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The Poor man’s FBCB2

R U Ready 4 the 3 G Celfone?

(Read: Are You Ready for the Third-Generation Cellular Phone?)

These days, almost everyone has one. It has revolutionized communications for insurgents and terrorists, and costs thousands of dollars less than similarly equipped, though admittedly far more secure, Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below (FBCB2) systems. It has near-global coverage, as well as the ability to instantly transmit tactical instructions or propaganda over a loosely organized network. It is, of course, the second- or third-generation (2G or 3G) cell phone, and has already arrived at an insurgency near you.

By now, using cell phones as detonation devices for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is both well-known and well-reported in the public sphere. Anyone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan knows the threat. The threat of cell phone-detonated explosives also resonates beyond these major theatres of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). For example, as early as 1995, the Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah, may have used cell phone-detonated IEDs against Israeli Defense Forces. After the 12 May 2003 bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saudi security forces discovered a number of cell phone detonators. Additionally, Islamist terrorists used cell phone-detonated explosive devices to devastating effect in the 11 March 2004 bombings of the Madrid subways. The threat has caused a number of defense companies to develop cell phone-jamming technologies as a countermeasure to cell phone-detonated IEDs.

This threat is not going away. Statistics on worldwide cell phone use are astounding. According to a July 2006 report in The Washington Post, 2.4 billion cell phones are currently in use, 59 percent of them in the developing world; consequently, cell phones are the first technological tool in greater use in the developing world (the source of much of the GWOT threat) than in the developed world. Globally, 1,000 new cell phone users come online every minute. A full 35 percent of people within Middle Eastern and Gulf States use cell phones and that number will be closer to 50 percent by 2010.

As cell phones have become decidedly more high-tech in the past few years, the potential of cell phone use in asymmetric operations against coalition forces in the GWOT has grown exponentially and has expanded well beyond the now-familiar IED detonators. Due to the delayed rollout of new cell phone technologies in the United States, as compared to Europe or Asia, Americans, including soldiers on the front lines of the GWOT, remain relatively illiterate in the newest capabilities of cell phones. Technical differences between international standards in cell phone networks have caused next-generation technology to develop at slower rates in the United States, while Americans slow adoption of text-messaging (short message service - SMS) has delayed our familiarity with and demand for more advanced technology, such as multimedia messaging services (MMS), which are now available in the United States, but not as widely used as elsewhere. As an example of the gap between the United States and the rest of the world, in December 2003, Americans were sending about eight million SMS messages a day; the rest of the world was sending a billion.

A global survey of news media and other open-source accounts of protest movements and terrorist acts provide an astonishing picture of a threat and capabilities already well-understood by our enemies.

The Poor-Man’s Situational Report (SITREP)

In 2001, SMS allowed a burgeoning Filipino protest movement to draw over a million protesters into Manila and overthrow the government of President Joseph Estrada, who referred to the insurrection as "coup de text". More perniciously and less peacefully, anti-globalization rioters in 1999 combined cell phone and other technologies to communicate areas of vulnerability in Seattle to protest a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, causing far more extensive security to be deployed for future meetings.

Plain-text SMS is a powerful tool across the spectrum of asymmetric operations. The U.S. Army has spent years developing reporting procedures to provide voice-transmitted information in usable snippets such as the SITREP. Developing the discipline to transmit this information in a hostile environment requires training and experience. SMS, which forces the user to communicate in rapid shorthand, enforces similar discipline without the need for extensive training or experience (love-struck teenagers and insurgents already have much experience transmitting these messages quickly behind the backs of parents or teachers).

This capability can be and has been used to devastating effect. For example, French rioters who brought the country to a virtual halt in the fall of 2005 used SMS to communicate the positions of French police and arrange meetings and attacks on French targets leading to what one mayor called a "veritable guerrilla situation, urban insurrection". In Congo, where a civil war has resulted in the largest deployment of UN peacekeepers in the world, insurgents use cell phone voice calls and SMS as a primary means of communication - even in this war-ravaged, sub-Saharan African country, where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day, 70 percent of the population lives in areas with cell phone coverage.

The advantages of cell phone use for terrorist or anti-government groups go beyond the technologically enforced reporting discipline of SMS. SMS provides virtually instantaneous access to large networks of malcontents, allowing very loose structures of people to quickly coalesce into mass demonstrations. One person can simply send out a message to the people in his address book, who send it out to the people in their address books, and so on. Often, it is difficult to discern who the originator of a message is, and even if it is discerned, the network of like-minded people, protesters or insurgents, is virtually impossible to break up.

In early 2006, a movement in India demanding "justice for Jessica" quickly coalesced in Indian cities protesting a verdict in a court case where government corruption had resulted in the acquittal of several clearly guilty men responsible for killing a supermodel. Spontaneous and highly disruptive demonstrations of thousands of people erupted all over urban areas of India. In most cases, neither participants nor officials knew who had sent out the original SMS messages calling for the demonstrations. It is doubtful whether "organizers", who sent messages to their friends, realized that thousands of people would take to the streets: a call by a popular English-language television broadcaster for SMS signatures of a related anti-corruption petition resulted in 200,000 supportive SMS messages in three days, something the television station had not anticipated.

In nearby Nepal, mass protests in the spring of 2006 that were organized via SMS led to crippling demonstrations of over 100,000 people in the capital, Katmandu. In a country that accounted for half of the world’s media censorship cases in 2005, SMS organization led to a multi-cellular structure, capable of operating independently of any one leader or even a small cadre of leaders. This loose structure foiled government efforts to decapitate a burgeoning anti-royalist movement after King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Parliament. Government restrictions, which had limited domestic media exposure of the excesses of King Gyanendra’s rule, could not prevent the development of a massive protest movement via SMS. A final government decision to cut cell phone service demonstrated government impotence in the face of the protests and, rather than ending the protests, resulted in the restoration of democracy and the emasculation of King Gyanendra‚s dictatorial rule - a choice the king made after it was clear that his choices were either immediate capitulation or near-certain death at the hands of mobs.

A report by Mary Jordan, a senior correspondent for the Washington Post, describes the tactics, techniques, and procedures of a SMS anti-government organizer in the Philippines, a country whose 30 million cell phone users are on the cutting edge of military-political-social use of SMS. A massive protest, critical of the president, is organized by leaders via cell phones. When certain groups fail to meet at the designated time and place, an SMS reveals their whereabouts. Instructions on uniforms and equipment are sent out instantly via cell phone ("WEAR RED. BRING BANNERS") and the media are informed via SMS exactly where to go to photograph the action. Protesters, not organized in one particular area, are assembled instantly at a designated location when the order to "assemble now" goes out via SMS. When surprised police summon more police via SMS to from a blockade to prevent the protesters from getting close to the presidential compound, the protesters send an alternate route over text, allowing them to rapidly descend on intended targets. When the police subsequently beat the protesters, the SMS-summoned media is right there to take pictures for broadcast on the evening news, ensuring that the criticism of the president is in the limelight.

The Dangerous Addition of GPRS and 3G Technology

While SMS provides astonishing new tools for communication and organization to a wide array of people across the world, the potential and actual use of cell phone technology for insurgents does not stop at plain-text SMS. Cell phones can now take low-to-medium resolution photos and video and send these products to other cell phones or to the internet through a technology known as multimedia messaging service (MMS). Additionally, many cell phone companies offer videoconferencing over cell phones, allowing real-time video images to be transmitted instantly between cell phones or to the internet.

Think this whiz-bang technology is something far removed from the developing world battlefields of the GWOT? Currently MTC Vodafone, an Iraqi cell phone company, offers both MMS and live videoconferencing (their website advertises: "When you care about a friend whom you want to be with during different milestones in life … a video call will do everything; you won’t miss those times, even the expressions"). Both MTC Vodafone and Korek Telecom, Iraqi cell phone companies, allow users to connect remotely to the internet through cell phones or attach cell phones to laptops, through GPRS (General Packet Radio Services), at speeds of between 160 and 236.8 kilobits per second. In Afghanistan, 3G mobile technology, which allows much higher connection speeds of up to 10 times that of the fastest GPRS (for example allowing television to be watched live on cell phones), is being introduced by the Afghan Wireless Communication Company in Kabul. Nor is 3G far away from launch in Iraq; a branch of MTC Vodafone began introducing nationwide 3G in nearby Bahrain in 2005.

Worthy of note also is the addition of global positioning system (GPS) technology to cell phones. All phones sold in the United States since 2005 carry GPS technology by law; this was intended to make sure that 9-1-1 operators can respond to emergency call when a person is unable to give their location. If you have not noticed this technology on your new cell phone, it is because most users are unable to access their positions themselves, forcing them to use subscription services to get directions. GPS cell phone technology is global; for example, at least one phone currently on the market is a combination satellite phone, cell phone, and GPS phone that functions in Europe, Central and North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Subscription services offered by several companies include real-time information for employers that reveal the whereabouts of employees based on the location of the employees’ cell phones. This GPS location technology is not limited to commercial development. Chuck Fletcher and Jason Uechi of New Jersey privately developed a software program that provides the real-time location of family and friends on an online map.

All of this new technology has not escaped the eyes of criminals, terrorists, and insurgents, and they have developed new tactics to exploit both the technology and the people using it. In a new practice dubbed "smishing", SMS messages demanding that a cell phone user visit a site, or be charged a daily rate for a service they are not using, are sent across a network. Accessing the website causes the user to download a virus, which turns their computer or cell phone into a "zombie", working for the hacker who sent out the SMS. In a similar vein, using a "call-forwarding trick", anti-war activists diverted cell phone calls destined for Lockheed Martin employees to the activists; it is not hard to imagine how such a trick could be used far more maliciously.

With the introduction of this technology, terrorists are blunting the information edge, which we hold dear. Over SMS, they communicate positions and rapidly assemble fighters to an ambush, or supporters to a demonstration. Propaganda messages, pictures, or even video, are transmitted instantly over previously unimaginable networks: Hezbollah sent out SMS propaganda during its latest war with Israel, not only to its supporters but also to Israelis. A suspected informant’s picture is clandestinely taken by a person using a cell phone and the image is subsequently transmitted through a crowd, where he is stabbed to death.

Videophone technology allows real-time tracking of convoy and other operations, perhaps even to a leader in "headquarters", which turns out to be an internet café where others might not know what he is doing. The leader uses organically developed software on a laptop to track the real-time location of fighters provided by their GPS-enabled cell phones and maps from internet map sites. The fighters send SITREPs via SMS (and pictures of the enemy’s disposition through MMS). A smishing attack has turned a number of cell phones into "zombies", which can then be used to command-detonate an IED, with the ability to track down the originator of the phone call made more difficult by another degree of separation. A video of the attack and its aftermath are posted via MMS to an internet site.

All of this technology and capability exists today; the knowledge necessary to exploit the technology is a mouse-click away. You better bet the enemy knows about it and is exploiting it. The somewhat benign-looking cell phone, placed in the wrong hands, is a deadly weapon.

A Double-Edged Sword - Using This Technology to Our Advantage

While units should be aware of the tremendous threats posed by the use of cell phones in asymmetric encounters, the potential gains that can be made in fighting the GWOT through our exploitation of cell phone technology make literacy in all things cell phone all the more critical. Of course, great inroads have already been made in this direction. The capability to track down cell phone users, while providing greater situational awareness to terrorists, has also resulted at times in the capture of terrorists, although the widespread reporting on this capability has led to a number of workarounds by terrorists to avoid capture. The near ubiquity of cell phone use among terrorists has even been used to assassinate them through cell phone bombs. Yet clandestinely tracking and killing terrorists is only one potential use. Even at the battalion level, potential or recently freed troublemakers can be forced to report in by cell phone and forced to send a confirming MMS picture or video of their location. In Congo, cell phone reporting has been used to great effect to prevent recently disarmed fighters from taking up arms again.

Just as the enemy uses cell phones for information operations, so can we. In areas where we are trying to win hearts and minds, SMS messages provide a far more likely way to reach individuals in an area of operations (AO) than do flyers or other less controllable means of communications, such as radio and television. Israel tapped into the entire Lebanese cell phone network during its latest war to send out propaganda. The Russian military also recently sent out a SMS to Chechen rebels hiding out in Ingushetia, demanding their surrender and providing four phone numbers that rebels could call to negotiate their surrender - apparently several militants did in fact surrender using the lines. MMS can be used, for example, to display images of insurgent atrocities.

Smart use of MMS can exponentially expand the potential of intelligence gathering. For instance, an informant can MMS your unit a picture of "Mohammed Ahmed", which requires far less risk-taking on the part of the informant, who can relatively easily take a cell phone picture without anyone noticing or becoming suspicious, or relay the location of a wanted terrorist via SMS. In other situations, a unit can relay a communiqué via MMS to a community, offering a reward for real-time information on the whereabouts of the person pictured and a number where that information can be sent.

Units can establish systems to protect and encourage anonymous sources through SMS. Sources providing information via cell phones that leads to killing or capturing wanted terrorists can be rewarded, in cash, and remain anonymous, except for their cell phone number. Sources need not even visit a base to receive cash rewards. In Zambia and Congo, a company called Celpay allows users to transfer money and even make purchases via SMS. In Congo, only 20,000 people have bank accounts, while over 2,000,000 have cell phones; using a system similar to the traditional Halawi banking system used by emigrants to transfer money to their home countries, all of these cell phone users can now access money through cell phones. At Celpay branches, a teller can text Celpay’s central database and provide cash to an account holder in a matter of seconds. With ingenuity, such a system can be set up within an AO, even if it does not operate nationally. Not only can such a system be used to pay informers, but also solve the logistics challenges of paying soldiers of native forces. Widespread adaptation could improve security by significantly reducing violent crime in an economy where cash is less frequently carried.

The scope of cell phone use by the native population in your AO is only going to increase from this point forward. As summed up in this article, the technology that already exists, as well as the technology being developed, is an incredible tool for our enemies - one of which they are well aware and that they are exploiting. Given the human need and desire to communicate, there is little we can do to prevent continued adaptation of this technology. Yet, just as the new generation of cell phones poses vast opportunities for our enemies, it can provide an even greater set of tools for us. The GWOT is not only a violent war against the enemies of freedom, but a war of ideas for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. In the violent war, exploitation of vulnerabilities posed by cell phone use may allow us to disrupt the planning and intelligence advantages of our enemies. In the war of ideas, cell phone technology remains an underutilized conduit of the ideas needed to win the hearts and minds of our target populations.

___________________________________ ___________________________________ By Captain Daniel Helmer. This article has been reprinted by courtesy of ARMOR, November-December 2006.

Eigentümer und Herausgeber: Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung | Roßauer Lände 1, 1090 Wien
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