Technology brings development. However, every new technology comes with few drawbacks. At times the drawbacks of new technologies are so serious that they could change the strategic focus of the world. The best example in this regard could be nuclear technology. The ’splitting of the atom’ could be said to have shaped the geopolitics of the world in the post second world war era. There are some technologies which may not be categorized as a ‘fresh breakthrough’ but are essentially technologies which improve upon the existing technologies. Communication could be said to be one such field where over the years many technological developments have taken place. These developments have made communication faster, cheaper and more importantly, they have substantially improved the quality of communication multifold.
The revolution in communication technology could be said to have happened with the advent of the Internet and Mobile phones. Internet came into being during the 1960s and its evolution could be credited to the research agencies of the United States Department of Defence. The rapid growth of ‘mobile telephony’ could be said to have its origins both in the civilian and military fields. As it is well-known, the two-way radio system had its significance since beginning mainly for police/military purposes. It was also useful for other services like the railways. Private telecom giants like Motorola were involved into development of backpacked two way radio systems/walkie-talkies since the 1940s. Along with few other industrial houses, mainly compaines like Motorola could be credited for the development for what we call mobile telephone technology today. The telephones in the ‘mobile’ form could be said to have ‘arrived’ during the early 1970s.
26/11 could be said to be an act which was largely carried out by taking help from various modern gadgets like satellite phones, Blackberry phones, Garmin and Google Earth.
Over the last three to four decades the ‘mobile telephone’ technology has shown exponential growth. Today, this mode of communication has been used almost in every facet of life. It has significant amount of utility for the armed forces too. Moreover, this technology has become very handy for various non-state actors. In the recent past there are various incidents where few terrorist groups have used this technology to their advantage. This article attempts to analyze how terrorist groups are cleverly using modern means of communication to their advantage with major emphasis on mobile phones.
It is a known fact that technological progress cannot be stopped. Ultimately, it depends on the end-user that for what purpose he/she is going to use the technology. Historically, it has been seen that the terrorist organizations have used various forms of technologies to their advantage. However, terrorist groups have been intelligent enough to decide on which form of technology they want to use. It would be of interest to know that the normal perception that Osama bin Laden was using pigeons as a mode of communication in Afghanistan is untrue. In fact Osama bin laden in his sole post-September 11 TV interview to Al-Jazeera network (which was subsequently aired by CNN1) has claimed that the media is making various hilarious claims about the Al Qaeda’s communication network but his organization does depend on the internet, e-mails and telephones.
Usage of communication technologies by non-state actors depends on various issues from motivational levels to technical expertise available with the terror group. However, broadly it could be argued that most of the terror groups today depend significantly on commonly used communication tools. The Internet has been one of the most used technologies by the non-state actors. Various terrorist groups have found this technology of much use because of its various features. Apart from standard communication uses like e-mails, blogs etc. this technology has been most effectively used for the purposes of propaganda, misinformation and formulation of public opinion. It is also used to attract new cadres to join their organization. The Internet allows terrorists to look for procedures of making bombs, IED’s and to gather intelligence on their likely targets for attacks. It also allows them to collect information from open sources for their own planning, e.g. the pattern of deployment of the police forces in a specific area.
Mobile telephones have come as a blessing for various terrorist organizations. These phones do not possess the drawback which the land line phones had. They allow a huge amount of flexibility to individual terrorists or small terror groups to remain in touch with their parent organizations. These phones help the terrorists in many ways by being an useful tool from planning to execution stages. There are incidences when mobile phones have been used beyond its standard communication tool role as a triggering mechanism for munitions.
militants in Kashmir and in the Northeast parts of India are using communication gadgets with “˜burst modes.8 In a “˜burst system, voice-mail, and data of several minutes are compressed and transmitted in a single burst of a few seconds, making it extremely difficult to detect and decode these messages.
Apart from mobile phones there are few other means of communication which are being used by the terrorists. Satellite phones is one such technology. For the 26/11 (Mumbai terror attacks, 26 November 2008) the terrorists depended on this technology. A satellite phone uses a similar technology like a mobile phone. A mobile phone uses the cellular towers in order to connect calls by bouncing it from a cellular tower to the existing phone grid. While on the other hand a satellite phone uses the satellites in the orbits as their towers. These systems have few inherent advantages over other means of communication like range and quality of output.2
Internet Telephony or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is the other important means of communication which could be easily used by non-state actors. This technique uses a broadband internet connection for routing the telephone calls as opposed to the conventional switching and fiber optic alternatives. This process holds great promise in Providing higher efficiency and lower cost for communication consumers. The most common way VOIP works is that the end user establishes a hi-speed broadband connection, a router and a VOIP gateway. Instead of a standard telephone line, the router sends the telephone calls over an Internet connection. The biggest advantage of VOIP is that the customers can make calls from anywhere in the world where a broadband Internet connection is available.3 Modern day terrorists operate globally. Also in regard to few terrorist organizations they do receive covert support from a state. Naturally, to perform or plan an act of terror where people from different portions of the world are involved such equipments become useful.
Global Positioning System (GPS) is the most commonly known aid used for the purposes of identification of any location on the earth. Terrorist groups are seeking the help of this instrument for zeroing on their targets for quite some time. Three distinct parts make up the Global Positioning System. The first segment of the system consists of 24 satellites, orbiting 20,000 km above the Earth in 12-hour circular orbits. These satellites send radio signals to the Earth that contain information about the satellite. Using GPS ground-based receivers, these signals can be detected and used to determine the receivers’ positions (latitude, longitude, and height).4
Last few years terror events suggest that e-mails and mobile telephones are the most commonly used tools for communication by the terrorist groups. Particularly mobile telephones have greater utility towards execution of the task and are being most commonly used at tactical levels by the terrorists. With the increase in the number of service providers in the mobile telephony arena there are a variety of SIM card5 options available. Here the fundamental thing is that the subscriber is able to use the SIM card to access information related to contacts as well as information relating to the operating system of the SIM card provider. A SIM card is not necessarily fixed for a particular mobile phone. It can be detached and used on another phone if the operating system permits it to be done. This allows the owner switch between phones of their choice.6 This allows significant amount of flexibility for terrorist organizations to do their job without being traced back easily. Random switching from one network to the other makes it difficult for the security agencies to keep a tab.
Knowing the advantages these mobile phones offer to the terror groups, governments all over the world have started taking steps to control the spread of this technology. These steps are in the form of asking the proof of identity to the connection seeker, etc. However, this process of verification cannot be foolproof and it could be possible for an interested party to ‘manage’ a connection. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan says, “One can walk in, purchase it in cash, you don’t have to put down a credit card, buy any amount of minutes to it, and you don’t frankly know who bought this.”7 These phones are quite popular with the people who have bad credit records but on the other hand they are also quite popular with the terrorists as these prove to be impossible to be traced. They can be bought in bulk and discarded at the will of the user and with no trace. Prepaid phones are also quite popular with the terrorists.
There have also been allegations of jihadi terrorists and the Palestinian groups using teenagers as unconscious human bombs, detonated through mobile phones.”
Terrorist groups understand that usage of satellite phones/mobile phones do not offer them total assurance of safety and they are bound to leave behind a trail which may catch-up with them eventually. Hence, they are constantly updating their gadgets as per the market trends. They are normally found looking for the high-speed operation and low power consumption type of gadgets. They use those sets which havw ‘useful’ features for them. In the Indian context it has been observed that the militants in Kashmir and in the Northeast parts of India are using communication gadgets with ‘burst modes’.8 In a ‘burst system’, voice-mail, and data of several minutes are compressed and transmitted in a single burst of a few seconds, making it extremely difficult to detect and decode these messages.9
Services offered by mobile phones like the Short Messaging Service (SMS), helps terrorist groups to communicate not only amongst themselves but also with the media or government agencies. Particularly, in case of a transmission of a message by using an SMS it becomes difficult to trace the location. This allows the terrorist groups to interact with the state in real-time basis without disclosing its location (say in regard to an incidence of kidnapping or hijacking). Mobile phones and satellite phones can be tapped and voices recorded and identified, but SMS messages pose a greater difficulty because unlike e-mails or mobile and satellite phones they are untraceable, and leave no record.10
Security forces all over the world are trying to invent the ‘counter-mechanism’ against the usage of mobile phones for heinous acts. Terrorists are aware that usage of mobile phones also reveals the identity of the user. It is normally observed that after any terror attack the authorities normally jam the mobile network for various reasons. Also, local STD and ISD telephone networks are jammed to avoid inter and intra country communication. It is possible to overcome these limitations by using satellite phones and the 26/11 attackers had exactly done the same. The 26/11 incident could be said to be an act which was largely carried out by taking help from various modern gadgets like satellite phones, Blackberry phones, Garmin and Google Earth.11
The biggest advantage which the terrorists could get from mobile telephones, beyond using it as a mode of communication, is as an equipment to identify the position of the user. The US President Barack Obama had run a historic ‘need for change’ campaign by successfully using the internet, mobile phones and other such modes to get in contact with the voters. Subsequently, a debate started with security agencies taking objection for allowing him to keep his favorite gadget, the Blackberry12 mobile phone. However, the President has finally prevailed on them to keep his ‘mobile rights’ intact.
an estimated eight lakh cheap phones come into India every month from China without International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.21 Such phones have back channel linkages and hence a possibility exists that Chinese security establishments could be in a position to trace and monitor communication.
The security agencies are worried that the use of the Blackberry by him would allow hackers to hack his e-mail account and could provide a gateway to the President’s Information Technology setup. More importantly, the real threat is that this allows the potential attackers to identify his physical location. This is because each mobile phone has a unique serial number known as the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) or MEID (Mobile Equipment Identifier). This number is transmitted in clear text, whenever the phone communicates with a nearby cell tower. The contents of a phone call or an e-mail are usually encrypted. However, anyone with the right equipment can home in on a particular IMEI and identify the location of the source of that signal.13
Terrorist organizations have found mobile phones also very handy for using them as a triggering mechanism for detonating bombs. There have been incidents in many parts of globe where terrorist have used such techniques. The bombers who targeted commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004 used the built-in alarm clock in mobile phones to set off explosives. In Jerusalem, it is believed a call to a cell phone in a rucksack set off a bomb at Hebrew University in 2002, killing seven. One of the Bali bombs outside the Sari nightclub in October 2002 had a cell phone attached, as did a car bomb which killed 12 people at the Jakarta Marriott hotel in August 2003.14 It has been reported that inside the Mecca Mosque an explosion occurred at the time of the Friday prayers on May 18, 2007. This killed nine people. Here the terrorists had planted three IEDs, of which only one exploded causing the fatalities. Again the modus operandi was supposed to be the same.15
The procedure for carrying out such attacks is very simple and terrorist groups with some basic knowledge of technology can perform it easily. Here a wire within a phone is connected to the detonator in a bomb. When a call is placed to the phone, an electrical circuit is completed, providing power to the detonator and setting off the explosive. The use of mobile phones facilitates remote activation of the attached bombs. The actual bomber need not be present near the site of the bombing. Such acts could be carried out remotely from a different city or a country from an intended blast location.16 Such acts are normally carried out with a four member module. Mostly none of them know each other to maintain the utmost secrecy. One person makes the IEDs and hands them over to a carrier, who usually places it at the pre-decided location. The third person hangs around for an opportune time and intimates the fourth, who could be miles away from the blast site or even in a foreign country. He just makes a call to the mobile phone attached to the IED, setting it off.17
Mobile phones also enables the terrorists to use unconscious human carriers of Improvised Explosive Device (IEDs), which are activated through a mobile phone, thereby giving the impression of a conscious suicide attack. Interestingly, there are certain glorified tales of suicide missions which are being used by the terrorist organizations in their recruitment drive. However, in some occasions the reality is different. It had been reported in 2003 that one of the persons carrying a package in Casablanca at the instance of terrorists was not aware that it contained an IED, which was activated through a mobile phone by the terrorists as soon as the carrier reached the vicinity of the intended target. The Chechens were also reported to have used this method for blowing up two planes in the year 2004. There have also been allegations of jihadi terrorists and the Palestinian groups using teenagers as unconscious human bombs, detonated through mobile phones.”18
Apart from mobile phones terrorist groups are also looking at networking sites as a tool for their activities. Sites like Twitter, a free networking and micro blogging service, allows the members to keep in touch by using the web, their phone or IM (Instant Messaging). What is unique about this service is that the member can send messages near real time to Twitter cell phone groups and their network pages. They can also Mashup their messages with a variety of other tools like geo coordinates, Google maps or other electronic files. Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies. For example there are multiple pro and anti Hezbollah Tweets. It needs to be noted that Twitter has the biggest potential for quick information transmission. The July 29, 2008 Los Angeles earthquake was reported via twitter four minutes earlier than any new agency.19
The US Army intelligence agencies are of the opinion that Twitter might also be used by terrorists and insurgents for surveillance, command and control and targeting of the US forces. This social networking service is among a number of new communications technologies and is expected to be turned against the US troops. An open source intelligence team discovered Internet forums where terrorists log in to discuss ways the global positioning capabilities of cell phones can be used to pinpoint the US troop positions, and how cell phone cameras can be used for surveillance and directing attacks.20
The trends over the years in regard to the usage of mobile phones by the terrorist groups indicate that these equipments have become trustworthy tools for the terrorists. However, just because terrorists are using such tools does not allow the states to ban the usage of such gadgets or jam their frequencies arbitrarily.
The threat to the security of any state from mobile telephone services may not remain restricted in the realm of non-state threats. Recently, India has put restrictions on the import of Chinese mobile phones. As per the Directorate General of Foreign Trade an estimated eight lakh cheap phones come into India every month from China without International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.21 Such phones have back channel linkages and hence a possibility exists that Chinese security establishments could be in a position to trace and monitor communication. It is important for a state like India to remain aware of such a possibility.
On the whole it could be said that the modern day communication technologies have enhanced the way the terrorists function today. Improvements in communication technology and easy accessibility of satellite phones and mobile phones has definitely helped various terrorist groups to carry out their attack with enhanced accuracy and increased success rate. The mobile phones are also being used to detonate explosives. This gives a clear advantage to the terrorist groups over security forces. There have been cases of purchases of large quantity of disposable mobile sets in the West Asia. The trends over the years in regard to the usage of mobile phones by the terrorist groups indicate that these equipments have become trustworthy tools for the terrorists.
However, just because terrorists are using such tools does not allow the states to ban the usage of such gadgets or jam their frequencies arbitrarily. This is because technology has tremendous advantages for mankind including security forces. This leaves the only option for the security forces as to keep constant vigil on the incorrect uses of such technologies by terrorist groups and formulate a dynamic mechanism for countering this threat.
- http://edition.cnn.com/2002/US/01/31/gen. binladen.interview/index.html, (Accessed on Jun 12, 2009).
- J. Paventi, “How Does a Satellite Phone Work?”, http://www.ehow.com/how-does_4597515_ satellite-phone-work.html, (Accessed on March 25, 2009).
- “How Does a VoIP Work?”, http://www.tech-faq.com/how-does-voip-work.shtml (Accessed on March 25, 2009).
- “How Does GPS Work” at http://scign.jpl.nasa.gov /learn/gps2.htm, (Accessed on March 25, 2009).
- A SIM card is a short form of Subscriber Identity Module card. This is a flat programmed card which is fitted into a cell phone. It contains specific information of the customer of a particular provider. This will include personal as well as other information of that customer or subscriber.
- http://www.tech-faq.com/sim-card.shtml (Accessed on June 22, 2009).
- Untraceable Cell Phones May be Used by Terrorists By Ernest Leong Washington, DC 17 January 2006 at http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2006-01/2006-01-17-voa61.cfm?moddate =2006-01-17 (Accessed on May 10, 2009).
- Burst Mode-Here the device is permitted to perate at high (burst) speed. A number of data characters or words are transferred as one group rather than character by character.
- Shyam Tekwani, “The Low end of Hi-tech:New Media and Communication Technologies and Terrorism in Asia”, http://www.allacademic. com/meta/p113115_index.html, (Accessed on March 15, 2009).
- Shyam Tekwani, “The Low end of Hi-tech:New Media and Communication Technologies and Terrorism in Asia”, http://www.allacademic. com/meta/p113115_index.html, (Accessed on March 15, 2009).
- Sean Gorman, “Blaming Terrorism on Technology and Openness: The Case of Mumbai and Crowd Sourced Security”, Dec 2, 2008, blog.fortiusone. com/…/blaming-terrorism-on-technology-and-openness-the-case-of-mumbai-and-crowd-soruced-security/, (Accessed on January 12, 2009).
- A BlackBerry is a handheld wireless device which can read email and calendars from enterprise-class email systems and also function as mobile phone.
- Chris Soghoian, “Obama’s BlackBerry brings personal safety risks”, February 12, 2009, CNET News and Ellen Messmer “Securing the Presidential BlackBerry” Network World, January 18, 2009, http://www.pcworld.com/printable/article/id,157907.html, (Accessed on Mar 17, 2009).
- Mobiles used in high-tech terror By CNN’s Jim Boulden at http://edition.cnn.com/2004/TECH/04/04/mobile.terror/index.html.
- “Use of Mobile Phone in Hyderabad Blasts-International Terrorism Monitor” Paper No. 235 by B. Raman, 20.05.2007.
- “Terror’s Latest Trigger: Cellphones” http://www.eyebeam.org/reblog/archives/2004/03/terrors_latest_trigger_cellphone.html.
- “Jaish hand suspected in Hyderabad blast” by K. Srinivas Reddy at http://www.hindu.com/2007/05/19/stories/2007051916571800.htm.
- “Use of Mobile Phone in Hyderabad Blasts-International Terrorism Monitoe” Paper No. 235 by B. Raman at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/5Cpapers23%5Cpaper2250.html.
- Army: Social networking service Twitter may be tool for terrorists By William Matthews November 13, 2008 at http://www.federaltimes.com/index. php?S=3819492 (Accessed on May 28, 2009).
- Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Chip in cheap hinese phones a security hazard”, Mail Today, June 28, 2009.