Counter-Terrorism: Rocks Of Doom

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April 2, 2021: In western Iraq (Anbar province), the Syrian border has turned into another contested area where high-tech sensors are very useful in detecting hostile border crossers. American and Iraqi forces cooperate to monitor the border and in late 2020 the Americans suggested using hidden night-vision digital cameras that covertly detect anyone crossing at night, and can either store images on an SD card or transmit the data to a UAV high overhead which can then use its more powerful sensors to track the border crossers to their destination. The success of this technique led the Iraqis asking to expand the use of this tech as well as help in replacing cameras discovered and removed or destroyed by smugglers, Islamic terrorists or even civilians looking to make some money.

These devices have long been available as commercial products for people living in rural areas curious about what kind of wildlife is near them. Researchers also use the cameras to detect or simply count specific species in the wild. The more expensive commercial wildlife cameras have wireless communications, but most simply save any photos or video the camera took to a memory chip after the motion detector was triggered.

Such wildlife cameras are a stealthy monitoring concept first developed by the United States during the Vietnam War to monitor audio in jungle areas. These devices were disguised as bamboo plants and delivered and monitored by aircraft. A version of this tech is currently used most frequently by Israel to monitor its borders, especially the other side of its borders. Israel has adapted the appearance of these sensors to match the terrain where they are placed.

Since 2015 more of these intelligence collecting sensors were being found in Lebanon, often disguised as rocks or rubble. This was because, since 2013 as Hezbollah gunmen were sent into Syria, the Syrian rebels responded by operating aggressively on the Lebanese border. This led to a lot more activity on Lebanese borders with Syria and Israel. More spy gadgets were then used to monitor all this potentially hostile, to Israel, activity. The Lebanese, Syrians and Iranians often publicized these devices as examples of sneaky Israeli behavior. There was a touch of envy in these protests, as admissions that the Israelis had developed some very impressive surveillance devices. Scarier still is the unpublicized fact that some of them were obviously over a decade old and only worked for a few months until their batteries ran out. Such devices are easy to identify as Israeli because they often have Hebrew text on internal components and are obviously designed for covert surveillance.

The devices are often used elsewhere. In 2012 Iran reported that security troops outside a new underground nuclear enrichment plant went to investigate a suspicious looking rock and the rock exploded. Later investigation revealed that the rock was indeed an electronic device that was monitoring activity around a nuclear weapons facility that enriched uranium sufficiently for use in a bomb. The devise transmitted data, via satellite, back to somewhere. The rock was also rigged to self-destruct if anyone got too close.

Initially Iran thought the fake rock was American because the U.S. has been using the fake rock thing for decades. But another potential culprit was Israel which was also known to use this sort of thing quite a lot in Lebanon. As for the exploding rocks, details on stuff like that are rarely released and then usually after the item in question is retired. Some equipment of this sort does receive some publicity. Such was the case in 2005 with WolfPack. This is a 2.73 kg (six pound) sensor/jammer that is dropped into enemy territory to get information and, if needed, jam enemy communications, including cell phones. These were painted camouflage colors but it would be no problem to enclose the device in a container that looked like a rock or whatever object that would provide concealment.

Israel eventually realized how important it was to destroy these devices if they were found. This was realized in late 2009 when some Lebanese found a new and valuable Israeli electronic sensor on their side of the border. The Israelis soon became aware of this, and destroyed the device from the air with a missile, or internal explosives. There were conflicting reports. But Hezbollah fighters showed up shortly after the explosion, and searched the area for other devices. They found at least one and blew it up. That indicated the new devices were equipped with a self-destruct device that may also send a “have been discovered” signal to the Israelis before they explode. This enabled the Israelis to send aircraft to confirm whatever happened. It's believed these devices were for tapping into telephone conversations. The Lebanese believes that some, or all, of these devices were equipped with explosives to self-destruct, or be detonated remotely from Israel, if discovered or tampered with.

The more aggressive use of these devices was caused by earlier counterespionage activity in Lebanon, where dozens of Israeli agents were arrested with the help of Iranian intelligence operatives. Israel responded with increased use of electronic sensors. These detect movement, sound or electronic transmissions. Many are buried or otherwise disguised to make detection difficult. Hezbollah has become aware of these devices and offered rewards for those who found them. Hunting for Israeli sensors became a popular activity along the border because of the rewards, and warnings not to tamper with or get too close to the devices lest they detonate before Iranian experts can arrive to try and capture the device intact.

Hollywood isn't the only place where old hits are recycled. Such miniature gadgets were first developed and used in the 1960s. These early devices were just a microphone and transmitter. An aircraft overhead could pick up the transmissions, record them, and get them back to a base where the activity (trucks, troops marching, or whatever), where it occurred and the time, could be recorded. In this way operations along the carefully hidden (under the tall jungle canopy) "Ho Chi Minh" trail could be studied, plotted, and bombed. The trail, run by the North Vietnam through Laos (just west of Vietnam), was vital to keeping their troops in South Vietnam supplied.

WolfPack faced the same problem airdropped sensors in Vietnam did; the enemy will go looking for them once they realize the sensors were a danger to them. During the Vietnam War a partial solution to this problem was to build some of the airdropped sensors so they looked like a bamboo plant. This deception would not stand up to close scrutiny but the enemy troops did not closely examine every bamboo plant when they were sweeping an area for sensors. While the bamboo disguise worked in Vietnam, after the war, surplus sensors of this type were shipped to Europe for use there in a future war in Europe where there isn't any bamboo. Eventually this error was admitted and new designs for concealed sensors was developed.

Russia was known to have adopted this "intelligent rock" technology after the 1960s, and is still using it. China probably has it as well and someone is using it in Iran. There has been some interest in planting bugs on animals but further research found that the animals’ movement were too unpredictable to be useful. Efforts to miniaturize sensors and transmitters for use on mechanical insects is still stalled by technology that is not quite ready to go yet. Arab paranoia regarding monitoring devices hidden in animals (real or artificial) is not totally unfounded, but only somewhat premature.

In Anbar province paranoia is justified because news of the effectives of these new sensors soon spread. While many locals went hunting for them, if only to make some money, Islamic terrorists and smugglers crossing the border had a real problem. This was more serious for Islamic terrorists because the Iraqi and American forces wanted to know who was sneaking across the border, especially where, when and with clear digital photos of who the illegal border crossers were. This made local tribesmen more cooperative as they were willing to identify smugglers as long as that prevented their fellow tribesmen from getting tagged as Islamic terrorists and killed. Cooperating is meant to have the opposite effect because, if the smugglers can be found and are willing to discuss the snuggling situation on the border, there is no retaliation. Most of the smugglers stick to civilian goods for that reason. The Islamic terrorists handle their own smuggling of weapons, explosives as well as people.

The Iraqi Army has found it possible to regain the trust and cooperation of the local tribes if they hassled the tribesmen less and offer protection from Islamic terrorists who often threaten tribesmen who refuse to get involved with terrorist operations. The Americans follow the same rules, often putting local tribal militia on their payroll to help with border security. The Americans will pay on time and the amount agreed to. The Iraqi government, and Islamic terrorists, are not as reliable in that department.

The U.S. interest in border security intensified after 2018 when the Americans built a third base in Anbar Province, near the Syrian border. This was to support counter-terror operations in western Anbar as well as across the border in the Euphrates River Valley of Syria. The other two American Anbar bases are at the Al Asad airbase and near the city of Ramadi.

 


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