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RF networks under assault

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The use of cell phones as a remote detonator noted in the WSJ Terror's Latest Trigger: Cell phones is only the beginning of a wave of impacts from a variety of devices with embedded microprocessors. While authorities are focused on cell phones, terrorists can move on to, say, PDAs, pagers, and PCs at a WiFi hot spot. GPS-enabled phones and devices could be triggered when they arrive at the right place regardless of the time. The telematics installations in vehicles could be engaged so that a device could be triggered either by a phone call, timer, or position -- or even altitude.

The critical path remains available RF spectrum. Should nations move to the unlikely prospect of disabling their cell phone networks, the perpetrators can just move on to WiFi. The very reasons that these RF enabled tools are so popular make them an ideal trigger in a soft target areas such as a coffee shop or a stadium.

"But short of shutting down a country's cell phone network, there isn't much that can be done to reduce this risk. Indeed, the proliferation of radio devices -- in everything from cell phones to garage openers to hand-held devices that remotely unlock car doors -- means much of the modern world is virtually blanketed with wireless radio-wave technology."

If nations can not respond or suppress, how will local sites respond? Many facilities have already responded with illegal jammers, albeit for non-terrorist related reasons.

Many offices, hospitals, secure and/or military installations, places of public entertainment, and -- in Scotland -- hotels, are using illegal jammers to overpower a base station over a tunable spectrum. Some jammers are sophisticated enough to produce an interfering signal long enough to disable and then shut down. Others simulate a base station in order to establish communications with a phone with instructions to go to an inactive channel. The upshot is that the phone cannot communicate with the original base station.

Legal passive cell phone detectors can scan cellular-frequency bands and sound an alarm on detecting a cell-phone signal. The facility can then restrict entry if it so desires.

Note that the jammers themselves can be a target, i.e., if I want your facility as opposed to one next door, I get the device close enough to detect your jamming signal as a trigger.

A good primmer on jammers is Jam that ringing cell phone? by Warren Webb, EDN.

The impact on commerce, on the very backbone of enabled RF devices is mind boggling. We could see individual buildings or stores elect to take themselves out of the net(s) creating dark pockets in RF networks. A decade of infrastructure has been built to embed RF technology in every aspect of our life.

When I think of RFID tags, I think of assassination tools that detect the pre-scanned and identified RFID chip in a credit card, vehicle, or other device known to be on or near the targeted individual. The device is triggered when the target comes into range, and as that is generally a few meters, lethality is almost assured.

While there have been notable successes, such as in Switzerland, the sale of untraceable cell phones and SIM cards continues to climb outside the US where "almost 90% of users have contracts that require extensive application processes, including a credit check." Outside the US it is easy to obtain cell phones via prepaid subscription systems.

Using cell phones as triggers is only the beginning of an unpleasant and prolonged collision of our modern infrastructure with terrorists.

Gordon Housworth



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Atocha’s Impact

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The Madrid Atocha train blast is being vastly underrated here in the US, and to a degree in much of Europe. The threat level is nothing short of the ability to paralyze European metropolitan centers as well as changing public perception of risk, disrupting coalition formation and cohesion.

The decision to target trains is inspired as it is a preeminent form of transit in Europe. Train/metro/mass transit systems are virtually indefensible. (See recent articles in WSJ and Washington Post among others.) When citizens abandon mass transit for their cars, creating debilitating traffic jams, it will be time for simplistic WMD, mainly simple biological and radiological devices -- or even devices that resemble WMD in their characteristics. Depending upon the agent used, disruption is as valuable as lethality, although attacks have increasingly focused on achieving mass casualties. The impact on business will, of course, be significant.

Atocha displayed a level of logistics, tradecraft (operational skills), command & control, and explosives common to the best of al Qaeda confederacy: simplicity wherever possible, elegance where necessary. Low tech and high impact. Al Qaeda, much like the IRA, plans two to three steps in advance so we would expect the next European targets to be in pre-selection. (Actual order will depend on local opportunity or, conversely, police presence.)

For example, the cell phone detonation technique originated with the RAF (Red Army Faction) in Italy, migrated to Hamas and Hezbollah, then into al Qaeda. Note that this remote detonation process sidesteps the martyr and so allows recruiting to ramp up by removing an inhibitor to growing the operational base.

Atocha reflects the al Qaeda’s ‘lessons learned’ between World Trade Towers 1993 and 2001, i.e., Al Qaeda now understands redundancy and delivery. Where one device would have grabbed headlines, al Qaeda used thirteen. We will see more of that using low tech or the lowest tech suitable to the task. Al Qaeda is attentive and patient, learning from each success and failure and monitoring the weaknesses displayed by current and future targets.

It is interesting that much commentary focuses on the exposure of the English and French by virtue of their Muslim populations but few mention Italy which has received the brunt of certain North African migrations, or Germany which prosecuted Muslims related to 11 September. In fact, some of the best Intel on the Atocha perpetrators is coming from Italian sources. The Atocha operation reflects a trans-European planning and delivery mechanism.

Europe is a densely populated area with many soft targets that do not enjoy the protection due airports and essential government buildings. As has happened in the US, governments will have to spend heavily to ramp up security measures, but there will not be enough to uniformly cover all possible targets.

Firms representing US interests, or seen as symbols of US presence, will increasingly be targets as anti-US and anti-Western grievances merge within the mostly have-not mentality of many European Muslims, fueled in part from increasing persecution by their non-Muslim majorities.

Remember that Pan American Airways (Pan Am) was once a global target by all manner of terrorists long before Lockerbie as it was considered the US flag carrier and a national symbol. Still today, few foreigners or Americans know that Pam Am was NOT a flag carrier, or that the US never had a flag carrier, but was merely a significant, private world airline. Perception was everything and Pan Am was a common, often the sole, target of the day.

Major US firms will be seen as ‘national symbols’ either because of their overall size or the relative size to a local al Qaeda confederate who has some operational freedom to select their targets.

Such firms also make soft targets in terms of people and infrastructure and, as such, are predictable targets. It takes training, monitoring, assessment and planning to remove oneself from a soft target group, which is the only effective way to deal with these threats. In other words, you do not want to stay on their list of promising targets so you move through a series of actions that moves the perpetrators along to a less defended target.

The level of sophistication of this attack coupled with the election results in Spain has only emboldened the threat groups. Soft targets now have less time to prepare. It's a grim perspective but that is the reality of the current environment.

For many reasons, Atocha is far more threatening than it appears to be.

Gordon Housworth

 



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List Introduction

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This list commences the public side of an impromptu list that started immediately after 11 September when colleagues were asking ‘What is Islam?’ What started as a brief history of Islam, the schism between Sunni and Shia, moderate and conservative, and their respective views towards the West morphed into a list on terrorism and infrastructure defense.
 
Save for a minority, there was an ‘information hole’ on interpreting current events. While that hole is much smaller now, I have continued to comment on events that strike my interest. I enjoy making people think, question their assumptions, and gain a window to global issues that make them more effective world citizens.
 
In the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that I write as a US national, holding US interests paramount, and am comfortable with a Geopolitik outlook. I lean to the opinion that, “We have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” It is immaterial to me if a foreign state is secular or religious, and if religious, whether it is Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Christian. I only measure the effect of their actions on US interests.
 
If the reader has strong loyalties, be it religious, tribal, cultural or geographic, that work to the opposite, then a gap will exist that no datum or argument will resolve.
 
I agree with Sir Harold Nicholson’s description of diplomacy as “the understanding that for intractable problems there are only adjustments and not solutions.” Americans are resistant to that idea and too often paint a scenario into black and white, seeking a single, lasting, and implicitly moral solution. Other than by force-of-arms, it’s difficult to find such a solution that works for diverse stakeholders, overcomes a history of accumulated slights and resentments, and engenders a negotiation process that’s not resented by one or more stakeholders.
 
Gordon Housworth


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