STF Search Wing soars to success | Daily News


STF Search Wing soars to success

The STF’s bomb disposal robot
The STF’s bomb disposal robot

Today, we as a nation cherish peace. However, the price of freedom came after much sacrifice. One of the teams totally committed to safeguarding the citizens of Sri Lanka, was the men of the Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) of the Police Special Task Force (STF).

Since its inception three decades ago, the Search Wing has made stellar progress and operates presently under the wider spectrum of CTBD - Counter Terrorism and Bomb Disposal. It has brilliantly displayed its prowess in this field and its expertise has been appreciated by law enforcement agencies across the world.

Birth of the Search Wing

By 1984, police stations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces were coming under subversive attacks. When such acts were gradually increasing, the newly formed Special Task Force (STF) was deployed to vulnerable areas in both provinces; first in the Eastern theatre of combat. The STF began to engage in route clearing patrols in identified areas. On September 1, 1984, the enemy exploded their first landmine, taking their random attacks to a new level of threat.

STF Commandant Waruna Jayasundara

This presented a new challenge to the STF deployed in these areas. It was a factor that caused fear to civilians, who engaged in herding cattle and those who went into dense thickets to collect firewood. Plans were put in place to conduct systematic route clearance by advance STF teams, which was a daunting and dangerous process. The new threat had to be mitigated. It was a tactic that not only delayed route clearing, but the explosions indicated the advancing movement to the concealed enemy. Together with instructors of the British SAS (Special Air Service) and instructors from Israel, the STF had to streamline their search techniques, and augment their skills as they worked close to crowded villages right next to LTTE-dominated areas.

To get a better understanding of this dangerous era, I met up with Senior Superintendent of Police Athula Daulagala (Deputy Commandant) who is an expert in explosives engineering. He recalled the dedication of those pioneers in the STF who rose above challenges to establish the Bomb Disposal Unit. There was one major incident that was the turning point for the formation of the Bomb Disposal and Search Wing. In August 1987, an insurgent group orchestrated a daring grenade attack on the Parliament of Sri Lanka, while President J.R. Jayewardene was present. The explosion claimed the life of one parliamentarian. When Parliament convened a few days later, the first issue raised unanimously was the need for an organized police search wing that would ensure the safety of Parliament.

On motorcycle patrol

The new challenge fell directly on the Special Task Force who accepted it most willingly. The first detailed search of the Parliament premises was carried out by IP Patrick Edema (subsequently promoted as SSP) .To this day, the STF proudly continues their extensive search of Parliament. SSP Daulagala remembers a meeting decades ago chaired by ASP Nimal Lewke (later promoted DIG). He had highlighted the urgent need for a “hook and line” disarming set. ASP Lewke had directed Inspector Daulagala to make such a device using local material. The newly-produced device performed well to the satisfaction of everyone. Since that humble outcome, today, the CTBD teams use high-tech equipment on par with those found in Western nations.

Threat mitigation

When responding to an emergency, the Bomb Disposal Teams arrive in a truck. After assessing the area, the technicians begin their work in “buddy pairs.” The Incident Commander remains in the vehicle. An X-Ray device sends real time images to a laptop in the vehicle, and the technicians continue to give updates of their progress. At times, the team uses the Golden –X ray 2000, a mobile robot that can traverse any terrain.

Searching a vehicle

The present Commandant of the Special Task Force DIG Waruna Jayasundara has been associated in supervising the Search Wing when he was the Director of VIP Security. Incidentally, DIG Jayasundara is the youngest Commandant in the history of the STF and the first police officer to qualify in RMS (Radiological Material Security).

Search Wing teams have to secure large event venues visited by thousands of people for state events. When searching people, one has to have an ability to recognize faces of wanted criminals or suspected terrorists in a crowd (from file photos). The search covers vehicles and buildings. Various tactics are used by terrorists to create disturbances. In relation to explosives, in the past sometimes a secondary device (bomb) was kept to specifically injure or kill the first responders (police).

Evolution of explosives

The dangerous history of explosive powder dates back to ninth century, China. The first crude form of gunpowder was mixed with potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal (carbon). Nitroglycerin was made in 1847. During World War I, artillery shells carried TNT (trinitrotoluene) and RDX (Nitramide) was widely used in World War II.

The STF Training Academy at Katukurunda has a special classroom where recruits are taught to recognize explosives in various forms. There is an assortment of explosives – claymore mines, grenades and bombs concealed in various everyday items. An inspector explained the various methods of detonation. The policemen showed me a plastic bottle that was full of a substance that resembled normal milk powder. This is the most deadly bomb-making ingredient known as C4.

The C4 is soft to the touch and also waterproof. Just 10 grams of this substance when exploded can cause death and C4 due to its malleable texture can be molded into any shape. Low explosives burn rapidly (deflagrate) and high explosives detonate. Another form of explosive is Semtex, made in the Czech Republic. It is also malleable and comes in a mild orange colour.

Officers on assignment 

An improvised explosive device (IED) can be made in any design, colour and method of activation which only the person who built it knows. In the past few years, people inculcated with various doctrines of violent extremism around the world, have begun to make homemade explosives. When they are unable to get military grade raw material, they turn to commercial grade products such as water gel dynamite and urea nitrate. The bombs used in the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 come under the IED category.

Another threat in the global security landscape in recent years has been CBRNE, which denotes Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive. The Interpol operates a programme called ‘Watchmaker’, a global database that identifies and traces known or suspected bomb makers. This database also traces terrorist finances and combats chemical and explosives related terrorism. We can recall the incident in Malaysia where a VIP was killed by a choking agent in a stealthy manner in public.

Looking for hidden explosives  near a Government building 

The STF Search Wing has been duly updated and trained. Today officers use hand-held PRD (Personal Radiation Dosimeter) to identify any concealed radiation substance. The first radiological Central Monitoring Station (CMS) is being operated by the STF to monitor and maintain radiological safety.

The Search Wing crews also rely on specially trained German Shepherds, Labradors and Belgian Malinois dogs that have a high degree of scent to trace explosives and chemicals. The teams are also assisted by Post Blast Investigations (PBI) to assess and update on bomb techniques used by terrorists. It is these gallant men who facilitated the safety of VVIPs at events such as CHOGM (at the BMICH) and the Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka. The STF teams train regularly. The Search Wing of the Special Task Force has made a tremendous journey over three decades and plays a pivotal role in the safety and security of Sri Lanka.

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