Almost 15 years ago, at 10 a.m. Oct. 13, 2003, three Americans died and another was seriously hurt when an improvised explosive device buried in a street in the Gaza Strip exploded underneath their convoy. The victims, John Branchizio, Mark T. Parson and John Martin Linde Jr., were DynCorp International security contractors working for the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the agency for which I had spent years working. They had been tasked with protecting and transporting U.S. diplomats visiting the Palestinian-controlled territory to interview Palestinian applicants for Fulbright scholarships.
The Jerusalem Post, citing Israeli security officials, reported that the bomb that killed the men contained at least 150 pounds of explosive and was remotely detonated by a cell phone signal. The sophistication and placement of the device and detonation method pointed to a well-organized, professional group of terrorists with control of the turf and the ability to plan such an operation. The New York Times wrote: "From the wreckage, it appeared that the explosion had occurred directly beneath the driver's seat of the second of three American vehicles, ripping off the engine, as well as the front axle and wheels. The blast, which left a crater about 15 feet wide and 5 feet deep, threw the vehicle into the air and cast it to the ground upside down, in a tangle of crumpled steel. Debris, blood and human tissue were spread over a wide area, with the bodies of one of the Americans thrown nearly 40 feet away, according to witnesses at the scene."
Despite the extent of the carnage, to date, no one has been held responsible for the deaths.
All cold cases are solvable, even in such a difficult environment. But it takes persistence, fresh eyes and the willingness to keep an open mind.
As the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces a decade and a half later attest, the violence prevalent in Gaza then continues to plague it now. The region has a long history of terrorism with attacks staged by extremist groups. In my career as a DSS agent, some of the most interesting experiences I had were in helping protect diplomats engaged in the attempt to bring peace to the strife-torn region. As you might imagine, security concerns were numerous.
In the Gaza Strip, plots and twists are never simple. In the aftermath of the 2003 bombing, anywhere between three and seven members of the terrorist Palestinian Resistance Committee were jailed in connection with it. But after the jail was overrun by a Palestinian mob, they escaped. The situation serves as a perfect example of the frustrations that counterterrorism agents can face when trying to investigate attacks on Americans abroad. Without full cooperation from a host government and willing support from security services, the agents' options are limited. And in a place like Gaza, where outside investigators did not have free rein to work and whose forensics and investigation methods were woefully inadequate to the task, Investigating an act of terrorism can be impossible.
However, all cold cases are solvable, even in such a difficult environment. But it takes persistence, fresh eyes and the willingness to keep an open mind. At a working level, it becomes easier to give up. Obtaining fresh leads can be discouragingly difficult, especially to cold case investigators. But, time can become an ally in some cases. Old friendships end, and confederates may no longer be willing to protect each other. Money can buy information and people. In the Gaza terrorist attack, a substantial sum, $5 million, is being dangled. That's the amount of reward money offered through the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program for information that brings those responsible for the attack to justice. Whether it gets results is another story.
From all indications, beyond offering the reward money, however, I don’t believe any U.S. government agency is actively investigating this cold case. The families of the victims deserve justice.