The Taliban and Their Telephones

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 1 month ago

Several days ago I noted that the Taliban were worried about the technological advantages the U.S. could leverage against them, but at the time I thought, “don’t they understand – surely they won’t carry through with this ridiculous threat?”

The Taliban threatened Monday to attack mobile phone facilities in Afghanistan, alleging that the technology was being used at night to pin-point the Islamic rebels’ hideouts.

Zabihullah Mujahed, a rebel spokesman, said that several phone companies had been given three days to respond to militants’ demands that they cut night time operations or face attacks, notably on antennas erected across the country.

“The invading forces are using mobile phones for military purposes,” Mujahed told AFP, referring to about 60,000 foreign personnel deployed in Afghanistan to hunt down Taliban militants who are waging a deadly insurgency.

“Usually during the nights the mobile phones are being used to spy on the Taliban to track down their footpaths. Here we ask the (mobile) companies to halt their operations from five o’clock in the evening to seven in the morning,” he said.

With 700 million dollars of investment, the burgeoning communications industry is one of the biggest development projects in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

According to the country’s telecommunications ministry, over five million Afghans are currently using mobile phones, provided by five mainly foreign companies.

“The Taliban themselves are using mobile phone for communications,” he said.

No phone company can stay in business by intentionally shutting down their service, so it was an impossible set of conditions to meet.  Nevertheless, the Taliban have carried through with their threat.

Taliban militants blew up a telecommunications tower Friday in southern Afghanistan following a warning to phone companies to shut down the towers at night or face attack.

The militants fear U.S. and other foreign troops are using mobile phone signals to track insurgents and launch attacks against them. A Taliban spokesman on Monday said militants would blow up towers across Afghanistan if the companies did not switch off their signals overnight.

Insurgents made good on that threat Friday, destroying a tower along the main highway in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, said Niaz Mohammad Serhadi, the top district official.

Phone companies moved into remote areas of Afghanistan after talks with tribal elders, who asked for the towers to be built, said Abdul Hadi Hadi, spokesman for the Telecommunications Ministry.

“When they destroy any tower, it shows direct enmity to the people of that area. I don’t think the destruction of the towers has any direct effect on the government. It is the people who suffer,” he said.

Thousands of customers will be affected by the tower attack, Serhadi said. Police have increased security around other phone towers, he said.

Communications experts say the U.S. military has the ability, using satellites and other means, to pick up cell phone signals without the phone company’s help. Cell phones periodically send signals to the network even when they are not making calls.

The frequent cell phone pings to locate towers are well known, but this leads to the inevitable question, “why wouldn’t they just turn their cell phones off?”

Use of the mobile networks for intelligence is an obvious step which is well-nigh certain to have been taken, just as governments have done in every country. And it’s well known that masts can be used to locate a phone which is powered up.

What’s less clear is why the Taliban have chosen to demand a shutdown of mast signals at night. Even the most paranoid phone-security advisers would normally suggest taking the battery out of one’s phone, rather than menacing local cell operators unless they went off the air. (The idea of removing the battery is to guard against someone having modified the phone to switch itself on without the owner’s knowledge.)

It could be that the Taliban want to operate their own networks, of course. Micro/pico/femtocell equipment is widely available, and there’s said to be a strong tradition in wild and woolly rural Afghanistan of unregulated, private wireless comms. It might be that guerrilla commanders merely want to clear other operators off the spectrum so that they can use it themselves.

Even so, Western military or spook electronic-intelligence units will still be able to intercept, identify, locate and track active mobile phones in an area of interest, even if they are communicating (or meant to be communicating) only with Taliban-controlled cells. The reported threats still don’t make a huge amount of sense in terms of the reasons given.

Another possibility is that the Taliban simply want to deny ordinary Afghans phone service at night, perhaps to stop people reporting on militia movements and/or prevent them phoning for help if attacked. Or it might be that the Taliban – the Taliban press office, anyway – simply isn’t up on the technical issues.

The later seems most likely.  If it weren’t for the disruption in phone coverage and the potential for harm to humans, the thought of the Taliban wasting ordnance on cell phone towers when they could simply power down their phones at night would bring a smile to my face.  In addition to creating a disruption in their own cell phone service, this version of “winning hearts and minds” is sure to be a bomb – so to speak.


You are currently reading "The Taliban and Their Telephones", entry #977 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Taliban,Technology and was published March 1st, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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