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Are You Connected?

Communications tower behind the Blue Mosque in Mazar i Sharif.

Published: 26 October 2008 

In a war where information can be more powerful than massed forces, the cellphone is a weapon.  Insurgents the world over use cellphones to transmit messages, record photos and videos, and sometimes just to chat.  They can record video of an attack, and transmit that video within a minute.  U.S. and other technologically adept forces use machines to target cell phones.

This is no secret.  Not to the enemy, at least.

I am especially careful not to compromise operational security (OPSEC).  There are many photographs and potential dispatches that will never be published here because I do not want to risk jeopardizing our effort.  The military forces with which I embed have clear guidelines to protect OPSEC.  But war correspondents can learn just as much, or even more, while unembedded, and those times are not covered by guidelines.  Still, I am just as cautious while unilateral.  Often OPSEC is compromised, not because journalists knowingly publish sensitive information, but because they don’t know what the enemy might learn from the news they share with their audience. Others just don’t care, or publicize sensitive information for one-upmanship or profit.

We are at war – and I want us to win.  An important aspect of this war is the information campaign, on both sides.  Citizens of the countries fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have the right to know what their soldiers and governments are doing.  Our soldiers wear our flag.  They represent us and they use our resources.  We have a right to know what our soldiers are doing.  We also have a right to know how our civilian leadership is spending the blood of our family, friends and compatriots who wear the uniform.  At the same time, our soldiers can be endangered by the release of certain information that the enemy can use to their advantage.  I’m not talking about propaganda, but hard facts – like how much damage a specific IED can do to a Humvee, or the description of tactical maneuvers.  Regarding cellphones, some readers are rightly concerned that I have given away secrets that might endanger our soldiers and their allies.  Yet some well-intentioned readers are not tracking the ground situation as closely as I am.  When reporting specific information, it is carefully considered and I often run it by informed sources to make sure the information will not compromise OPSEC.   And when someone gives me a good reason (avoiding embarrassment is not a good reason) not to divulge certain information, I keep a lid on it.  Sometimes to my own detriment.  On several occasions I have been “scooped” by other journalists who published information that I withheld.  They did not exercise the same constraints, either because of journalistic competitiveness, or an understanding with the source who provided the information.  I was the first correspondent to see the famous letter where Ayman al-Zawahiri told Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to stop the videotaped beheadings because they were a propaganda debacle.  Since I was told it would compromise intelligence operations, I did not mention the letter in my dispatches until it was published elsewhere.  This was a major loss for me.

Sometimes the military itself spills the beans, whether through carelessness, incompetence, or one tentacle of the bureaucratic octopus not knowing what the other is articulating.  The criticality of OPSEC and the desire to publish news often are in conflict, but in the end, OPSEC wins with me.  Many, including myself, have family and close friends in harm’s way.  However, please be aware, that if we accidentally bomb a village, and I am a witness, I will report it.  Like the time I reported seeing our forces accidentally shoot an innocent taxi driver in Mosul.

In a recent dispatch (The Road to Hell ) I mentioned that people can be targeted through their cell phones.   One reader complained publicly, and others privately, that I was giving away secrets.  The enemy is aware that cell phones can get them killed.  They’ve known this for years.   We know they know.  And they know we know.   That’s why we see stories like this:

Taliban orders mobile shutdown in Afghan province
Tue Oct 21, 2008 5:20AM EDT

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents said Tuesday they had told mobile phone operators to shut down their networks during the day in the Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul, saying signals help track insurgent fighters.

The warning comes on top of a Taliban order earlier this year for phone operators to turn off their networks throughout the country at night.

“We have informed mobile companies operating in Ghazni to turn off their signals during the daytime now as it endangers the lives of our fighters,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman told Reuters.

“We want the companies to cut off their signal for 10 days from now,” he said, adding that the order might be extended.

I’m more interested to know what might be planned for those 10 days.   An offensive?  A Taliban convention?   Osama Bin Laden coming up for air?

The article goes on:

Five mobile operators, three of them foreign companies, with an estimated investment of several hundred million of dollars, have set up business in Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and the enemy has figured out some things over that time.  Tracking cell phones is no more difficult than tracking strobe lights.  Anything that radiates can be tracked.  Osama bin Laden, for instance, realized that having any electronics around him could be a death sentence.  He reportedly used an intentional deception plan using his own phone, by sending it off with a decoy while he escaped in another direction.   CBS reported:

Osama’s Satellite Phone Switcheroo
NEW YORK, Jan. 21, 2003

(CBS) Osama bin Laden escaped capture in Afghanistan, fooling sophisticated American satellites, by simply having an aide carry his satellite phone in a different direction, a newspaper reports.

The Washington Post reports that with U.S. forces closing in around bin Laden’s refuge in the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, a Moroccan bodyguard named Abdallah Tabarak took the terrorist mastermind’s satellite phone and split off from his boss.

Bin Laden believed the U.S. was using the phone signal to trace him.

He was apparently right. Tabarak had the phone when he was captured, and bin Laden got away.

“He agreed to be captured or die. That’s the level of his fanaticism for bin Laden,” A Moroccan official told the Post. “It wasn’t a lot of time, but it was enough. There is a saying: ‘Where there is a frog, the serpent is not far away.'” 

The Columbia Journalism Review reports that President Bush confirms the tactics:

The debate over the shuttering of bin Laden’s cell phone got started on Monday during a press conference in which President Bush asserted that in 1998 bin Laden shut off his phone after seeing a reference to it in an American newspaper — thus throwing off U.S. surveillance of the terrorist’s activities.

“And again, I want to repeat what I said about Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered the attack that killed 3,000 Americans,” said the President. “We were listening to him. He was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper — somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed.”

So  the enemy has known about cell phones since 1998.  Yet this begs the question: If we were listening to OBL at that time, we could have saved ourselves a great deal of blood and fortune if we had killed him then.  Why didn’t we?

Now it’s 2008.  The enemy knows the risks of cell phones, but the potential benefits are also great.   Sometimes they get careless; other times we get lucky.  When operations get too hot, some enemies in Afghanistan try to shut down the network.  While they take advantage of modern technology, primitive chaos works for them as well.  In Iraq, when the tide started turning against al Qaeda, AQI destroyed cell towers because people were calling in tips.  It’s easy for AOG (Armed Opposition Groups) in Afghanistan to threaten or coerce the communications companies.

Communications towers are everywhere; these towers are just south of Kandahar.

Afghans continue to learn English, and now they have cell phones galore.  I met a Bedouin out in Iraq just near the Iranian border down in Maysan Province, who charged his cell phone on his motorbike.  In some ways, we might be centuries apart, but when it comes to the global neural network of communications, the camel herders and shepherds are connected, too.  Many of the AOG in Afghanistan don’t even need cell phones.  They use walkie-talkies.  Walkie-talkies, or PTTs (Push To Talks) make more sense for combat, though, of course, the enemy knows we listen and track PTTs because they talk back at us sometimes.  They even sing to each other at night.  The AOG have established repeater stations where they can communicate long distances using PTTs.  One intercept of PTT communications revealed an enemy deep inside Afghanistan who was talking with someone in Pakistan in real time – both of them apparently were Taliban.  The man in Afghanistan wanted to know when Ramadan started.  The man in Pakistan told him, and the man in Afghanistan asked how he knew.  The man in Pakistan said that he had been told by a friend in America.  The guy in America could have been calling from a Starbucks.

Nearly everything – and everyone – is connected.

On a hill near Sarobi, within view of where the ten French soldiers were killed.  A cell tower stands only a short drive away.

Modern communications are so useful to insurgent networks that sometimes governments curtail them.  During the war in Nepal, PTTs were outlawed, and the cell phones were shut down at times, not by the Maoists, but by the government.  After people get used to cell phones, the phones become “essential.”  So whoever cuts off the cell phones, be it insurgents or the government, alienates people.  This happened in Nepal.  If the AOG starts whacking down those communications towers, which they can do at whim, they will lose support of many people.  And certainly there is little doubt that some of those hundreds of millions of dollars being invested into Afghanistan cell systems must be going to AOG leaders.  Twisted, isn’t it?

Near Kandahar

The photo above has a communications tower in the background.   I Skyped one of the phone numbers on the board and it worked.  So if any reader needs some metal work done near Kandahar, give them a call.  Cell phones are a boon for developing countries.  The infrastructure required to wire landline phones is incredibly costly and time-consuming.  But cell systems can be installed quickly, and suddenly everyone can talk to just about anyone on the globe.  The owner of AH. L.T.D could call the National Public Radio hotline and end up being another “Joe the Plumber.”

People used to talk about six degrees of separation from any single human on the planet to another.  Today, when nearly everybody all over the globe uses cell phones, there’s only one degree of separation – if that person has your number.  And if they don’t, there still are ways to find you.

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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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