Counter-Terrorism: Cursed Communications


April 9, 2007: Osama bin Laden, and other senior al Qaeda leaders miss their cell phones and email. Over the last six years, as more terrorist leaders have been caught or killed, the word has gotten out that Western intelligence agencies capture much, if not all, use of these devices by terrorists. Since Islamic terrorists tend to have vivid imaginations, they assume Western technical capabilities to be far greater than they actually are. Or do they?

The cell phones and Internet have been a major boost for Islamic terrorists, but not all of them. For lower ranking terrorists, the ability to easily communicate with like-minded people is a boon to recruiting, fund raising, planning and morale in general. However, the higher you get up the food chain, the more likely that use of these electronic devices will get you noticed by the police. This makes it clear that the police do not have unlimited capabilities in this area. Naturally, the intelligence people stay quiet about exactly what they can do. But from what is known, terrorists using cell phones and the Internet tend to get noticed.

The fact that the top people have given up use of the Internet and cell phones, has not made much of an impression on those lower down in the terrorist pecking order. These lower ranking guys are younger, less wiser, and more inclined to believe they can outsmart the lawmen. There are plenty of ways to mess with people trying to tap into your Internet use. Email can be encrypted, or you can save drafts of email, without sending them, with your recipient having access to your email account (and thus being able to call up drafts.) VOIP phone calls over the Internet, like Skype, are encrypted. However, all those precautions can be overcome by the intel people. Some of these obstacles slow down the cops, but as many imprisoned terrorists have to come to discover, the Internet is a vulnerable communications channel if someone is really out to get you.

Terrorists have improvised in several ways, like inventing their own code words for things while chatting on cell phones or email. But that still makes it possible to know where they are. In combat, terrorists often don't care if the enemy knows their general location. Thus terrorists in Iraq use off-the-shelf walkie-talkies (especially the Motorola ones) for battlefield communication, sometimes with code words, sometimes not. In a fast moving gun battle, staying in touch with your buddies is important.

Overall, modern communications tools have been a curse for the terrorists. While the Internet does help with recruiting, it also delivers terrorist identities or locations to the police early on. Sure, that has sometimes paid off because, with so many new recruits, the police have sometimes lost track of which newbies develop into really lethal terrorists. There's a growing trend for potential recruits to back away from active participation in terrorism when they realize how vulnerable they are. The less thoughtful recruits are not discouraged, and that accounts for so many of the terrorists being dummies and boneheads.




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