Norwegian police said Dec. 8 they want to stop the sale of cell phone cards that allow the caller to remain anonymous. Their fear is that criminals will exploit these cards to avoid detection. This concern, which has been raised by law enforcement agencies elsewhere, could — and should — be extended to terrorists.
Cell phones used in the planning and execution of attacks pose a serious obstacle to the security and counterterrorism forces charged with disrupting militant activities. These phones allow militants to communicate with one another while in the field, in real time and over long distances using cheap and readily available technology. Couple those advantages with the latest technology — camera phones — and law enforcement faces a walking, talking terrorist workshop.
On the other hand, a phone is another link in the militant chain, presenting the opportunity for law enforcement to detect — and thwart — an attack before it takes place. Technology does allows security and law enforcement agencies to determine who places a phone call or sends an SMS text message, and to track the call to its source. This kind of evidence has been presented in a number of criminal cases around the world, most recently in October in a U.S. case involving a fake kidnapping in Massachusetts.
Then again, there are ways to avoid detection.
Savvy criminals, including militants, can evade detection in a number of ways, especially if they are operating in a developing country where security agencies might lack the necessary tracking technology or where the mobile phone industry is much less regulated. However, even in developed countries, there are easy and relatively inexpensive ways to get around law enforcement.
The cheapest and most effective method is through the use of multiple Subscriber Identity Modules (SIM) cards — the digital fingerprint of a mobile phone. Authorities can track a cell phone user by tracking the SIM card — even if the user has not made a call. In order to avoid detection, a savvy militant will use the SIM card only once — to decrease the number of chances for detection and association — and then toss it away. High-ranking Hamas officials allegedly use this tactic to avoid identification and targeting by Israeli authorities. Indian authorities warned earlier this year that militants in the Kashmir region were using pre-paid phones (presumably with different SIM cards) to coordinate and plan operations. This tactic is a relatively new development — conceived by the always innovative criminal mind in response to law enforcement successes in tracking suspected militants through their phones. For example, a multinational mobile phone sting operation was integral in the capture of suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Furthermore, mobile phones also have become almost standard equipment in the construction of remotely detonated bombs, as they make inexpensive and fairly reliable triggers. The March 11 Madrid train bombers used this method to trigger their bombs — though Spanish authorities later successfully tracked the bombers via one of the cell phone-triggered bombs that failed to detonate. Cell phones used in preoperational surveillance also can present a serious challenge to law enforcement, largely because of their now-ubiquitous nature. In other words, a person — criminal or not — talking on a cell phone outside of a building or a landmark raises no alarm bells. A cell phone with instantaneous picture transmission can be an even better terrorist tool. Based on the creativity already demonstrated by some militants in the use of cell phones — an SMS message instructed a jailed Abu Sayyaf member to escape from an Indonesian prison in 2003 — new methods of evading detection using mobile technology are likely to emerge. The development of technology to allow users to use the same phone to call from around the world, while changing its SIM cards, possibly is the next step.