Counter-Terrorism: Al Qaeda Has An App For That


November 14, 2010: Terrorists have a lot more intelligence gathering capabilities now than they did a decade ago. It's mainly about the Internet, plus billions of cell phones everywhere. Spy satellites, and the photos they provide, have long been something only wealthy governments could afford. Now everyone can have it, sort of. Google, and other Internet sites, now provide satellite photos, making such access much more widely known, and available. Not only does Google cover most areas where Americans live, and drive, but also many foreign lands, like Egypt, Iraq, Europe and China. Resolution varies, with most of it being several meters (that is, the smallest object you can make out would be several meters across.) Some satellite photo services will provide higher resolution for a small fee.

What does the U.S. Department of Defense, and American intelligence agencies, think of all this satellite imagery being available to anyone. Not a lot, but the U.S. government is being quiet about exactly what they are doing about it. When satellite photos first became widely available to anyone (including criminals, terrorists and so on) back in the 1990s, the U.S. government did try to do something about it. But making threats, or buying all the time on some of the private photo sats, didn't really work. So more subtle methods, or, rather, tricks, are being used. Exactly what this consists of is being kept secret, for obvious reasons.

The most obvious action is Google leaving areas largely blank, at the request of a national government. But there are many areas that are visible in the Internet based satellite picture services. Military, and other government agencies, have also taken a lot of information offline since September 11, 2001. But a lot of useful (to a terrorist) stuff is still there. So why haven't the terrorists made better use of it?

Part of the problem is that Islamic terrorist groups tend to attract the less educated, often illiterate, recruits. While the college educated terrorists get lots of publicity, they are a very small percentage of the terrorist army. Then there is the problem of getting Internet access, and using it without being detected by counter-terror organizations (that use increasingly powerful software to seek out real, or potential, Islamic terrorists on the web,) Access is difficult because so many Islamic terrorists have been driven into remote areas where Internet access is difficult, or not available at all. Terrorists, or wannabes, operating in the West have better Internet education, and better education and web skills. But they are generally easier to catch, and the best of them have better economic prospects (which tends to discourage joining terror groups.)

The spread of smart phones, and apps for just about anything, deliver more power. These devices are made for ease-of-use. Any clever, barely literate tribesman can figure out how to do things. The potential is there. Intel agencies, and even troops in combat zones, are making use of web based intelligence resources and smart phones to do their jobs better. The enemy can do the same, but it's comforting to know that, so far, they haven't been very successful in doing so.





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