Coping with mobile terrorists

As new technologies, services and applications are made available on mobile networks, Dr Dave Sloggett explores how terrorists benefit from their introduction

Coping with mobile terrorists

Queues that form outside retail outlets several hours before the release of a new piece of technology provide a vivid testament to the enduring need for some people to buy the latest and best technologies. Some individuals define themselves by staying at the leading edge of technology. They simply have to buy the latest and best pieces of technology that are available in the market place. 

As new technologies emerge into the market place, people can benefit from higher connection speeds to download video content and to use many media outlets to stay in touch with what is happening around the world. For some people, having access to up to the minute information is critical to how they earn a living. 

Other tangible societal benefits are also occurring from the rapid pace of technological development. Charities are able to reach out directly to the public to ask them to text in small donations up to a limit of £10. For the United Kingdom’s 184,000 charities, this is an increasingly important source of income. By 2014, some commentators estimate that nearly £100 million a year will be donated in this way.

Mobile tech for terror

While it is clear mobile technology can be a force for good, it can also be applied in other ways. One of those is to conduct acts of terrorism. In 2012, in Pakistan on several occasions entire mobile phone networks were shut down by the authorities during major religious celebrations. 

Sectarian violence remains a critical issue in some areas of the country and the authorities felt they had no alternative given the large numbers of unregistered mobile phones that are in circulation. The use of mobile networks to activate bombs remotely is a well-known tactic used by terrorists. That is, however, not the only way in which they apply mobile phone technology. 

In Mumbai in 2008, the ten terrorists that attacked various targets applied mobile phone technology to a new, deadly task. Their use of mobile phone technology ensured their attacks were given the maximum amount of publicity over the world. 

Across England in the summer of 2011, mobile phone technology was also applied to devastating effect as criminal groups and protestors used their mobile devices to coordinate their rampages in a number of major cities. As the United Kingdom moves towards the introduction of 4G services this year, it is important to ask the question - how might terrorists use these technologies? 

Clues from Mumbai 

Events in Mumbai provide some clues. The main aim of the terrorists involved in the attack was for their activities to achieve the widest possible coverage through the international media. When they embarked upon the attack their aim had been to dominate the news media for 72 hours. 

They just failed to achieve that goal, with the attack petering out after 62 hours as the last members of the group were killed inside the Taj Mahal Hotel. At the end, 166 people lay dead and several hundred had been injured. 

As the attack progressed, one of the notable things the terrorists did was to pick up and use mobile phones of people they had killed. They connected to international media outlets through the internet to see how the attack was being reported. Whilst for some this may seem macabre, for the terrorists it provided a ready source of information and allowed some of their plans to be refined as the attack progressed. 

Spreading the news

Members of the public also provided coverage. One person took just over 100 images of people that had been injured or killed at the railway station and posted those on the internet within minutes of the attack unfolding. These are the so-called ‘citizen journalists’ who send in pictures taken in the area of an attack on an ad hoc basis. Similar uses of mobile phone technologies were made in London and Glasgow in 2005 and 2008. 

Overall coordination of the attack in Mumbai was achieved by satellite phone. Handlers working in Pakistan provided additional read outs on developments in the media coverage. In one instance media coverage suggested that a leading Indian political leader was trapped in a room on the first floor of the Taj Mahal hotel. 

That information was quickly conveyed to the terrorists in the hotel who were tasked by their controllers to seek out the person concerned. That report, however, turned out to be false. 

Real time adjustments

The ability to adjust the focal point of a terrorist attack in near-real-time uses mobile phone technology to create a command and control environment for those conducting the attacks. Mumbai provided a new paradigm for such acts of terrorism. 

Until that day, attacks were usually over in a short period of time. Once a device had been detonated those responding could move into recovery mode. Mumbai rewrote the terrorism manual. But interestingly, until the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, the Mumbai attack had not been repeated.

The Algerian authorities clearly learnt something from the events in Mumbai. International media coverage was virtually non-existent. The remoteness of the facility helped. But all that has appeared in terms of coverage are some rather grainy mobile phone images of the moment just after the attackers commenced their operation. 

Whilst the overall death toll of 39 workers cannot be downplayed, the overall impact of the attacks was muted by the lack of media coverage. It contrasts markedly with what happened in Mumbai. 

Mobile reconnaissance

Terrorists are not likely to restrict their use of mobile phone technology simply to checking how international media outlets are reporting their progress. With virtual reality, terrorists involved in planning operations can learn a great deal more about the area close to the target. Video of the locale can also be collected during reconnaissance and sent onto members of a cell. 

The mobile arena is also an area where new applications quickly emerge. One of the most notorious was developed at the time of the student riots opposing tuition fees. This allowed people to send in sightings of police units. A central facility then broadcast maps to anyone signed up to what was a free service to enable them to move the focal point of their protest away from where the police were operating. 

Across England during the riots of 2011 this and similar applications and use of mobile phone services helped the rioters manoeuvre away from police deployments. 

What is clear is that there are many ways in which mobile phone technology is being used to help create a better society. Sadly, however, there are those that seek to use this technology to conduct acts of violence that are aimed at highlighting a specific grievance or ideology. 

As mobile phone services and applications grow this dual use is important to acknowledge and understand. Next time it could be the difference that sees so many more people die. 


About the author: Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent academic, author and freelance writer specialising in irregular warfare with over 20 years of experience in communications systems. He recently chaired the first day of the Global Counter Terrorism conference at the Counter Terror Expo 2013 in London.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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