not apply automatically for terrorist scenes of crime due to the disorder, panic, lack of experience and the need to help the victims. The CSI, as in every scene, should attend as soon as possible. By keeping constant contact with high and low rank police officers and intelligence officers, he/she must ensure that no one else enters the scene prior to attendance, and the scene is cordoned off.

However, as mentioned above, if there are victims, priority is given to the rescue of these people, interference of any rescue teams and paramedics by entering the scene is unavoidable. Unfortunately, such a thing can result in the contamination of the scene and other degradation of evidence. A CSI should be aware of such actions as well as should gather as much information as possible about the incident. Additional information may be gained from the officers who have attended the scene, and if good evidence is found, further enquiries should be considered. Also, forensic laboratories should consider developing contingency plans in anticipation of such events or seeking cooperation with other institutes. A terrorist act normally follows months or even years of preparation by the terrorists.

Intelligence Services try to identify such preparations in order to prevent attacks and to identify potential terrorists. Forensic science techniques and skills have the potential to contribute significantly to this work so the involvement of the laboratory, in cooperation with CSIs, must be considered at this stage.

Once at the scene, the CSI can gather further information from other parties, such as witnesses and victims of the terrorist actions, which will lead to further understanding of events. Gathering this information will allow the CSI to build up an accurate picture of what has happened and guide them towards the potential evidence.

After initial observations, a more detailed visual search must be made. Even though in crime scene examination a specific pattern is followed (photography, forensic recovery, fingerprints), other factors may slightly alter that pattern. For instance, terrorism crime scenes, which almost always happen in public places, a CSI must know that visual examination will help to determine which areas of the crime scene require immediate attention and examination, due to the contamination/degradation level.

More precisely, a public place, i.e. a main road, can be cordoned off for a limited time, due to access purposes, while the exposure to weather conditions, i.e. rain, result in rapid loss of evidence, such as DNA. If a CSI is concerned that evidence may be lost, then priority should be given over other evidence that is more stable. The evidence should be photographed, when possible, and recovered straight away. A marker is left at its place to indicate its original position. 

Keeping constant communication with the officers in case, a CSI could give useful advice about which areas are of interest. Usually in major crimes, including terrorism ones, two cordons are used: one (external) surrounds a vast area around the crime scene, and the other (internal) covers the main crime scene.

A CSI should try to reconstruct events in their mind, and by retracing the steps of the offender, they should find potential evidence. However, keeping an open mind and broadening the areas of search will maximize positive results. In addition, asking for a trace team, by trained officers, might bring productive results, especially if the external cordon area is vast. 

Search should be done in a methodological manner, various angles should be used in order not to miss vital evidence. At the same time, a csi should keep written notes, followed by sketches, where necessary. In this way, the scene can be fully assessed and notes become the basis of an action plan, while it will ensure that an appropriate sequence of forensic recovery will be followed and loss of fragile evidence will be minimised.

Once the scene has been visually examined and assessed, photography and drawing of the crime scene take place. First thing is to record the scene as it was found as well as evidence prior and after their recovery. Long, mid and variety of closer views is the correct sequence in photographing a crime scene. Any evidence should be photographed in detail, which can also justify further actions that may be taken. Photographs should also continue to be taken if the investigator is revealing layers of evidence which were not previously documented because they were hidden from sight (Centrex 2005).

Especially in terrorist actions, photographing people around the crime scene might be useful, as there is a possibility that the criminal is back to the scene watching the investigations that are taking place. Forensic recovery is the next step, and again a methodology is necessary. Fully protective clothing (suit, gloves and mask) should be worn at all times, when a CSI is at the scene. This prevents contamination by the csi or an officer, if another person has to enter the scene – always under the direction and scientific support of the CSI.

When recovery starts, each item should be recovered, packaged and recorded separately at the scene and given a unique reference number. Proper packaging and sealing of evidence are essential to avoid degradation and contamination. Under no circumstances items found at the crime scene, such as firearms and explosives, should be handled by other officers, especially when they do not wear fully protective equipment. Moreover, each package should contain a label with the full description of the item, while the same description should be included in the CSI notes for continuity and integrity purposes.

Measurements of the exact location of the items, always when possible, are necessary. In anti-terrorism investigation, the latter might give information about the type of explosive/weapon used, where it was fired from (if it was not planted at the crime scene), as well as if the act was intended to cause extreme damage or not, and so on. The more detailed examination and recording of the scene by the CSI, the better results the investigation can reveal. 

In a variety of scenes, bodily secretions and parts of human tissue, such as hair or nails, can be left in many items and places. They can be found in discarded cigarette ends, drink cans/bottles as well as minute traces of blood. All of these, even in the absence of suspect, have the potential to give a valid DNA result. In addition, some times DNA can be obtained from items that have been subject to fingerprint examination, i.e. firearms, explosives. The latter has significant investigative benefits, especially in serious crime, such as terrorist actions.

However, in order to recover both DNA and fingerprints attention should be given by all specialists who deal with handling of evidence. The role of CSI is paramount, because right handling and recovery of evidence can lead to the arrest of criminals. Forensic recovery could also be anything else present at the crime scene that could be used as potential evidence. This includes possible fibres, glass fragments, paint, fracture marks, shoe prints and tyre marks. All these can help to determine if an arrested person is a suspect or not.

Health and Safety is of paramount importance throughout all these investigations. If there is a bomb/explosive devise involved, a number of checks should be carried out by trained teams and when the risk assessment is done and the crime scene is safe, then the CSI can start the examination.

Evaluation of the crime scene is required in order to design an operation plan. Apart from the cordon which protects the scene from outsiders, a risk assessment takes place for a proper scene management. There should always be a decontamination area in the crime scene, where all evidence could be packaged and sealed and CSIs complete their forensic recovery work.

This area initiation prevents contamination of evidence and degradation of the crime scene. It should be mentioned here though that “personnel operating in or around contaminated environments must be aware of the various ways in which hazards may enter and harm the body” (National Research Council).

However, the presence of CSI (by following the rules of Health and Safety always) at the same time can be crucial, in order to give scientific support to that team, to avoid possible contamination. DNA and fingerprint examination of a firearm should be considered thus appropriate recovery and packaging are essential. Various firearm compartments, such as cartridges, should be packaged separately, and under no circumstances, a firearm should be handled by other people, especially without protective clothing, and placed in plastic bags. A firearm tied in a box is the best recovery option, and in major crimes like terrorist actions, it should be transported as soon as possible in the crime laboratory for examination. Also, if more than one firearms or explosives are found they should be packaged separately (Centrex 2005).

Ammunition or explosive parts found at the scene can provide information as to the type and make of the firearm, place of origin, and should always be sent for examination. Packaging in polythene and placing in rigid containers prevent damage, friction or crushing by movement during transit. A CSI should always bear in mind the significance of information that can be derived from firearms/explosives and should handle them as less as possible; discharge residue samples should be obtained from the scene and sent to the laboratory. If there is a suspect arrested, samples taken from his hands, face, clothing etc., can be compared to the residue samples taken from the scene.

Last but not least, photographs should be taken, showing both the type of firearm/explosive and the place where it was found. This could add information about the plan and the organisational skills of the suspects. Intelligence in major crime investigations is essential, so it may be necessary to urgently submit to the laboratory recovered items found at the crime scene to maximise potential evidence recovery.

The last part of the forensic examination of the crime scene is the fingerprint examination. A methodological approach should be maintained, and various methods can be applied depending on the position and the type of fingerprint. In terrorist actions, fingerprint search is more complicated because such crimes take place mostly in public places. That means that not only the amount of fingerprint marks can be quite big, but it can also result in a complicated elimination process.

Such a complication was caused when the investigation for the train bombing at Madrid took place. Due to a misinterpretation of a fingerprint expert and the lack of proper communication between the FBI and the Spanish enforcement agency, a fingerprint mark was individualised erroneously. The error was corrected, but also raised concerns which can teach investigators and experts about proper investigations in national and international crimes. Some of the concerns were the appropriateness of the process and procedures used, and where and how the examination faltered (Stacey 2005).

The above presented the need to establish a written policy that clearly defines the protocols to follow when dealing with international agencies. Included in this policy should be language that dictates the reporting of results through proper channels (administration) and states specifically who is to be notified when dealing with terrorist cases (Stacey 2005). That applies to CSIs as well, because countries follow different crime scene examination methods.

Generally, when fingerprint marks are found, they should be either photographed or lifted (depending on the technique used) and then recorded. Even marks with limited rigid detail should be taken under consideration as they can still provide information about a possible offender.  Moreover, glove marks can be potential evidence and should be recovered as well.

Consideration of revisiting the crime scene should be given when it gets dark to ensure that nothing is missed. When the CSI ends the examination, the scene should be cleaned appropriately, in order to make sure that no marks are found if the scene is attacked again. Leaving things behind can mislead the investigation, and show lack of professionalism. In major crimes, such as terrorist cases, it can take many days before an examination comes to an end and the crime scene cleared.

A CSI must ensure that during these days the scene is closed properly and no one trespasses the cordon. The scene must be guarded at all times till the CSI –always after communication with the investigative officers- is certain that the scene can be open to other officers or the public again.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that each crime scene is different and sometimes adjustments should be made in order to achieve a proper examination. The CSI is called to use an open mind and many times improvise. However, that should always be within the procedural and ethical limits that are imposed by the various laws and enforcement agencies.

The role of CSI is crucial in anti-terrorism investigations, because is the one responsible for the examination of the crime scene and the collection of evidence. It is considered essential component of the enforcement team and the greatest part of the investigation depends on his/her work. Many times that work is difficult to perform due to external factors, such as weather or environmental conditions. However, terrorist acts follow a long time of preparation, so intelligence services and enforcement agencies have to identify such preparations to prevent further attacks and arrest potential terrorists. At this stage, CSIs, and forensic science, contribute significantly to minimize future terrorist disasters.


1) Centrex (National Training Centre), 2005, “Initial course in crime scene investigation” UK.
2) Mylonaki E. (2002), “The manipulation of organised crime by terrorists: legal and factual perspectives”, International Criminal Law Review Vol. 2.
3) National Research Council, Committee on Hazardous Substances in the Laboratory, (1981), “Prudent Practices for Handling Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories.” National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
4) Stacey R. (2005), “Report on the erroneous fingerprint individualisation in the Madrid train bombing case.” Forensic Science Communications. Vol.7.
Teo Li-Wei, F (2002), “Rethinking western vulnerabilities to asymmetric warfare”, Journal of Singapore Armed Forces. Vol. 28.

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