Defence Industry

Communication Technologies and non-state Actors
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Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep2009 | Date : 12 Jan , 2011

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

Also read: Evolution of the Indian Submarine Arm

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

Also read: Anti-India mindset entrenchted in Pakistan

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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ajey Lele and Gunjan Singh

Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at IDSA and Gunjan Singh is a Researcher at the IDSA.

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