Don Ayala — the U.S. Army contractor who pleaded guilty to a revenge killing in Afghanistan — won’t be going to prison. Instead, U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton sentenced Ayala, a member of the Army’s Human Terrain social science project, to five years probation and a $12,500 fine.
Ayala began working in Afghanistan in late September, as part of a Human Terrain Team, which embeds cultural advisers in combat units. Originally, the program was conceived as a way to find for commanders nonviolent options for stabilizing chaotic areas: Islamic radio broadcasts to mollify Afghan mullahs, shame tactics to nudge out corrupt Iraqi cops. “In a counterinsurgency, your level of success is inversely proportional to the amount of lethal force that you expend,” lead social scientist Montgomery McFate told Danger Room.
But in a war zone, violence is never far off. Human Terrain teams became involved in several lethal incidents. The latest occurred on November 4th when Ayala was on a foot patrol in the village of Chehel Gazni, with teammate Paula Loyd (pictured, right). Loyd, a social scientist, approached Abdul Salam, who was carrying a fuel jug. He said he had bought it, to fuel up his motorcycle. They started talking about the price of gas. Suddenly, the man doused Lloyd in a flammable liquid and set her on fire, court documents recount.
Engulfed in a ball of flame large enough to force those near her to involuntarily back away, Paula Loyd screamed in agony as the children that had surrounded her ran away. In the several seconds following the attack, no one could get near enough to Ms. Loyd to help her. Panicked, Ms. Loyd ran around briefly before those near her pulled her to the ground. One of the platoon medics tried to put the fire out with dirt, ultimately grabbing Ms. Loyd by her foot and dragging her into the nearby drainage ditch to douse the flames. By the time the fire was extinguished, all of Ms. Loyd’s clothing had been burned off and only her helmet and body armor remained. Medical personnel would later determine that Ms. Loyd suffered second and third- degree burns over more than 60% of her body.
Ayala chased Salam down, tackled him to the ground, and restrained him with plastic cuffs. ”After about 10 minutes,” according to an Army Criminal Investigation Division affidavit, “a soldier approached the location where Ayala had Salam detained and informed the personnel in the area that Loyd was burned badly. Ayala pushed his pistol against Salam’s head and shot Salam, killing him instantly.”
Ayala was taken into custody, and flown to the United States two-and-a-half weeks later. He was charged with murder — the first military contractor to be charged with such a crime under a 2000 law that allows the prosecution of U.S. government workers who commit crimes overseas.