Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cat and Mouse

It's a few weeks old, but worth noting...this article in the Washington post discusses some of the ways terrorists have adapted to the attempts by law enforcement to sniff them out. They've become adept at evading some types of electronic surveillance, for example.

In an age of spy satellites, security cameras and an Internet that stores every keystroke, terrorism suspects are using simple, low-tech tricks to cloak their communications, making life difficult for authorities who had hoped technology would give them the upper hand.

Across Europe, al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers are avoiding places that they assume are bugged or monitored, such as mosques and Islamic bookshops, counterterrorism experts said. In several cases, suspects have gone back to nature -- leaving the cities on camping trips or wilderness expeditions so they can discuss plots without fear of being overheard.
It's age-old stuff, really. Clandestine organizations have always used these tactics. But the rapid advance of technology has provided new options for evading detection:
Overall, terrorist cells around the world have become noticeably more skilled at avoiding detection, European counterterrorism officials and analysts said in interviews. For instance, operatives now commonly use Skype and other Internet telephone services, which are difficult to trace or bug.

At times, they have displayed a flair for creativity. Defendants convicted last April in a plot to blow up targets in London with fertilizer bombs communicated via chat rooms on Internet pornography sites in an effort to throw investigators off their trail, according to testimony.
Techniques run the gamut from advanced to rudimentary:
Often, suspects use simple, homemade codes in their exchanges. In a trial in the German city of Kiel, a Moroccan-German man charged in a separate case with recruiting suicide bombers to go to Iraq revealed in testimony in November some of the rudimentary ciphers that he and other cell members used in Internet chat forums.

"Taxi drivers," Redouane el Habab said, referred to suicide bombers; explosives were "dough." Anybody who had to go to "the hospital," he added, had been taken to jail, while those visiting "China" were really attending training camps in Sudan.
The bottom line is that, although these tactics make detection difficult, it is not impossible - and human intelligence is still critical:
"Unfortunately, the technology changes so quickly that we're always playing a catch-up game," the senior Italian official said. "The bottom line is that we'll have to work more and more with human sources."

Other Italian officials, however, said the trackers would always have one important advantage: Because conspirators must communicate, they will always be vulnerable to eavesdropping in some form.

"Many times I ask myself, how is it still possible to obtain important information if the suspects know we can do this?" said Spataro, the deputy chief public prosecutor in Milan.

The answer, he said, is that "as members of a criminal association, they have to speak, they have to communicate with each other, they have to make plans."
This sort of thing is why I've emphasized the recruiting process. Once a terrorist group - or any other criminal organization - is behind closed doors, its options for practicing deception increase. But when recruiting, they have to be more forthright with their communications. They are very cautious at the outset, of course, but eventually they have to show their hand.

Disrupting recruiting can also have the advantage of exploiting vulnerabilities in a pre-operational stage.

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