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.

Comments   

 
# Dan Engels 2008-10-26 14:37
Are You Connected?

I wonder if you are? If you like to breath easier, try listen to what Barack has to say about Afghanistan and Iraq. But if you are pro-republican no matter what, than you better prepare for a dispatch to a war with Iran!

Stay safe!
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# Steamboat Jack 2008-10-26 16:18
If you recall, Somalia offered the Clinton administration OBL on a silver platter, but were turned down because they couldn't make a criminal case. (I believe that they made the offer twice.)

And besides assonating a political leader is against the law.

Any Democrat will tell you that it is better that 3,000 civilians die in a collapsing building than we abrogate the "rights" of a single terrorist.

There was a story from early in the war, after 9/11. It may be true, or not. Perhaps someone can tell me if they know. They (US military) had a car under observation at night and thought that OBL was in it. A request was made to engage the target. It was discussed at headquarters and they decided that it was against the law to assonate a foreign leader. They withheld permission.

Welcome to the Brave New World.
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# Jim Olson 2008-10-26 16:35
So just what has Obama uttered that makes you thing we will "breathe easier" if unfortunately he gets elected into office? Please site specific quotes of his related to a nationall defense design.
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# Collette A. 2008-10-26 17:07
This is exactly why I don't post some of the photos I recieved from some military friends while they were in Iraq. They sent awesome pics which might have told a bit too much about vehicle makeup. Soldiers' safety has to be important to those who post news. Because their blood IS our treasure!
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# carol 2008-10-26 17:24
I too will breathe easier. One reason - Obama losing would mean Americans haven't been conned by the main stream media.

My local betting shop has the same odds for McCain as Bush in the last week. All the BBC/Times of London bias and they won't offer better than that? Come on guys, if you really think he's going to lose, give me 10 to 1 at least.

I will not lose faith that America will vote for the best choice for president, even though I live in the country that gave Winston Churchill "the order of the boot" when they needed his experience and nous for the country's reconstruction.
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# mike c. 2008-10-26 17:30
I just wanted to say thank you for your efforts. I have followed your posts from the beginning. I have worked for major news networks here in america for years--enough to be considered "connected" but I always find the kinds of information from your dispatches I believe people need. I am almost ashamed at the way my work place presents the information. I always look to your dispatches for what is really going on down there (as the litmus test to what is being reported in my work place).

Thank you not only for your honesty in the events but also the honesty in withholding what you believe to be information putting our guys/gals in harms way. Whether or not people agree or disagree with what we are doing there the truth needs to be laid out in front of us. Thank you for treating the truth with respect and dignity.

These are amazing times we live in. Great and horrible things are happening. Thank you for telling it like it is!

stay safe.

ps. If you could, tell the guys/gals in uniform there thank you for what they are doing and we love them all.
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# greg byrd 2008-10-26 17:58
it will be a travesty to the citizens of oure great country if barack obama becomes our next president! despite all of president Bush's faults, he has been part of the colossal and successful effort to prevent any further attacks on american soil and to achieve a successful outcome in iraq. the iraq war was dubbed the next "vietnam" by barack and his colleagues in the democratic party. it is sad that the national and world media as a whole has decided to almost completely ignore our phenomenal successes in iraq! i often wonder if the "big" players in the media giants have lost friends and loved ones in iraq like me and countless other americans have?
many of baracks colleagues in the domocratic party have a track record of complete ignorance in regards to islamic fundamentalism, intelligence, and the association between some jihadist in a afghani cave and our country's stability! president clinton had multiple opportunities to kill bin laden during his term but decided against it each time for a litany of illogical reasons! on one occasion president clinton had on hand actionable video feed of bin laden in afghanistan and aborted the missile strike against him because osama was with a prince from an arab nation and president clinton did not want to handle the backlash from the princes death! i wish he would explain this rational of thought to the 3,000 families who never saw their mother,father,s on, or daughter again! i urge people to read and investigate the track record of the democrats and their inability to make smart, actionable decisions for any event beyond our borders! their lack of their foresight is absurd!!! peter bergen has written on these miscues extensively and i urge people to take the time and educate themselves on how world events effect every fabric of american society! if barack supporters think the economy is bad now, what do they think will happen if a dirty bomb goes off in times square?
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# Dan Jacobs 2008-10-26 18:53
I have been folllowing you since you first hit the ground in Iraq. Thanks for all you report and photographs you share. You are the man!

"Above The Best"
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# nlcatter 2008-10-26 19:00
Obama will win

you are pathetic lying losers
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# Tom Kubitz 2008-10-26 21:33
In what country and in what party is OBL a "political leader?" He is an ordinary citizen/terrori st. As such, he's fair game.
Tom
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# Marc Boyd 2008-10-26 21:34
I suspect that we will have to deal with Iran sooner or later. Word is that they would like to develop and launch a nuke warhead over the US. The resulting EMP would take out our power grid and shut down our economy. A first strike by the US may be in the plans. It would be if I was a strategic planner in the Pentagon.

I think a few high altitude, low yield air bursts over their nuke sites and capital at 2 AM would take out all of their electrical grids and electronics without killing many people. The centrifuges run 24/7, so they would be damaged, hopefully beyond repair. Their air defenses would be severely degraded also. Then tell them that we will now get serious.
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# Greyhawk 2008-10-26 21:55
"Mr. bin Laden used to live in Sudan. He was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, then he went to Sudan. And we'd been hearing that the Sudanese wanted America to start meeting with them again. They released him. At the time, 1996, he had committed no crime against America so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America."
-- Bill Clinton explains to a Long Island, N.Y., business group why he turned down Sudan's offer to extradite Osama Bin Laden to America in 1996.
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# Graham Ludlow 2008-10-26 22:42
From respected, veteran war reporter to partisan hack inside two sentences.
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# NorthGaRob 2008-10-26 23:28
I just finished your book (Moment of Truth) and learned an immense amount, even though I have followed the war closely and read most (if not all) of your dispatches. Michael, you truly are the modern day Ernie Pyle and your country loves you for it. My little brother is in Army Infantry, has recently re-enlisted and will likely be deployed before long. Please keep up your one-man mission, and return safely! I am proud to wear the same label of 'American' with men like you.
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# Bill Johnson 2008-10-26 23:52
"Any Democrat will tell you that it is better that 3,000 civilians die in a collapsing building than we abrogate the "rights" of a single terrorist." - Steamboat jack

Oh, please. I realize it's easier to argue against strawmen, but isn't there a line somewhere? Go tell that line to all the Democrats serving in our armed forces. They exist, and by indiscriminatel y demonizing their party you demonize them.
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# Cassandra McDonough 2008-10-26 23:58
Jim Olson: The email said he'd breathe easier if McCain won, not Obama. Re-read it. Everyone else, the point of the dispatch was opsec, not everyone's political opinions, like we don't have enough places to comment on the web.

Mike, thanks for pointing out the problems with opsec, I don't post a lot of friends' pictures, even in my office, because of what can be seen in the backgrounds of their portraits. It's something everyone needs to think about!

Stay safe!
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# Gilbert 2008-10-27 00:51
Michael, I appreciate the danger you subject yourself to in order to bring us stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have followed your work since the earlier days and have observed a funny thing about some of us that leave comments. When you make an observation about a particular topic but don't take sides, you get comments from people questioning and pushing for you to sound off with your personal position. Then when you do, and it doesn't happen to agree with what we wanted to hear we get ignorant. People are funny.

I 'personally', realize that as a former SF soldier your training gives you insight and perspective on global governmental and political ebb and flow that most people do not have. Coupled with the fact that you are actually on the ground seeing first hand the effects that both our military and political actions are having in different countries worldwide; causes me to see your comments on the current election as very relevant.

People forget that in past dispatches you have made comments in your dispatches that were "swimming upstream", only to pick up the paper or turn on the news days, months, or a year later to find that Michael Yon was spot on.

Michael you keep right on doing what you do.
Stay Safe
Gilbert
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# tmmkkt22 2008-10-27 15:11
Mike,
My apologies for being paranoid about the OPSEC ramifications in your previous post. We live and breathe OPSEC daily where I live and work, so sometimes it's easy to get hyper-paranoid about it without looking at the big picture. You're right about it being out in the open. I've seen it or read about it everywhere, cringing every time because it's out there. Still, thanks for showing us the big picture.

As for criticism for partisanship, you can't win. Whenever you reported negative news about our efforts in Iraq or the failures of leadership you were criticized and called a political hack. Yet, when you comment on ramifications of the election just a week away you're called a political hack.

It's obvious you're not partisan. You just say it like it is, good or bad. Sometimes the truth hurts whether your a Dem or Rep.

Thank you for keeping it real for both sides of the political spectrum. After all, aren't we all fighting the same enemies?
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# Robert Chappell 2008-10-27 16:32
Michael, Thanks for all you do.

I was down in Florida 2 weeks ago and stopped in Lakeland to see your photos and pick up your 1st book. (I already have your 2nd book)

I look forward to your dispatches and hope you come out with a new book soon.

Keep your head down....
Stay safe.

Bob
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# Andrew J. Yon III 2008-10-28 19:09
Not only do you give honor to our country and service members, but you also give honor to our family. Thank you cuz.
I served in the US Navy as a Technician in a field that was highly technical and secret. Later, I worked as a contractor for the DOD in the same field. As a result, I was deployed to the sands for field work. I saw many people who could hardly afford to eat but were using technology much higher than their pay grade. I often wondered why others did not see what was obvious to me then. Why aren't our political leaders supporting our troops ? Why are they defeating us by defecting to the other side thru those other medias ? I have followed your reports since those early days. Your reports are the only ones that I have found to be reports of Truth no matter whose fault the truth falls on. You are a credit to us all. You will always remain in my players. May God continue to protect you. Stay safe. I know it is not easy where you are. Stay smart. Most of all, stay Honest.
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# C D C 2008-10-28 22:51
Michael,

You're simply the best. I read everything that you write and I feel this overwhelming admiration and gratitude. Thank you for all that you do and the truth that you present to us back home and around the world. You have my utmost respect, admiration and support. May God Bless You and Keep You Safe.....Keep Your Head Down.
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# Aden 2008-10-31 21:48
Very interesting article, I will be featuring on my new blog shortly.

I used to work in the wireless industry, so this entry was very interesting for me because I know some of the ins and outs of this topic. I remember a story from the Russian war in Chechnia in the 90's involving a Chechen commander who was specifically targeted and hit by a rocket out of nowhere as he was talking on his sat phone. The ability to determine locations of people through cell phone signals, especially satellite phones, is well established. Unfortunately, like Yon said, this has not been a secret for quite some time, which is why Bin Laden purportedly uses no-tech communication methods. But, the silver lining in this is that, having to rely on 18th century communication methods to avoid our detection has undoubtedly slowed down and complicated the effectiveness of their operations even if it means we can't find them for the time being.
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