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Can you see me now? Using Cellular Service in the Fight Against ISIS

The Invisible Beast

In late 2014 as ISIS swept through parts of Iraq and Syria the group quickly realized that one of its greatest tools in recruiting was also one of its greatest potential threats. As ISIS ratcheted up its propaganda machine online it quickly came to realize that cellular and internet access were providing volumes of intelligence to its enemies.

 

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Geotagged Twitter posts for American jihadist Aashir al Amriki in Raqqa, Syria

 

Perhaps some of the greatest offenders in these intelligence leaks were the fighters themselves. Jihadists like American Aashir al Amriki (above) and New Zealand’s Mark Taylor mistakenly broadcast hidden geotagged information in their social media posts. The advantage of this kind of information is that it allows analysts to create geographic profiles not only of the individual but also of the group itself. Where they fight, where they live, where they gather, where they train, and even where they hide. As coalition strikes mounted urgent notices went out amongst the fighters to be cognizant of their cell phone use and the images they posted online (below) lest be the target of a missile.

 

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Tracking ISIS Movement in Kobani via Geolocated Social Media Images

 

Such was the case with Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin, and even Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John), who were tracked at least in part via their cell phones which intelligence agencies used in targeted drone strikes. As more and more activist within the Islamic State used the internet to assist coalition forces with intelligence, ISIS began cutting off access to stop the bleed. This resulted in them limiting internet and cellular network access in late 2014 in Mosul and in the middle part of 2015 in Raqqa.

Access as a Weapon of Change

Early on in November, the Wall Street Journal  noted that as Iraqi and Kurdish forces began their offensive into Mosul they also began to reestablish cellular service (for a small fee). The hope being that the population within Mosul would assist coallition forces in providing intelligence about ISIS and their activity within the city.

There is merit in the idea that expanding cheap and/or free cellular access in the city will reap benefits in the fight against ISIS. As word spreads of availability Mosul’s occupants will no doubt seek to access information on the current fight against the group. Information campaigns by mass text alerts could serve to push information to both inform and protect the population.  Geolocated imagery, such as that provided by activists (below),  could assist in identifying Islamic State controlled locations within the embattled Mosul.

 

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Using Activist Images to Geolocate an ISIS Checkpoint in Mosul, Iraq (Source Withheld)

Encouraging the Surrender of Fighters

It is also possible that this access could provide a tool by which disaffected fighters, looking for a push to leave the group, could be influenced to surrender. With Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly on the run, it is unlikely that all of the 5000 fighters (ISIS’s own figures) are committed to fighting to the death for the broken organization. As pressure mounts, and ISIS fighters in Eastern Mosul are almost entirely cut off by the Tigris River, more examples of fighters surrendering are likely to be the norm.

For a group that has nearly two and a half years of experience using technology against us in this battle, this is one opportunity to help turn the tide. While it is just one piece in the in struggle to retake the city, hopefully we have demonstrated how something as simple as cellular/internet access can be a weapon of advantage and resistance in this fight.

About the Authors

Dr. Camie Condon is an analyst with the Intelligence Research Group iBRABO and a post-doctoral researcher with the Tactical Decision Making Research Group at the University of Liverpool.

Jeff Weyers is a Senior Analyst with the Intelligence Research Group iBRABO and is recognized expert in OSINT/SOCMINT. He is currently a PhD candidate – ABD, on the topic of Preventing Violent Extremism and Terrorist Use of Social Media.

iBRABO is a Intelligence Research Group based in Waterloo, Canada. Its core research capabilities include: conflict monitoring, terrorist use of social media, identifying persons vulnerable to violent extremism and open source intelligence research and analysis. Its researchers come from a diverse background in counter-terrorism, criminal intelligence analysis, police investigation, open source intelligence, and tactical decision making.

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Sources

 Kesling, B. and Nabhan, A. (2016). Forces Seek Help by Restoring Mosul Cellphone Service. http://www.wsj.com/articles/iraqis-seek-help-in-mosul-by-restoring-cell-phone-service-1478030760

Baker, K. (2015). Two British ISIS jihadis killed by RAF drone ‘gave themselves away when they phoned friends at home in the UK’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3232742/ISIS-jihadis-killed-drone-gave-away-phone-call.html#ixzz4QrAVqNrY

AlJazeera (2015). ISIL bans private internet access in Syria’s Raqqa. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/isil-bans-private-internet-access-syria-raqqa-150720094428577.html