In a military career that spanned almost two decades, Michael Smith worked in defense communications as a Russian linguist and was assigned to war-torn countries. He was in intelligence for several years, and after his active duty he joined the Army National Guard and was an Infantry Squad Leader for more than six years. While serving in the National Guard in 2004, he was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and spent countless hours on patrol in treacherous parts of the country where locals weren't always friendly, and hidden bombs were a constant threat.
Smith is currently Akamai's security evangelist and helps customers understand both the internal security program and Akamai's product-security features. He believes his time in Afghanistan served as great training for his current infosec career.
"There's lots of relation to risk management. It was about understanding the threat: What the threat is doing, how it's changing and how you need to change what you are doing based on that," Smith says.
Smith shares some of the details of his time in Afghanistan, where he woke up each day knowing that danger--and even death--could be waiting around any corner.
CSO: When you set out on patrol, what was the goal?
Michael Smith: It depends on what your area and mission is. You set up different goals for what you want to do.
I may want to go to a certain village where we promised the kids a soccer ball and take them a soccer ball. Then we might go to the next village and try and find a certain person whose name is on a list of potential members of the Taliban or similar Taliban-affiliated groups. We might go to a gap in the mountain where we know traffic is funneled through and set up a checkpoint to see if there are guns going through. We might do something with local police. We might bring school supplies to a local village. We might just do village assessments because it's a place we haven't been before. It runs the gamut.
How often were IEDs a concern?
All the time.
Let me preface by explaining that "IED" stands for "improvised explosive device." They exist because the locals won't shoot at us because we have pretty big guns. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and left in 1989. Since then, everyone has forgotten how to aim. Looking at it from a risk perspective for them, it's too high a risk to shoot at us because we have the better guns. If they decide we are going to shoot at each other, we are obviously going to win.
What they do instead is go out and build bombs in a place where they think you will come by. So the roads were always bad for us. They'd set them up in places where they would predict we would be, and then, when we come by, set them off.
What was it like for you each time you set out knowing that this danger was out there? What went through your head?
That's a strange one. I don't know how I personally felt about it at all. Usually I stifled any issues with that because I had a job to do. I focused on what are we trying to do, what's our plan, our mission. I had so many other things to worry about that that didn't come into my mind an awful lot.
It's a very interesting environment to be in, but if you start worrying about it too much, if you get too paranoid, that keeps you from doing your job.
Are the people who make IEDs usually Taliban-connected?
Not necessarily. There is a lot more to it. It could be people who don't like you for whatever reason. You have to accept that wherever you go, one-third of the population isn't going to like you because they are in power and they don't want that to change. There is kind of gray area between the Taliban and regular criminals. There are also more organized criminals that operate in groups and have someone who builds bombs, which was one skill set in such an organization.
What was your group's strategy for avoiding IEDs?
First and foremost is route planning. You don't take the same road in that you take out. If you go into a village and follow one road to get in and then drive out on the same road, that gives someone time to build something and blow you up. Also, being able to show up unannounced. We take creek bottoms, which is like a wash or a ravine. They make good roads because nothing grows in the center. So you can get in those things, drive up and pop up so people are surprised.
Were you involved in any close calls?
Not overly. I was pretty good at avoiding stuff through route planning. There were a few times when were driving literally out in the middle of nowhere and came up upon three rocks painted red put across the road. That's an obvious sign. I was thinking: Did they pay an amateur to put this up here?
But there were many others that were very hard to see. And there was one bridge we went over a lot because it was the only bridge over the ravine. About a week after I was there, we had some guys get blown up there.
It's a very dangerous place, but you know that going into it. It's one of the most heavily land-mined areas in the world. The Soviets left a lot of explosives and large weapons there. So you know pretty much everywhere you go, someone could have something that can blow you up.
This story, "What it's like to avoid Improvised Explosive Devices" was originally published by CSO.