The efficiency of cell-phone technology in rebuilding Iraq has a drawback in that insurgents are using the hand-held devices to orchestrate attacks and set off roadside bombs, defense officials say.
A growing network of cellular connections has proved a boon to contractors, the U.S. military and average Iraqis in turning the state-run economy into a free-market business environment.
But insurgents have been able to capitalize on the growing availability to create their own mobile command-and-control centers. Bomb-makers also use cell phones to remotely set off improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside devices that have killed scores of U.S. troops.
Charles Krohn, an Army official in Baghdad from 2003 to 2004, said the insurgents developed an ingenious way to thwart eavesdropping as they set up meetings and attacks.
“They would use more than one phone to send a message,” said Mr. Krohn, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. “They would deliver part of the message on one number and call another number to deliver another part of the message. So if someone was listening, they would only get part of the message. If you were concerned about eavesdropping, you would want to use more than one telephone and there is no shortage of cell phones in Iraq.”
Those in Abu Musab Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq organization use cell-phone communication to notify terrorists of attack plans, said one well-placed defense source.
“I don’t know if Zarqawi himself uses a cell phone but his aides do,” the source said.
Virtually all spoken electronic communication in the country is done via cell or satellite phones, not land lines. The constant chatter does give the National Security Agency and specialized commando units opportunities to intercept conversations. And, the Associated Press reported last month that Iraqis use a cell phone’s text messaging feature to send tips on terrorists to trusted security officials.
But the technology seems to be doing the insurgency more good than harm.
Sources said insurgents have the know-how to make one cell phone communicate with a second phone whose components are built into the bomb’s triggering mechanism.
“We don’t quite know how to combat that,” the defense source said.
U.S. troops seized a terrorist-produced video that shows insurgents in a car that passes an Army convoy going in the opposite direction, said a Marine officer who fought in the notorious Al Anbar Province west of Baghdad. When the convoy reached a certain point, the men in the vehicle can be seen using a cell phone to detonate a hidden IED.
“These guys like to film their atrocities,” said the officer, who requested anonymity.
Insurgents use other types of phones. In April, near the insurgent-heavy town of Latifiyah, an Army convoy was devastated by a series of IEDs. An investigation showed that bombs were ignited by satellite phones activated by another satellite phone, the Marine officer said.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, Virginia Republican, lamented that U.S. countermeasures are not keeping pace with terrorist IED making.
“It’s almost a leapfrog,” he said. “As soon as we get a system which seems to be producing the effectiveness, they leapfrog to another technology and keep moving forward.”
There are days when the U.S. command decides for security reasons to shut down cell-phone connections in some sectors. Other times they jam it for hours to prevent terrorists from coordinating attacks via the airways.
The importance of cell phones to the insurgents was illustrated when Marines and Army troops captured the terrorist-infested city of Fallujah in November.
Marines discovered a network of makeshift IED factories and among the parts were cell phones and hand-held radios. Insurgents made the bombs, then smuggled them out for use in vehicles or as roadside explosives.
The insurgents’ command structure is filled with Ba’athists who led Saddam’s vast and layered security agencies, including the dreaded intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.
The CIA’s top weapons inspector reported that the Mukhabarat maintained an extensive research and development program for all types of IEDs. Defense sources said the technology has helped terrorists build better bombs.
In fact, the insurgents have gotten so skilled that their expertise is being exported to Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are fighting al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists.
Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, said, “It is a problem that requires not just an American effort but an international effort, because we see the technology moving, and the tactics and techniques, moving from Iraq to Pakistan to Afghanistan.”
The CIA report on the Mukhabarat, or Iraqi Intelligence Service, said its M-21 directorate ran the Al Ghafiqi Project to produce a variety of IEDs.
“No one person constructed an entire explosive device alone,” says the report, prepared by a team led by Charles Duelfer. “The construction process drifted through the sections of the directorate.”
The reported also says: “Al Ghafiqi constantly invented new designs or methods to conceal explosives; books, briefcases, belts, vests, thermoses, car seats, floor mats and facial tissue boxes were all used to conceal” explosives.