Smartphones and terrorism: from tool to kill to informant

From texting to activating bombs to ultra-powerful terminals that fit in the palm of your hand, smartphones have been used by terrorists from around the world, which made them more effective but also more vulnerable.

At each stage of its technological evolution, in recent years, smartphones have opened jihadist possibilities of action, while allowing the anti-terrorist services to detect where they were, spy on them or, in case of capture, advance their investigation.

The smartphone is part of the continuity of the Internet, which has revolutionized everything,” said a former member of the French anti-terrorist services, who requested anonymity. “Since 2003, in Iraq, homemade bombs are activated remotely by sending an SMS, which was declined to infinity by Al Qaeda.”

The deadly expedition of the jihadists who committed the Bataclan massacre, from Syria to Paris, would not have been possible without smartphones. Thanks to these, they could be in contact when they started the migrants’ route, consult maps, messages and instructions.

Just before entering the concert hall and committing the killing (90 dead), they sent a message to Belgium (“we have already left, we started”) from a cell phone that was found in a nearby trash can.

The diffusion of encrypted messaging applications, such as Telegram, Wire or Whatsapp, to name the best known, makes it easier for terrorist organizations to communicate avoiding police surveillance or secret services, or pose serious complications when deciphering messages exchanged.

The online press of the jihadist group Islamic State has published for several years, in several languages, tutorials explaining how to choose the best applications, intended for jihadists or aspiring to be, generally resident in war or developing countries, where smartphones are widespread, unlike computers.

What we must never forget is that these are not telephones anymore, these are computers,” said Laurent Heslault, director of security strategies at Symantec group. “They are much more powerful than we had in our offices ten years ago,” he said. “In the power of calculation, storage and connectivity capabilities, they are very communicative tools, the end of what Steve Jobs presented years ago. They are easy to find, to change, to recharge in any country or situation, and terrorist groups have been given a very practical mobility,” he added.

But there is another side to the coin: the smart cell phone is, in addition to a multitasking tool, a fearsome informer. “The France war in Mali in 2013 began with an intense series of bombings,” recalled the veteran in the fight against terrorism. “All phones, GSM or satellites, which were detected by the secret services were hit.”

In an anti-terrorist investigation, as in any other, smartphones “talk” more often than humans and allow researchers to reconstitute networks and detect dormant cells. “The smartphone exposes you,” settled the veteran. “Thus, the jihadist leaders have learned not to approach them, and for several years now, they have been turning to human messengers.”


With info from AFP

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