Defence Industry

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

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.

Also read: Changing face of terror

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.

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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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